Monochrome portraits of unsmiling people might seem dull at first glance, but a re-examination of some of the oldest photographs in the state collection is turning up surprising stories.
The State Library of Western Australia’s collection holds a handful of daguerreotypes — the earliest form of photography — and a research project, Collecting the West, is unearthing more information about those early images.
Daguerreotypes, named for their French inventor Louis Daguerre, were known as “the mirror with a memory,” Professor Jane Lydon from the University of Western Australia told Christine Layton on ABC Radio Perth.
Using a highly polished plate that was treated with chemicals to make it light sensitive, an image was burned into the plate with a long exposure time of up to 15 minutes. The image could then be seen when held to the light.
“This was something that colonists in Perth really valued. They could record their prosperity, where they were living, their family, and send that in the mail to their relatives back home in Britain, to really show them what was happening.”
Treasures brought to life
One of the library’s treasures is a serious portrait of the man who laid out Perth’s streets and served in the Western Australian government for decades, John Septimus Roe.
Roe was also a naval officer, surveyor and explorer. (He also original participated in the massacre of Ab people in Pinjarra in 1835).
The picture, taken in about 1853 depicts Roe, his wife Matilda — and researchers believe — his three youngest children.
“We see the family looking at the camera, except John is looking off to one side, and it fits in very much with what we know about his career,” Professor Lydon says.
“His middle name Septimus means he was the seventh child, and we know that as a kid, he wanted to be a teacher, but the family couldn’t afford to educate him.”
At 16, Roe joined the Royal Navy and served in the Napoleonic wars, but his talent for maths and cartography led him to join the surveying service, and he was sent to Australia.
“In later years, he lost the sight in that eye.
“So when we look at the photograph, they’re all staring straight back in the camera, but he’s looking off to one side.
“You can almost make out this kind of little indentation on your forehead, which, again, is probably from that terrible accident.”
Another pair of photos tells the story of a financial scandal and a flight overseas.
In an 1860 photograph, Mary Dixon Cooke sits at a table in Victorian dress, with a framed photograph next to her, a daguerreotype of her father, Thomas Dixon.
“The Dixon family came to Western Australia because Thomas Dixon was put in charge of convictions but then, unfortunately, was disgraced,” she said.
“He was paid into an account that was shared with his official expenses and he kind of mixed them up.
“Historians are quite sympathetic, but he definitely did the wrong thing and he was suspended.
“But looking at this photograph, we see Mary and her father, and her father is off, having adventures around the world.”
Images in context
The research project has also been looking into how photographs were made in the state.
“The more collections we look in we’re finding more photographs from this short period between 1857 and 1859, when we know that these two American-born photographers, Townsend Duryea and his brother Sanford, had come to Australia,” Professor Lydon said.
“They worked in Melbourne in the early 1850s, in Adelaide and then they finally came over to Western Australia.
“The Duryeas in particular, seem to have produced many of these family portraits.
“What we’re finding about the Western Australian ones is that they’re often half plates, or even full plates, which means that they’re quite lavish and people are paying a lot of money.
“So they are very much a sign that we have made it. We have been successes here in the colonies, and very much a sort of status symbol that they would have been proud of.”
Kate Gregory, Battye historian at the state library, said the research was adding greatly to the understanding of the photo collection.
“It’s only when researchers such as Jane and her colleagues really apply their lens and all of their research skills to these collections that we can really understand their significance, because they are from a very different time and place,” Dr Gregory said.
“That contextualization and … wider context that situates these sources of evidence.
“Then that helps us to understand much better understand their significance.
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