J. W. Lindt, photographer (1845–1926)


In the major libraries of Australia there are sets of remarkable photographs of aborigines taken between 1868 and 1876 in Grafton, New South Wales, by John William Lindt. The reaction on first seeing these images might be an amused surprise on noting that they are made in an artificial studio setting. The combination of factors is unusual. Primitive or recently wild natives are posed in a theatrical reconstruction in which equal attention is devoted to the selection and placement of the sitters, to their varieties of age and family status, to particulars of their dress, to the artefacts and weapons shown, and to the type of shelter, vegetation or animal life (presumably killed in the hunt) as if to give the most comprehensive information possible – and at the same time to present an aesthetically pleasing composition. In this regard the young Lindt used sophisticated lighting to model the dark features and kindle the dramatic catch-lights in the lambent eyes of his subjects. It is as if the man had the scientific attitudes of an anthropologist and the judgement of an artist. 

It seems contradictory that photographs of such boundless documentary interest should be ‘rigged’ in this manner instead of being taken in a natural bush setting. But such inappropriateness can only be inferred by a twentieth century habit of mind which inclines to equate ‘true’ realism with the documentary, and ‘false’, or simulated realism with the studio product. In fact Lindt’s intention was entirely documentary and the cogent reason for him working in a studio was simply the tyranny of the Wet Collodion process.

The process was as follows: 

Collodion wet plates (introduced 1851) had to be exposed and developed before their surface had dried and hardened. For the wet-plate landscape photographer this meant that he needed to take with him in the field a colossal amount of equipment including a dark tent, a box of glass plates, chemicals for sensitising, developing and fixing, dishes, measures, camera, lenses and tripod and often a supply of water. Dr Livingstone went on his explorations with a wet-plate outfit carried by several native bearers. Roger Fenton, who photographed the Crimean War, used a horse-drawn photographic van as his darkroom. W. H. Fox Talbot considered replacing the clear glass of the family coach with red glass and using it as a portable darkroom. A wet collodion photographer working in the field could hardly manage without taking with him seven separate solutions together with large amounts of water. Many of them would take the following: iodised collodion solution which was poured evenly over the glass plate, a silver nitrate solution in which the collodion plate was sensitised in a dipping bath, a solution of ferrous sulphate and acetic acid in which the exposed plate is developed, a weak silver solution to darken the image, a solution of potassium cyanide to fix the image, and varnish to protect the surface of the negative from injury.1From the catalogue of the exhibition ‘From Today Painting is Dead’, The Beginnings of Photography. The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1972.

Small wonder that Lindt chose to make these studies indoors, with his darkroom close by. 

J. W. Lindt was born in Germany in 1845 and ran away from home in a Danish vessel when he was seventeen years old. His education had gone far enough to make him proficient in four languages, and a reasonable musician; he had, furthermore, a marked mechanical aptitude and a good business sense. In later life he was known as the Great Lindt, for his splendid stature, his commanding presence and magnetic personality. 

When his ship followed the coast of New Guinea the youth was fascinated by the life of the natives on shore: it is not difficult to imagine he might have trained as an anthropologist had he remained at home to complete his education. 

At Brisbane he deserted ship and went into outback Queensland, where he supported himself quite adequately by tuning the pianos in station homesteads, even dismantling them and fashioning new parts when necessary, and doubtless carrying out other mechanical repairs. His travels eventually brought him to Grafton in the Clarence River district of New South Wales, where he became an assistant to Wagner, the local photographer, whose studio he bought out in 1868. It was now that his anthropological and photographic interests fired him to make the aboriginal studies already mentioned – invaluable for their information and by no means lacking pictorial quality. Undoubtedly this work was done for love, while portraits of the well-to-do citizenry, executed with Germanic thoroughness but less creative zeal, one imagines, earned the money to establish the young man in independence and social mobility. Indeed, he did well enough to be able to move to Melbourne in 1876, when he set up a studio at the top of Collins Street.

From this period we have two routine cartes de visite portraits in the collection (routine, but never perfunctory or slipshod), on the back of which, in pleasantly ornamented style is printed – from J. W. Lindt, Photographer, Prize Medallist Philadelphia, Sydney, Brisbane, 7 Collins Street, Melbourne – and in the later portrait the word ‘Paris’ is added to the list of prize medals. 

Curiously enough, when Dry Plate Photography came to supersede the Collodion Process he travelled to Europe, seemingly with the intention of abandoning photography in favour of importing equipment. However, when he returned to Australia he learned of an expedition going north for the annexation of south-east New Guinea and applied to join it. He was appointed official photographer, under special commission from Her Most Gracious Majesty, and set out in 1885. 

