State Library of Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 76 Spring 2005

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From the Editorial Chair

Seven Years ago when we first thought of devoting an issue of The La Trobe Journal to photography we invited potential contributors to get in touch. None did. Last year, when we announced that we were planning to focus on the visual arts in an issue, several articles on photography were offered to us, and recently others have been foreshadowed. In an interesting reversal it now seems that no topic has aroused more interest among our potential contributors than photography. More discussion of visual material in the State Library of Victoria can be expected in future issues.
In an article on the Pictures Collection in this journal (No.62) some years ago, Michael Galimany quoted a remark by a visiting French photographer: ‘In Europe everyone knows that the great libraries of the world collect images’. Can one say the same of Australia? This issue will, we hope, contribute to the public awareness of the State Library as a collector of images. The articles published here certainly point to the richness and diversity of the photographic collection, and its value as a source for students of the history of culture. Not only that. Thanks to modern technology, it is now possible to obtain high-grade reproductions that are faithful to the artistic quality of the original photographs, so that we can provide readers with an aesthetic pleasure comparable – if not identical – with the experience of viewing the originals.
In the pre-Kodak years of the nineteenth century, photograph albums were expensive and the pleasure of looking at them was restricted to well-to-do people. The albums themselves were handsome compilations, exemplifying artistic values as well as technical skill. The State Library is fortunate in possessing Views and Costumes of Japan by Baron Raimund von Stillfried-Ratenicz, which is regarded as one of the finest of the photograph albums of the nineteenth century. It would be interesting to know who decided to purchase it from Heffers in Cambridge during the Great War. The ridiculously low price of one pound and five shillings would have reflected the current prejudice against things German, and perhaps also the preference for the ‘modern’ over the ‘old-fashioned’. However it came about, one can only be grateful that the Library was not inhibited by a narrow collections policy from acquiring this treasure, about which Luke Gartlan writes with such scholarly appreciation.
The images of Japan and Japanese life, which the Austrian Baron fashioned with such skill and delicacy for Western tourists, expressed the values of the photographer and the market at which he aimed. Today educated readers are probably more aware than ever before that photographs are not mere transcripts of an unquestioned ‘reality’. In looking at photographs of the past we have learned to question both the conscious attitudes and unconscious motivations of those who took the photographs, and to recognize that our own ‘readings’ of photographs are shaped by the ideologies of our own time. The articles of Jane Lydon and Elizabeth Willis, who are both interested in exploring the meanings of early photographs of Indigenous people in Victoria, consider some of the same issues that are raised in the account of Views and Costumes of Japan.
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Images that are now in the La Trobe Picture Collection provide the basis for the two articles. Jane Lydon discusses changing ideas about Aboriginality as they emerge in images produced at two Aboriginal missions managed by Moravian missionaries in Victoria in the nineteenth century. Elizabeth Willis takes as her subject a particular photographer in a particular location: John Hunter Kerr, a squatter, who photographed Indigenous people on his property, ‘Fernyhurst’, in northern Victoria in the 1850s. She looks at the individual photographs in some detail, arguing that they can be read as ‘the product of experiments in photography’ and ‘the result of conversations’ between Kerr and the group of Indigenous people ‘undergoing a great change’.
John Hunter Kerr as photographer is the subject of an accompanying article by Madeleine Say, who discusses the technical characteristics of his photographic images now in the La Trobe Picture Collection.
Another article concerned with how the art of photography was practised in the nineteenth century comes from Mary Lewis. The recent discovery of a set of architectural drawings enables her to provide an insight into a very successful photographic business in Marvellous Melbourne.
The last two articles take up the theme of fashion photography. Daniel Palmer looks into the beginnings of fashion photography in Australia; while Guy Featherstone documents the early years of a leader in this field. Helmut Newton, who was living in Monte Carlo at the time of his death in 2004, arrived in Australia as a refugee in 1940. The Shell Company of Australia, for which he worked between 1951 and 1960, has donated a number of his photographs to the La Trobe Picture Collection. These do not include any of the later nudes which attracted so much attention, but they are revealing of his ability as a photographer.
Of the contributors to this issue, Jane Lydon and Daniel Palmer have held Creative Fellowships at the State Library. In the coming years we expect to be publishing more of the fruits of research undertaken by Fellows.
John Barnes