How would you know if some of those old photos from your great-grandparents and grandparents time were valuable or not? Would State Libraries be interested in them?

One of the problems facing anyone trying to get data on a photograph is to identify people in a photograph, or the location and date it was taken.

If you’re lucky the photographer or someone who was given the photograph would have written on the back the details of who is in the image and when or where it was taken.

Many photographs from the early era of photography were studio portraits. Photographs were reasonably expensive in those early years, so it was usually the well-to-do who could afford to have professional studio portraits taken.

Below is an example of an early studio photograph; my guess is from about World War 1 era. No information has been written on the back, so we don’t know who he was, where he lived, or any other details. A military historian could possibly supply details of the regiment he belonged to. The photo is one in an early photo album – see second image. These albums were well illustrated with thick gold-leaf chamfered-edge pages where the photographs were inserted into cut-away sections.

It wasn’t until Mr Eastman released the “Brownie” box cameras that photography became more affordable and the ordinary person could have their portraits taken by other family members or for images of everyday life to be recorded. Studio portraits, whilst being nice, were often sterile using standard painted backgrounds and props, whereas those taken by the increasingly ubiquitous “amateur” photographers showed people in more natural settings. I have a photo taken about 1930 of my mother and siblings sitting on a horse ready to ride to school from their parents farm at Myrtle Creek, not far from Casino in northern NSW. This image carries a better and far more interesting “story” than that exhibited in professional studio portrait images. It is still important for the details to be recorded on the back or it simply becomes just another image where details become forgotten with the passage of time.

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If you have a photograph with details written on the back where a nibbed ink pen has been used, then the data can be accepted as being correct. Pencil was often used but this wasn’t as durable as ink. If the details are written using a ballpoint pen on the back of late 19th century and early 20th century photos, then this detail would have been written many years after the photo was taken. This doesn’t mean the data should be ignored or isn’t correct, rather it indicates that someone at a later date has been able to provide the details of the image. Unfortunately the data isn’t always correct.

Note: “Biro” ballpoint pens were commercially introduced in the early 1940s. One of the earliest uses was by RAF servicemen in WWII due to fountain pens leaking at high altitudes because the pressure in the ink reservoir at ground level increased relative to that at high altitudes – thus causing the ink to seep out. The inventor of the ballpoint was a Hungarian newspaper editor whose name was Laszlo Biro – hence the generic name of the pen even to this day. What a wonderful legacy! Laszlo fled to Argentina before the outbreak of WWII. He obviously wasn’t a fan of Adolf Hitler and got out of Europe whilst the going was good!

An interesting story appeared in an Artnet site I located through a link in the Large Format group I subscribe to. I found it interesting because it covers the story of a collection of 3,500 photographs taken in the Caribbean Islands from the 1840s to the 1940s, a 100-year span. Most, if not all, of the earliest images would have been taken by professional photographers. As the story states, the photos “come in just about every photographic format produced during the era”.  A short list of various formats up to 4”x5” is indicated in my article about the Johnson Cutplate Adjustable Developing Tank (Camera Clips June 2018). The photographs being the subject of the Artnet story were recently purchased by the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto for Can$300,000 (AUD$324,000). That’s nearly CAN$90 each! It started me thinking about how many photographs over the years have ended up at the rubbish dump, or maybe still languish in cupboard drawers or sheds, eventually to be sold at auction as part of a deceased estate or more likely committed to the dump. I regularly see collections of photographs being sold at Scammells Auctions but rarely negatives. Glass-plate negatives are occasionally auctioned.

Here is one of the photographs from the Art Gallery of Ontario Caribbean collection:

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Credit: J.W. Cleary, Coconut Palms, Kingston Harbour (ca. 1895). Courtesy of the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Now, isn’t this a far more interesting image than the stereotyped, sterile studio portrait? It’s even more interesting because details of the image were recorded.

