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19th century studio work goes on show

The University of Sydney is displaying an exhibition of historical 19th century photos from its collection that show how some of the first commercial photo studios operated. The Business of Photography: the 19th century studio is showing at the new Chau Chak Wing Museum in Camperdown until August 22, 2021. Given the university has done such a fantastic job at writing the exhibition up, Inside Imaging will simply re-publish the press release!

‘Circular Quay’, 1880-1900. John Paine, Sydney.

In the age of the selfie, The Business of Photography: the 19th century studio takes us back to a period when portraiture first became accessible to the general public.

The debut exhibition at the museum’s dedicated historic photography gallery goes back to 1842, when the first photographic studio opened in Sydney.  Its earliest image, of publican Edward McDonald, was taken in 1848 and is one of Australia’s oldest surviving photographic portraits.

‘The commercial possibilities of photography became apparent soon after the new technology was announced in Paris in 1839,’ said curator Jan Brazier. ‘Anyone who could grapple with the chemical processes could be a photographer.’

The exhibition looks at how the industry took off in NSW, which began with a few travelling photographers. ‘There wasn’t the population to sustain an ongoing shop presence,’ said Brazier. The market grew with the influx of people and prosperity in the decades following the 1851 gold rush.

From the small-scale travelling photographer to the grand city enterprise, the lens is turned to the people behind the camera, exploring rarely told stories of particular NSW photographers.

The new visiting-card-sized carte de visite and the slightly bigger cabinet card become big studio sellers from 1860.

‘A daguerreotype cost a week’s wages for a labourer, a lot less than the cost of having your portrait painted,’ said Brazier. ‘But it was really with the carte de visite that we saw the democratisation of portraiture.’ The number of studios grew to meet growing demand.

A range of formats are displayed in The Business of Photography, reflecting how the photographic product changed from early daguerreotypes, made on silvered copper plates, to photographic prints made from glass negatives. ‘The majority of images are small originals, which invite a closer look,’ said Brazier.

While the photographic portrait was the bread and butter business for the commercial photographer, landscape views were also sold, assembled into albums, framed or posted ‘home’.

An image of Queen’s Victoria’s grandsons Prince George and Prince Albert Victor, taken by JH Newman in 1881, shows the enduring PR power of celebrity. ‘If you were appointed to photograph royalty or the governor you got sales,’ she said.

Portrait of the two royal princes, 1881, Boyd’s San Francisco Palace of Art, Sydney.

The advent of roll film and the Kodak Brownie camera at the turn of the 20th century democratised photography even further. People no longer needed to rely on a professional photographer to create likenesses of themselves, or their favourite landscapes. With the growth in the amateur and home photographer, vernacular photography grew.  A new generation of commercial photographers working more in a pictorialist style saw the older studios as old hat.

Brazier says this opening exhibition will give visitors the opportunity to view and look anew at 19th century photographs.  ‘We live in the world of the digital image,’ she said, ‘when analog photography is becoming unknown’.

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