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Presented by Martha Sear, Senior Curator, National Museum of Australia Recorded at the National Museum of Australia, 10 October 2007

CAROLYN FORSTER: Good afternoon everybody, and welcome once again to one of our curator’s talks. We’re delighted to run this series of curatorial talks. Today, we have Senior Curator Martha Sear with her talk on a very interesting subject about positive photographic plates. We’ve just had a talk with Martha and she said, ‘They’re not negative; they’re positive photographic plates.’

MARTHA SEAR: We’re very positive here at the Museum. We don’t have any negative plates in our collection.

CAROLYN FORSTER: These plates were taken in North Queensland by Richard Daintree. Daintree is acknowledged as one of the most significant photographers working in Australia in the 1850s and 1860s. He is also a pioneering geologist who is credited with attracting gold prospectors to North Queensland. A collection of Daintree’s photographs and geological specimens formed much of Queensland’s contribution to the 1871 Exhibition of Art and Industry in London. Unfortunately, much of this material was lost when the ship carrying Daintree and his family to England was wrecked.

The other thing that’s been wonderful about this series is that we have some artefacts for you to look at, which makes the talk much more exciting. I’m going to hand over to Martha Sear who will tell us the whole story. Thank you so much, Martha. I’m very much looking forward to the talk.

MARTHA SEAR: Thanks, Carolyn, and thank you, everyone. Could I just start by thanking everybody who’s contributed to today, particularly the registration and conservation staff who have brought the objects from Mitchell out to Acton, and to Lannon Harley, our photographer.

I’d like to tell you about this collection of glass plate positives by Richard Daintree. This is a collection that, for the National Museum, has been 25 years in the making. In 1992, a set of ten glass plate positives that bore images of North Queensland in the 1860s and 1870s, that were taken by Richard Daintree, came up for auction in London. There was considerable interest from all across Australia. The fledgling National Museum of Australia, then only two years old, decided that it would bid on the plates. There was some really vigorous bidding at the auction house in London, and in the end the Museum lost out. The plates were purchased by two Melbourne journalists who were planning to run a limited edition print set of the plates.

After the auction, the Museum contacted the journalists and explained that they’d been the under-bidder and demonstrated that they were interested in them. There was a bit of discussion that went backwards and forwards about the possibility of the material eventually coming to the Museum. But, in the end, the correspondence petered out, and the collection file that related to the Museum’s failed effort to try and grab the material went back on the shelf.

But then in October 2006 Rowan Henderson, who was the duty curator at the Museum at the time, received a call from one of those journalists asking whether we were still interested in the plates 25 years later. The answer, of course, was yes. So that collection file came back off the shelf and, 25 years after we were first interested in the collection, we were able to successfully negotiate for the plates to come into the Museum’s National Historical Collection.

What is this new collection that’s been added to the Museum’s National Historical Collection? The collection consists of 10 glass plate positives that are housed in a specially made wooden box. The images were taken by geologist, grazier and photographer Richard Daintree in Queensland between 1864 and 1870. They depict the miners and their families at the diggings, Aboriginal people and the labourers posing in locations such as creek beds, diggings, settlements and missions - and something that’s quite notable and worth looking out for in the plates is that there’s generally a dog in the pictures. I don’t know whether that was a deliberate thing or maybe there were just lots of dogs in Queensland at the end of the nineteenth century. Most of the dogs are little blurs - they don’t sit still as well as the people do.

We’re currently researching this collection. The plates are unusual in several ways, and we’re trying to work out what this means. I just want to let you know that the research you’re hearing about today is very much a work in progress. It’s going to be fantastic to perhaps get some of your thoughts and views today on some of the little things that are puzzling us about this collection.

I also want to acknowledge that much of what I’ll say today owes a considerable debt to the research of other people. Researchers like Geoffrey Bolton, Ian Sanker, Judith McKay, John Thompson, Helen Ennis, Ian Coates, Allan Davies, Peter Quartermaine, and some curators at Museum Victoria have all contributed in some way to the knowledge we have about Richard Daintree. I wanted to recognise their contributions before I launch into my talk.

