SA colonial photography: a note

I am not having that much success in my research on expedition photography in South Australia. I recently came across a book on colonial photography in Australia entitled Shifting Focus: Colonial Australian Photography 1850-1920 ed., Anne Maxwell and Josephine Croci (Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2015). It looked promising as the Introduction states that photography circa 1850-60 was shown in the technology section (optical instruments) of the Great Exhibition in London (1851) and not in the fine art section. Photography, they continue, shared with science common roots in empiricism and positivism, an optimistic faith in progress, and common agendas to see and know the world. Photography entered the nineteenth-century imagination as a way of capturing the world in precise detail, and bringing it home for careful study. References to travel, geography, topography, and landscape are common in this period.

This insight references Joan Schwarz’s article ‘Records of Simple Truth and Precision: Photography, Archives and the Illusion of Control’ (2000) that is based on her PhD thesis. Schwartz argues that in the 1840s travel was embraced as a way of seeing and knowing the world and photographs offered a new means of acquiring, ordering and disseminating geographical information. This was an era when geographical movement was embraced as intellectual method,and observation was the paradigm of knowing, photography made it possible to gather and disseminate all kinds of information in visual form, with unprecedented ease and accuracy. Photography’s links with science meant that it was seen as a method for observing, representing, and knowing the world. Photography was seen as an enhanced form of visual note taking, a tool of observation, and an accurate and reliable means of documentation.The photograph as a means of extending human powers of scientific observation is characterized as the topographical tradition, with the positivist rhetoric of unmediated representation being expressed as a “mirror” of nature, a “window” on the world, and a “mirror” with a memory.

Captain Samuel Sweet, Palmerston township, 1870

Expedition photography in South Australia would fit snugly within the emergent role of photography in making and communicating new knowledge and its significance for natural history as part of the work of empire. Bernard Smith in his European Vision and the South Pacific says that the development and introduction of photography represented a significant juncture in the use of images as records and for interpreting visible phenomena. This emerging photographic culture was directed, as needed, towards fulfilling an official agenda of satisfying the appetite of a European public eager for curiosities suitably composed to current tastes. Images of natural history subjects were produced not only as scientific documents or as artistic conceits but also to validate and promote Britain’s expanding empire.

Shifting Focus does mention expedition photography in South Australia: — namely, Tim Smith’s and Kitty Magee’s articles on Goyder’s 1869 Northern Territory Survey Expedition to survey this territory so as to establish colonial settlement in and around Port Darwin. Joseph Brooks and especially Captain Sweet photographed the early stage of this part of Australian colonial settlement process — ie., they, and especially Sweet, made positive views of colonial development, progress and prosperity.

Sweet’s Darwin photos were taken while he was working as a ship’s captain for the South Australian Government, commanding a supply vessel supporting the exploration (1869) and settlement (1869-71) of Darwin and the construction of the Overland Telegraph (1870-72). Sweet was not employed as a photographer when he took these photographs and his Darwin photographs can be also understood as a surrogate for travel at a time when travel was the premier avenue to knowledge of the world. Photographs were cheaper, more truthful, more accessible, more convenient, and more egalitarian than other forms of visual imagery.