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In the days before digital and film photography, images were often taken on glass. Early photographic processes required camera operators to prepare fragile glass negatives on the spot. But from the 1880s, development of ready-to-use 'dry plate' negatives and simpler cameras saw the rise of amateur photography, swiftly evolving from an elite and expensive hobby into the popular mass pastime we know today.
British immigrants made good, the Macpherson family arrived in Sydney in 1833, and by the 1870s they were enjoying a privileged lifestyle of considerable ease. As their prosperity grew through canny real estate investments so did the symbols of their success – magnificent mansions in majestic harbour settings and luxury pursuits such as boating, motoring, travel and photography.
In 2014, when direct descendants of this clan of gifted amateur snap-shooters donated their century-old collection of glass-plate negatives to the State Library of NSW, little was known of its shadowy contents. As these fragile photographs had passed down through several generations, vital links in the family’s history were lost, silencing the stories locked inside this rich and rare archive.
After careful cleaning and digitisation, the images have been examined closely for the first time. There are gaps in their history which we may never fill – as close physical resemblances between relatives in family collections often makes exact identifications difficult – but if every picture tells a story then here are some highlights of what has been discovered so far…
The first members of the Macpherson family to arrive in Australia were Joseph Wharrie Macpherson, his wife Catherine Lupton and their 10-month old son Edward Augustus. Joseph soon took up a position as a clerk with the Colonial Secretary’s Office and a second son, Joseph Jnr, was born in 1835. By the 1850s the family was living at Wimbledon Hall on Bourke Street in Redfern. After the death of Joseph Snr in 1856, Catherine married architect James Hume.
As a young man Edward Augustus went to work at the NSW Audit Office, marrying Catherine Wiseman, a tailor’s daughter, at Christ Church Saint Laurence in 1862. Bringing his bride back home to Wimbledon Hall, four of the couple’s six surviving children were born there. In 1875, the Macphersons bought the Hawthornden estate at Edgecliff, proudly recording their purchase in a ‘wet plate’ process photograph, the earliest image in the family’s collection. In 1873, Edward paid £120 for a large block of land at North Cremorne where he built Warringah Lodge, an ornate holiday home overlooking Middle Harbour, in 1879.
Edward’s two eldest sons, William Joseph and Edward Hume both trained as solicitors but classed themselves as gentlemen, leading increasingly leisured lives. William married Gertrude ‘Buddie’ Fletcher in 1892, and they soon had three children of their own; Archibald William ‘Roy’, Jack Douglas and Catherine Dorothy. In time, the family photo archive was handed down to Roy and "later on" to his sons, Edward and David, from whom the collection came to the Library.
As the Macpherson family grew so did their passion for photography, along with their property portfolio-often housing up to four generations across an ever-expanding network of prime Sydney real estate. Combining business with pleasure through travel and photography, rural excursions to inspect prospective land purchases were made easier after the family purchased an expensive imported French 1900 model ‘dog cart’ automobile – the ultimate early 20th-century luxury lifestyle accessory.
The Macphersons also took full advantage of other travel options available to well-heeled holiday-makers, venturing up and down the coast and over the mountains by road and rail. In 1904 they even took an extended Pacific cruise aboard a privately chartered steam yacht, visiting Norfolk Island, New Zealand and Fiji; toward the end of that year the 'Australasian Photographic Review' reported the recent return to Sydney of Mr EH Macpherson, ‘an enthusiastic photographic friend...with his photographic quiver full of very excellent negatives’.
As easy-to-use cameras got cheaper and smaller these became the sightseer’s prime record keeper changing the way people memorialised their lives forever. With their cameras at the ready, the Macphersons also used their surprising modern documentary style to capture the city and society in transition. Enthusiastically turning their lenses onto the bush, the beach, and strangers in the street, they captured breaking news events and the world around them as the nation got set to usher in the new century.
Family folklore credits William Joseph Macpherson as the creator of this photograph archive but close study of the collection has yielded a more complex story. A greater number of photographers were involved than first thought with fathers and sons, bachelor brothers and nephews, sisters and daughters taking turns on both sides of the camera.
