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The Business of Photography in the Nineteenth Century Australia

The Business of Photography in the Nineteenth Century Australia

Nineteenth century was the age of technological revolution. Invention of telegraph, telephone and photography were the major breakthroughs in nineteenth century. The invention of photography was an important addition to the modern civilization as well. Photography was not invented in a day, or not by a single person only. Like any other great inventions, photography had passed a long way taking todays shape. The exhibition, The Business of Photography, depicts the photo business procedures, business organizations, people involved in the business, and the equipment used in nineteenth century, focused mainly on New South Wales.

The Exhibition

The exhibition holds at the ground floor of the Photography Gallery, Level 1, Chaw Chak Wing (CCW) museum. The curator of the exhibition is Jan Brazier. It exhibited in two consecutive narrow and cramped rooms with small alleyways. Because of, photographs are light sensitive product the prints are preserved in a nice and cool temperature. It was not very crowdie, only few people were enjoying the exhibition. Though, the exhibition is small, but its contents are versatile in subject matter. When the viewer first enters the exhibition, he/she could be felt like suddenly crossed the time barrier between the 21st and 19th century.

the Royal prince George and Prince Albert Victor
Royal Prince George and Prince Albert Victor,
the grandson of Queen Victoria,
photographed by JH Newman in 1881
Courtesy: Chaw Chak Wing Museum

In the beginning of the exhibition, the viewer will notice the portrait of the Royal Prince George and Prince Albert Victor, the grandson of Queen Victoria, photographed by JH Newman in 1881. The whole exhibition is black and white and far different than today's photogenic world. The environment around the photographs, iconography of the photos, the very old cameras make any viewer the feelings of the nineteenth century. The visitors also get a social and cultural touch of the nineteenth century by viewing the different photos took in different time. The majority of the photographs are portraiture and family photos, but natural scenes are not uncommon as well.

Daguerreotype in Sydney

A new form of art introduced in France by Nicephore Niepce, later developed by Jacques Daguerre called daguerreotype was famous in Europe. The exhibition shows daguerreotype cameras used in that time, which will give shock to eyes of the modern viewers. It is hard to believe that it was the predecessor of modern automatic, digital cameras. Daguerreotype was invented in 1939, not only added a new dimension to the art arena, but also opened a new window for entrepreneurs and existing businessmen.[1]

Today’s modern digital cameras can take photos in a fraction of a second. But, it was not that easy to take pictures back in the nineteenth century. Niepce was nearly failed to capture an image because of the long exposure time. To take a picture, it took nearly ten to twelve hours, which made his experiment nearly unsuccessful. Soon, Niepce and Daguerre made an agreement about the cooperation of the betterment of their experiments. As a result, the total exposure time was reduced from twelve hours to twelve minutes only. The time could be five to six minutes in the summer time. Even, in the southern warm climate only two or three minutes were enough.[2]

The exhibition made the long story short. It shows the different types of daguerreotype so that the viewer gets an idea about the previous cameras. The Business of Photography contains early Sliding-Box camera replica with original lens, made in 1860. It is also displaying a Large-format studio camera (1870), an Imperial Triple Extension camera (1870), manufactured by Thornton-Pickard, and a Large-format stand camera (1880). The visitor could get further knowledge of a No. 3 Cartridge camera manufactured by Kodak (Figure 2), New York in 1900-1907. All these cameras are wooden framed.

The Country Photographers

The ‘portrait photography’ was familiar near the mid nineteenth century. A portrait gallery was normally a wooden house or logged cabin in ‘rudimentary timber shack and adjacent marquee’ in a rural location. Country towns were small populations mostly under thousand inhabitants. Commercial photographers had done well not only in Sydney, but also in the rural areas. Some of them operated business long time since starting and was a part of the local community.

The photography business started nearly as early as the daguerreotype was invented in Europe. The first photographic

Portrait of a young lady
Portrait of a young lady
Courtesy: Chaw Chak Wing Museum,
The University of Sydney

studio opened in Sydney in 1842.[3] The population of New South Wales was very little in the 19th century. Maximum of the inhabitants lived outside the Sydney region, mainly at the country towns. Some people started their own photography business in small mining towns called the country photographers. They set up their own studio and got help from their families and close friends. An example of such a successful family run business was William Augustus Nicholas (1844-1921), and his wife Sarah. Though they set up their business in Bundanoon, 120 kilometres south-west of Sydney,[4] but both of them travelled all over the NSW, from Sydney to Wagga Wagga. William’s brother George Henry Nicholas (1848-1912), also was a photographer at Hunter region by the late 1860. He established an elite studio in Wellington, NSW, near the end of the century. After his death in 1912, his wife, Clara Louisa, took the charge of the business and continued next 16 years before her death. All these snippet of information will pleasure the audience.

Entrepreneurship is always hard and sometimes unsuccessful. A perfect example of failure in photography business was Henry Goodes (1836-85). He was a photographer and he built partnership, but his poor business skills gave him despair and debt only. He changed the partnership a couple of times, but did not find any luck there. In 1864, Goodes won a debt of £130 to his new partnership. More and more people were started their photo business. Goodes failed to cope up with his competitors and in 1885, aged only 49, he took his own life.

