When I was in England a couple of years back, I met a woman who showed me a photo album her ancestor had collected during a sea voyage around the Pacific, from the Solomons to Fiji to Yokohama, some time in the late 19th or early 20th century. She knew the photos had an economic value – you often see old photos for sale on market stalls, or the 21st century equivalent, eBay – but she wanted my opinion as a historian. Did they have any historical value, and if so, where should they go?
I took a few photos of pages I thought would interest a colleague who works on Solomon Islands history, but the photos themselves didn’t turn me on. Most were obvious commercial pastiches, designed to sell to passing tourists like her forebear. They covered so many subjects, from Fijian villages to Japanese street scenes, that it was hard to know where they should go, and some were horribly racist. I particularly remember a picture of a Solomon Islander wearing nothing but a lap-lap painted with the Union Jack. Chortle.
I’ve just been to see an exhibition of photographs at the Museum of Brisbane, and I think I owe Sophy an apology for my dismissiveness. Captured is a sensitively curated exhibition of photos of Aboriginal people from the Moreton Bay district. Michael Aird has collected, researched and curated these photographs, and the collection is fascinating. It’s a clever title of course, alluding to the way that images of these people were treated as commodities, but the people in the photos are subjects, not objects, and are treated as such by the curator.
The photos come from several Brisbane photographic studios of the 1850s and 1860s. A new technology like photography always attracts new commercial opportunities, and as well as photographing the European settlers, these photographers found a niche market producing cartes de visite – small photographs printed in batches of 8 at a time. This mass production made them commercially viable in a way that individual, one-off portraits of Aborigines might not have been.
I was lucky enough to go around the exhibition with a friend who knows much more about the history of the Aboriginal people of Moreton Bay. She knew some of these photographed people by name – or at least, in some cases, the name bestowed on them by European settlers. The photographers wanted to draw attention to their distinctive scarification, on both men and women, and my friend could tell me how different scar patterns distinguished different tribal groups.
Early photographers needed to keep their subjects still, and there is one ghostly image of a child who must have moved during the long exposure. Some of the photos are obviously staged – a fake fight, for instance, with a man holding a boomerang above his head in a threatening attitude – but there’s very little sign of the strain that must have been involved in keeping this pose for 2 or more minutes.
The fake fighting scene is probably the only really artificial image in the exhibition. None of them are mocking. According to Michael Aird, it was only later in the century that photos, like those I saw from the Solomon Islands, became both mocking and prurient (though a portrait of 2 bare breasted girls was too much for some Victorian sensibilities, so that one copy of this photo was cut off at the neck in the Archer family collection).
I’m not quite sure. In the exhibition there is a well-known portrait of ‘King Sandy of the Moreton Bay Tribe’ wearing a ‘king plate’. He has a strong face, and looks directly into the camera with intelligent old eyes. He has great dignity, and he doesn’t smile. Nobody smiled in early photos because of the long exposure, but the people in these photos had little to smile about.