The story of the Caribbean photos reminded me of our own Australian photographic treasure – the Holtermann Collection. Coincidentally this was also a collection of about 3,500 photographs, all glass plate negatives, that were uncovered in a garden shed in suburban Chatswood (Sydney) in 1951. Can you imagine the loss if these had ended up at the dump? The State Library of NSW (Mitchell Library) now owns them. They could very well have ended up being lost if not for an enquiry by Eric Keast Burke, the editor of Australasian Photo-Review, asking the Mitchell Librarian Phyllis Mander Jones, about Bernhardt Otto Holtermann, a name associated with some panoramic photos he’d seen in the Library. Phyllis responded to Keast Burke, advising he could seek out Bernhardt’s daughter-in-law Mary Holtermann, who lived in Chatswood. The result of this fortunate and timely enquiry was the discovery of a cache of about 3,500 glass-plate negatives stored in cedar boxes and smaller lacquered tins, undisturbed for about 80 years, in the garden shed! Bernhardt Holtermann’s grandson, also Bernhard Holtermann, donated the entire glass plate negative collection to the Mitchell Library in 1952, to become known as the Holtermann Collection. The Australasian Photographic Review shortened its name in 1903 to the Australasian Photo-Review and is notable for promoting the works of Australian photographers or “camerists” as they were then known and for including high-grade photographic prints. It ceased publication in 1956.

Most of the Holtermann Collection is described as “small format wet plate negatives” however some glass wet-plate negatives are the largest in the World, 2 measuring a massive 1. 5 metres x 1 metre (roughly 5 feet by 3.25 feet!). These 2 glass-plate negatives make up a huge panoramic view of Sydney Harbour taken in 1875. It is probably these that caused Eric Keast Burke to make enquiries to the Mitchell Librarian that then led to the uncovering of the vast 3,500 glass-plate negatives.

There’s even an interesting story behind the photographs comprising the Holtermann Collection. Bernhardt Otto Holtermann was the same person who discovered the Holtermann Gold Nugget that made him enormously rich. He wanted a photograph taken of the nugget before it was crushed. He commissioned an itinerant photographer, Beaufoy Merlin, to take the photograph. Merlin was in partnership with another photographer, Charles Bayliss, and they established the American and Australasian Photographic Company (A&A Photographic Co.). Their particular style of photography incorporated shop owners and even passers-by posing in front of the shops and buildings being photographed, which is why there are so many people included in their photographs, depicting both casual and formal clothing styles of the time. Holtermann, now being very wealthy and appreciating his new homeland of Australia, wanted to produce a photographic record of the gold mining areas of NSW and Victoria, so he then commissioned Merlin and Bayliss for the task and built for them a studio at Hill End to ease the burdensome task of producing and developing wet-plate glass negatives in a portable darkroom. Beaufoy Merlin died in September 1873. Charles Bayliss returned to Sydney in 1875 and it is his two huge wet-plate glass negatives that portray Sydney Harbour in 1875.

The Holtermann Collection mainly portrays the harsh life of the gold rush era in the late 1800s and, assuming there were many other photographs taken at the time by other travelling photographers throughout Australia, the question has to be asked: “What happened to their negatives?” The answer probably is: “They got dumped”. This takes me back to Merlin and Bayliss. Before they arrived in Sydney in September 1870 they had taken photographs “of almost every house in Melbourne, and other towns in Victoria”. Unfortunately, and apart from the approximately 3,500 glass-plate negatives of the Holtermann Collection including the 2 World’s largest, hardly any of the vast output of photographs by Merlin and Bayliss have survived. As I already indicated, they probably ended up in a rubbish dump somewhere, not being recognised for being such an historic treasure of life in Australia at the time. What is historically important is that Merlin and Bayliss included shop-keepers, customers and passers-by in their images. These are so important historically as they show the dress of the times and the circumstances of ordinary day-to-day life. So, too, does the image of Kingston Harbour about 1895.

I do find it sad that the photographers Merlin and Bayliss are not recognised in the name of the collection. It would be nice for it to be re-named the “Holtermann-Merlin-Bayliss Collection” because it really was a collaboration of all three.

The State Library of NSW, in 2011-12, cleaned all the Holtermann Collection negatives, re-housed them, and rescanned them in a digitisation project that now makes them available online.

I acknowledge, recognise and appreciate the State Library of NSW website for much of the information I have provided regarding the Holtermann Collection and the photographers Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss.

Any member of the Club should include the State Library of NSW on their itinerary of places to visit in Sydney. You will not be disappointed! I spent many hours there when I lived in Sydney.