The photography collection was recently enriched by the gift from Mrs Beryl M. Curl of her grandfather’s album containing 129 photographs by Fred Kruger of Victoria, 13 by Burton Bros, New Zealand, and 7 by Captain Sweet of South Australia. All probably date around the 1880s and are lightweight albumen silver prints toned with gold chloride. The extensive body of work by Kruger is of particular interest and will offer a fertile area for further research, since little is known of this fine photographer. I am indebted to his great-great-grandson, Mr David Kruger, for the biographical information so far received, but as yet we can only make conjectural deductions about his professional life by studying the photographs. Kruger does not rate a mention in Jack Cato’s Story of the Camera in Australia, published in 1955. Similar material has come to light over recent decades: two albums are in the La Trobe Library collection, while another is held by Mr Kruger’s father; the Anthropological Section of the Science Museum of Victoria holds a number of his aboriginal studies. Undoubtedly more prints will come to light in view of the growing interest in documents of the past, but at present his work is comparatively rare.
Fred Kruger was born at 5.30 a.m. on 18 April 1831, at 16 Steingassestrasse, Berlin, and was baptised Johān Friedrich Carl Krüger. In 1858 he married Auguste Wilhelmine Elisabeth Bauman at Friedrichwerder Church in Berlin. His wife and eldest son are listed as passengers to Melbourne on the barque Macassar, which sailed from Hamburg on 14 December 1862 and arrived on 23 April 1863, but his own name does not appear in the passenger lists. His brother Bernhard was already living at Rutherglen, Victoria, having been in the colony since 1854, so we must assume that Johān Friedrich (‘Fritz’ as he signed himself before anglicising his name to Fred) came ahead of his wife and son to join Bernhard in the furniture business and to prepare a home to receive them.
Advertisements in the Murray Gazette and Wahgunyah and Corowa Herald chart his life at the time, from March to June 1863 carrying the business name of Kruger Bros, and, from June to December, F. Kruger, Upholsterer, Paperhanger and Manufactor of Mattrasses. From 31 December through to 23 February the announcement reads:
SELLING OFF! SELLING OFF!!
F. KRUGER’S FURNITURE WAREHOUSE
(next to the Oriental Bank)
Argyle Street, Rutherglen.
F.K. having determined to leave the district
is offering the whole of his well assorted stock of
FURNITURE, IRON BEDSTEADS, and MATTRASSES
at a great reduction.
In any event we have no knowledge of when Kruger became interested in photography (was this the reason he wanted to leave the small country town of Rutherglen?), or when he actually moved away, but it seems likely that he remained an upholsterer for several years after the advertisements ceased to appear in the local press. Fred’s widow, when applying for a certificate of naturalisation in 1909, declared that she lived at Rutherglen for three years and Geelong for ten, and we know that she and Fred signed as witnesses to Bernhard’s wedding in Rutherglen at the end of 1864. This, taken in conjunction with Mr David Kruger’s list of the occupations, as follows, makes it seem that a few years indeed elapsed before he was able to move away.
It is intriguing to consider the varying titles used by Kruger during his twenty-one years as a photographer:
1858 Tapezier Gehulfe Berlin
1859 Tapezier Berlin
1861 Tapezier Berlin
1863 Upholsterer Rutherglen, Victoria
3/1/1866 Cabinetmaker Taradale, Victoria
1866 Photographer 133 Cardigan Street, Carlton, Melbourne
3/8/1867 Photographic Artist High Street, Prahran, Melbourne
7/1/1871 Photo Artist High Street, Preston, Melbourne
15/4/1874 Photo Artist Regent Street, Preston, Melbourne
29/12/1887 Photographer Skene Street, Newtown, Geelong
Apart from these few records, we have only the evidence of the photographs, which provide the most comprehensive information in our collection to date as to how Victoria looked around the 1880s; alas, they do not give so clear a picture of the life of Kruger, the man, as of the colonial society in which he lived.
Unlike J. W. Lindt (1845–1926), another German photographer who came to Australia in 1862 and who also showed a deep interest in ethnographic subject matter, Kruger appears to have died without recognition of his worth. Lindt became successful and famous early in his career with the publication of his photographs from Sir Peter Scratchley’s 1885 expedition in the book, Picturesque New Guinea, which he dedicated to Queen Victoria. His fashionable Melbourne studio thrived on a wealthy clientele and he was able to move to a spacious retreat in the hills for the latter part of his life and devote himself largely to his art photography in the forest. Kruger’s obscure life seems rather to bear comparison with that of the great French photographer, Eugène Atget (1856–1927), although it is not claimed here that his work reaches the same heights. Like Atget, he took up photography comparatively late in life and, like him, he seems to have been obsessed by it. They share a felicity in knowing just where to set their cameras (with apparent ease) to capture the real thing, the essential scene, with a lucidity and rigour soon to be rendered old-fashioned by the obfuscations of the pictorialist style. It seems likely that Kruger sold his prints, mounted on flimsy paper over the legend, ‘Kruger’s Victorian Views’, just as Atget sold for a franc or so his now-treasured ‘Documents pour Artistes’. A further point of likeness is their shared identification with the common people – or an apparent lack of interest in society and the gentry – which is not to infer a narrow partiality, but more likely explains the innocence and universality of their vision, and perhaps accounts for their lack of worldly success. Work of such richness and precision can only come from infatuated artists, who lack the patience for business, preferring to submit to the tyranny of creation.
