We’re in the NSW State Library’s climate-controlled archives. The low-ceilinged, secure room is filled with row upon row of chest-high cabinets containing the State Library’s collection of some 1.5 million photographs…
Clarke Street, Hill End, 1872
The A&A Photographic Company, 1872
Adelaide Montgomery, c1872
Hill End Dispensary, 1872
Australia’s single most important collection of 19th Century photographic images spent 80 years in a Chatswood garden shed.
By Don Norris
We’re in the NSW State Library’s climate-controlled archives. The low-ceilinged, secure room is filled with row upon row of chest-high cabinets containing the State Library’s collection of some 1.5 million photographs. Alan Davies, Curator of Photography for the Library, is standing next to a single wooden case that looks big enough to hold a stack of largish flat screen TVs. However, inside this particular case there are a number of immense glass plate negatives dating from the 1870s. Measuring 900mm x 1600mm,19th Century glass plate negatives of this size are extremely rare. Sixty years ago these huge plates, along with thousands of others, were stored not in the safety of the State Library’s archive room, but in a garden shed in the Sydney suburb of Chatswood.
The massive negatives are part of an extraordinary 3500-image collection and they had been sitting in Mary Holtermann’s garden shed for almost 80 years by the time they were re-discovered in the early ’50s. Happily for us, the delicate negatives were stored in cedar and tin boxes which protected them from the vagaries of Sydney’s climate.
East Circular Quay, 1873
Credit for the re-discovery of the historical photographic trove goes to one Keast Burke, editor of Australasian Photo Review (no relation!). In 1951, Mr Burke wrote to then Mitchell Librarian Phyllis Mander Jones about a name he’d come across while investigating 19th Century panorama photographs. The Librarian told him that Mr Holtermann’s daughter-in-law Mary lived in Chatswood, leading him in turn to the momentous discovery in her garden shed.
In 1952, Bernhardt Holtermann’s grandson Bernhard donated the Holtermann Collection to the Mitchell Library. For the next two decades Keast Burke researched the negatives’ history and in due course it became clear that they were not in fact taken by Bernhardt Holtermann but by two photographers, Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss.
Taken over a brief period from late 1872 to 1875, the Holtermann Collection, said Alan Davies, ‘is one of the most important photographic collections in the country. I should say the most important photographic collection in the country full stop. There’s nothing to match it. It’s the only internationally significant collection of photographs. It’s mentioned in photographic histories overseas because it’s so unusual.’
By the time Beaufoy Merlin met Holtermann in the NSW gold mining town of Hill End in late 1872, he’d been working as a photographer for about eight years. He and his young assistant Charles Bayliss had established the modestly named American & Australasian Photographic Company, the self-imposed remit of which was to create a photographic library of street views of towns all across the colonies of NSW and Victoria. It was, arguably, the world’s first image bank.
In an advertisement from 1870 (by which time they’d photographed Albury, Yass, Braidwood, Queanbeyan and Goulburn along with 800 houses in Parramatta), they wrote:
‘The A. and A. Photographic Company desire further to remind the public that these negatives are not taken for the mere immediate objective of sale, but that being registered, copies can at all times be had by or of those parties residing in any part of the colonies wherever the company’s operations have extended, thus forming a novel means of social and commercial intercourse.’
‘What an astonishing thing to say,’ Alan exclaimed. ‘We’re not here taking photographs for the cash, we’re here for people to learn about other parts of the colony. In fact, what they’d done is establish this photographic library, so if you were a businessman and you wanted to set up a new branch in Goulburn, say, you didn’t have to drive all the way there in a horse and buggy, you could go to their studio, pay a shilling and look at every building in Goulburn. You knew exactly where it was on the street, if it was well sited, or on some back street, tucked away.
‘If you had your business photographed, they’d publish it in 25 places around town – hotels and so on – so that it was advertising for you as well. I think, to be honest, they were a little bit ahead of their time.’
Unfortunately the public response appears not to have been quite proportional to the A. and A. Photographic Company’s ambitions. So, in early 1872 Merlin sold off his Sydney studio and moved to Hill End where, thanks to the discovery of substantial gold deposits in 1851, the economic prospects looked more attractive.
Merlin arrived at Hill End in March and by April had already captured nearly 100 photographs of the goldfields. These attracted some favourable publicity and with Bayliss’s help, Merlin expanded operations to the alluvial goldfields at places such as Canadian Lead and Home Rule.
On October 19, 1872 the 286 kg ‘Holtermann’s Nugget’ was unearthed and Merlin and Bayliss were on hand to record Bernhardt Holtermann striking a nonchalant pose next to the 1.5 metre tall chunk of reef gold. The photographers struck gold too.
Holtermann, said Alan Davies ‘was the benefactor everyone dreams of. The man with very deep pockets who goes along with your ideas and, actually comes up with his own ideas. He wants to show Australia off overseas…”look, I’ll give you a bigger camera so you can get bigger pictures.”‘
By December 1872, now underwritten by Holtermann, Merlin was engaged in an ambitious project to gather images as well as mineral samples, natural produce, zoological specimens and models of machinery for what they hoped would become a great International Travelling Exposition that would extol the Australian colonies to the world.
Sadly, Merlin would die from pneumonia in September of 1873 and whilst Bayliss continued producing photographs (including the massive plates taken from the tower of Holtermann’s St Leonard’s mansion), the Travelling Exhibition never eventuated.
Although their ambitions weren’t fully realised, thanks to Holtermann, Merlin and Bayliss, this great collection’s unparalleled window into 19th Century Australian colonial life is as enduring a monument as any they might have wished for.
In 2009 the State Library began a two-year project to scan every one of the 3500 images in the Holtermann Collection. The smaller plates were scanned at a resolution of 10,000 pixels on the longest side, whilst the larger plates were captured with a 50-megapixel medium format back. For the very largest plates, multiple 50-megapixel images were stitched together to create extremely high resolution digital copies.
Although the products of a laborious and inherently variable process, wet plate images are essentially grainless. When it comes to image resolution, the limiting factor is the quality of the lens. And thanks to Holtermann’s deep pockets, Merlin and Bayliss were equipped with the finest German optics of the day.
When the Library acquired the collection in 1952, they understandably used modern film and printing materials to create copies from the original negatives. Unfortunately wet plate negatives are extremely contrasty and the image density can be quite variable. Printing these negatives on a mid-20th Century paper results in images that are significantly compromised in terms of image quality and information.
High resolution scanning and modern digital printing technology allow us to see detail that has effectively been lost for 140 years. As part of the State Library’s The Greatest Wonder of the World exhibition of the Holtermann Collection earlier this year, a number of the images were projected on wall-sized surfaces. Even when inspected closely there was no trace of photographic grain.
An astonishing level of detail becomes apparent as you moved closer to the image. In a photograph of a shopfront taken from across a street, details as fine as the labels on bottles in the shop window can be made out. In a picture of a French man-o’-war in drydock, the amount of intricate detail would keep a marine historian entranced for hours.