Old photos can unlock past mysteries

CAPTURED: Steam tram in George St, Sydney, c.1890
CAPTURED: Steam tram in George St, Sydney, c.1890

WHEN undertaking family history there are often a few old photographs, perhaps kept by a long-forgotten relative.

These may give an insight even if the people or places cannot be identified. Looking closely at these one can sometimes see the eyes of a current member of the family, or the teeth of another.

Other facial features, especially ears, are often handed down from one generation to the next!

Then there are the thousands of photographs of young men who went to war - some of these have not been identified, but many are on the internet. They are all worth a look.

Who took these photographs? When did photography begin? There is a fine book "The Mechanical Eye in Australia, photography 1841-1900", by Alan Davies and Peter Stanbury, which is well worth reading. It lists most of the people and firms who took and processed these early photographs. It also gives a fine history of the photographic process itself. In Australia this process apparently started in 1841 with a street scene in Sydney. However, no known copy has survived.

Prior to the photographic process being invented we were dependent on artists for images and maps. Like these days with digital data, sometimes the artist "improved" the image. The old photograph did not lie! However, these early shots took several minutes to take. This did not matter so much with landscapes and street scenes, although sometimes it gave a blurred effect to moving objects. Most of the early studio portraits, however, seem very stiff and serious. This was because the people had to remain perfectly still and could not change their expression while the process was under way. No doubt a serious face was easier to hold than a smile!

Companies like Kodak developed different ways of producing negatives which could then be made into a positive print. Metal and glass were both used and some of the old glass negatives can still produce excellent prints. The people who made the original negatives were artists in their own right and their work was excellent. In Australia people who had come as emigrants saw a photograph as a wonderful way of updating their family "back home", especially with images of new sons and daughters born in Australia.

The early studio cameras were large and cumbersome, however. They were on stands and had to be set up prior to the photograph being taken. All this took time. But these old cameras produced a magnificent image and many studio photographers preferred to use them even when smaller, lighter cameras were available. Claude Riley in Lismore was still taking photographs with one of the old cameras in the 1950s. He was Lismore's leading photographer at that time.

Possibly the peak of studio portraiture was in the 1890s.

To give some idea of just how popular it was one should look at The Crown Studios on the corner of Market and George Sts, Sydney. The studio, owned by Mark Blow, remained in business even during the Depression of the late 1890s.

It employed more than 80 people and specialised in producing framed enlargements ideal for hanging in the family home. Fine gelatine bromide paper was used to print the images and artists were employed to "touch up" the main features. These fine photographs give the impression that they were taken with a colour film! But remember, always look at the back of a photograph. It should give the photographer's name, and that in itself may solve a few questions as to where your ancestor lived!

Topics:  history

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