And furthermore ...

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Tuesday, 30 August 2011


Four photographs by John Joseph Dwyer

"In a way Australia is like Catholicism. The company is sometimes questionable and the landscape is grotesque. But you always come back."
Thomas Keneally  

For urban historians, 19th century gold rushes are like those moments in concertos when the cymbals crash, the brass steps forward and the music suddenly picks up. What came before turns out to have been a mere prelude, of moderate interest but not necessarily explaining what follows. There were four great gold rushes in the 19th century; the Californian, Ballarat, the Yukon and Kalgoorlie, and they all had the effect of turning a distant port from a backwater into one of the richest cities in the world in its time. Most of San Francisco’s real gold rush history has vanished; there are only a handful of buildings from the 1850s remaining but walking the streets you still get the sense that once upon a time something big happened. Melbourne’s claim to genteel elegance rests almost entirely on its heritage of preserved gold rush architecture. Perth, which is some 500kms from Kalgoorlie, has actually had several mineral booms and manically reinvented itself in each so anyone visiting for the first time would be hard pressed to find evidence it went back more than fifty years. Go 20kms to the harbour of Fremantle however and you get the picture. In the 1890s it wasn’t just that the city needed to build but it had the money to do it on a scale that made its mother city always look a little dull and dingy in comparison. Its only rival was Kalgoorlie, out on the desert’s edge and which if not for the gold rush would have had no reason to exist.   

Calling John Joseph Dwyer the most significant photographer in 19th century Western Australia isn’t hard, and not simply because the competition was sparse but nobody else photographed anything like the range of subjects he did, from common portraits to landscapes to the inner workings of mines. It’s always an unknown factor whether a photographer like Dwyer was astute or lucky in being present at a great event – in this case the gold rush and the birth of a city – but if it was just luck he exploited it to the fullest. No other Australian photographer from the time has left has left as detailed a record of a place as he did. Born in Victoria in 1869 he moved to Kalgoorlie in 1896 and began taking commissions from the mining companies soon after. By 1900 he had opened a studio next to Kalgoorlie’s Palace Hotel (think the Dorchester or the Ritz in the middle of nowhere) and like any respectable photographer of the time worked on the principle of any image, any time. To get the best idea of his work you need to look at two books; An Everyday Transience by Philip Goldswain and Bill Taylor (UWA Publishing, 2010) and In Old Kalgoorlie by Robert Pascoe and Frances Thomson (West Australian Museum, 1989). Goldswain and Taylor’s book pays more attention to his portraits and cityscapes and is more revealing of the inner life of a gold rush town but in both we get an impression of a photographer who was technically adept and fascinated by the strange world he had entered. 

There are accounts of people who disembarked at Fremantle more or less broke but were so anxious to get to the goldfields they invested what cash they had left in a wheelbarrow and a spade and walked to Kalgoorlie. Once they crossed the Darling escarpment they were on a long, flat, dry and sunbaked stretch for 360 miles. An astute botanist would have noted changes in the flora and the landscape but for most pedestrians it would have been a case of monotonous plains marked by diminishing vegetation. By the time they reached Kalgoorlie or its sister town Coolgardie they were in a scrubby desert marked by saltpans, granite outcrops and spinifex. It wasn’t all that miserable. When the seasonal rains came through Kalgoorlie’s landscape bloomed with everlastings and other wildflowers and as the indigenous people knew, water was about if you knew where to look.

There are a couple of reasons why Australia never developed any significant concept of landscape photography in the 19th century.  One is that the penetration of the interior was relatively slow and to the country’s lasting loss the exploration teams never thought to take photographers (sketchbooks at least saved space). The other is that few, probably nobody, thought it interesting enough. The ancient and eroded landscape held no wonders like America’s canyon system and in contemplating it one had to think not in details but expanse, something no photograph could do justice to. Dwyer was one of the very few from the 19th century to leave a body of landscape work worthy of attention. There is no grandeur in these four images; on the other hand, nor is there anything of the romantic sensibility that would frequently obscure the work of later Australians like Harold Cazneaux. You get the impression Dwyer viewed the land dispassionately, as something that needed to be documented because without it the record was incomplete. If that was the case his legacy in landscape work might lack the artistic inspiration of near contemporaries like the American William Jackson but it is protected by its authenticity and his familiarity with it.