fig. 1 
Douglas T. Kilbum

One commonly held prerequisite for a successful portrait is that it will convey something of the psychological life of the sitter. A key means of establishing this personal dimension, of capturing the ‘real’ nature of the individual, is through attention to the subject’s eyes. For nineteenth-century photographers, the eyes represented a corporeal access point or ‘window’ to a person’s true nature.1 Interest in the subject’s eyes as a key locus of personality continues today. For instance, the web page for the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, begins with a series of painted and photographed eyes of the famous subjects represented in its collection. See www.portrait.gov.au. With this in mind, what are we to make of Douglas Kilburn’s daguerreotype of three Koori women who face the camera with eyes downcast or closed (fig. 1)? And what does this apparent refusal to engage with the photographer tell us about the dynamics that took place when this image was taken in Melbourne in 1847?

Part of the answer to these questions lies in the reason that this daguerreotype was taken. This is not a benign portrait intended as a keepsake for loved ones, but an ethnographic record of people Kilburn referred to as ‘the curious race of Aborigines’.2 Douglas T. Kilburn, quoted in ‘Australia Felix’, Illustrated London News, 26 January 1850, p. 53. Capturing the individuality of the sitters was not of prime concern to the photographer: he needed to record only the distinctive appearance of the women, and whether or not a sense of their personal characters was conveyed was beside the point. Indeed to value these women as individuals, with due attention paid to suggesting their inner lives, could have unsettled their status as ‘curiosities’ or ‘exotica’ – a category that was premised on the essential ‘otherness’ of the subject.

The ethnographic impulses that guided the creation of this daguerreotype should not imply, however, that this was not a work that was valued. In a purely financial sense, the enterprise of taking a daguerreotype in the 1840s was a relatively expensive undertaking that gave significance to the resulting object. In 1848, a Kilburn daguerreotype cost upwards of ten shillings3 The price for Kilbum’s daguerreotypes is taken from an advertisement in the Argus (Argus, 1 August 1848, p. 3). – two days’ wages for a tradesman.4 A carpenter, for instance, earned 4s 6d in 1848; for infonnation on comparative wages, see W. Vamplew (ed.), Australians: Historical Statistics, Sydney, 1987, p. 117. Kilburn took a certain risk devoting time and energy to taking a group of at least eight daguerreotypes of Kooris, given that these portraits were not commissioned by a client. His expectation was presumably that the ‘novelty value’ of such portraits would appeal to a local and international audience and, to a certain extent, his hopes were fulfilled. Artists of the calibre of Eugene von Guérard and John Skinner Prout used some of Kilburn’s daguerreotypes of Kooris as the basis for drawings, and the Illustrated London News published wood engravings after the images.5 ‘Australia Felix’. For a detailed discussion of the daguerreotypes, see I. Crombie, ‘Australia Felix: Douglas T. Kilbum’s Daguerreotype of Victorian Aborigines, 1847’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 32,1991, pp. 21–31. Another sign of the regard in which the daguerreotypes were held is the fact that they have survived. The existence of any Australian daguerreotype is a cause for celebration, with most succumbing to neglect or maltreatment. Amazingly, at least four of the images from Kilburn’s series are known to be still in existence, and two of these are now in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria.6 For the first Kilburn daguerreotype acquired for the Gallery, see Crombie, ‘Australia Felix’, pp. 21–31, repr. p. 21. In 1991, when I wrote this article on the Kilburn daguerreotypes, there was evidence to show that there were five works in this series. Of these five daguerreotypes only one – that in the Gallery’s collection was known to be extant. Since that time, three more images from the series have appeared. One is in a private collection and two were offered at auction at Sotheby’s, London, on 6 May 1999 (lot 15, the subject of the present article, was acquired for the Gallery; lot 16, which appeared to be in bad condition, was passed in).

Kilburn considered his daguerreotypes of Kooris as an important endeavour. In 1847 there were no other photographs of Victorian Aborigines and only a small group that showed Aboriginal people generally,7 Robert Hall took three daguerreotypes (now not extant) of South Australian Aborigines, around 1846 (see A Catalogue of the Exhibition of Pictures: The Works of Colonial Artists, Adelaide, 1847, n.p.).and so such images were certain to attract attention. Kilburn’s interest in this subject was perhaps connected to his personal history. As the ‘brother of the famous English photographer William Kilburn – who photographed the royal family – Douglas no doubt wished to make his own mark as an independent practitioner of note. Royalty was in short supply in the new colony, and portraits of prosperous shopkeepers or miners would probably not have brought him distinction, no matter how accomplished the images. However, portraits of a race of people who had rarely been photographed were a means of bringing notice to his skills, both in Australia and in England.

