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The National Portrait Gallery acknowledges the Traditional Custodians of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and to Elders both past and present.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that this website contains images of deceased persons.

Northern exposure

by Phil Manning, 25 July 2017

Thomas Mathewson (inset) and his studio on Queen Street, c. 1908 by Thomas Mathewson & Co
Thomas Mathewson (inset) and his studio on Queen Street, c. 1908 by Thomas Mathewson & Co

‘This is a palace of photography.  Not in its luxury … but in the completeness of the arrangements made for lighting, posing, staying and taking.’  Such was a journalist’s description of Thomas Mathewson’s new studio on Queen Street, Brisbane in 1899.
Today we are taking more photographs than ever before, and sharing almost every detail of our lives across the many platforms of digital media. However, while the advent of smart phones and social media has revolutionised the technology, the inherent nature of portrait photography hasn’t changed. It has always been about capturing the ideal depiction of oneself for longevity and sharing it with others – a controlled means of self-representation.

For our current exhibition, ‘Sit. Pose. Snap. Brisbane Portrait Photography 1850 – 1950’, Museum of Brisbane drew from one of Australia’s largest collections of portrait photographs, amassed by local resident, Marcel Safier, to explore the variety, trends and historical progression of photographic types through the first hundred years of photography in this city. Beyond simple images, photographic portraits are socio-historical objects that reveal the relationship between technology, business and identity. It is this connection we explore in the exhibition.

Photography arrived in Brisbane in 1850 by way of a travelling salesman, and a few short-lived studios were established in the late 1850s, with southern-trained photographers offering daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.

William True Bennett, an American photographer, subsequently introduced a more affordable type of photograph, the tintype. However, it wasn’t until the popularisation of the carte de visite that photography became a viable business in Brisbane.

The carte de visite was patented in 1854 by Frenchman Andre-Adolphe-Eugene Disderi. It was an adaptation of the 19th century calling card, used by people to introduce themselves to new acquaintances when calling on friends and relatives, or when conducting business. It was five years before the carte de visite started to gather popularity. This was largely due to the first photographic portraits of members of the Royal Family becoming readily available, starting with those made by Mayall in England and Disderi in France. Not only did the distribution of images of the Royal Family have an impact on the growth of portrait photography, the poses they adopted were then imitated. Daniel Marquis’ photograph of Daniel Hoins on his 21st birthday exemplifies this, depicting the sitter in one of the classic poses of the period.

Carte de visites quickly became much more than calling cards, as their affordability, size and robust nature allowed people to send images of themselves across the world. Through the 1860s, over 300 million cartes de visite were sold each year. More and more photographers were establishing studios in Brisbane around this time, and the carte de visite was to become the ubiquitous form of portrait photograph for the next few decades.

The most prolific producer of cartes de visite in Brisbane was Albert Lomer. He arrived from Sydney in 1873 and opened a studio on Queen Street. By this time, photographic studios had begun to take advantage of advances in technology which allowed for larger portraits containing more detail. Accordingly, the carte de visite began to be replaced by the larger format cabinet photograph, which was about three times the size. Studios grew larger, allowing more people and more elaborate backgrounds and props in the images.

Portrait photography builds a picture of an individual’s identity – who they were and what aspects of their life they were proud to remember and share. While photographs document a moment in time, they are taken in the knowledge that this moment will remain as a permanent image – a piece of family history; a record of social standing, career or interest. Personal and family portraits aim to capture life’s most significant milestones, including weddings, births and the growth of children, with families idealised and presented with pride. Portraits are also used to establish social standing. A photograph with an associated club, workplace or family conveys a strong sense of belonging, evident in Thomas Mathewson’s portrait of two young Salvation Army girls. Personal hobbies, interests and careers can be conveyed through uniforms and objects. The picture postcard, like that of Arthur Kean playing a flute, taken at Talma Studio by Ferdinand Sturgess, became the most common form of portrait photography following the introduction of the divided
back postcard in 1906.

Although photographers did take some portraits outside the studio, it was not common. The exception to this was the phenomenon of wartime portraits. The Kitchener Studio portrait of an unknown soldier was one of many portraits taken by studios that established tent operations at the Enoggera Army Barracks, specialising in soldier portraits during the First World War. The photographers at the Barracks were provided with kit so that every soldier could have their portrait taken in uniform. Another photographer to offer this service was Jack Fegan, who began his career at Tosca Studios in the late 1890s. Tosca, in conjunction with The Queenslander newspaper, set out to photograph all soldiers of the Second Queensland Contingent (and subsequently the Third and Fourth Contingents) prior to their departure to the Boer War in January 1900. This experience enabled Fegan to later create a similar business photographing soldiers departing for the First World War. Fegan operated multiple studios until his death in 1919, and Fegan Studios continued to run until 1930.

Directly opposite Fegan Studios on Queen Street was the studio of Ada Driver. Driver was one of the successful female photographers in Brisbane in the early 20th century, along with Elsie and Trissie Deazeley, Mary Lambert and Dorothy Coleman.

Before starting her own studio, Coleman had gained experience as a camera operator with Thomas Mathewson. Mathewson, along with Poul C Poulsen, set the standard of quality for portrait photography in Brisbane; between them they trained and inspired future generations of photographers.

Poulsen moved to Brisbane in 1882 and opened a branch of Gove and Allen opposite the Treasury Building on Queen Street.

This studio was later known as the American Photo Co, and then Poulsen Studios, and remained at this location until 1918. The studio was considered the major 'society' studio in Brisbane; Poulsen established a reputation for taking fine portraits of stars of the stage, including Dame Nellie Melba in 1903, and he secured the patronage of several Queensland governors.

Thomas Mathewson is regarded as the father of photography in Queensland, having begun his business in 1864 (the Mathewson family would go on to have a presence in Brisbane’s photographic community until 1940). It is said that Mathewson left the tracks of his tripod in every inhabited place from the Great Barrier Reef to the South Australian border. He returned to Brisbane in 1876, going into partnership with his brother, Peter, in a studio on Queen Street.  In 1895 they ended the partnership and Thomas continued on his own, establishing Regent Studios, while Peter established Austral Studios. Both brothers established branches of their respective operations throughout Queensland.

A journalist described Mathewson as ‘a sad flatterer who picks out pimples and soothes salt cellars and modifies angles in a manner that makes one wish the originals could be fixed in that fashion’.

The studio portrait involved much more than setting the scene or the pose of the sitter. The finished portrait was always retouched, with freckles and the signs of ageing usually removed. Retouch artists could also embellish the original negative for novelty purposes, such as in the case of Thomas Mathewson’s portrait of an unknown woman, where the addition of snow presents a beautiful (if somewhat surreal) depiction of a life lived in Brisbane.

Our prescient journalist observed that ‘the magic camera will probably be giving us nature as it is … the faces of our sisters, cousins and aunts, if not exactly life-like, a great deal better’. Indeed, this observation remains true over sixty years later, with the many filters available across the various social media platforms giving us the opportunity to manipulate and control our own images to a degree unprecedented.

Sit. Pose. Snap. Brisbane Portrait Photography 1850 – 1950 ran from 24 March until 30 July 2017 at Museum of Brisbane.

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