New Sydney exhibition celebrates historic 'staged' photos
An exhibition celebrating the quirky mid-19th and early 20th century era of staged photographs opens in Sydney next week.
The Staged Photograph, running at at the Chau Chak Wing Museum, will transport viewers to a time when costumes had to be captured in a studio, and when fictional photographs, posing models in a story or comic scene, were sold and bought for home entertainment.
Exhibition curator Jan Brazier said the unique popularity of this early photography remains unfamiliar to many people.
"The images are a diverse and intriguing insight into the role staged photographs played in our lives and the popular culture of the time.”
“These photos were private memories kept in frames or the family album, where undoubtedly many are still to be found,” said Brazier.
The images in the exhibition were captured by both professional and amateur photographers, from Australia, Britain and the United States, and are drawn from more than 60,000 in the University’s social history photograph collection.
A highlight of the exhibition is a series of stereographs - the ‘online’ experience of the 19th century.
The stereograph used two nearly identical photographs to create a 3D image when seen through a viewer called a stereoscope.
Originally a middle-class activity, with the family gathering in the parlour to enjoy the images, it became more affordable by the 1890s and the mass home entertainment of its time. Its transformation saw millions of stereographs in use worldwide.
Views of exotic locations were by far the most popular stereographs for ‘armchair travelling’, but commercial photographers also created fictional scenes using actors and props to tell highly theatrical stories. Sentimental and comical scenes were big sellers.
Some of the most popular themes are still familiar – love, courtship, marriage, children and drunkenness – but others are of their time, taken from vaudeville jokes or the prejudices of the age.
Both Irish servant women and African American plantation workers were held up to racist ridicule. One popular genre was college girls taking part in dormitory ‘larks and pranks’. Another was financial ruin from horse racing.
“The visual humour revealed in these stereographs provides a way for us to understand and interrogate a previous era’s cultural and social values”, said Brazier.
Home photography took off when smaller, more portable cameras became available, and the Kodak revolution arrived in the early 20th century. Amateur photographers captured special family moments using the backyard as a set.
Family members posed as if in a studio, with a suspended curtain on the washing line or a pot plant on a stand, often still capturing a special costume. There was also a practical reason to work outdoors: better light.
“It doesn’t surprise me the Museum’s historical photographic exhibitions are so popular as people make a direct connection with our past ways of seeing ourselves,” Brazier said.
The Staged Photograph is on Level 1 of the Historic Photography Gallery, Chau Chak Wing Museum, and runs from 22 April 2023 through to April 2024.
Opening hours are 10am-5pm Monday to Friday (until 9pm Thursday); 12-4pm Saturday and Sunday; closed public holidays. The exhibition is free.