Australian Photography's Treasure Hunter
Photographs are not just pretty pictures or illustrations. They’re documents. I like to say that photography tells us more, if you know how to read them and learn what’s in the image.
Lewisham in inner-city Sydney. The door opens; there are black and white prints everywhere – some I know, and some I don’t recognise. Before I can open my mouth, Alan Davies’s passionate message to the photography industry winds up to a full crescendo – “Buy photos from your photographer friends and put them on your walls”.
He’s a living breathing example of that, except that his favourite photograph is Satanic Dancer, Paris 1926 by Andre Kertesz and it’s approximately $200,000 beyond his budget! However, on his walls are 29 framed prints by 20 photographers, including Oil Streaks, George Street by Louise Whelan, a Hamish Ta-Me and a couple from George Caddy’s ‘Bondi Jitterbug’ series. More prints are waiting to go to the framers, including photographs by Bert Stern and Max Pam. Tania, Alan’s wife, delivers two cups of delicious Odessa coffee and I get down to the business of unraveling Alan Davies.
In 1929, Alan’s father joined The Sydney Morning Herald as messenger boy for the newspaper’s chief-of-staff, George Reeves. His duties included delivering urgent mail to Kingsford Smith and Charlie Ullman for delivery via overnight flights, and helping photographers like Beau Lennard and Herbert Fyshwick carry their gear. In 1932 he was apprenticed as a linotype operator.
“It’s funny how I can relate to these characters from the past more directly through my father’s stories,” Alan com- ments. He remembers a story about his father carrying the photographer’s flash tray to a big union demonstration in Hyde Park in the 1930s. He went up the ladder with the photographer and set off this huge tray – holding virtually a whole bottle of magnesium flash powder – to illuminate the crowd.
“The blinding flash and smoke ignited the crowd’s madness. It was the spark, if you like, that set off a riot.”
The pair had to run for their lives down to George Street to grab a taxi and escape the crowd.
“Photography was a pretty fraught thing in those days and there’s no logic in a rioting crowd!”
Breaking The Rules
By the time he was 14, Alan Davies was printing his own photographs, and recalls often coming out of the darkroom with a new print to ask his father if the composition was OK.
“At the start you are fascinated with composition,” observes Alan. “But, after a while, it’s really not that significant. Once you understand the rules, you break them. I worry about the people who break all the rules, but don’t actually know the rules.”
Alan attended a selective high school at Homebush in Sydney, and achieved an honours in Physics in his Leaving Certificate. Early on, he was interested in the history of photography and the chemistry of the early process especially the Daguerreotype and the Ambrotype. He once visited to the Museum of Applied Arts and Science – now Sydney’s Powerhouse Museum – and asked to speak to a curator because the captions on the displayed Daguerreotypes were wrong.
“I was precocious in that way,” he confesses. His first camera was a small two-anda-quarter-square folder that you could put in your top pocket. He used to take it bush walking, but says that he could never get his landscapes to look anything like what he saw. He graduated to a 35mm camera when he went to Sydney University where he studied science – mostly chemistry and botany – for two years, before moving to the Australian National University in Canberra to study forestry.
“There were vast numbers of young ladies at university,” he says with a grin, “and the camera was a great shield… it
was a great means of meeting them. I was involved in everything, including being the photographer for the student newspaper. You soon learnt to stand up in a crowd and take a picture. It took me a while to realise that they don’t see you, all they see is a photographer… you’re actually anonymous.”
Fifteen years ago he was asked to photograph a funeral.
“It was a hell of a scary thing to do,” he comments. When he turned up and pulled out the camera, initially people treated him like a leper, but once the priest announced that the family had asked him to take pictures, everything was fine. It was particularly sad, because it was a suicide. I just concentrated on doing the images and that allowed me to get through that function quite well. So the camera can be a shield for people like me who are quite shy.”
Chemistry was particularly important to Alan Davies as it enabled him to learn how photography works. He looked at photography very differently to many people and, for example, became excited about the idea of changing black and white photos into colour, using chemical processes.
“The chemistry of film is silver, but silver only has black, brown and white salts. If you change that silver to, say copper, then you can get a range of blue, red, yellow and green. Any colour you like, in fact.
“I used to always muck around with that sort of thing. I was proud of myself doing this and so I thought I should write this up for one of the photography magazines. I went to the library to do some reading and found it had already been done in the 19th century!”
Alan was conscripted for National Service when he was at Sydney University and had subsequently been getting deferments each year. But when he finished at ANU in 1970, he had to report to the army. He spent the next two years in signals, first in Melbourne and then based in Sydney. He remembers being annoyed at “the pointlessness of it”. He was paid by the public service an approximate salary to a major, but spent most of his time cleaning toilets.
After completing his National Service, Alan took up a job at the Sydney Technical College’s School of Chemistry. Then a mate rang him and said, “There’s a great job going at Sydney University, right up your alley, everything you do. This is you! Applications have closed, but I’ve have told them about you and they’re expecting a call”.
