In 25 years at the State Library, former Curator of Photographs, Alan Davies, saw four people cry.
At Eungai Creek in 1988, Helen Downie had tears in her eyes when she showed Alan Davies a 60-year-old family photograph. She is sitting with her mother, father and two sisters on a horse-drawn sled that also carries a milk pail and a suitcase. The expression on her father’s face could only be described as grim. Wounded in World War I, he had been given a disability pension and a block of ‘third class dairy land — 200 acres in a rain shadow’. The family had been too poor to afford a cart with wheels, so they made do with a wooden sled.
Alan was travelling the state as part of a Bicentennial campaign to copy pictures from private albums, having announced that the Library was looking for ‘three impossible photographs: a dole queue, a dunny cart, and a woman washing up in the kitchen’. They eventually found all three, the shame of the dole queue making it the most difficult to track down.
Helen Downie’s family portrait became one of 8000 images in the Library’s ‘At Work and Play’ collection showing scenes of rural life in NSW between 1880 and 1940. Ten years later, in 1998, the Library exhibited a series of photographs and handwritten captions by William Yang. The 19 images chronicled the death from AIDS of a young man, Allan Booth, over two years in the late 1980s. Alan saw two men walk the length of the series, stop at the last image, and embrace in tears. The sight confirmed Alan’s belief in ‘the power of photographs as a trigger of memory’.
But the first person Alan saw cry in the presence of photographs was the photographer Max Dupain.
In 1984, before becoming Curator of Photographs, Alan was at the Library on temporary assignment to put together an exhibition of Australian photography. He had just completed a survey of nineteenth century photography which became the book The Mechanical Eye in Australia (MUP, 1985). Alan prepared for the exhibition by identifying gaps in the Library’s collection.