staged photo from the chau chak wing museum with children in Halloween costumes

Discover staged photos before the smartphone 

24 April 2023
These unique photos offer an intriguing insight into pop culture history
The Chau Chak Wing Museum presents The Staged Photograph, an exhibition exploring images from the mid-19th and early 20th centuries from Australia, Britain and the United States.

Australians embraced photography long before smartphone cameras enabled us to capture and curate every moment of our lives. 

A new exhibition of rarely seen images at the Chau Chak Wing Museum transports us to a time when costumes had to be captured in a studio, and when fictional photographs, posing models in a story or comic scene, were sold and bought for home entertainment. 

The Staged Photograph presents images taken between the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, by professional and amateur photographers, from Australia, Britain and the United States.

A Week after the Derby, photographed by James Elliott. 

Exhibition curator Jan Brazier said: “The Staged Photograph is a fascinating dive into an unfamiliar photographic history. Its images are a diverse and intriguing insight into the role staged photographs played in our lives and the popular culture of the time."

Studio: from the ballroom to bath soap

Costume balls were immensely 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. 

“These photos were private memories kept in frames or the family album, where undoubtedly many are still to be found,” said Jan Brazier. 

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.   

Stereograph, mass home entertainment

The ‘online’ experience of the 19th century, the stereograph used two nearly identical photographs to create a 3D image when seen through a viewer called a stereoscope. Originally a middle-class activity, with the family gathering in the parlour to enjoy the images, it became more affordable by the 1890s and the mass home entertainment of its time. Its transformation saw millions of stereographs in use worldwide. 

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.  

photograph from the Chau Chak Wing's Staged Photograph exhibition

Portrait of a girl in uniform holding a rifle, posed against the Australian flag, photographed by JG Park. 

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. 

“The visual humour revealed in these stereographs provides a way for us to understand and interrogate a previous era’s cultural and social values”, said Jan Brazier. 

The Home Studio

Home photography took off when smaller, more portable cameras became available, and the Kodak revolution arrived in the early 20th century. Amateur photographers captured special family moments using the backyard as a set. Family members posed as if in a studio, with a suspended curtain on the washing line or a pot plant on a stand, often still capturing a special costume. There was also a practical reason to work outdoors:better light. 

Our photographic collection

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. The majority were donated and cover the mid-19th to 20th century. 

“It doesn’t surprise me the Museum’s historical photographic exhibitions are so popular as people make a direct connection with our past ways of seeing ourselves. Anyone interested in Australia’s photography, history and early pop culture will enjoy this current exhibition,” Jan Brazier said. 

Exhibition details 

What: Chau Chak Wing Museum The Staged Photograph 

Where: Level 1, Historic Photography Gallery, Chau Chak Wing Museum 

When: from 22 April 2023 through to December 2024 

Opening hours: 10am-5pm Monday to Friday (until 9pm Thursday); 12-4pm Saturday and Sunday; closed public holidays  

Cost: Free 

Contact: 02 9351 2812,

From 29 April a second photographic exhibition, Photography and the Performative will be on display at the Chau Chak Wing Museum. 

Verity Leatherdale

Manager, Faculty Media and PR