Few machines have altered history like the camera in the nineteenth century — photography gave ordinary people new insights, and their stories now remain preserved in treasured personal collections. The exhibition ‘Revelations’ both celebrates the historical innovations of photography and the printing press, in this the second of our two part series, we honour photography’s pivotal moment of technical innovation and the great artistic movement that followed.
The story of ‘Revelations’ begins in the mid-fifteenth century. In 1450, German goldsmith Johannes Gutenberg (ca.1397–1468) created a machine that could print an infinite combination of letters, bypassing the need for scribes to write out entire volumes by hand. Three centuries after Gutenberg’s printing press, photography ignited a new era of mass-production.
DELVE DEEPER: JULIA MARGARET CAMERON
The first photograph would have been a wonder to behold: it was an image of the world drawn not by an artist’s hand but through the human mastery of light and chemicals alone. Photographic methods developed rapidly in the latter half of the nineteenth century, from Louis-Jacques- Mandé Daguerre’s photograph on polished copper (soon after called a daguerreotype) to William Henry Fox Talbot’s calotype on paper, and later methods using an egg white (albumen) treatment. The shift from hardplate photographic methods to the paper print heralded the dissemination of photography like never before. Suddenly, photos could be reproduced many times over and distributed among friends and family.
Running parallel to its more quotidian uses in Europe and America, the camera became a favourite tool for travellers and expatriates across the world. Photography flourished in the final and most expansive phase of the British Empire, and many of the early subjects posed in front of the lens were people from British colonies in Africa, Australia, the Middle East and India. Driven by a Victorian penchant for taxonomy, these people were mostly photographed as anthropological ‘types’ rather than individual personalities.
Around 40 demounted album pages on display trace what is now India, Pakistan and Myanmar: from the busy streets of Lahore to the Shan Highlands in the Himalayas, and the southern port city Madras (now known as Chennai). Each image in the original bound album was collected by the Williams family theatre group, who travelled across India from 1899 to 1901 reading the works of William Shakespeare. Their tour was among an influx of theatrical productions to the British colony, intended to inform the Indian population about the virtues and particularities of English culture. As they performed throughout the nation, the actors also purchased photographs and compiled an album with handwritten notes about the sites, architecture and people captured by the camera.
DELVE DEEPER: PAGES FROM THE ALBUM OF ETHEL FAIRWEATHER
While these photographs carefully categorise the numerous local cultures of India, the Fairweather family album shows another side of the colony, detailing the lives of a British family living on the subcontinent. This intact volume belonged to celebrated Queensland-based artist Ian Fairweather’s sister, Ethel Stewart (1880–1972), and provides a fascinating insight into her life during the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The Fairweathers were Scottish but lived in India for many years and sent their children across the Commonwealth to be educated. Ethel’s brimming scrapbook records concerts, dances and balls, as well as horse-riding, travel across India and holidays on the nearby island of Sark. As the album reveals, photography has always existed within a matrix of other images and text: from the very beginning, photographs have been held, annotated and anchored in daily life.
Today, snapshots of loved ones, and indeed, much of how we navigate the modern world bears the mark of the invention of photography. ‘Revelations’, together with the printing press, honours these pivotal moments of technical innovation and the great artistic movements they inspired.
Sophie Rose is Assistant Curator, International Art, QAGOMA
‘Revelations’ is in Galleries 7 and 9 of the Philip Bacon Galleries, Queensland Art Gallery (QAG), until 19 September 2021. Special thanks to Gael Newton AM, Morris Low, the Airey Family, Margaret Mittelheuser AM and Cathryn Mittelheuser AM, the Henry and Amanda Bartlett Trust and the Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Diversity Foundation for their donations through the QAGOMA Foundation, which have substantially contributed to the works in this exhibition.
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Featured image detail: Lewis Carroll Xie Kitchin, Captive Princess, 26 June 1875 1875