Cataloguing and digitisation of the Macpherson collection also revealed these photographs were produced over a much longer time frame than first thought. Spanning a 50-year period, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s, several pieces of evidence support this conclusion. Among the 688 images, one negative is much earlier than the rest, dating to about 1875 and made by the expensive and technically complex ‘wet plate’ process. A stereograph of the Macpherson family grave at Waverley Cemetery also records a death date of 1923.
Initially dabbling with the ‘wet plate’ process in the 1870s, throughout the ensuing decades the Macphersons’ embraced ongoing improvements in photographic technology. Edward Hume Macpherson can now be confirmed as the most dedicated photographer in this family group; one negative even has his initials – ‘EHM’ – scratched into the emulsion. Active in several Sydney-based camera groups from the 1890s, his pictures won prizes in local competitions and were published in several issues of the Australasian Photographic Review. Images recording the two brothers in the act of carrying and setting up their equipment must also have been taken by other photographers – perhaps the young woman shown holding a collapsible, handheld camera as she prepares to step into a boat at Narrabeen Lagoon.
The Macpherson archive contains several different formats, types and sizes of negatives showing that the photographers were experimenting with different techniques, using a range of cameras and updating their equipment over time.
Given the challenges of glass plate photography, surprisingly few of the surviving negatives are either under or over exposed, superimposed or out of focus. The dreamy quality of many of the images is enhanced by the smudges and texture on the glass plate negatives. The fact that none of the family members were professional camera operators makes the technical and aesthetic quality of their photographs all the more remarkable.
In September 2017, over 300 digitised images from the Macpherson collection were uploaded to the State Library’s Flickr page. This crowdsourcing initiative immediately caught the interest of a group of enthusiastic digital volunteers who individually (and collaboratively) identified many undescribed details and images.
The Library’s usual approach to cataloguing is to research new collections before they are digitised and displayed to the public. By digitising first the online community had a chance to see these images sooner, enabling them to help build our collection information. Harnessing the expertise of our digital audience Library curators joined forces with several ‘super’ volunteers in the race to solve puzzles in the Macpherson images. Working like detectives, studying faces and places, piecing together fragments of information, analysing evidence and following clues, slowly but surely identities, locations, times and events began to be revealed.
Crowd sourcing gave the Library answers to difficult questions and first-hand insight into the interests of our online audience. We would like to take this opportunity to celebrate the loyalty of our online community and applaud the valuable contribution that virtual visitors can make to cultural knowledge.
Margot Riley-Curator, State Library of NSW
TOP: LEFT TO RIGHT
William Joseph Macpherson (1866-1923) at Hawthornden, Edgecliff, c1888
ON 588/ Box 2/ 7
EH Macpherson photographing whale processing works at Cascade Bay, Norfolk Island, c1904
ON 588/BOX 12/1
EH Macpherson (1863-1927), c1904
ON 588/ Box 19/ 1
Macpherson Family in VCP (Voitures Clément-Panhard) Voiture Legere (dog-cart) automobile, c1904
ON 588/ Box 2/ 1
Young girl on the veranda at Hawthornden, Woollahra, possibly Effie Augusta Macpherson (1879-1905), c1895
ON 588/ Box 4/ 3
Donkey rides at Manly Cove, with children on sand and sail boats, c1900
ON 588/ Box 04/ 25
BOTTOM: LEFT TO RIGHT
West Circular Quay, looking north to Dawes Point, July 1887 , by Edward Hume Macpherson
ON 588/ Box 2/ 11
Archibald William ‘Roy’ Macpherson seated on a log in a bush setting, c1898
ON 588/ Box 04/ 6
Five women stepping into a punt at Narrabeen Lagoon with [Macpherson] male at stern, c1905
ON 588/ Box 04/ 26
Warringah Lodge, North Cremorne, with Macpherson family members, c1886
ON 588/ Box 25/ 12
Crowded ferries at Circular Quay, c1900
ON 588/ Box 20/ 32