Photography


One of Tasmania's earliest photographs: Frederick Frith's 'Byron Street & St.George's Cemetery', 1857 (ALMFA, SLT)

Photography was popular early in Tasmania, with its attractive landscape, pleasant climate and an affluent and well-established element in the population. In 1843 GB Goodman, Australia's first professional photographer, opened a studio in Hobart. He produced tiny daguerreotypes, and in 1844 his first Australian view daguerreotpyes. After briefly moving to Launceston, Goodman left the state, but local men such as Thomas Bock set up studios.

Daguerreotypes were small, expensive and unreproducible, so only portraiture was practised to any degree. Hundreds of portraits survive, but only one landscape. In 1855 the wet plate negative process became available, and though it was cumbersome and expensive and required complex technical knowledge, landscapes could be taken, and multiple paper prints made from a single exposure. By 1857 artist Frederick Frith was publishing sets of prints of Hobart, and he and his partner John Sharp, a dentist, pioneered Tasmanian landscape photography, selling portraits and panoramas from their Hobart studio. They were succeeded by Samuel Clifford, an extremely prolific photographer who had over a thousand views in stock, and was particularly keen on stereoscopic card views. Photography was popular with customers, who patronised studios for portraits, and despite the expense of the process, there were some keen amateur photographers, such as Morton Allport, who travelled as far as Lake St Clair to practise photography.

In 1879 the new gelatine dry plates revolutionised photography, which became much easier and cheaper. Well-known professionals who ran studios included the Spurling family and JW Beattie, selling portraits and landscapes. Amateur photography blossomed: in the late 1880s two photographic societies were formed, in Hobart and Launceston, with pharmacist Frank Styant Browne a leader in Launceston. He sold cameras and photographic supplies in his pharmacy, won many photographic awards, and gained many 'firsts': he took Tasmania's first X-ray photographs in 1896 and probably the first colour photograph in Australia in 1897, and in 1901 gave the first known Australian demonstration of a home movie projector.

Tasmanian portraits and townscapes were similar to photography everywhere, while 'art' photography was limited; the island's distinctive work lay in landscape photography. The walking clubs of the 1920s, and improved transport, meant interest grew rapidly, with amateurs such as Fred Smithies and HJ King combining the pleasures of walking and photography. From the 1950s shots aimed at recording landscape gave way to the lyrical seriousness of Olegas Truchanas, Peter Dombrovskis and others, and their record, widely disseminated for both artistic and political reasons, is probably better known that any other Tasmanian imagery. Meanwhile, from the 1950s, much cheaper cameras and film processing meant that photography was available to the population generally, who have keenly taken up each new process, from widely available colour film in the 1960s to the digital cameras of the 1990s.

Further reading: C Long, Tasmanian photographers 18401940, Hobart, 1995.

Alison Alexander