Reflections of a Dark Past

Smalls Auction Sale 47 has on offered a rare photographic history of Australia’s Indigenous population spanning the years 1866 to 1917.  Most are ethnographic portrait studies taken in studio settings or ‘in situ’ by some of the leading Australian photographers of their day. Names such as Woolley, Lindt, Ehlers, Foelsche, Kerry, and King set out to capture the essence of the Australian Aborigine for a scientific as well as voyeuristic clientele. The photographs of Kerry and King were distributed to a far broader audience by the publisher James Tyrell who purchased the glass negatives and working stock of their studios on their closure selling reprints of their works through his various bookshops.

Charles A. Woolley (1834-1922) worked from a studio in Macquarie Street Hobart from 1859 to 1870 and is perhaps best known for his photographic portraits of the last surviving Tasmanian Aborigines exhibited in 1866 at the Melbourne Intercolonial Exhibition. His photo portrait of William Lanne, the last surviving full-blood male Tasmanian Aborigine, records him at about age twenty-six. Lanne died in 1869 and his body was desecrated in the name of medical science. Similarly, he photographed Truganini who on her death in 1876 was long thought to be the last surviving full-blood Aboriginal Tasmanian.

John William Lindt (1845 -1926) was born in Frankfurt Germany and as a boy seeking adventure ran off to sea as a seventeen-year-old. He deserted ship in Brisbane before making his way down the coast to Grafton on the Clarence River where he found employment in a photographic studio. In 1867 he returned to Germany briefly but was soon back in Australia to buy out his former employer’s photography business. In 1875 and 1876 Lindt staged atmospheric studio shots of the local Aborigines from the Clarence River District which he mounted and sold as album collections. In 1876 he relocated to Melbourne finding fame in 1880 when he photographed the capture of the notorious ‘Kelly Gang.’ Lindt was honored in 1885 with the role as the official photographer on a Government Expedition to New Guinea before going on to photograph the New Hebrides in 1890 and Fiji in 1892. Unfortunately, his studio business succumbed to the great financial depression that rocked the Australian colonies in 1893 and he ‘retired’ to a new property ‘the Hermitage’ he had built at Blacks Spur. He died there in 1926 in the catastrophic bushfires that engulfed his property.

Carl Ehlers (active 1880s) was another German-born photographer who chose Prince Street Grafton to set up a photography studio. But, unlike Lindt’s staged studio shots, Ehlers concentrated more on capturing the actual life circumstances of the Aborigines preferring to record them in their natural environment or in camp settings. His photographs are a truer representation of the dispossession of the native population when forced to live on the cusp of civilization.

Paul Foelsche (1831- 1914) was born near Hamburg Germany and migrated to South Australia in 1854 perhaps drawn by the lure of gold. However, instead of racing off to the Victorian Goldfields like so many others he instead signed up to become a State Trooper bringing him into contact for the first time with the local Aborigines for whom it was said he have developed an affinity. He was an exceptional police officer and in 1869 he was transferred to Palmerston in the Northern Territory as the sub-Inspector of the Northern Territory Mounted Police rising to Inspector in 1876.

Foelsche understood the difficulties of applying British justice to the native population and undertook ”a systematic study of Aboriginal customs and language. On 2 August 1881 his authoritative paper, ‘Notes on the Aborigines of North Australia’, was read to the Royal Society of South Australia.” (ADB)

Perhaps acknowledging that “a picture paints a thousand words” Foelsche embraced the new art of photography and by 1873 he was recognised as the leading photographer in the Northern Territory. He drew critical praise for ethnographic photographs of the Territory’s Aboriginal tribes even receiving a gold watch from the German Kaiser as a reward for his photography.

However, historical revisionists have unearthed chilling accounts of the heavy-handed justice he meted out on the native population and so his staged portrait shots of Aborigines, who sit stony-faced, appear more menacing when viewed through a more critical lens. In one photograph on offer, you can clearly see that the subject is manacled.

At the turn of the 19th Century, two of Sydney’s most prolific photographic studios were run by Charles Kerry and Henry King who in tandem set out to capture with their lens ethnographic portrait studies of Australian Aborigines in the field and in staged studio shots.

Charles Kerry (1858 -1928) started out in photography in a carte-de-viste business in Sydney specialising in scenic views of rural and urban Australia. He went on to establish Kerry & Co. in 1892 and by the late 1890s had become the eminent photographic studio in Sydney. By 1910 his studio was Australia’s largest publisher of postcards which although they were produced in commercial quantities have become iconic collectables through the years. His 1908 photographs of the Burns v Johnson World Heavyweight Boxing Match at Sydney’s Rushcutters Bay brought him International acclaim, but it is his studio portraits of Aborigines and their rites of passage that are his emblematic works. These studies were produced from the 1890s through to 1917.

Henry King (1855-1923) was an infant when he emigrated to Australia in 1857 with his parents. He was apprenticed to the Sydney photographer J. Herbert Newman before going on to establish his own studio in partnership with William Slade in 1879.  King was acclaimed as a portrait and landscape photographer realising International recognition with a Bronze Medal for Photography at the 1893 Chicago ‘World’s Fair.’ Like Kerry, King was fascinated with the visage of the Australian Aborigine and travelled New South Wales and Queensland in search of subjects to photograph.

James Tyrrell (1875-1961) was a Sydney based publisher and bookseller whose customers included Henry Lawson and Norman Lindsay. The American authors Mark Twain and Robert Louis Stephenson are also known to have frequented Tyrrell’s Bookshop when visiting Sydney. In 1914 Tyrrell opened a bookshop at 143 Castlereagh Street, Sydney that also included a museum that housed his eponymous collection of Australiana.

Tyrell acquired over 6,500 glass negatives from the ‘Kerry’ and ‘King’ studios on their closure along with their working stock of sepia prints. As well as selling the sepia prints he had acquired, Tyrell used the glass negatives sparingly in the 1920s and 30s to produce black and white reprints which were also offered for sale in his bookshops. The business moved several times through the years and so it is possible to date the reprints from the Company stamps on the back.

The glass negatives were eventually purchased by Consolidated Press who donated them to the Powerhouse Museum where they are held today.

Smalls Auction Sale 47 offers a truly outstanding compilation that records the dire circumstance of the Australian Aborigine.