More immediately, Kilburn could use the daguerreotypes to promote his photographic business in Little Collins Street, and the fact that they were taken in his first few months of operation suggests that he saw them in these terms. As a form of publicity his daguerreotypes brought him some copy in the local newspaper, the Argus. It is highly likely that Kilburn had shown the images to the reporter who, in July 1848, enthusiastically encouraged locals to:

witness the wonder-working powers of his daguerreotype. Mr Kilburn has carried the art to a perfection hitherto unknown here – the likenesses he produces being speakingly true, and quite devoid of the dull leaden aspect which seemed formerly to be inseparable from likenesses obtained by the process.8 Argus, 7 July 1848, p. 2.

 

Once he had conceived of the project to photograph Aboriginal people, Kilburn went in search of suitable subjects. Finding models appears not to have been difficult – there were five Koori tribes that lived around Melbourne and they often visited the centre of town in search of work, food or amusement. The women in the Gallery’s daguerreotype, for instance, are possibly from the Wurundjeri people, whose descendants live in the Yarra River district in Victoria.9 The sitters in the other Kilburn daguerreotype in the Gallery’s collection are also believed to be Wurundjeri people (see C. Cooper & A. Harris, ‘Dignity or Degradation: Aboriginal Portraits from Nineteenth-Century Australia’, in Portraits of Oceania (exh. cat.), ed. J. Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1997, p. 15). However, persuading people to sit for his camera proved more of a problem for Kilburn. Unlike most of his European customers, who were sufficiently well versed in the protocols of sitting for a photographic portrait, or at least had familiarity with the processes involved, the Kooris, he felt, were unenthusiastic subjects who treated the camera with misgivings. The Illustrated London News reported that Kilburn had ‘much difficulty in prevailing upon any individual to sit, from some superstitious fear that they possess, imagining that it would subject them to some misfortune’.10 ‘Australia Felix’. Eventually he persuaded various men and women to pose, ‘by small bribes’, but even this inducement did not result in the same sitters visiting the studio more than once.11 ibid.

Kilburn evidently relished the story of how he found Aboriginal models for his daguerreotypes. He spoke publicly on the subject on 13 July 1853, when he showed two framed images from the series to a meeting of the Royal Society of Van Diemans Land, Tasmania. According to the minutes of the meeting, Kilburn related ‘the extreme difficulty in getting [his subjects] to sit a second time, as upon seeing their likenesses so suddenly fixed, they took him for nothing less than a sorcerer’ 12 Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Van Diemans Land, vol. 2, 1850–53, Hobart, 1853, p. 504. In this version of events, Kilburn shifts the emphasis so that the sitters’ anxiety was apparent only after their portraits had been taken. Kilburn’s role has also changed accordingly: no longer is he impelling his subjects into his studio, if not against their wills then presumably under a certain duress. Instead, they enter freely, only to be confronted by Kilburn the ‘sorcerer’ – a powerful character who apparently bedazzles the unsophisticated ‘natives’ with his wonder-working machine.

Whatever the forces of will and coercion involved in Kilburn’s photographic sessions, it is clear that there was considerable anxiety for at least some, if not all, of his models.13 Although most are clearly frightened by the experience, one of Kilbum’s models appears not to have reacted in the same way. The direct, almost smiling, expression of this sitter in the first Kilburn daguerreotype acquired for the Gallery suggests that at least some of those photographed were amused by the process (for a commentary on this work, see B. Croft, ‘Laying Ghosts to Rest’, in Annear, p. 13) Fear of photography was a relatively common response among people unfamiliar with such technology and may have been as much a conceptual problem as a reaction to those operating the camera. As Henisch and Henisch note of early photographers: ‘[They] often met with suspicion, if not downright hostility. Sometimes they were accused of stealing secrets, and sometimes of stealing souls’.14 H. K. Henisch & B. A. Henisch, The Photographic Experience 1839–1914: Images and Attitudes, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1994, p. 420. This book contains several early examples of fear of the camera, including reactions in Poland – where photographers were initially ‘considered by the peasants as instruments of the Evil One’ (Henisch & Henisch, p.420).