In the La Trobe Library, in Melbourne, there are five thick volumes of half plate contact prints, made from negatives exposed during his extensive travels, including fascinating pictures of the tree-dwelling Papuans, some magnificent landscapes in the Owen Stanley Ranges and a spectacular race of lakatois in Port Moresby harbour. He had the right combination of qualities for this work: a scrupulous attention to detail ensured the technical competence and lasting quality of his prints, a scientific cast of mind assisted his observations, and a sense of form – or a talent for photography – produced interesting and lively pictures. He was quite immune from fear and had no difficulty in imposing his will on the savages, who willingly posed, often in complex tableaux, for the ‘evil eye’, as the camera inevitably appeared to primitive minds. Lindt and his assistant developed the glass plates at night by the light of a hurricane lamp bound in red cloth. 

When he returned he documented his huge haul of negatives and made lantern slides from which to give illustrated talks; he also published a book, Picturesque New Guinea, dedicated to Queen Victoria, while continuing to portray the wealthy men of Melbourne and their families, making a handsome living from these portrait commissions and the sale of albums and travel pictures. 

In 1889 he returned north, visiting Bega Island in the Fiji group, where he made sensational photographs of a fire-walking ceremony (three of which are in our collection) which proved beyond doubt that the natives actually walked on the hot, smoking stones. It is an indication of his persuasive manner that he was able to get permission to train his camera on this sacred ceremony, and of his mastery in the technical achievement of making these sombrely dramatic images of the natives slowly treading the hot stones amid firelit billows of smoke. From this and a subsequent journey to Fiji, Tahiti and the New Hebrides, in 1892, we have eleven platinotype enlargements in the collection. These splendid prints, although made early in the days of enlarging and with primitive equipment, are blown up from half or full plate negatives which detail a very wide and subtle range of tones: this, combined with the fine texture of the paper and permanency of the platinum process, have bequeathed to us these unfading and brilliant images. This later work is generally more pictorial than the documentary material in the La Trobe albums: Lindt’s predilection for interesting lighting effects shows in the grouping of natives posed so as to catch a rim of early sunlight round shoulders and arms, or in the use of dark shadowy figures in the foreground against a brightly lit background, and other such devices. He is portraying an order in which harmony between man and nature prevails. He shows people in landscape with the objects of their daily use, and from these people and artefacts we gain an impression of civilisation – of an evolved way of life. 

When the land boom burst Lindt lost his wealthy clientele in the city and he closed his studio and moved to The Hermitage, The Studio in a Forest, which he built at Black’s Spur, high in the Dandenongs, fifty miles north of Melbourne. We have two very striking pictures of the place in our collection: one, a winter study of the six weatherboard buildings and young garden under snow; the other, a mid-summer panorama of this settlement upon the mountains, carved out of deep forest, beneath a majestic and awe-inspiring sky brewing a thunderstorm, dated 1894. 

In the last period of his life the photographer devoted his major attention to making hundreds of studies of the forest and bush, of sunrise and sunset, in the wild domain of his retirement. 

The work is a logical development of his late Island pictures: it is a celebration of the might and infinite variety of nature, particularly forest and tree, in every kind of light. Signs of human life are more and more subdued. The wistful and romantic maid with a milking bucket, at Fernshaw, The maiden all forlorn, gives way to the later Morley’s Track, an unspoiled bush setting with the incidental figures of a young woman and little dog, not obtrusive, but not far away; so to a later bush track in which one does not at first see the buggy disappearing between the trees, and so to the forest untrammelled, prodigal, uncorrupted and absolute. 

In nearly all of the enlargements Lindt used a ratio of 2½ to 1, in either dimension, which particularly suits the vertical compositions of these towering trees shadowed against the backlit bushland, or catching the early sun in lovely edgelight, and we are reminded of the Island pictures with their harmony and balance of form. There is no hint of uncouthness: there is, perhaps, too little tension. It could be – masterly and confident as it is – the beginning of a decline to an attitude which marred Australian photography for decades to come: tension is lacking; pictorialism is overwhelmingly present. The true serenity and majesty of nature in Lindt’s photographs deteriorate eventually to sentimentality: by the 1930s nearly every photographer in Australia turned his attention exclusively to the glorification of the gum-tree, or to misty portraits, a lamentable descent from John William Lindt, but indicated, hinted at, foreseen in his latest bush studies when he had so completely withdrawn to The Hermitage.

He died dramatically at the age of eighty-one on 19 February, 1926 – ‘Black Friday’. The Ranges had been smouldering for days and on Friday a holocaust burst forth, rising higher and higher towards The Hermitage. When the house was all but surrounded by a burning mountain, a sudden cloudburst quenched the flames, and John William Lindt was dead. 

Jennie Boddington 

 

Note

1              From the catalogue of the exhibition ‘From Today Painting is Dead’, The Beginnings of Photography. The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1972.

fig. 2, Hermitage, Black’s Spur, now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as Lindt’s Hermitage.

fig. 3, Hermitage, winter, now known in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria as The Hermitage.