The other thing to note is that many of the insights that we’ve gained around this collection have emerged through discussion, standing around the plates or standing in the office trying to talk things through with other people. I’d really like to thank David Parker, who’s the conservator who’s worked on the collection; Lannon Harley, who photographed the collection, and we had a great day working together on the material, together with George Serras; Laina Hall, who’s done a lot of work around nineteenth century photography; Rowan Henderson; Bronwyn Dowdall from the Circa team who did some research; my colleague Kirsten Wehner; and Christopher Pratt from the library. Much of what I’ll talk about today is, as you can understand, the sum total of a large number of people’s thinking, work and contributions. I wanted to acknowledge that before I start.

I also want to just let you know that my knowledge of Daintree comes because I’m an exhibition historian. I’m an historian of the world’s fairs that Daintree made such a significant contribution to towards the end of the nineteenth century. And I’m still learning. I’m a new chum when it comes to photographic technologies. Many of you may have knowledge that we can draw on to help understand the plates, and feel free to bring that knowledge to the fore.

Besides the beauty of the images on the plates, there are some things that make the plates even more interesting than your average, run-of-the-mill glass plate negative. The first thing is that, whilst they’re Queensland subjects, the plates were found in London. So there’s some thinking around, ‘How did these plates end up in London?’ and ‘What were they doing there?’

Secondly, the plates are positives, not negatives, and all of the other Daintree surviving glass plates are glass plate negatives. We’re just thinking through, ‘What does it mean for these to be positives?’ Secondly, in their physical appearance, they’re very different to the other glass plate negatives that Daintree took. They feature some warping in the collodion and other aspects of them that make them stand out from the remainder of his other works - so another little puzzle.

Then a small piece of the puzzle is that, on the whole, these ten plates feature human beings and animals, whereas overall Daintree was much more interested in landscaping and geology. For some reason, someone has gone to the effort of producing these positives particularly focusing on that subject matter of humans or animals. That’s quite intriguing.

What I’m going to do today is introduce you to Daintree himself, take you briefly through the wet collodion photographic process, explore some of the ways that Queensland endeavoured to use photographs to promote itself internationally in the 1870s, and then ultimately round back to some of the questions that we have about the plates themselves.

Who was Richard Daintree? To sum up Daintree’s life, he lived between 1832 and 1878. He was born in Huntingdonshire, England, the son of a farmer. He matriculated at Christ’s College, Cambridge in 1851, but because of ill health he left England in 1852 to join the gold rush to Victoria. Like many people, he was an unsuccessful prospector, but in 1854 he accepted a role, offered to him by his friend Alfred Selwyn, to join the Victorian Geological Survey, and he served with them over quite a long period of time.

In 1856 he decided to return to England and further some of his studies - he studied assaying - but, he also became interested in photography. In England in 1856-57 he learned how to make wet collodion photographs. He then returned to Australia filled with the excitement and the possibility of what could happen here. He worked with another significant early Australian photographer named Antoine Fauchery, and they developed a volume of photographic studies entitled Australia. Their book was then very popular and contained significant early images, particularly of Victoria.

Daintree returned to Victoria in the 1850s with his new wife, whose name was Lettice. She followed him around a lot on his work. He travelled all around Victoria as a field surveyor with the Geological Survey. The really striking thing about Daintree’s work is that he chose to use photography to further his geological activities. Where other geologists spent a lot of time painstakingly sketching geological formations, Daintree used photography to document them.

Daintree was extremely interested in the relationship between rocks of the coast and the ocean. He took sequences of photographs of different sedimentary layers and other formations in the rock, and also unusual things such as when a meteorite landed in Cranbourne in 1862. He also took photographs of fossils and other geological specimens. As Geoffrey Bolton argues, his work is one of the very first applications of the camera to scientific fieldwork anywhere in the world, which is quite an achievement, I think.

Whilst Daintree was regularly photographing geological formations with a view to their economic potential for Victoria, I think he was not blind to the impact that mining would have on the very landscape that he had photographed so majestically.

He also, interestingly, took a sequence of panoramic photographs using a specially designed, curved plate camera which had a water-based lens. If you’re interested, that item is in the collection of Museum Victoria. So if you ever get a chance to see it down there, grab it.