In journals and books of the mid nineteenth century there are scattered reports about sitters who believed either that the camera would bring them bad luck or that by capturing their image the photographer would take away 9 some essential aspect of their being.15 I was unable to find reports in which the subject involved noted his or her own reactions to the camera. The available accounts were invariably written by the photographer or by someone else present at the photographic session. Another relatively common fear was related to the appearance of the camera, which, with its long cannon-like lens, could look unnervingly like a weapon. What links these descriptions is that the photographers involved were invariably engaged in the project of recording the ‘natives’ of the country they occupied or were visiting. Not only were they armed with a camera but they generally came equipped with a full range of colonial imperatives and assumptions about the people whose likenesses they captured.

One early response to the camera was recorded in 1860 by General Sir Hope Grant, who witnessed Felice Beato’s attempts to take a portrait of Prince Kung in Beijing at the end of the second Opium War. According to Grant:

Signor Beato … brought forward his apparatus, placed it at the entrance door, and directed the large lens of the camera full against the breast of the unhappy Prince Kung. The royal brother looked up in a state of terror, pale as death, and with his eyes turned first to Lord Elgin and then to me, expecting every moment to have his head blown off by the infernal machine.16 H. Grant, Incidents in the China War of 1860, Edinburgh, 1875, p. 209. For Felice Beato, see I. Crombie, ‘China, 1860: A Photographic Album by Felice Beato’, History of Photography, vol. 11, no. 1, January–March 1987, pp. 25–37.

Beato managed to allay Prince Kung’s panic, but some photographers actually played on the fictional dangers of the camera to keep their subjects under control. When Maxime Du Camp travelled with the writer Gustave Flaubert through the Middle East in the 1850s, he employed a Nubian sailor named Hadji Ishmael to act as a consistent measure of scale in his photographs of buildings and monuments.17 See J. Ballerini, ‘The in visibility of Hadji Ishmael: Maxime Du Camp’s 1850 Photographs of Egypt’, in The Body Imagined: The Human Form and Visual Culture since the Renaissance, eds K. Adler & M. Pointon, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 147–60. Du Camp had to ensure Ishmael did not move, as lengthy exposure times meant any motion would turn him into a blur, and so the photographer told his subject that ‘the brass tube of the lens jutting from the camera was a cannon, which would vomit a hail of shot if he had the misfortune to move – a story which immobilised him completely’.18 Maxime Du Camp, Le Nil, Égypte et Nubie (1852), cited in Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour, ed. F. Steegmuller, London, 1983, p. 102.

Freezing the subject through fear did little for the naturalness of the end result. Kilburn might have had some sympathy with an anonymous correspondent who wrote to the British Journal of Photography in 1862 to complain that in India one had only to:

point a camera at a native, and notwithstanding his natural grace, suppleness of limb, and easy carriage and bearing when taken unawares, from fear of being shot, or converted into some uncouth animal by means of necromancy, he becomes on seeing you as rigid as the camera stand or moves away altogether or neither moves nor stays. All the posturing and explaining and reasoning and coaxing or offers of money you can bestow upon him in the course of an hour or two will not induce him to unbend.19 ‘Bombay Amateur’, British Journal of Photography, August 1862, p. 300.

In Australia, it is clear that Aboriginal subjects were also often similarly ill at ease with the process of being photographed. Although no first-hand accounts of their experiences exist, it is reasonable to conjecture that their fear came not only from an anxiety about the nature of photography but from the means by which the image was taken. For instance, policeman and photographer Paul Foelsche (1831–1914) probably used the Fanny Bay Gaol as a studio for his portraits of Northern Territory Aboriginal men and women. Expressions of fear, anger and defiance are mixed as the sitters pose mugshot-style against a white wall. The photographs often include a measuring stick, to fulfil the requirements of anthropometric recording.20 For Foelsche’s work, see Cooper & Harris, pp. 15–21.

Photographers such as Foelsche and Kilburn were fuelled by an urgency based on the belief that Aboriginal people were a ‘dying race’ and should be recorded before their extinction. However, this supposed passing away of a race was not considered a humanitarian crisis as much as a consequence of evolution. According to the principles of social Darwinism that invariably informed ethnographic photographs of the period, Aboriginal people were a ‘less-developed’ cousin to the European and so were eventually bound to die out. The Aborigines’ low position on the evolutionary ladder was stressed in 1859, for instance, when the author of an article titled ‘Australian Nature – and the Art of the Photographer’ confidently wrote that Aboriginal men and women ‘stand at the confines of animality, as they are found living in pairs under the rock shelves near Lake Macquarrie’.21 ‘Australian Nature – and the Art of the Photographer’, Photographic News, 19 August 1859, p. 280.