Kruger must have travelled widely on his itinerant work, moving through Victorian towns and settlements, over rivers and paddocks and along the coast, setting down for us – with a marvellous lack of fuss and eye for detail – the colonial life. He often assembles an array of talent to appear in the pictures. In Sheep and cattle station, Merryang, near Woodstock he has arranged from the foreground backwards: a small mob of sheep, a group of pinafored children tended by a woman, a two-horse wooden plough with man, a team of 8 bullocks with man, a mob of cows, and a mounted stockman! In View on the Moorabool River, Batesford (fig. 1), the lower corner, separated from the trees and rocky hillside by the river, is used to display a lad in knickerbockers, a wicker three-wheeled pram, a woman, and at the lower edge of the picture a man seated in a flying fox contraption, which he is holding firmly to prevent it taking off across the river and thus blurring its outline by movement during the exposure.
Coast scene, Mordialloc Creek, near Cheltenham (fig. 2) is an astonishing photograph, which pre-empts the famous Cartier-Bresson Banks of the Marne of 1935, pre-dating it by about fifty years. Could it be that Kruger ‘stole’ this shot, unable to resist what chance had set before him? See the man pouring a drink for his companion, the freshly-caught shark still twitching on the ground, and the men and women with fishing rods along the near riverbank, whose faces appear to have been defaced on the negative so that they seem to be masked. Was this to excuse himself for taking a photograph without the permission of his subjects? It is a mystery.
A view of the You Yangs, from Lara Plains (fig. 3), with its exemplary formalist structure, strikes us as an exceptionally sophisticated photograph. Its appearance of severity stems from the conspicuous dividing of foreground from middle ground by the white picket fence (rendered in perfect detail in the contact print from a whole plate negative) and yet, rather than constriction, there is a flowing freedom in the layered spacing of the picture, which expresses Western District country in a manner reminiscent of some of Von Guerard’s pastoral paintings.
It is interesting to note that Kruger almost invariably uses white people as secondary subjects-within-subject whereas the aborigines are treated as primary subjects. His efforts to record aboriginal dwellings, tools, weapons, possum rugs, canoes and so on remind us of J. W. Lindt’s studio work with the Clarence River aborigines in northern New South Wales about a decade earlier. The two German photographers, in other respects so different, seemed to be more enlightened in their observations of the black people than their British counterparts, whether from feeling less threatened as recent arrivals from Germany, or simply from their interest in anthropological material, it is hard to say. In any case, it seems certain that Kruger was sympathetically aware of the racial and cultural degeneration of the aborigines. Victorian Aboriginals and mia mia (fig. 4) is one of a group of photographs of the fast vanishing artefacts of tribal life, showing how Kruger arranges objects in order that they may be seen rather than trying to absorb them into a dense and naturalistic setting as Lindt had done. Fig. 4 provides also a rare example of his manipulation of a print to introduce a dramatic sky – an effect also to be found in the otherwise characteristically elegant Wool ship and customs house, Geelong. The pictures of traditional aboriginal subjects were probably made while he worked at the Coranderrk Missionary Settlement near Healesville, where there were black people to consult and their artefacts to photograph. We have no record of his thoughts on the well-meaning paternalism of Coranderrk, where the blacks and their many part-white members were encouraged to create a self-sufficient hop-farming community, but he seems to have been a detached, and not necessarily converted, observer of life at the settlement. He takes pains to show large groups of the inhabitants (and it is easy to see the European strain among them), displaying them in a wide range of European fashions – long veils from little hats resting strangely upon black skin in this bushland farm setting – and the ‘Mother Hubbard’, or graceless shift considered appropriate to this day for black women. In his many Coranderrk pictures he takes care to show us the people as in Group of Aboriginals in Hop Gardens, Coranderrk (fig. 5).
His sensitivity is nowhere better demonstrated than in the portrait, Queen Mary and King Billy, and original mia mia (fig. 6). The proud chief and elder (by whom, incidentally, there are two watercolours in the collection of the Gallery’s Department of Australian Art), was made much of by the whites and presented with an insignia of rank to wear on his chest – which meant little or nothing. Kruger’s ironic comment on King Billy’s tragic situation is simply made by presenting the ‘royal’ personages in a wider view, including the mia mia.
While it may be an exaggeration to impute present-day insights to Kruger, it is plain that in all the complexities of his arrangements of people he is never guilty of pomposity, nor of imposing himself upon the subject. There is the consistent impression that his interest lies with ordinary people and not ‘posh’ folk. Like Atget, he shows the keen awareness of an observer who catches the seasons’ flight and the daily plodding tread of history. He journeyed many miles with his equipment in the photographic cart, seen in Yarra Street wharves, Geelong (fig. 7), patiently collecting hundreds of images of immaculate and unpretentious veracity. We must look closely to get the full value of his sense of history: in small details in countless views, usually in the lower foreground, are the little figures he has assembled to tell us about those people and times and places, with a great deal of precious visual information.
Most of the photographer’s eleven children died in infancy. According to Mr David Kruger, it is thought that only two survived, one of whom was his great-grandfather. It was at this son’s house in Victoria Street, Surrey Hills, that Fred Kruger died of peritonitis on 15 February 1888, aged 56 years.
Mr Kruger recalls that many glass plate negatives were intact in the early 1950s, but it seems they were disposed of by the photographer’s middle-aged grandchildren, who obviously had no notion of their significance.
The possibility of other negatives coming to light is remote, and thus the Gallery is most appreciative of Mrs Curl’s generous presentation.
Jennie Boddington, Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1980).