Brisbane 1890-1920

Civic Art Gallery and Museum, Brisbane City Hall
15 February - 7 March, 1988

Art as history or history as art? This question is important to a viewing of this exhibition which was put together by Queensland College of Art students as part of their Humanities studies, under the direction of Jim Brodie and Craig Douglas.

The 45 images were printed and produced from 285 glass plate negatives found packed in cigar boxes under a house in Red Hill, and now held by the Brisbane City Hall Art Gallery & Museum. It has been dubbed the Elliott Collection because members of that family are frequently featured in it.

Appearing in Bicentennial Year, and supported by essays with an historical bent, the emphasis would appear to be on history, both personal and public.

Yet the art is certainly there.

Jim Brodie points out in his catalogue essay that a number of the images seem to be the work of a trained photographer "because of the even emulsion coating on the negatives, the full tonal range, the composition, and the depth of field." Others, however, appear the work of amateur, or semi-professional photographers.

The era was one in which Australia was almost desperately seeking a national identity which set it apart from Britain, while still preserving links with the "parent" country. This separate identity was becoming crucial: Australia needed to develop industries which were relevant to its own resources and needs, as well as being competitive on the overseas market, rather than simply mimicking those of Britain. Yet within the country, there were two dominant views of "identity", each representing strong economic interests: that of the pastoralists; and that of the industrialists.

All these conflicts are represented in this exhibition: the links with the Old Country and Royalty are strongly demonstrated in photographs of public events, almost all of which concern Royal visits. The exceptions, however, are notable: Eight Hour Procession Queen Street, 1893, and two photographs of the history-making Federal Referendum of 1899.

The development of Brisbane as a commercial centre is evident in a number of photographs, with the imposing edifice of the Treasury Building clearly a cornerstone of Brisbane life. The Eight Hour Procession was, of course, a public response to the pressures felt from the growing industrialism. The uneven spread of prosperity resulting from development is evident in the image Visit of Prince of Wales, July 1920, which depicts a large and well-dressed crowd on the far side of an arch bearing the legend "Welcome to Brisbane", yet foregrounds a barefoot, poorly-dressed urchin. The photographer, it would seem, had a strong sense of social irony.

The representation of the "rural" in the exhibition could be seen as an attempt to understand the environment through its use by Aboriginal peoples. From almost 100 years distant, however, the 1890 photographs of Aboriginal Climbing Tree and Aboriginals Fishing, Maroochy River seem like anthropological artifacts. Yet, they do exemplify the fascination Australians have with the land.

The unknown photographer (or photographers) had a very definite concern with structuring the image for aesthetic effect, and this is best demonstrated in Small Flood, Melbourne Street, South Brisbane, 12.6.1893 and Royal Main Hotel - William Helmholz N.D. In the former, the photographer has captured something of the excitement of water invading a major city street in an image that is remarkable for its clarity and use of light and reflection.

The photo of the Royal Main Hotel shows a bicycle club, perhaps about to set off on an excursion. Rather than focusing exclusively on the riders, the photographer has chosen to include the entire front facade of the Hotel and, as well, in a narrative gesture, a waist-coated gentleman with a small girt at one side, to tip the balance of the composition.

The image makes superb use of the uprights and horizontals of the main building structure, and through its remarkable clarity, is able to contrast the rationality of these with the soft delicacy of the wrought-iron lace, echoed again in the curves of the bicycle wheels. It is not just the age of the photo which lends an agelessness to the building. It is the arrangement of the figures which allows the impression that the building is an edifice, extending onward and upward and greater than the human component.

The exhibition is an insightful dip into 30 years of Brisbane life - its events, people and places. And the reader/viewer, here, is most certainly not troubled by the author/artist, who is most certainly dead and unable to trouble the text with any declarations of intent or otherwise. But the vexed questions of reality/history and reality/representation are forever lurking behind such a phenomenon as this impressive exhibition.