State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 43 Autumn 1989

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Early Photographs Of Aborigines In The Picture Collection

ONE of the driving forces in the making of photographs of Aborigines in nineteenth century Australia was the idea that the indigenous inhabitants were a ‘dying race’. While time has refuted this notion, it is undeniably true that cultures change, and that the images of last century are unique and historical.
Bernard Smith in his pioneering work, European Vision and the South Pacific,1 and many of the contributors to the Donaldsons’ Seeing the First Australians2 have ably illustrated the need for recognition of the very specific role of the ‘viewer’, ‘interpreter’ or ‘image maker’ in source documents produced by one culture about another. It is in this context that I wish to examine the Aboriginal photographs taken by Antoine Fauchery and Richard Daintree between late 1857 and early 1859 for inclusion in their Photographic Series Sun Pictures of Victoria,'3 a rare copy of which is held in the La Trobe Collection, State Library of Victoria.4 My purpose is to further illustrate the theme that these pictorial sources can only be used as evidence or illustrations of past Aboriginal life and cultural activities if they are first examined within the context of researching their non-Aboriginal recorders.
The complete Sun Pictures album consists of fifty albumen silver prints covering a variety of local and topical Victorian subjects including architecture, landscapes, portraits and gold miners. There are twelve photographs of Aborigines, consisting of two separate sequences.5 One is documentary in nature comprising three pictures depicting Aboriginal farmers and their families at the Mount Franklin Aboriginal reserve near Daylesford. Here they are dressed in European cast-offs, posed with apparent resignation in front of their crude farm dwellings. (Plates 1 & 2). The situation pictured is in stark contrast to that portrayed by the other group of nine photographs which, set in woodlands, include an overview camp scene and separate vignettes of warriors, women and children, presenting a romanticised and stylised vision of ‘Victorian’ Aborigines in a near to natural or ‘pristine’ state (Plates 3,4,5 & 6). These photographs are also posed, but somehow the subjects have remained aloof from the camera which appears to have glimpsed another world. Indeed it is hard to reconcile the reality of the two lifestyles occurring at the same time.

Plate 1: Aboriginal farmers, Mount Franklin Reserve, near Daylesford, Victoria, 1858 (photographer: Richard Daintree).

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Plate 2: Aboriginal farmers, Mount Franklin Reserve, 1858 (photographer: Richard Daintree).

Plate 3: Group of Aboriginal tribesmen, probably from Cippsland, 1858 (photographer: Antoine Fauchery).

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What ‘reality’ does in fact lie behind these images? The Mount Franklin photographs are fairly straightforward. In his 1858 Report to the Select Committee investigating the current situation of Aborigines in Victoria, Edward Stone Parker, one of the four original ‘Protectors’ of Aborigines, who had established the Loddon Reserve near the same site in 1841, remarked on the enterprise and ‘civilized habits’ of the two farming families which, I suggest, must be those shown in the 1858 photographs. He contrasted their stability and success with the ‘most disastrous’ condition of the other remnants of the Loddon Tribes (Jaara people), who eked out a scanty subsistence on the goldfields. However, there were so few surviviors of this entire tribal group that six years later, in 1864, the reserve was closed and the remaining farming families were removed to Coranderrk.6
Understanding the second group of photographs is more difficult. The entire number, if closely considered, can be linked together as a single group by various attributes. The same individuals reappear throughout the sequence, and so do objects, especially artefacts, and the physical setting is the same. These photographs are almost certainly the result of a single photographic session, and evidence of the photographer is seen not only in the cloth used to drape some of his models7 but in the highly effective and early use of the fast petzval lens which gave a sharp focus to the subject that stands out as if in relief from a diffused background.8 Only one of the nine images is given a locality, its original title being “Gypsland Blackfellow”.9 Although this attribution has been altered by later researchers,10 the landscape and material culture depicted in the photographs are consistent with them having been taken somewhere in Gippsland.11

Plate 4: Aboriginal tribesman in Corroboree pose, probably from Gippsland, 1858 (photographer: Antoine Fauchery).