The camera was increasingly considered an essential tool for the ethnographer, creating images of such lifelike fidelity that they seemed to offer indisputable and 10 impartial proof of physical appearances. As the author of ‘Australian Nature’ notes, photography presented a ‘truth to nature’ unlike that afforded by any other medium:

It is only [photography] which will ever produce plates in which the exact proportions of the osseous and muscular parts, the tensions or relaxation of the skin, the gloss of the body, and the whole gait (portamento) will appear in a manner to afford instruction to the anatomist and ethnographer. By such pictures also … the physiognomy of the different tribes of men will be best illustrated, and that axiom be made apparent, that humanity is everywhere fair and handsome.22 ibid.

Nine years earlier, the Illustrated London News had regarded Kilburn’s daguerreotypes as valuable proof of the appearance of Australia’s ‘curious race of Aborigines’. The article, as noted earlier, reproduced three wood engravings after Kilburn’s daguerreotypes, along with a quotation from Dr J. B. Clutterbuck’s book Port Phillip in 1849 that was used to provide a context for the illustrations and to elaborate on certain cultural customs. Clutterbuck stressed signs of difference for his European readers, setting the tone of his article with the comment that Aborigines were ‘extremely dirty in their persons – partly from their inattention to ablution, partly from their custom of sleeping with a mongrel breed of dog, which is infected with the disease called the “mange”. 23 J. B. Clutterbuck, Port Phillip in 1849 (1850), cited in ‘Australia Felix’. Further indicators of ‘otherness’ were body-marking practices and nose piercing – both of which the wood engravings show. The ‘wildness’ of the Aborigines firmly established, Clutterbuck did allow that ‘our sable brethren’ had teeth that were ‘even, perfect, and beautifully white’, bodies ‘tolerably well proportioned’ and deportment ‘far more dignified than artificial tuition could impart’.24 ibid.

Kilburn’s series of daguerreotypes present a more dignified picture of his Koori ‘subjects than Clutterbuck’s text generally suggests. Kilburn’s models are strong, proud men and women, who are shown confidently wrapped in possum-skin cloaks or blankets. The photographer has paid considerable attention to how the subjects are posed, grouping them in different ways to add variety. The images include single portraits and ‘family groups’ of five sitters, and there are smaller arrangements of two to three sitters, varying in age from the very young to the elderly. Where there are multiple models, Kilburn has taken care to pose them both standing and seated, to add visual interest. The settings for these daguerreotypes are without the backdrops that were standard fare for portraits of Europeans, and so the images are distinguished as a special category. The austere environment focuses the viewer’s full attention on the sitters’ physical appearance and clothes – the possum-skin cloaks probably having been supplied by Kilburn in an effort to create a more exotic look.

Kilburn framed some of his daguerreotypes for wall display in exhibitions but most – including the Gallery’s two examples – are small, cased objects designed to be held in the hand.25 Group of Koori Women is without its original case, but still has the metal foil that holds the plate and glass together. As there are clasps locking the case, the viewer is required to open the object as though it were a tiny book and then to angle its mirror-like surface to reveal the positive image. The daguerreotype is thus generally an intimate object, intended for solitary viewing: the person photographed can be studied at leisure and in private. When the daguerreotype is considered in this manner, it is no wonder that it was apparently thought of by some of the Kooris as an object of suspicion and anxiety. Whose hands would they end up in and for what purposes?

For the three women in the Melbourne daguerreotype, the unfamiliarity of the process and the probable confusion engendered by having to dress up in unfamiliar clothes resulted in a direct reaction. The women simply averted or closed their eyes and, with their necks clamped into rigidity by the standard metal brace, stoically sat the whole unpleasant process out. The result is a portrait in which, on one level, little is revealed to the viewer. The expressionless demeanour of the women is a mute refusal to engage with the photographer’s entreaties to ‘face the camera’. And yet, this lack of engagement reveals much about the processes that took place when this portrait was taken. Kilburn thought that the women were afraid of his sorcerer’s magic, but their reactions can be interpreted in another, more subversive, way. The women’s blank expressions could be regarded as a quiet kind of rebellion in which the insistent lens of the camera is purposefully blocked. More specifically, the intrusive gaze of the male camera operator is refused, reflecting the Aboriginal law in which it was improper for women to give information to men. By apparently denying the power of photography to ‘capture’ the essential qualities of those it records, the women keep their inner worlds inviolate and we are left with no access to these sitters as people. As a consequence, although this is ostensibly a portrait of members of a ‘curious race’, what we see ultimately reveals more about Kilburn and his society than it does about his Koori sitters.

Isobel Crombie, Senior Curator of Photography, National Gallery of Victoria (in 1999).

