It’s a long time ago now, but when I was a very little girl my grandmother had a big box of magic lantern slides. She also had a set of stereoscopic photographs, together with their viewer. You could slide the twin photos, showing not quite the same scene, into their holder, then by looking through a pair of lenses, the photos merged into a single image that produced a 3D effect – as well as a headache and a weird feeling that the photo was dragging your eyes out of alignment.
I hasten to say that they were old even then, probably dating from before the First World War – though it’s also true that I haven’t been a little girl for quite some time. Some of them showed unknown people, no doubt forgotten family members, while others were landscapes and cityscapes from around Brisbane and Moreton Bay. My grandmother’s aunt, Ada Driver, was one of the first women photographers in Brisbane, so I guess a lot of them were her work. Sadly, most of those photographs have since disappeared, though I know I gave one box of glass slides to the State Library of Queensland many years ago.
The Museum of Brisbane currently has an exhibition, The View from Here, featuring the photographs of a talented amateur Brisbane photographer, Alfred Elliott. Alfred’s photographs seem to have gone through some of the same stages of loss and forgetting as great-aunt Ada’s, but with a happier ending.
In 1983, a number of cedar cigar cases were discovered under a house in Red Hill, Brisbane. They held nearly 300 glass plate negatives dating from 1890 to 1921, as well as the tailboard camera that produced them. They went into the Brisbane City Council collection, but they were apparently only partially catalogued, because when preparations were underway for this exhibition, the curator, Phil Manning, found a further secret stash in one of the boxes. These were photographs and negatives that Alfred Elliott had made using film, rather than the old glass slides. These photos take Elliott’s record of Brisbane up to 1940.
The photos are lovely – and very evocative. Elliott was 26 when he began photographing in 1890, and by then the glass plate negative technique was well developed. It was possible – if still hard work – to carry around the equipment he needed on train and ferry trips around Moreton Bay and beyond, to Tweed Heads, Bribie Island and the Glasshouse Mountains.
Glass negatives are made by spreading silver bromide in gelatin on a thin glass plate. Most people made their own, and the skill of the operator lay in spreading the goo in a thin, smooth layer, so that the exposure was even. By the 1890s, short exposures made informal photos possible, so he has shots of people moving, chatting, playing – not just sitting formally. One fascinating photograph shows a large number of people milling outside the South Brisbane polling booth in September 1899, waiting to vote on the federal referendum. Only men could vote, but the photograph shows that everyone – men, women and children – turned up to participate in this public event, and that they marked the seriousness of the occasion by dressing smartly, the men almost all wearing suits and hats.
Unlike digital photographs, which break up into a blur of pixels when blown up too far, these glass negatives can be magnified to an extraordinary extent. The exhibition shows examples of tiny details – in a family shot of Alfred Elliott’s future wife and in-laws, the year before his marriage, intense magnification shows that Ellen Elizabeth was already wearing his engagement ring.
In 1895, Alfred Elliott took his equipment to the top of the convict-built windmill on Wickham Terrace, otherwise known as the Observatory, and took a series of 11 photographs from this high point. In the exhibition this set of photos have been grafted together to form a sweeping vista of Brisbane.
In 1926 Alfred and his wife bought a car, and with his new film camera, he headed further afield, recording landscapes, beaches – and some seriously terrible roads. He also recorded Brisbane as it grew in the interwar years, until sadly the photos stop in 1940 – just before Brisbane became a garrison town for the Australian and American armies during the Second World War.
Did he die then? Or become too old to pursue his hobby? There is frustratingly little information available about him, although it’s clear that the curator has hunted out what little is available. There are just a few hints: there are photographs of him with his wife, son and daughter, outside his house in Stanley Terrace, Taringa – and I like that he called his house ‘Tibrogargan’ after one of the Glass House Mountains, a favourite bushwalking area. Unfortunately, inoffensive and law-abiding citizens tend to leave very little record.
At least his photographs have survived, even if they were lost for over 40 years. The exhibition is free, and continues until 30 August 2015. It is well worth a visit.