A Photographic Record of Colonial Queensland

Book Details

A Photographic Record of Colonial Queensland
Lyall Ford — Click here to learn more about the author
Page Size:
235mm X 300mm
No. of Pages:
Bibliography and Index
First Published:
0 9590776 2 6

The Story

“Photographic images have become so much part of our lives that we barely notice them. They stare out at us from newspapers and magazines, books and street posters. We all have our own personal collections of family snaps, memorabilia of our lives, and most of us have owned a series of cameras of varying levels of sophistication, from Box Brownies to modern digital cameras. We take the existence of cameras for granted and there is no particular reason to think back to the origins of the process by which reality is captured on to light sensitive emulsion and metal, glass, paper or cellulose nitrate or cellulose acetate negatives. But the process is not really very old, and in its early decades it was a quite scientific art form. Cameras were on tripods, the lenses had to be set, the backdrop chosen, the sitters cajoled to remain still for a long period, and the end product had to be developed, cropped, tinted and enlarged. It was an expensive hobby for the rich and a profession for a few.

The wet plate process dates back to the 1830s, of which the Daguerreotype process invented in 1839 was the most successful. They were positive images on a metal support. The quality was exceptional but the process was cumbersome. Copper plates were exposed to iodine, the fumes forming light-sensitive silver iodine, and the plate had to be used within an hour. Exposures were for 10 to 20 minutes, during which time there could be no movement, and developing used heated mercury, a warm solution of salt and rinsing in hot distilled water. The invention of the dry plate process in 1878 meant that portable darkrooms were no longer necessary, the process was much more sensitive to light, and relatively fast shutter speeds were possible. Cameras became much more simple and portable, allowing more outside scenes to be captured. The final inventions late in the nineteenth century were film strips loaded as cartridges and cheaper cameras, basically the same process that has survived through until today. The photos taken by John Henry Mills and his partners involved all three processes, but were mainly dry plate productions. All are of wonderful quality.

In recent decades historians have become more conscious of the power of pictures. Photographs are fragments of the past and we need to be aware that they can be casual snaps or careful constructions, and that we can deconstruct the images in our analysis of years gone by. We are inclined to accept their reality and use them as factual evidence of what life was like long ago, but just as today, when we can easily reshape photographic evidence with the help of a personal computer, scanner and a Photoshop programme, professional photographers have always been able to alter images while locked away in the darkness of developing rooms with their chemical baths turning negatives into photographs. The Mills photos need to be ‘read’ both as a record and as careful constructions. Why did certain images interest him, and how did he create the shots? He was a commercial photographer, so his images had a particular purpose. Most of those reproduced here are general views, not just portraits of individuals, although we know that these were also a major part of his business. They illustrate both his travels in Queensland, and the places around which he lived.

The third element is the selection process for this book. Mills and his partners took thousands of photographs. Lyall Ford, one of John Henry Mills’ descendants, has already produced two important books on his family, Below These Mountains: the Adventures of John Henry Mills (2001) and Poorhouse to Paradise: The Adventures of a Pioneering Family in a North Queensland Country Town (2001), which have included some of the John Mills photos. Few are duplicated in the selection for this new book, which surveys colonial Queensland, sorted by geographic regions and largely from the 1870s when the colony was still expanding north and westwards. The images allow us a window into Queensland’s past and are accompanied by short descriptions to provide context. They show Brisbane as a rudimentary town with a few grand buildings such as Parliament House, and a bush community scattered around the colony, living in quite rough conditions. Who today would swap lives with Dr Handt on the Mount Britton goldfield in the early 1880s, or Hyland, an early settler at Stanthorpe in the 1870s, in his even smaller humpy. Another picture shows sugar planter John Spiller, a Mackay pioneer, living in a substantial but grass-thatched roofed house. Rural towns were full of wooden structures lining dirt roads, with hotels the only buildings of substance.

These are images of a Queensland now largely forgotten, except by individuals who possess collections of old family photos, and by historians. They deserve to be seen by more people and to be preserved on the public record. Lyall Ford has given us access to a world that has passed, for which we owe him thanks.”

Clive Moore — Associate Professor
School of History, Philosophy, Religion and Classics — University of Queensland

From the Author

This book follows on from the earlier story about the life of John Henry Mills — Below These Mountains. It features 109 of his photographs taken between 1872 and 1919 at various places around Queensland. The quality of these photographs is remarkable considering their age.

Lyall Ford