Notes

1      Interest in the subject’s eyes as a key locus of personality continues today. For instance, the web page for the National Portrait Gallery, Canberra, begins with a series of painted and photographed eyes of the famous subjects represented in its collection. See www.portrait.gov.au

2      Douglas T. Kilburn, quoted in ‘Australia Felix’, Illustrated London News, 26 January 1850, p. 53.

3      The price for Kilbum’s daguerreotypes is taken from an advertisement in the Argus (Argus, 1 August 1848, p. 3).

4      A carpenter, for instance, earned 4s 6d in 1848; for infonnation on comparative wages, see W. Vamplew (ed.), Australians: Historical Statistics, Sydney, 1987, p. 117.

5      ‘Australia Felix’. For a detailed discussion of the daguerreotypes, see I. Crombie, ‘Australia Felix: Douglas T. Kilbum’s Daguerreotype of Victorian Aborigines, 1847’, Art Bulletin of Victoria, no. 32,1991, pp. 21–31.

6      For the first Kilburn daguerreotype acquired for the Gallery, see Crombie, ‘Australia Felix’, pp. 21–31, repr. p. 21. In 1991, when I wrote this article on the Kilburn daguerreotypes, there was evidence to show that there were five works in this series. Of these five daguerreotypes only one – that in the Gallery’s collection was known to be extant. Since that time, three more images from the series have appeared. One is in a private collection and two were offered at auction at Sotheby’s, London, on 6 May 1999 (lot 15, the subject of the present article, was acquired for the Gallery; lot 16, which appeared to be in bad condition, was passed in).

7      Robert Hall took three daguerreotypes (now not extant) of South Australian Aborigines, around 1846 (see A Catalogue of the Exhibition of Pictures: The Works of Colonial Artists, Adelaide, 1847, n.p.).

8      Argus, 7 July 1848, p. 2.

9      The sitters in the other Kilburn daguerreotype in the Gallery’s collection are also believed to be Wurundjeri people (see C. Cooper & A. Harris, ‘Dignity or Degradation: Aboriginal Portraits from Nineteenth-Century Australia’, in Portraits of Oceania (exh. cat.), ed. J. Annear, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 1997, p. 15).

10      ‘Australia Felix’.

11      ibid.

12      Papers and Proceedings of the Royal Society of Van Diemans Land, vol. 2, 1850–53, Hobart, 1853, p. 504.

13      Although most are clearly frightened by the experience, one of Kilbum’s models appears not to have reacted in the same way. The direct, almost smiling, expression of this sitter in the first Kilburn daguerreotype acquired for the Gallery suggests that at least some of those photographed were amused by the process (for a commentary on this work, see B. Croft, ‘Laying Ghosts to Rest’, in Annear, p. 13).

14      H. K. Henisch & B. A. Henisch, The Photographic Experience 1839–1914: Images and Attitudes, University Park, Pennsylvania, 1994, p. 420. This book contains several early examples of fear of the camera, including reactions in Poland – where photographers were initially ‘considered by the peasants as instruments of the Evil One’ (Henisch & Henisch, p.420).

15      I was unable to find reports in which the subject involved noted his or her own reactions to the camera. The available accounts were invariably written by the photographer or by someone else present at the photographic session.

16      H. Grant, Incidents in the China War of 1860, Edinburgh, 1875, p. 209. For Felice Beato, see I. Crombie, ‘China, 1860: A Photographic Album by Felice Beato’, History of Photography, vol. 11, no. 1, January–March 1987, pp. 25–37.

17     See J. Ballerini, ‘The in visibility of Hadji Ishmael: Maxime Du Camp’s 1850 Photographs of Egypt’, in The Body Imagined: The Human Form and Visual Culture since the Renaissance, eds K. Adler & M. Pointon, Cambridge, 1993, pp. 147–60.

18     Maxime Du Camp, Le Nil, Égypte et Nubie (1852), cited in Flaubert in Egypt: A Sensibility on Tour, ed. F. Steegmuller, London, 1983, p. 102.

19     ‘Bombay Amateur’, British Journal of Photography, August 1862, p. 300.

20      For Foelsche’s work, see Cooper & Harris, pp. 15–21.

21     ‘Australian Nature – and the Art of the Photographer’, Photographic News, 19 August 1859, p. 280.

22     ibid.

23     J. B. Clutterbuck, Port Phillip in 1849 (1850), cited in ‘Australia Felix’.

24     ibid.

25    Group of Koori Women is without its original case, but still has the metal foil that holds the plate and glass together.