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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
What: Chau Chak Wing Museum The Staged Photograph
Where: Level 1, Historic Photography Gallery, Chau Chak Wing Museum
When: 22 April 2023 through to April 2024
Opening hours: 10am-5pm Monday to Friday (until 9pm Thursday); 12-4pm Saturday and Sunday; closed public holidays
Contact: 02 9351 2812, firstname.lastname@example.org
From 29 April a second photographic exhibition, Photography and the Performative will be on display at the Chau Chak Wing Museum.