Daintree gained a reputation in his profession as being ‘amiable, warm-hearted, generous, quick in piercing geological problems, persevering, a hard worker, original in his views, and tolerant of views that did not accord with his own’. He became quite a popular person within the Victorian community. But he was getting really bored with his job. It paid a really handsome 500 pounds a year, but he was kind of hungry to do something more. He had gained such a degree of experience that he felt that he would like to start directing some of the geological work rather than simply being the field surveyor out in the wilds, taking these photographs and documenting different rock formations.

So in 1864 Daintree decided to leave the survey and become a resident partner with William Hann, who was a friend, in pastoral properties in the new Burdekin country of North Queensland. He spent some years in Queensland where he ran the pastoral properties and indulged his interest in photography, but also persisted in his exploration of Queensland from a geological point of view, particularly with a view to opening up goldfields. Following a pastoral boom in the mid-1860s, he was able to use his knowledge to open up goldfields at Cape River in 1867, at the Gilbert in 1869, and at Etheridge in 1869-70. Those goldfields helped save Queensland from the Depression, which was a quite significant contribution for him to have made.

It’s also worthwhile that he advocated a geological survey of Queensland in the style of the one in which he participated in Victoria, and in 1868 he was appointed the geologist in charge of that (Queensland) survey for the northern division in the 1870s. Almost all the images that are on the plates that we have date to that period around 1870 when he was pursuing the survey in North Queensland.

It’s worthwhile trying to think through what taking photographs in Far North Queensland in the late 1860s and 1870s was like and, to do that, we need to have a quick understanding of the photographic process and its development.

The wet collodion process was maybe the second major photographic innovation of the nineteenth century - the first being the daguerreotype, which was a silver-plated copper sheet that was then exposed to the light and a silvery image appeared on the surface. This was announced in 1839 and became the standard photographic process. But in 1851 Frederick Scott Archer announced a new process, the wet collodion process, which would have significant advantages over the daguerreotype.

What made a wet collodion photograph different from a silver daguerreotype? One of the main things that separated wet collodion photography was that it could produce a negative. The production of a negative allowed the possibility of making many copies of an image from a single plate, usually by direct contact between that plate and what they called albumin paper, which is a paper that’s been coated in egg white and silver nitrate. The exposure of all of those elements together would produce a photographic image. Wet collodion photography was 20 times faster than daguerreotype but much more difficult to manage. The reward for the difficult process was that it had an extremely high degree of sensitivity and produced very delicate detail.

How do you produce a wet collodion photographic negative? In essence, a photographic negative was developed using a glass plate where the glass plate has been coated in a substance called collodion. Collodion is a gummy, creamy emulsion that’s created by dissolving gun cotton in chemical ether, and chemical ether is both a solvent and an anaesthetic. Gun cotton is cotton wadding which is saturated with various nitrates. It is highly explosive. If you dissolve gun cotton in ether, it produces collodion.

From the 1840s collodion had been used as a wound dressing. You could paint it onto a wound and it would cover up like a plaster, but eventually people realised that it would be a useful material for photography as well.

Wet plate collodion photography is coming back in vogue. Photographers who are working in the world of the digital image, which is made up of binary code and doesn’t have a physical form, are finding themselves drawn back to the physical and mechanical qualities of working with light and plate photography. If you go online and search for ‘wet collodion’ in YouTube, you’ll get a sequence of films that are made by photographers today who are explaining the process.

I have one of those films on the wet plate collodion process to show you. Unfortunately it is going to be without sound, so I’m going to do the commentary. This is a really good video, and I can give you the link if you want to see it.

The photographer is a very well-known collodion photographer. He first describes how all the chemicals that are used to make collodion photographs are very volatile and dangerous, that they require quite gentle handling and a considerable degree of understanding in order to make the plates work.

The first stage of producing a wet plate photograph is to cut the glass. Plates and plate holders came in a variety of sizes, and they came in black glass and clear glass as well. You could then cut them to your own size.

You then need to take your plate and deburr it - that is, take the edge off so it doesn’t cut your hands, but also to create a ridge around the outside of the plate which allows you to flow the collodion and not have it drip off.

The most prosaic part of the process is cleaning the glass. But if you don’t clean the glass properly all of the imperfections, pieces of dust, dirt and everything else that’s accumulated on the front will destroy the image.

