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Photographic evolution

A new Photography Gallery is the latest step in turning the Library inside out

A red morocco case, small enough to fit in the palm of an adult’s hand, houses Australia’s oldest surviving photograph. Inside is a daguerreotype, a tiny, polished copper plate that was coated with silver and bathed in iodine before being inserted into a camera, exposed, and developed with mercury vapour to produce a clear, sharp image on its mirror surface.

Curator Margot Riley wears protective gloves to gingerly handle this treasure, prized chiefly for its historical importance. From photography’s first appearance in Australia, she says, the new medium ‘was promoted as a way of sending portraits back “home” to family and friends’, but in the case of this London- born portrait sitter, photographed in Sydney circa 1845 in his mid-50s, the colony would be home for life.

The oldest photo in the collection: Dr William Bland, 1845, daguerreotype. Photo by George Baron Goodman

Dressed in a buttoned-up suit, this man of means was unidentified when the daguerreotype finally made its way to the State Library of NSW in a trunk filled with ‘random bits and pieces’, says Riley. Mitchell Librarian Richard Neville would unravel the identity of the subject — who, it turned out, had once committed murder. More on this detective story in a moment.

Neville explains that the State Library collects very differently from an art gallery: ‘We are acquiring works that we feel have some sort of research and documentary value — it’s as much a social history as an aesthetic history.’

The Library’s new Photography Gallery, due to open in the basement beneath the Mitchell Library Reading Room in mid-2022, will display the wide-ranging physicality of the many photographic works the Library has collected from around the state, tracking two centuries of photographic evolution from daguerreotypes to calotypes, ambrotypes, stereographs, panoramas and digitised displays with examples drawn from hundreds of thousands of negatives from the twentieth century.


Demonstrations of historical photographic processes will be a feature, says State Librarian John Vallance, and the gallery will show what an early photography studio might have looked like. It will chart the rise of press and colour photography and account for the ubiquitous digital photography that has marked the twenty- first century, when everyone has a camera in their pocket and the world is awash with images.

Vallance says his aim is to turn the Library’s collections inside out: to put representative parts on permanent display, making them more accessible and thus encouraging deeper research by members of the public. That goal has already been achieved elsewhere in the Library with the ‘salon hang’ of more than 300 landscape and portrait oil paintings, as well as in the new display of many of the Library’s physical objects in the Collectors’ Gallery and the recent opening of a Maps Gallery.

The Library’s building program has been funded by the NSW State Government. It is the biggest capital investment in the Library in more than a quarter of a century — $24 million over two years — to improve public access, open up collections and restore the Reading Room. A new basement auditorium for gatherings and symposia is also being built.

The Library, meanwhile, has launched a fundraising drive to develop the new Photography Gallery to permanently display more of its collection — to include, for example, more press photography from across the past century, and more works by Indigenous photographers.

The Photography Gallery will naturally include the intriguing tale of Australia’s oldest surviving photograph, the little daguerreotype that arrived in a trunk. The Library’s former curator of photographs, Alan Davies, quickly identified the photographer as the entrepreneurial settler George Baron Goodman, who had been trained before arriving in the colony by the inventor of this first practical process of photography, the Frenchman Louis Daguerre.

The image would have been taken in a blue glass box on a fine day in Goodman’s Daguerreotype Gallery in the roof of the former Royal Hotel in Sydney’s George Street, which was taken over by Dymocks bookstore a century ago. ‘Alan knew that Goodman always used this particular [morocco] case and that Goodman always packed his daguerreotypes with playing cards, and sure enough at the back were these playing cards,’ says Richard Neville. ‘However, we didn’t really know who [the sitter] was, it was just an unidentified bloke.’

Then Neville remembered a watercolour portrait of the London-born Doctor William Bland in the Library’s collection, painted in the mid-to-late 1840s and attributed to artist Richard Read. As a pardoned convict, Bland’s transportation for mortally wounding a man in a duel was long behind him as he became a surgeon and parliamentarian in the new colony.

The sitter in the watercolour portrait strikes the same pose — it had obviously been painted with this daguerreotype as reference. ‘I thought: “Oh gees, they’re one and the same”,’ says Neville. ‘Then Alan had seen a reference in the Sydney Morning Herald in January 1845 to the photo being taken.’

The Library holds an array of works by such twentieth-century photographic masters as Max Dupain, May Moore, Lewis Morley and William Yang. Questions remain around the way negatives are displayed, however, says Neville, given mass digitisation can’t quite replicate the ‘distinctive, high contrast tonality’ that Dupain, for example, insisted on in his prints. But the Library also has a significant collection of Dupain’s own prints.

Cultural context is important, too, and the German-born photographer John William Lindt’s photographs of Indigenous people around the Grafton area are a case in point. ‘Most of our records of Aboriginal people are by Europeans who were in the process of some kind of ethnographic documentation,’ says Neville.

Neville’s personal favourites from the Library include the Holtermann collection of glass plate negatives discovered in a garden shed in Chatswood in 1951. The 3500 negatives document the goldfields era of a century earlier, with great incidental detail including people captured by the camera outside shops or signs posted in windows. Many of these images have been digitised for online viewing.

Margot Riley lays out some memento mori from the Holtermann collection: examples of the post- mortem photography that was a cultural imperative in an age of high infant mortality, one showing the body of an unidentified dead baby and the other the corpse of a woman laid out before a funeral.

Then there is the fashion photography of Sydney’s Rob Hillier, capturing the stylised modernity of the 1930s and 1940s, or the more humble examples of images that tell their own story about how we want to be remembered.

Album of photographs of the New England and Richmond River Districts, ca. 1896-1899, Joseph Check

In one staged late nineteenth century image taken by photographer Joseph Check, who was active in the Richmond–Lismore area, a family sits down at a dinner table about to eat a Sunday roast. A magnesium flash would have been required inside. Firing the flash, dust would have flown and landed all over the food, rendering the lunch inedible and exposing the limitations of the era’s photographic processes.

The photographs themselves, like the painting and physical object collections put on permanent display before them, will be only ‘lightly curated’, promises John Vallance. ‘We don’t want to tell people what to think; we don’t want to tell people how to interpret stuff. We want to say, “OK, here’s what we have, we hope you get interested and pursue it further”.’


Steve Dow is an award-winning arts journalist.

This story appears in Openbook winter 2021. 

Photography Appeal

To support the Photography Appeal, please visit the appeal page or call 02 9273 1488.

All donations are tax deductible and will go towards specialist conservation, digital and physical storage, and public presentation of the Library’s photography collections.

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