Inside the Collection

Picture this: A few of our photographs

Photograph of Pyrmont bridge
Pyrmont bridge, Tyrrell collection

At the Powerhouse Museum we are fortunate to have a great photographic collection including glass plate negatives from the late 19th and early 20th century in the Tyrell collection. They form a fairly solid base of our historic photography collections and provide the odd bit of excitement when we discover hitherto unknown works within them, like the 400 World War One soldier images recently uncovered.

In the main the Tyrell glass plates are images are from photographic studios like Henry King and Kerry and Co. And through the wonders of the web, including flickr commons many have become available to the public gaze. Images like the Pyrmont Bridge scene shown at the beginning of this blog being used and reused in graphics and multiple websites including the Dictionary of Sydney. The images have importance not just in a photographic timeline, but for the social information and contexts they carry. Which also why we have collected photographs that document places people and events like the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

We also have work from well known 20th century photographers like Bruno Benini and David Mist mainly collected in the fashion and design studio. We have this image from Olive Cotton of her at one time husband, renowned Sydney photographer Max Dupain.

Photograph of Max Dupain photographing model on Cronulla Sandhills'
95/317/1 Photographic print, black and white, ‘Max Dupain photographing model on Cronulla Sandhills’, paper, Olive Cotton, New South Wales, Australia, taken 1937, printed 1992. Collection: Powerhouse Museum

The photograph by Olive Cotton provides a rare early glimpses ‘behind the scenes’ of a fashion shoot. The photographer is Max Dupain, and the model Noreen Hallard. Dupain was taking the fashion shots in the Cronulla sandhills south of Sydney for David Jones Department Store fashion publicity. At the time, Olive Cotton was the photographer’s assistant. She and Dupain were later married (1939-1941). And she ran his studio during World War Two.

During the 1990s, when this photograph re-emerged, Cotton’s work was undergoing an extensive review through exhibits and the publication of ‘Olive Cotton – Photographer’ (National Library of Australia publication, 1995). In this image and others contained in the publication you can see the separation from date the image was taken, 1937 and the date of printing, 1992.

Why do Museums collect photographs and what do they collect? We are looking for social, cultural and heritage significance in the images we collect.

It’s estimated that roughly 380 billion photographs are taken in the world each year — more photos per day than in the entire first 100 years after the invention of photography. But what, exactly, ignited that boom of visual culture? And how do we as museums handle the explosion of images and how to store, protect and make the accessible.

Very thoughtfully I suggest.

Written by Anni Turnbull, curator

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