don’t move – the 19th century transition to reduced exposure photographs

SF Instantaneous Photographic CoOn the hunt for some more shopfront photographs, I came across the so-called San Francisco Instantaneous Photographic Company. This newspaper advertisement on 4 October 1883 appeared in the Warragul Guardian and Buln Buln and Narracan Shire Advocate.  They could have saved on printing ink by shortening the paper’s name, but I digress.

So what was this thing called instantaneous photography, and why were customers and photographers alike excited by it?

The UK’s National Media Museum posted this to their blog in June.

The earliest photographic processes normally required exposures of many seconds, or even minutes, rendering the photography of movement impossible.

However, with the right combination of lighting, subject, lens and plate size, exposures of a fraction of a second, whilst still very difficult to achieve, were possible.

The taking of such photographs became known as ‘instantaneous photography’. Whilst the term was in common usage during the 19th century, there was surprisingly little discussion or agreement as to precisely what it meant.

In practice, it was applied to any photograph which contained an element of movement or which was taken with an exposure of less than one second.

In November 1880, an article in the South Australian Register explained.

Instantaneous Photography

INSTANTANEOUS PHOTOGRAPHY— The system of instantaneous photography has been recently adopted by Messrs. J. R. Dobson & Co., of the Temple of Light, Bundle-street, and the result of the improvement is the production of photographs infinitely superior in clearness, accuracy, and general effect to the likenesses taken under the old style. We were shown some sixty portraits of adults and children, and all of them were remarkable for the minuteness of detail as well as naturalness of expression, rendering them very faithful portraits. For photographing children this instantaneous process must be an invaluable aid, as the fleeting expression of a restless child’s face can be taken in a second ; and for adults it is very much more comfortable to sit for only a moment to have a portrait taken, without the inconvenience of having the head pilloried in an iron rest. In the photographs produced by the instantaneous process the natural expression of the eyes, the texture of the garments, and the softness of the lights and shades were particularly noticeable. The only fault some people could find with the process would be that it might too accurately portray the features, but they could remedy that by calling up their sweetest expression, and assume a virtue if they have it not.

This (out of copyright) photograph from the State Library of Victoria‘s collection was taken in Toongabbie, Victoria c 1890-1891 by the aforesaid photographic company. I’m not sure that the woman was calling up her sweetest expression as she looks quite sad, even without the inconvenience of her head being pilloried in an iron rest.

Toongabbie, Victoria - portrait

Woman, three-quarter length, to right, lace panel down front of dress, inscribed in black ink on verso: Toongabbie

reverse photo - stamp


I just had to add this comment to the body of this post.  Thanks to pellethepoet for an amusing story on the discomfort of posing for long exposure photographs.


Sir William Macarthur tells a humourous story of the ordeal for sitters of the long exposure –

“One day,” he says, “an old lady from the country was sitting before [William] Hetzer’s camera. Mrs. Hetzer, whose name was Teckla [sic – Thekla], helped in the studio and sensitised the plate in the darkroom while her husband posed the sitter. When the old lady was ready for the plate, Hetzer called out to his wife, ‘Teckla! Teckla!’ whereupon the nervous sitter jumped up in terror and exclaimed ‘For heaven’s sake don’t tickle me, sir, I can’t Stand any more!’”

from The Story of the Camera in Australia by Jack Cato (Melbourne : Georgian House, 1955), p. 17.

forgotten women: Olive Cotton – photographer

This article in the Sydney Morning Herald on 29 March 1938 featured photographer Olive Cotton.

The Lady behind the lens

Young Sydney Artist Discusses A Hobby for Women.

SIX women are represented at the Sydney Photographic Society’s International Exhibition which opened in Sydney on Wednesday. Among them is Miss Olive Cotton, a local amateur photographer, who has twice exhibited at the London Salon. The pictures on this page are examples of Miss Cotton’s work. (Note: newsprint cannot do justice to these photographs. Please see below links to collections of Olive Cotton’s work).

In an interview yesterday, in which she discussed photography for women, Miss Cotton said that the woman’s viewpoint can be captured by the woman behind the camera. She believes that women are doing photographic work comparable with that of men.

“How many women,” she said, “say at one time or another that they are bored? Yet they could find endless enjoyment with a camera assisted by eyes that are not inartistic.  I consider that here is a field where women could do good work – work which has its reward in the production of a good picture.”

MISS COTTON is an attractive young woman with a penchant for art in several forms and a firm belief in women expressing themselves through an art medium. She was precipitated into photography at thirteen years of age when she found that an inclination towards graphic art was in her case handicapped by an apparent lack of talent with brush and pencil.

Olive Cotton image 1943 - Tweed Shire Council

Olive Cotton 1943 – via Tweed Shire Council

Her first camera was of a box type, but she now uses a more involved reflex camera; her first enlarging apparatus was made from a biscuit tin operated from an electric iron contact; and the laundry draped with rugs was her first dark room. Now she has at her disposal one of the best- equipped photographic dark rooms in Sydney.

The Right Spirit.

Women who potter about with a box camera photographing any landscape that appeals to them have the right spirit because they are   expressing themselves rather than merely making tourist bureau records of beauty spots, Miss Cotto said. Those who want to express themselves and have no talent for painting or drawing will find as I did that photography is an excellent medium. It is a universal art form comprehensible to everyone, within reach of all.

The names of women are appearing more and more in the photographic annuals of the world and some of the important Continental exhibitions have included the work of as many as a   dozen amateur women photographers.

I believe that photography will soon be used as a medium for design. It will provide a field for women who have mastered the technique of modern photography.

