A new exhibition at the Chau Chak Wing Museum at Sydney University presents images taken between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, by professional and amateur photographers.

Four children in fancy dress featuring the products, Jelline and Silver Drop Flour 1910-30; glass negative, half-plate.

Titled ‘The Staged Photograph’ it presents images from Australia, Britain and the United States providing a diverse and intriguing insight into the role staged photographs played in our lives and the popular culture of the time. Costume balls were popular from the 1830s. From the 1860s, families in their fancy dress costumes or special outfits could be professionally photographed in a studio complete with props and a painted background.  Communities held balls to raise money for good causes and from 1900 they included the ‘poster ball’ when businesses would pay fundraisers to have someone wear a costume festooned with advertisements for their products. These balls were as popular in high society as in country towns and suburbs. Costumes for Sunlight Soap, Silver Starch laundry powder, Jelline jelly crystals and Silver Drop self-raising flour can be seen in the exhibition.

Views of exotic locations were by far the most popular stereographs for ‘armchair travelling’, but commercial photographers also created fictional scenes using actors and props to tell highly theatrical stories. Sentimental and comical scenes were big sellers.  Some of the most popular themes are still familiar – love, courtship, marriage, children and drunkenness – but others are of their time, taken from vaudeville jokes or the prejudices of the age. Both Irish servant women and African American plantation workers were held up to racist ridicule. One popular genre was college girls taking part in dormitory ‘larks and pranks’. Another was financial ruin from horse racing.

All photographs are drawn from the Macleay Collections of the Chau Chak Wing Museum. These photographs are some of the more than 60,000 in the University’s social history photograph collection. Most were donated and cover the mid-19th to 20th century.  The exhibition opens on 22 April and runs until April 2024. It is located at Level 1, Historic Photography Gallery, Chau Chak Wing Museum and open between 10am-5pm Monday to Friday (until 9pm Thursday); 12-4pm Saturday and Sunday; closed public holidays. Entry is free of charge.

A second exhibition, ‘Photography and the Performative’ will open on 29 April. Click here for more information.