The crucial part of the wet collodion process is called flooding the plate. Collodion is spilled onto the surface of the plate, and then the photographer manipulates the collodion so that it never touches the same place twice, because if it does it will produce ridging and other imperfections in the image. The collodion is tipped in a very particular way, and then the residue is sent into the bottle again. That’s the tricky part that you have to learn if you’re going to do this.

Sensitising the plate involves exposing the plate to silver nitrate in a special box in the dark in your dark room so that you allow the nitrates to prime the plate. Then you fix the plate in the carrier in the back of the camera. You then expose the plate to the image. That requires taking the lens cap off the camera and then putting the lens cap back on. You then go through a sequence of chemical processes to develop the plate, which, as with standard developing today, allows the image to finally appear.

The plate then needs to be fixed in the second part of the process. This photographer loves to allow the sitter to see the image finally emerge from the plate. As with most of these processes, this is obviously quite a delicate moment, and then you end up with the resulting image.

I’ll just stop the video there and we’ll consider an image which shows how a contemporary photographer was able to carry his equipment from place to place. The wet collodion process required the plates to be used within two or three minutes of their preparation. So it was not possible to prime the plates and then go to where you wanted to and take the shot. You needed to do all of the steps of the process that we’ve just seen in sequence, in real time, in about five minutes. It’s worth thinking through what that might have meant for someone like Daintree, who needed to do this in the rather imperfect conditions of a bushland, gold-digging scene.

First of all, you had to carry all your gear with you. There is a list of gear carried by a Scottish photographer in the 1850s which basically adds up to about 55 kilograms of material, including all of the solutions, the camera and the tripod, and the tent that you had to carry to be a darkroom. We can understand why Daintree his material through the country on pack horses, on bullock drays, and in jinkers or sulkies.

There is some very intriguing evidence within the Centennial Exhibition catalogue of 1876 which refers to Daintree employing a dry process to produce some of his plates ‘in which the gum resin of one of the Australian eucalypts was used as a preservative mixture’. There’s a bit of work to be done on the materials analysis of his plates to find out whether he was employing Australian native materials in order to try to progress the photographic process. That’s a question still to be answered.

By comparing these images that we have in our collection with the glass plate negatives that we know about, we see a few things that make these images a little different from Daintree’s other work. Firstly, they’re positives. Second, most of the images show what appear to be white tab marks in the corner of the image. Third, the central image appears to have ballooned. On many of the plates the straight line at the bottom of the plate has bulged in this fashion. Overall, the production of these plates seems very rushed. The collodion has been applied unevenly, so not as beautifully as that man on the video did with his flowing. In some cases, it almost seems to have been brushed on. The imperfect flowing of the collodion is evidenced by the ridging or wood-grain kind of effect on the bottom of the plate.

Two of the images solarised when we photographed them, which could just tell us something about the amount of collodion that’s on the plate. And almost all the plates show a long, white mark down the side, which could be a white mark or which could be evidence of the plate being lifted in and out of the different solutions.

I recently went up to the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, which has 264 Richard Daintree glass plate negatives. I would show you an image. However, when I opened the box and saw the plates, I became afraid that I would break one taking it out. I had been left with the keys to the cupboard to play, but I became so frightened that I would destroy Richard Daintree’s photographic legacy that I only took one out. My hands were shaking so much when I took the photograph of the plate that the plate is fuzzy, so I can’t show you the image. I’m going to go back with conservators who have firm, steady grips and have a look at them more closely. Having said that, I went through all the boxes and looked closely at the surfaces of the plates as they were sitting in the boxes. None of them show any of the characteristics of the plates that we have. So, it’s a bit of a puzzle.

We know these plates came directly from Daintree’s family in England, so they represent the plates that he himself made and then used. We’re wondering whether the plates in our collection might have been copied from other plates or perhaps from prints. That could well explain the tab marks in the corner and some of the distortion in the image. There are certainly nineteenth century photographic manuals that I’ve consulted that talk about fixing prints for copying using tin strips in the corner.