Some Advice.

“ONE thing that women who wish to become good photographers should remember”, Miss Cotton continued, “is that the camera can do more than merely record an unchanging picture of a subject. A landscape, for instance, is there for everyone to photograph – an apparently changeless combination of earth, and trees, and grass; but it can be photographed in a hundred different ways. The lighting, the relation of the various objects to the shape of the picture, and many other factors can be changed by the individual, and this is where discernment and personality come into the picture, as it were.

I noticed at the exhibition of English pictures in Sydney a few weeks ago that a series of landscapes by a well-known woman photographer was obviously the work of a woman. One, in particular, was a picture of snow with a pattern of shadows. The approach was essentially feminine. A man could never have seen that landscape as she did.”

In the Dark Room.

“EVEN the casual hobbyist,” Miss Cotton declared, should develop and print her own pictures. Otherwise, it would be an expensive hobby and in any case, the treatment during these processes can always make or mar a picture. To become efficient at developing, printing and enlarging, experience over a number of years and constant practice are needed to make the most of one’s opportunties.

One of the commonest and most serious mistakes made by the inexperienced photographer is the tendency to take a dozen pictures of an object in the hope that one will be good. I find it much more satisfactory and less expensive to take one carefully considered and planned picture.”

Miss Cotton believes that more women should employ the camera as a hobby.

The article includes a photograph of Olive Cotton by fellow photographer Max Dupain.

Olive Cotton m Max DupainIn April of 1939 Cotton and Dupain were married in Sydney.

From Design and Art Australia Online

They separated two years later and divorced in 1944. Cotton taught mathematics at Frensham School, Mittagong (NSW), in 1941. From 1942-45 she managed the Max Dupain studio while Dupain was on war service.

…. In the 1980s Cotton’s photographs once again began to receive serious attention. They were included in Gael Newton’s exhibition, ‘Silver and Grey’ (Art Gallery of New South Wales), in 1980 and in the 1981-82 touring exhibition ‘Australian Women Photographers 1890-1950’, organised by Barbara Hall and Jenni Mather. In 1983 Cotton was awarded a Visual Arts Board grant to print photographs for the retrospective exhibition, ‘Olive Cotton Photographs 1924-1984’, which opened at the Australian Centre for Photography in 1985 and subsequently toured. Light Years , a film by Kathryn Millard on Olive Cotton’s life and work, was released in 1991. In the same year Teacup Ballet was issued on a stamp to mark the 150th anniversary of photography in Australia. Olive Cotton was awarded an Emeritus Fellowship from the Australia Council in 1993.

Olive Cotton features in Australian Stories on this Australian government site.  Works by Olive Cotton in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales can be found here.

early Australian Daguerreotypes

These days we take for granted our ability to record images of anything and everything with the click of a shutter or touch of a smart phone. In the mid-19th century, the Daguerreotype Process, with long exposures and complex processing, enabled the creation of still photographs where miniatures had traditionally been an accessible way, for those of some means, to have a portrait of a family member.

For technically savvy readers, there’s an impressive and comprehensive description (including visuals) of the process at Sussex PhotoHistory.

Mr George Goodman began promoting his new “means and appliances” creating likenesses that were revealed by “the sacred radiance of the sun” in Sydney.  The item continues here in The Australian – 6 February 1843.

Mr Goodman

And in The Sydney Morning Herald – 14 January 1845

THE DAGUERREOTYPE – Nearly three years ago, the daguerreotype portrait system was introduced into Sydney by Mr Goodman, who erected a temporary laboratory on the leads of the Royal Hotel. Mr Goodman had no reason at that time to complain of the amount of patronage he received ; but there was a want of life in the portraits, and a sameness in all, which made many prefer the ordinary miniature painting.

Recently, however, the improvements which have been made in the system in Paris and at  home, have been effected by Mr. Goodman here, and the dagerreotypes are now all that could be desired. Various specimens may be seen at establishments in George-street and other places – portraits such as Dr Bland’s, Dr. Bennett’s, Mr Mort, and others well-known to most of the inhabitants of the city, which will prove how superior the system now adopted is to that which two years ago excited their astonishment. Another advantage is, that the sitter is not now exposed, as under the old system, to a trial of his nerves in a purple glass case, on a burning lead roof – a trial which was too great for many. Those who can, in these times, afford a guinea for a lasting memorial, will readily do so when they have seen the specimens we have alluded to.

This is the a link to a Daguerreotype image of Dr William Bland photographed by George Goodman.  It is in the collection of the State Library of New South Wales who hold reproduction rights. The catalogue record indicates that this is the earliest known surviving photograph taken in Australia.  Bland was a naval surgeon who, in 1813, mortally wounded the purser of the ship Hesper and found himself transported to Australia as a convict. Dr Bland proved himself to be somewhat of a renaissance man – inventor, politician and philanthropist.  The link will take you to the Australian Dictionary of Biography for more of his story.  Goodman is credited with being Australia’s second photographer.

In some cases, the portraits became a lasting memory of a son or daughter.  This photo (again per the State Library of New South Wales and unable to be reproduced here without permission) of Eleanor Elizabeth Stephen was taken when she was around 15 years old.  At the age of 21, she died of gastric fever. The loss was such a great shock to her maternal grandmother that she herself expired within an hour of Eleanor’s death.

By way of example, with an out of copyright image per the State Library of Victoria, this Daguerreotype of Mrs John King with her son Philip Gidley King was made circa 1855 (photographer not credited).

Mrs John King