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
Hill End’s streets were said to be “kept with an indifference to utility.. that would drive Macadam out”. The road directly in front of William Meare’s Criterion Store [on the left] covered a test hole sunk by an early prospector and this hole subsided in the winter of 1872 to form a bog. The Sydney Morning Herald 12 September 1872 described the scene. “As regards the mud in Clark-street, I never have heard an exaggeration. No, to Clark-street I will give the palm for mud and the ill manner it is laid out. It possesses three remarkable features, being narrow, crooked, and filthy”¦”
Digital order no: a2822718


The A&A Photographic Company, 1872
The American and Australasian Photographic Company established a studio in Tambaroora Street, Hill End in 1872. Beaufoy Merlin’s assistant Charles Bayliss stands, hands in pockets, in the doorway, with studio operator James Clinton behind him. Beside the door is a frame containing large photographic views of Sydney, including the General Post Office and harbour. Among the group of curious miners who have chosen to be part of the tableau is the driver of Merlin’s outdoor photographic van, to Bayliss’s immediate right. The miners could also have their portrait made in the studio and a standard carte-de-visite is visible in the window, above the boy. For the sartorially challenged, the A&A studio supplied suitable clothing.
Digital order no: a2822709


Adelaide Montgomery, c1872
Adelaide Montgomery and her fluffy dog were photographed in the Hill End studio of the American and Australasian Photographic Company. Her father died when she was three and she and her brother were raised by their mother Grace, who was a dressmaker. Adelaide met an unfortunate end in 1892 from an untreated illness, as she belonged to a sect that forbad medical intervention. Her mother omitted to report her daughter’s death to the police, declaring that she was”only sleeping till the Lord should awaken her.”
Digital order no: a2823342


Hill End Dispensary, 1872
Landlord Bernhardt Holtermann and tenant William A Bray stand outside the new brick Hill End Dispensary. Holtermann had a particular fascination with patent medicines, and was proud that he had cured fellow passengers of life-threatening illnesses on his voyage to Australia in 1858, using medicine he had on board. When he retired, he promoted and sold “Holtermann’s Life Preserving Drops”, which cured everything from toothache to dysentery. His Life Preserving Drops may have been popular, but their efficacy was another matter entirely. In the end, Holtermann died on his 47th birthday in 1885, after 18 months’ illness. His doctor recorded the causes of death as ‘cancer of the stomach, cirrhosis of the liver and dropsy’.
Digital order no: a2822708


Zooming in
In this detail from the picture ‘Hill End Dispensary, 1872’, advertisements in the shop window behind Bernhardt Holtermann are clearly legible – as indeed are minutiae such as his watch fob.

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
This photograph of waterfront clutter at East Circular Quay in September 1873, is one of the last photographs taken by Beaufoy Merlin. In the foreground, delivery carts queue to board the Milsons Point paddle steamer. The two storey shed in the centre of the image is the Sydney Rowing Club, built in August 1870 and the tower to the right is Forth Macquarie, demolished in 1901 for the electric tram sheds, which were demolished for the Sydney Opera House in 1958. Barely visible in the right background is HMS Clio, which left Sydney in October 1873. Merlin died of pneumonia following influenza at his home in Leichardt, Sydney on 27 September 1873.
Digital order no: a2825071

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.

How sharp?

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.

Every one of the 3500 images in the Holtermann Collection may be viewed online by going to the State Library’s website at www.sl.nsw.gov.au and searching for American & Australasian Photographic Company. Images with sufficient resolution for school projects may be downloaded directly and a number of the more striking photographs are also available as prints from the Library’s shop.