It’s also possible that these images have been produced as part of a process of enlargement and reduction. When the wet plate process was first introduced, you couldn’t produce enlargements or reductions, you had to shoot at the size you wanted the image to be in the end. There were innovations in the 1850s and 1860s around the use of solar cameras to produce duplicates and also enlargements and reductions of images. In some of the material I have read about those, you read about them having spectral and chromatic aberrations. So it could be that we are looking at some kind of effort to copy material in imperfect conditions. It is a question that still remains to be answered. I have called several of my colleagues in various libraries as well as photographic curators, and we are all just thinking through how this works.

We are also keen to know why someone would make glass plate positives at this size. The main reason for producing a positive is that you could not only see the image better but also project through the image and have a nice slide presented on the wall. We are all familiar with lantern slides. Lantern slides enable you to use a smaller light source to project the image. But these are big; they are a standard glass plate size. So we have to think through how - and you guys might have some ideas - you might use these images for projection and how they might achieve that in the 1870s with the variability of light sources they would have been using.

They are the things that are puzzling us about this collection.

I will just take you through the images now so you can get a sense of the ten images that we are dealing with here.

The first image shows two gold miners outside a bark hut, which Daintree titled ‘Morning going to work’. We then have its companion image, ‘Evening slinging the billy’. This plate unfortunately was broken when it was copied in the 1980s. We have been able to make a copy photograph of it, but the plate itself is quite damaged - note the dog.

There are some images of miners working in a gully with some tents in the background.

Then there are two images which are the same image, but one is darker than the other, showing miners working at gold diggings, we think near Rockhampton. There is a second copy image, which again reinforces the idea of those plates being copied.

We have a group of miners outside a tent selling equipment. After scrunching it down into a small size, you can’t see it as well. There is a gold cradle being sold with its price written on the side, but for some reason the two men are handing each other a boot. I don’t know if anyone can answer that little puzzle - it is one of the smaller puzzles in the collection.

We have an image of a distant shot of a camp with miners, women and some workings in the foreground. It is thought that these images might be of New Zealand Gully, which was part of the Cape River diggings near Rockhampton that Daintree visited in the 1870s.

We have another beautiful image of settlers outside a bark hut, and the little gent on the left has a small white Jack Russell on his lap, but he has moved and smudged as well. We know this was taken at Gympie.

We have a photograph of what appeared to be islander workers on a plantation. Some people think it is an image of a mission; others think that it is an image of people working on a plantation.

And finally one of Daintree’s favourite images, a group of bullocks harnessed up for work with one bullock lying down. He used this image repeatedly. It was one of his favourites.

The key to understanding these objects or this collection is to grasp the flexibility offered by the wet plate process and its ancillary printing processes. By the 1870s from a single plate someone could produce multiple prints, enlarging or reducing the image they desired. They could incorporate images into publications like books and pamphlets. They could project the images in lantern slide presentations. The impact of this new technology was that the same image could appear in many different forms. What we consider normal today, which is that an image is infinitely reproducible, was revolutionary when Daintree was working with these photographs.

Daintree made good use of all of the possibilities that were made available to him by the wet plate process when he returned to England in 1871. Daintree was keen to promote the idea of a school of mines and a geological museum in Queensland. On the same journeys that he took these photographs, he also collected a wide range of mineral, fossil and geological specimens. Queensland was invited to participate in the London International Exhibition of 1871, and basically no one could think of what they should send. The English commissioners had said that no raw material should be sent, and people were just scratching their head and thinking what can they send. Eventually, they got permission to use raw materials, and Daintree came forward and proposed an exhibit that combined his geological specimens with his photographs - and the politicians of Queensland jumped at it.

William Henry Walsh, who was the member from Maryborough, spoke up in parliament and said, ‘Views of the goldfields were the right kind of information to practical diggers, to capitalists who would invest in mining undertakings. It would give them a proper idea of the nature of the goldfields to which it was sought to attract their attention.’ The goal of exhibition work for colonies like Queensland in the nineteenth century was to draw immigrants and to draw investment. Daintree provided Queensland with a unique opportunity to present itself. The government invited him to personally go to the exhibition and set it up and be present to answer people’s questions.