To an extent they are ‘creations’ or attempted ‘recreations’ of a pristine culture. People have been requested to dress or undress as the situation required, to pose in certain stances and be juxtaposed with symbols of traditional culture. Within the context of a ‘dying race’ the ‘noble savage’ makes a comeback. However there is something rivetting about these photographs. They convey a quality of reality far beyond the later but similar studies of J. W. Lindt, taken in the Clarence River District in the 1870s12 or those of Thomas Dick who photographed Aborigines from the Port Macquarie area earlier this century.13 Perhaps it is the special quality of these images, the feeling that the camera has only ‘observed’ rather than ‘set up’ a scene, that has allowed the Gippsland Aboriginal photographs of Antoine Fauchery to be so frequently and uncritically used to conjure the presence of the Victorian Tribes before contact with Europeans.14
It is likely that photographs of Victorian Aborigines held by the La Trobe Picture Collection will increasingly be used to illustrate and provide information about this rich culture. Hopefully there will be a concurrent emphasis on the importance of historical research so that this vivid source material is accurately attributed and placed in context.
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Carol Cooper curates the Pictorial Collection of the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies. She has an Honours degree in Prehistory & Anthropology from the Australian National University. She is continuing postgraduate work on collectors of material culture in nineteenth century Victoria and, in the course of this research, has located valuable historical material which has been donated subsequently to the La Trobe Collection.

Plate 5: Group of Aboriginal women and children, probably from Gippsland, 1858 (photographer: Antoine Fauchery).

Plate 6: Aboriginal Camp, probably in Gippsland, 1858 (photographer Antoine Fauchery).

1

B. Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific 1768–1850, (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1960).

2

I. & T. Donaldson (eds), Seeing the first Australians, (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1982). See especially articles on photography by McBryde and Peterson.

3

D. Reilly & J. Carew, Sun Pictures of Victoria: The Fauchery-Daintree Collection, 1858 (Melbourne: Currey O'Neil Ross Pty Ltd on behalf of the Library Council of Victoria, 1983), This book gives detailed biographies of both photographers and illustrates the entire fifty photographs in the album.

4

Although presented to the public for sale, only three sets of the series are known to have survived. See Gael Newton, Shades of Light: Photography and Australia 1830–1988 (Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1988), p.28. Jack Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, (Melbourne: Institute of Australian Photography, 1979) p. 26, describes how the State Library of Victoria obtained its copy.

5

Attribution of the individual sequences of photographs between Fauchery and Daintree is problematic, however opinion suggests that Daintree was the originator of the first sequence and Fauchery the second. See Sun Pictures of Victoria, p 22.

6

Ibid., p 108.

7

Ibid., see Plates 46, 47, 52.

8

Newton, op. cit., p 28; Cato op. cit., p 26.

9

Sun Pictures of Victoria Plate 51, p 124.

10

A. Massola in his The Aborigines of Southeast Australia: As They Were, (Melbourne: Heinemann, 1971), and Coranderrk: A History of the Aboriginal Station (Kilmore: Lowden Publishing Co., 1975) saw fit to describe these photographs as coming from the Yarra River, and more recently Michael Christie in his Aborigines in Colonial Victoria, 1835–86, (Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1979), stated several of the photographs were of ‘Wurundjeri’ tribespeople, although without any supporting evidence. His work was used by Reilly and Carew to attribute the photographs in their Sun Pictures of Victoria volume.

11

Carol Cooper, ‘Art of Temperate South-East Australia’ in C. Cooper (et al), Aboriginal Australia, (Sydney: Australian Galleries Directors Council, 1981).

12

Shar Jones, J. W. Lindt, Master Photographer, (Melbourne: Currey O'Neil Ross Pty Ltd on behalf of the Library Council of Victoria, 1985).

13

Isabel McBryde, ‘Thomas Dick's Photographic Vision', in I. & T. Donaldson, op. cit.

14

For example, see Massola, op. cit.; Christie, op. cit.; P. Pepper, You Are What You Make Yourself To Be (Melbourne: Hyland House, 1980); S. W. Wiencke, When The Wattles Bloom Again, (Melbourne: Globe Press Pty Ltd, 1984); and P. Pepper & T. De Araugo, The Kurnai of Gippsland, (Melbourne: Hyland House, 1980).