Images of Australia: early 1900s

By Joanna Egan and Chrissie Goldrick 28 May 2010
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The strength and spirit of NSW country life at the turn of the 20th century come into focus in a new exhibition.

EVERY IMAGE TELLS A story and the narratives that resound in Charles Kerry’s photographs of the late 1800s and early 1900s are filled with hope, promise and optimism. His photographic company, Kerry & Co, captured scenes from NSW’s rural settlements at a time when life in regional Australia was burgeoning.

The images will be brought to life in ‘Picturing New South Wales: Photography by Kerry & Co‘, an exhibition at the University of Sydney’s Macleay Museum, which opens on Sunday 30 May.

Nameless faces are the history of Australia

“These photographs create a view of place, which met with the perception of how people wanted their part of the world to be seen,” says the exhibition’s curator, Jan Brazier. The exhibition features more than 100 black and white photographic prints that have been reproduced from Kerry & Co’s original glass negatives.

“This collection gives a wonderful snapshot of regional NSW as a whole,” says Jan. “The images reveal a vision of progress at a time of change moving into the new century.” She recognises that the exhibition will present a unique portrait of life in NSW at the turn of the 20th century and hopes that visitors to the exhibition will help shed light on the exact locations in which the images were taken and on the identities of the nameless subjects of Kerry & Co’s photographs.

The “views” trade was booming as Australia prepared for nationhood in the late 19th century. During the previous 20 years, Charles Kerry had transformed photography from a curiosity into an accepted form of creative expression and a highly lucrative business. The Kerry and Co. team of roving photographers, equipped with the latest dry-plate technology – lighter and more portable than the earlier wet-plate system – took advantage of an expanding rail network to photograph far-flung rural communities as well as bustling Sydney, at their doorstep. >

Postcards from the past

In 1895, Kerry established his “Squatter’s service”. He personally photographed hundreds of rural properties, his sheep-station childhood giving him a true affection and admiration for the farmers he met on his travels. He tapped into popular notions of frontier farmers as heroic figures, eloquently expressed by contemporaries such as painter Frederick McCubbin and writer Henry Lawson, and produced best-selling postcard sets featuring idealised scenes.

One such postcards was “Storing the Harvester” (pictured, above). The image celebrates rural life and hard work, as well as showcasing the Sunshine stripper harvester, an Australian invention that revolutionised the wheat industry and made it one of the pillars of Australia’s wealth, alongside gold and wool. Iconic scenes such as this were left deliberately non-specific in location, giving them universality and the broadest possible appeal. By the early 1900s, Kerry and Co. dominated the picture-postcard market and was the largest photographic enterprise in Australia.

Although he became a notable member of the Sydney establishment, Kerry was always keen to return to the bush, especially the alpine region of his youth. In August 1897, he led a party to the 2228m summit of Mt Kosciuszko over five days, achieving the first-known winter ascent. His subsequent lobbying for the construction of road and hotel facilities in the region and his pioneering of snow sports at nearby Kiandra opened the area to winter tourism and popularised recreational skiing. Always the innovator, Kerry anticipated changing times and tastes and relinquished his photographic business for mining in 1913.

See the gallery here