Though, Goodes was unsuccessful in business, but he was a good portrait photographer. In the exhibition, several photos are shown taken by him. One photograph taken by Goodes is an undescribed family. The oldest and probably head of the family members is sitting down a chair, his wife is standing up behind him, placed her hands over his shoulder, showing intimacy between themselves. The other two girls of the family appeared his daughter is approaching at the right side of the male person, placed their hands over the shoulder of him. The picture shows the closeness of the family. The man is fully suited with shoes and the girls also dressed with best wardrobe. There is another photograph of a father and her two cute little girls. The poses of the girls and their cautious placement made the photographs no less than an art. After viewing these photographs, the visitor will feel about the unsuccessful life of Henry Goodes.

The Change of Business

As the photography industry grew up, the conditions of the workers declined and referred by some as ‘sweatshop’. The employees were started to get payment under the industrial award rate. But the scenario changed at the first decade of the twentieth century. New rules and regulations were proposed for the photography industry labourers. At the beginning of twentieth century, the big studio businesses were nearly closed. In that time, the big commercial studio was waning, because of, the new printing technique came to the market and film negative introduced. Electric lighting and lighter weight cameras changed the photo business forever.[5]

Circular Quay in the nineteenth century
Circular Quay in the Nineteenth Century,
Photo Courtesy: Chaw Chak Wing Museum,
University of Sydney

By the end of the nineteenth century, new technology was introduced and portable cameras were invented. Electric lights were also a factor in the changing environment. Individual photographers started their own freelance studio again. The setting of the photography studio was also changed. New technologies made photos more stylistic. From 1839 to till the end of the century, the photographs looked like a theatrical studio environment. But, in the new century, it was more natural; people were more smiley faces in the photographs. They tried to give ‘pose’ rather than sitting like a stuffy icon. The photos were also more artistic by adding environmental scenery in the background and wears fashionable dresses. In the photograph of The Staff of Freemans Studio, shows the starting of the modern twentieth century photography. The four girls with their different poses, their headdress, and soft focus are easily visible.


The viewer can feel the lack of presence of technology in the show. There is no recorded audio or video, which could be very helpful to the onlookers, realising the objectives of the exhibition and descriptions of the photographs. Also there is no human-computer interaction (Art.CHI) and no measurement of how the viewer reacts viewing the photographs. Photography is a totally digital technology device today, so, the collaboration of technology with photography could be a fantastic idea. At the age of digital era, even a small show like the Business of Photography can be shown to a larger no of audience. The exhibition items could be shown in a digital space along with the physical gallery in CCW Museum. Digital technology could be a marvellous solution to the Covid-19 problem in art exhibitions.

The CCW museum is capable to make a digital space for the exhibition. It currently combines with the Sydney University website with limited features. For example, if the visitor clicks the “Business of Photography” link, he/she will find only some basic information of the exhibition, i.e. the start and end dates of the show, fees information, basic synopsis, and one or two photographs.[6] The whole exhibition could be placed on the web, so that the potential visitors who has a limited time schedule, but loves photo exhibitions can join it on the web. A virtual reality (VR) or augmented reality (AR) program could help the viewer to get a real life experience on the web.[7] Though the exhibition will finish on August, 2021, but it is possible to watch the exhibition digitally after ending. The Business of Photography is not only a photography exhibition; it is also a history of showing Australian life in the nineteenth century. It is a part of Australian identity. So, an online museum could be the best choice for future generations. If one objective of an exhibition is to reach the wider audience, this could be a fantastic opportunity. The gallery, the curators, the photographers who died long before, and the audience, all of the parties could be benefited from Information Technology. The web and social media sharing (i.e. Facebook, Twitter, etc.) could be a blessing to the museum reaching a broader audience.[8] The exhibition could be transmitted to millions of people via internet to the greater outside world, with a comparative low cost.

When the user finished visiting the entire exhibition, his/her point of view probably would have changed about nineteenth century. The expressions of the photographed people, their poses, clothing, family oriented mentality, and close bonding with relatives, everything will overwhelm the beholder. The exhibition touched the main points of nineteenth century photography business. It shows the evolution of daguerreotypes, the small studio business started in colonial Sydney and in the regional areas, the success and failure stories of the businesses, the setup of big business enterprise, and the changes of the printing process. The exhibition also focuses behind the scene people. It also points out how the expression of people changed as the new century came in front of them. There is a lack of digital presence in the exhibition. The Business of Photography is a spotlight on the nineteenth century small photo business and the culture surrounded it.


[1] Joseph Maria Eder, History of Photography, trans. Edward Epstean, (New York: Dover Publications, 1978), 209-24.

[2] Eder, History of Photography, 234, 236.

[3] John Hannavy, Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, (New York: Routledge, 2008), 97-102.

[4] This information is taken from https://bundanoon.com.au/ and Google maps.

[5] Taken from the exhibition tokens.

[6] Chau Chak Wing Museum, “Business of Photography” < https://www.sydney.edu.au/museum/whats-on/exhibitions/the-business-of-photography.html>  (12 Dec. 2021).

[7] David England and Thecla Schiphorst, Curating the Digital : Space for Art and Interaction, 12-15.

[8] Social media sites including Facebook, Twitter, Tumbler and video sharing sites like Youtube, and photo sharing site such as Instagram.



Eder, Joseph Maria. History of Photography, trans. Edward Epstean. New York: Dover Publications, 1978.

England, David and Schiphorst, Thecla and Bryan-Kinns, Nick. Curating the Digital : Space for Art and Interaction.  Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016.

Frizot, Michel. A New History of Photography. Koln: Konemann, 1998.

Hannavy, John. Encyclopedia of Nineteenth Century Photography, edited. John Hannavy New York: Routledge, 2008.

London, Barbara. Stone, Jim and Upton, John. Photography. New York: Pearson, 2013.


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