Recently, 3500 photos of nineteenth century Australia were discovered in a garden shed in suburban Sydney. They are worth checking out and are very interesting. And due to the nature of the film used they are incredibly detailed. One can, for example, look at the objects being sold in a shop window in the background of some photos.
Discovering the lost Holtermann collection
Discovered by chance in a garden shed in suburban Sydney after being lost for more than half a century, the Holtermann collection is Australia’s most internationally significant historical photographic archive.
Taken between 1870 and 1875, the collection of 3,500 glass plate negatives has recently been digitised by the State Library of NSW, unlocking fascinating stories hitherto hidden in the blurry background.
“Our goal was to resolve the smallest meaningful element in each of these pictures,” explains Scott Wajon, the State Library of NSW’s digitisation manager. “The tiles on brickwork, a bit of chalk graffiti on a wall, the prices of goods through a shop window.”
Capturing nineteenth century Australia with extraordinary precision, the photos document life in gold rush towns such as Ballarat, Victoria and Hill End, NSW. Spectacular promotional shots of Sydney and Melbourne also feature alongside portraits of Australian citizens. Viewing the collection you are taken into their world.
The photographs were originally commissioned by the newly minted German immigrant Bernhardt Holtermann. Determined to encourage others to find the same luck he had, Holtermann used part of his share of the profits from the giant gold nugget that bears his name employing Henry Beaufoy Merlin and Charles Bayliss of the American and Australasian Photographic Company to photograph gold producing areas in NSW and Victoria to promote Australia to the world.
Begun in 2009, the State Library of NSW’s digitisation project has employed the latest curatorial techniques, including custom-built light boxes. The digitisation process also required the creation of elaborate and expensive custom-built scanners to effectively capture the negatives, resulting in image lengths of up to 28,000 pixels.
It has showcased the technical brilliance of a 19th century photographic system that produced glass plate negatives ranging from 8.5 x 11cm up to 1.5 x 1.5m in a darkroom carried around on the back of a horse drawn cart.
Later this month, the collection will be included in the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World register.
“The Holtermann collection is an unrivalled visual record of Australian life in and around the goldfields,” says Dr Alex Byrne, NSW State Librarian.
“Few photographic collections such as this have survived anywhere in the world and I am thrilled UNESCO has recognised the rich cultural value of this iconic story from our past.”
The recognition is rich reward for the Library’s meticulous work digitising the collection.
“When we were digitising we had to decide how many pixels we were going up to,” says Wajon. “You come to a point you are not actually adding anything further to resolving detail. This is a fine distinction, but it’s important because the storage becomes huge.”
“That was our pivot point in terms of pixel dimensions. You can read labels on cans. You can see how the townsfolk dressed-up to get their photos taken. You can read the posters on walls and get very precise dates, which has helped resolve all sorts of questions around the images.”
“Suddenly we had all sorts of fascinating information we didn’t have before.”
Over three years, the project team have cleaned, conserved and rehoused the fragile glass plates, while scanning them to produce the highest resolution digital images possible. They are now viewable by the public online.
“Despite their age, these pictures contain an enormous amount of information,” says State Library of NSW photographic curator Alan Davies.
“The great advantage of this project is that now we don’t need to touch the negatives,” he says.
“Old glass is tremendously fragile, one knock and it can shatter into a thousand pieces, so we were very keen to avoid that. I’ve had the largest negative [of Holtermann’s home in Sydney] out on two occasions in 20 years, and on both occasions the sweat was dripping off me in sheer terror. So I’m very pleased it’s safely locked away in our basement.”
“Under the right conditions there is no deterioration in photographic chemicals on glass,” says Davies.
“Providing we maintain a constant temperature and humidity and keep them in the dark, these negatives should be round for several hundred years more.”
In 2009 the State Library of NSW’s historic First Fleet journal collection was included in the same UNESCO scheme.
The Greatest Wonder of the World exhibition is currently on show at the State Library of NSW.