So Daintree hurriedly assembled his specimens and photographic plates, dissolved his business partnerships. With his five children and pregnant wife, as well as a sprained knee - we have a letter from him saying, ‘I finally got on the boat but I was too wrecked to write to anyone because I had a sprained knee’, as a little glimpse into just how he was feeling packing up and going back to England - sailed on the Queen of the Thames from Melbourne in February 1871.

Unfortunately, en route to England the Queen of the Thames was shipwrecked off South Africa. Daintree and his family survived but, as Daintree wrote to his friend Clark, ‘I lost all my collection of specimens in the wreck and have not a single fossil to put my hands on. However, such is life. One can’t have everything their own way in this world and I am resigned to my misfortune. It is lucky indeed that we escaped with our lives. I was fortunate in being able to save my negatives.’ So luckily Daintree was able to grab the negatives or salvage them from the ship. He was able to take them to England and put together his exhibits.

It is worth pausing here to set Daintree’s work at exhibitions in context. Beginning with the Great Exhibition, which was held in the Crystal Palace in 1851, which many of you may have heard of, international exhibitions were the kind of mammoth displays and events of the nineteenth century. Raw materials, manufactured goods, arts and technology all displayed in gigantic temporary cities. It is hard to underestimate the impact on global culture in the nineteenth century.

So if you can imagine an event that in 1851 draws six million people to London or another one that in 1867 drew nine million people to Paris to attend the Paris Exposition. They are kind of the equivalent of the Olympic Games, Expo and the football World Cup all pushed into one big extravaganza. As I said, international exhibitions were a crucial place where the young colonies of Australia could promote themselves to immigrants and visitors. The Australian colonies were very enthusiastic and displayed at almost every international exhibition from the very first.

Daintree was well aware of the merits of exhibitions. He was a particular exhibition enthusiast and he wrote, ‘My confirmed opinion is that the impress of the eye by means of systematised pictorial illustration and the material record of resources combined will do more to find us favour in the opinion of the immigrant and the capitalist than the writing of very many books, and even very many lectures.’ He’s after a curator’s heart, I think, saying that.

The Queensland exhibit in 1871 was a huge success, and later that year Daintree was appointed Agent-General for Queensland, which allowed him to enthusiastically pursue a systematic and innovative program of promotion through a wide variety of mediums. I think the success of Daintree’s promotional work in the 1870s stemmed from the very different display style that he brought to international exhibitions - one that made maximum use of the technology of photography.

He was a geologist, so he applied geological arrangement to his displays, which although he admitted lacked artistry were readily appreciated by visitors who are more accustomed to the picturesque confusion that was most common at international exhibitions, where you could see a stuffed wallaby, an embroidered tabletop cover, a wood specimen and a coal specimen in a photograph all displayed together without any apparent rhyme or reason. Daintree decided that he would bring a commonsense geologist’s approach to display. He received enormous praise for this approach, which basically involved the presentation of photographic images of a particular region in Queensland, and then displaying in showcases in front of those images the geological specimens and agricultural produce that were associated with that region. It was a very simple relationship between this is what the country looks like and this is what it produces.

This was a very welcome relief for many visitors. One Londoner commented that: ‘This was great relief from the collections of dingy and ill-arranged colonial produce so often seen at expositions, which usually featured odd lots of dirty cotton, bits of wool, ore and stones which one ought to appreciate but cannot.’

An image of Daintree’s organisation of exhibits at the 1872 London Exhibition shows very large life-size photographs of Indigenous people at the back, which he produced. They were photographs he had taken in Queensland.

This is the Queensland Annex in London in 1873. Again, even more obvious use of the photography and the showcases together. Queensland at the Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia featured a giant golden obelisk to symbolise Queensland’s riches in gold.

One of the features of Daintree’s exhibits was very large format photographs. He also chose to employ the new carbon printing process to produce them - the patent was owned by the Autotype Printing Company in London. Then he had them over-painted in oil to give them a more striking appearance. They were then mounted on cards or on canvas, stretched across a frame and then framed. Several of these have survived. These are some of the canvas-stretched photographs that I saw at the John Oxley Library in Queensland about a month ago. They come in ornate golden frames. You can see the over-painting, the slight difference in texture between the background photograph and the oil paint. If you look at the back of them, you can see they’ve been used many times. The label here shows the framer in London, but there are numerous points for hanging on the whole of the frame. I think they’ve been used many times, and certainly the written evidence suggests that Daintree reused them a lot.

