Vanessa Finney, Capturing Nature: Early Scientific Photography at the Australian Museum 1857-1893

NewSouth Books, 2019, 654 pp., ISBN: 9781742234984, p/bk, AUS$49.99

Let me declare a point of self-interest before I say too much about this insightful and intriguing book. I confess to having a long history with both photographic practice in cultural institutions and (albeit, a fair while ago), a mediocre stab at a PhD in zoology, taxonomy and identification and management of fishery species. And for my Honours thesis, I was the grateful recipient of some fine x-ray photography taken by staff at the Museum, the very same inheritors of the skills and traditions which Finney’s book chronicles in considerable detail.  So I write this, somewhat as an insider, a practitioner, a user and an appreciator of scientific and technical photography.

Finney’s book delivers both a record of the evolution of scientific photography in Australia alongside an engaging narrative of some of the key people who shaped the Australian Museum’s place in colonial Sydney. Gerald Krefft and Henry Barnes loom large in this book and in some respects, were in the right place at the right time.

For the Museum, as Finney says, the 1860s marked a lucky confluence of skills need, experience and technology.  Krefft had established his natural history credentials as a member of the Blandowski collecting expeditions through Victoria in 1856-57 and after a few years as assistant curator he was appointed officially as Curator in 1864, a position he held for 10 years. Barnes’ role evolved from simple specimen preparation to staging, articulation and photography. In an almost feudal manner, Barnes passed both the skills and the position down to his son – in fact, including his brother and his son, the Barnes family contributed over 120 years service to the Museum.  It must have been a crowded and often chaotic location, with most of the staff, their families and pets living at the museum. Krefft was followed by Edward Ramsay who also recognised the role of photography in recording, arranging and managing the Museum’s growing collections.

The late 1800s were a revolutionary time for natural history, seeing the transition from hobby to discipline, from Victorian gentleman collector to professional scientist.  Krefft was an early supporter of Charles Darwin’s theories and corresponded with him, discussing topics such as photographic images of specimens found in the Wellington caves as well as problems with layout of the Long Gallery (in which he included a hand drawn, brown ink diagram of “women young and old contemplating a human foetus”).  Concurrent to the evolution of scientific thought and practice was the invention and rapid development of photography, the skills and techniques of which were quickly put into service of science.  Though aware of the benefits of photography, the museum Trustees were reluctant to fund it adequately and both Krefft and Ramsay used their own personal cameras and equipment at work for many years.  The museum’s first purpose built photographic studio and darkroom was not completed until 1897.

The Krefft and Barnes partnership fully introduced photography to the Australian Museum and allowed the institution to record and share its collection with the world. Trading and networking were key ways for museums and ambitious curators to build both collections and reputations.  In 1874, Edward Ramsay was appointed as Curator, replacing Krefft, who had lost support of the Trustees after a number of unfortunate and colourful incidents that included the theft of some gold specimens, and seizure of a parcel of “obscene” photographs that Henry Barnes had hidden under his work bench.  Ramsay introduced a more measured approach to museum management and transformed the Museum by hiring specialist assistants, experts in each animal group.  He initiated indexing and consolidation of the growing photographic collection into albums.

Somewhere along the way, the negatives and prints rose from simply being a useful record of the physical collections to be a valuable collection in its own right.  It is fortunate that, more than 150 years after the images were made, over 90% of the glass plates in the collection have survived.

Capturing Nature tells through its main narrative and interesting asides (“Snakes Alive!, “Henry Barnes Day Off” and “Fighting over teeth”), the genesis, growth and consolidation of the photographic collections of the Australian Museum.  Finney, the Museum’s chief archivist and librarian, writes with unquestioned authority and deep knowledge of the museum’s photographic collections.

Gerard Krefft with the newly discovered Manta Ray, Manta alfredi, 1869. Courtesy Australian Museum

It is a handsome book, generously illustrated with a wide spectrum of photographs of ranging from rather sterile line-ups of bones and teeth to faintly disturbing tableaux or set pieces of stuffed mammals, lovingly articulated, posed (and photographed, of course) by Barnes.  The images she has chosen are most intriguing when they show not only the specimen/subject but also include incidentals like the old bits of furniture providing crude support, the pulley hauling a massive fish to the first floor, the bits of wood prising shark jaws apart apart, the dramatically draped sheets and the occasionally, glimpses of Krefft, Barnes and other bit players in this saga.

Finney’s book is an attractive and articulate reminder in this, occassionally careless, digital imaging age, of the invention, craft and dedication that these early adopters possessed, and that underpinned the creation of a unique and valuable Australian photographic collection.

Reviewed by Scott Wajon, Manager, Digitisation, State Library of New South Wales

March 2019

Visit the publisher’s website here.

The exhibition Capturing Nature is also on at the Australian Museum until 21 July 2019. Details are on the Australian Museum website here.


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