Alan phoned up and it turned out that the position was actually at the university’s Macleay Museum. He was asked to come in later that afternoon with his CV. He didn’t know what a CV was, but eventually hand wrote one. He washed his jeans, but they still weren’t dry by the time of the interview. He went in with no idea what the job was about “…but, by the time the interview was over, I had it sussed and the job was mine. Then I had to ask them what the pay was. To some extent you were allowed to do your own thing at Macleay so, back in 1977, I asked if I could do an exhibition of the history of photography. The answer was, ‘Oh, OK, go ahead’.”
Around this time, Barry Groom was a young student doing work experience at Macleay. He worked at an old peoples’ home and one thing that used to upset him was that, when someone passed away, it was his job to burn all their paraphernalia, including family photographs. One day he had an opportunity to voice this concern to a reporter and it subsequently became a big story in the local newspaper. One thing led to another and the Macleay Museum began to acquire photographs, mostly family pictures, from people. When Alan eventually left the museum, it had amassed a collection of around 30,000 images.
As a science graduate, Alan thought it odd that people were talking about the ‘why’ of Australian photographic history without first determining the ‘who’, ‘when’, ‘where’ and ‘how’. He then spent seven years from 1977, researching the ‘why’. It was also an attempt to help family historians date and identify their photographs. The completed project became the book, The Mechanical Eye in Australia, which was published in 1985 and subsequently won the inaugural Australian Heritage Award for publications in 1986.
Also in 1986 Alan received a Churchill Fellowship which enabled him to travel overseas to study a nominated subject. He subsequently visited 14 libraries in England and Scotland, searching for Australian photographs, particularly those from the 19th century. He was surprised at
You can get very precious about your own work, but the one thing that photographers have to understand is that it’s important they talk to an editor or a curator, and learn what’s interesting to other people.
just how many there were being held in various UK collections and, in three months of research, he listed around 8000.
“Essentially in those days, we sent everything home which was back to Britain.”
After returning from the UK in 1987, Alan received a call from the Mitchell Library in Sydney and was asked if he would like to do something for the upcoming Bicentenary celebrations.
One of the planned activities involved touring country NSW towns with photographer Shayne Higson (and, later, Jenni Carter), copying old photographs that were held in private hands.
“We would set up at local museums and historical societies for a week,” recalls Jenni Carter who is now Head of the Photography Studio at the Art Gallery of NSW. “Fantastic volunteers who would look after us and introduce us to the town. We travelled with a portable exhibition, a copystand, lights and camera gear… and often on small planes when we’d all be weighed to make sure they were weren’t overloaded.”
The team copied about 7000 images obtained from 576 individuals in 23 towns, and probably looked at many times that number. Jenni recalls that one of the most memorable trips was to the opal mining town of White Cliffs where most people lived underground.
“We were hosted by the amazing Gwen, an octogenarian who had been in the women’s land army in WW2. There was a house made from beer bottles and a family of emus wandering the main street. I have a memory of going to the pub and pretending that the vermouth-and-dry was for me, and the beer for Alan.”
The basic criterion for making a copy was, ‘ Will this photograph be of interest to other Australians?’ The general policy was not to copy formal studio portraits, images taken outside Australia, or snapshots that wouldn’t allow a reasonable degree of enlargement.
“Most institutions have photos of important people at important events, but history is not just that,” Alan states. “History is about the common man. It was an expe- dition to find that material. We sent out a press release saying that we were looking for the three most ‘impossible’ photographs – a dunny cart, dole queue and women working in the kitchen.
“This got people talking and many of the copied images were eventually published in a book called At Work And Play and shown at an exhibition at the State Library. It was a wonderful experience.”
A job as a curator in the State Library of NSW came up in 1989. Alan was keen to get it. He did, and subsequently became the library’s first Curator of Photographs. There were a couple of librarians to do the cataloging while Alan was involved in searching for new images to add to the collection. He’d already encountered this collection back in 1984 when he was seconded to the library for six months from University of Sydney to do an exhibition of photographs drawn from its archives. So he understood the collection, of which about half is negatives.
The photographs are collected for their informational content, not any artistic merit.
“Photographs are not just pretty pictures, illustrations. They’re documents. I like to say that photography tells us more, if you know how to read them and learn what’s in the image.
When I did forestry, I studied air photo interpretation for a year at ANU. So I look at photos very differently from many people.
“One day the field librarian came in with a suitcase of family photographs, including portraits of William Bland who was a Sydney doctor. At the State Library, you never know in what will walk in the door! In the bottom of the case was a little leather case and I recognised it as a pre1845 Daguerreotype camera.
“The photos looked like the work of George Goodman who was one of Sydney’s first photographers…. cash register as a brain, a bit of a fly-by-nighter. And not related to the later Sydney studio of the same name.”
Photography is also very much influenced by the technology of the time. Look at all those static poses from the 19th century because people had to be clamped in place. They aren’t smiling because it’s impossible to have a spontaneous 30-second smile.
Portrait of Alan Davies by Bruce Usher, copyright 2015.
Self-selection shopping, Broadhurst & Barcham, Sydney, c1957. Photographer: Jack Hickson. Reproduced courtesy of the State Library of NSW.
Emma-Lee Court, The Makeup Wardrobe, Newtown, 2013. Photographer: Nic Bezzina. Reproduced courtesy of the State Library of NSW.