The interesting thing that will strike you when you look at these images is that the colouring has been done by someone who has never been to Australia. The different sets that are available in the Queensland Museum are very extensive. There are 150 of the canvas-mounted ones, plus a further 100 or so card ones. They have the most muted colourings. Here we see a very familiar image from our own plates, over-painted. Again, the same image over-painted with the greenery looking oddly not very Australian. But these are the very subtle ones.

The images from the National Library include an oil on canvas and a photographic print with the colours becoming a bit more lurid. One is almost an oil painting. When you see it, it strikes you as being much more of the character of an oil painting than a photograph. There’s a photograph of three Indigenous men fighting, which again looks like an oil painting.

The photographic process offered enormous detail, but I think Daintree was quite keen to strike a balance between the oil paintings that visitors would have been familiar with to give a sense of the colour and the impressive quality of the new technology as well. You can see how Daintree used the same image and treated it in a slightly different way each time.

He also produced using the same autotype process very large albums of photographs, and these were available at exhibitions for people to flip through. This is the title page of one of them. If you went to the National Treasures from Australia’s Great Libraries exhibition you would have seen one of these. There are two of them in the John Oxley Library.

Daintree’s promotional scheme also included the integrated use of images in a variety of other forms such as publications and slideshows. In 1873 he produced a book called Queensland, Australia, which offered a detailed account of the colony’s geographical position, climate and resources intended as a handbook for prospective immigrants and investors. In the book Daintree used his photographs to detail the exact nature of the country, its productive capacities and its cost of purchases. Underneath an image you would see the caption ‘First class pastoral land - ten shillings an acre’. He also uses several of the images that appear on the plates in our collection to illustrate what life might be like for prospective immigrants.

To the farmer he wrote: ‘The future agriculturalist would take care to select a small patch of the richest agricultural land, either alluvial scrub or volcanic. See photographs number ten, three, four and six. He will put up a slab hut, such as depicted here, from timber off his own land, fence in his selection. And then it will be his own fault if he has not plenty to eat and drink.’ He then wrote to the miner: ‘The immigrant who intends to take his chance at the goldfields must not run away with the idea that fortune awaits him. He will probably be no better housed than the miners seen in this illustration. However, it will be admitted, they do not look as if their rough habitation or mode of life disagrees with them.’ Daintree also made copies of these photographs with information printed on the back that he could hand out to prospective immigrants who visited him or attended exhibitions.

The final use that Daintree could make of these images was to use them in slideshows. In 1871 he wrote back to the Queensland government suggesting that, if his services could be retained when the exhibition building was closed, ‘I could undertake to lecture in the agricultural and mining districts here, and would provide myself with the apparatus for dissolving views, requiring only a few transparent slides of an agricultural and pastoral series to complete an exhaustive pictorial representation of the colony.’

This may be one of the most promising lines of inquiry in relation to the glass plates that we have in the National Historical Collection, which could have been used for projection. So the idea of a positive plate which could have been projected does start to accord with the idea of Daintree’s dissolving views, but that’s further work that we’re going to have to do.

Daintree spent his life in the 1870s promoting Queensland at exhibitions and through the publications I’ve just told you about. But his role as Agent-General included many more responsibilities. It included: the supervision of immigration, the inspection of materials ordered for railways and other public works, the floating of government loans on what was a shark-infested London capital market, discussing mail and cable routes, entertaining visiting Queenslanders, and a whole range of other small, minor duties.

Daintree was a very busy man, and he entrusted much of this work to his staff, particularly his clerk whose name was James Wheeler. Unfortunately, Wheeler repaid Daintree’s confidence by making clandestine profits by sending contracts by way of certain businessmen. In one case he earned a shilling a head for each migrant that Taylor and Company, the company he paid to transport people to Queensland, could put in their ship. The value of the deal to him was 320 pounds, the equivalent of a year’s salary.

