Photograph of Chinese labourers c1885-90 taken on the streets of Sydney

Chinese labourers c1885-90 By Syer, Arthur K. From the collection of the State Library of New South Wales, a844023 / PXA 394/23, 1885 - 1890

Photography is an amazing medium. In certain frames it can give us a candid glimpse of everyday life and transport us to another era.  This is exactly what happens in an fabulous exhibition currently on at the State Library of New South Wales called Crowds. The exhibition presents the daring, concealed images snapped by photographer Arthur K Syer. Syer’s friend the illustrator and cartoonist Phil May asked Arthur to take the photos for him to capture everyday life on Sydney streets. He wished to used the photos as a study for his illustrations – a gesture here, the tilt of the hat there, characters and types.

And so in the 1880s Arthur K Syer strolled through the streets of Sydney with his parcel-wrapped, hand-held ‘Detective Camera’. This innovative little camera, way before James Bond or Maxwell Smart, allowed Arthur to take photographs without the subject’s knowledge.

The photos are compelling. You feels like you are there wandering along the street yourself.

We have one of Syer’s photos already in the Dictionary of Sydney. It shows a couple of Chinese street traders or hawkers with their baskets getting ready to hit the pavements selling their vegetables. It is an example of one of the great community partnerships we have with institutions like the State Library that allow us to access their collections and share content with our curious readers. And now that more images have been digitised, we’ll be able to add more into the Dictionary to really bring to life what Sydney was like in the 1880s.

There are photos in the exhibition of people boarding the ferries at Circular Quay, crowd shots of children staring at something happening up a ladder, larrikins crossing the street, and carters and traders bustling amongst the horses at the George Street Market beside the Sydney Town Hall. One of my favourites is a brass band playing in the street.

To check out some of the photos, go to the exhibition at the State Library. It is free admission and on until 23 August. While you are there you can also pick up a series of postcards and go out onto the streets and do your own ‘then and now’ photos with your smartphone.

You can also follow Arthur K. Syer on Instagram @arthursyer or view some of his photos in the State Library’s online Pictures Catalogue and Flickr album.

You can listen to a podcast of Lisa’s segment with Mitch at 2SER Breakfast here. Tune in again next week for more of Sydney’s history courtesy of the Dictionary of Sydney, on 107.3 at 8:20am. Don’t miss it!

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