In another incident, the company Percival, who were a Liverpool outfitter who provided the immigrants with ship’s kits, paid Wheeler five per cent of the amount they received from the Queensland government to supply the kits, which they supplied for a pound, even though everyone knew that everywhere else they were available for 12 shillings. So Wheeler systematically rorted the system. The other staff under Daintree’s management were not much better. They took up second jobs as passenger brokers and made money by taking fees from passengers who they were meant to be assisting. Daintree’s job was difficult enough without all these scandals, and he struggled to get a large number of suitable migrants onto the ships that his political masters demanded of him.

Daintree had left England as a young man with weakened lungs, under doctor’s orders to seek a warmer climate, and under the tremendous strain of his job his poor health began to fail. In 1876 he resigned from the position of Agent-General. He planned to devote the next 12 months of his life to his health and then to make science his recreation. However, although he went to France to try and soak up the sun, his health deteriorated and he died on 20 June 1878, aged 46.

His family maintained strong connections with Australia. He’d maintained strong connections with Australia, and certainly one of his sons came back to Queensland and worked on a pastoral property. Over time Daintree’s images also returned to Australia. All of the images I’ve shown today are in collections within Australia, and they’ve been coming back to Australia since the 1940s. The final group to make it back to Australia that we know of were the glass plate negatives that we now have in the National Historical Collection.

To conclude, I wanted to today draw out the way in which the glass plate process and the way that it could be used to reproduce multiple images in multiple forms opened an incredibly large range of possibilities to Daintree as someone endeavouring to promote Queensland in the rest of the world in the 1870s.

From here on in, we have some more research to do. We’d like to do a detailed reading of Daintree’s correspondence and to track all of the movements of his plates and his references to photographic work. We’d like to do a materials analysis on the plates, not just to find out whether they use eucalyptus gum in some way but also to get more information on how they were made and used. Our conservation team will undertake that work.

We’d also like to compare our plates with all the plates and images that are available throughout Australia to understand how the images were made, when, where, and for what purposes. We have been discussing a collaborative research project with our colleagues in Queensland and Victoria to pursue that.

This really reinforces the point that the lines of inquiry that we’d like to pursue around the plates can really only be fully undertaken by moving beyond looking at Daintree’s photographs simply as images and engaging with them, as many historians of photography have expressed this idea, as objects. The form, the materials, the wear patterns, and the marks on those plates and on the other surviving examples of Daintree’s work tell us an enormous amount about how his photographic practice shaped not only his life and his experiences and his journeys through Queensland and Victoria but also the ways in which he could feature Queensland and create an image of Queensland in the imagination of people in Britain, Europe and America in the late nineteenth century. I think without the particular form of the wet plate process none of that would have been available to him.

If you look really closely at some of the plates in our collection you can see the fingerprints of the plate-maker. I think it’s amazing to think that these might be Daintree’s fingerprints, a ghostly reminder of the person who made and used these beautiful photographic plates more than 135 years ago. Thanks, everyone.

CAROLYN FORSTER: Martha Sear, thank you very much. For me, it really put a face to a name that we’re all extremely familiar with. But also there’s this nice little mystery left to be discovered. I’m not a photographer of that sort of calibre, but there’s certainly a huge interest ahead of us. We’ll now ask for some questions.

QUESTION: I would like to suggest that those slides were used in an epidiascope.

MARTHA SEAR: Can you tell me more about that?

QUESTION: Epidiascopes were in use before Powerpoint presentations. I have used an epidiascope to do a scientific lecture about 40 years ago. I suspect that those might be the right size to fit on the plate of an epidiascope, which is a reflective process, not a projecting through process.

MARTHA SEAR: That’s wonderful. I’ll follow up on that. I’ll also get you to write it down so that I spell it properly. It’s certainly been puzzling. I’ve called several other photographic folk, and they’re puzzling over these plates, but that could be the answer. If you can also give us your name so that I can let you know that you’re right, hopefully.

CAROLYN FORSTER: Any other questions? They don’t have to be technical. Maybe you’ve got a question about the man himself, his work or something like that.

QUESTION: I was just going to say that with the corner bits it strikes me as something that he had in a book or on split pages. He’d have a print and then he would continuously use it. He wouldn’t take it off the background.

MARTHA SEAR: Yes, that’s a good suggestion. Thank you everyone for coming and for your interest. It’s been fun.

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Date published: 01 January 2018

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