How Landscape Photographers Reinvented the Colonial Project in Australia

The history of Colonial America is awash with commodities. Wool produced extraordinary wealth for pastoralists and squatters in the early 1800s. It also led to significant investment in the Australian colonies. Tens of thousands of people worked the earth and serviced the diggings in the 1850s because of gold. At different times, coal, copper, tin and wheat all became important.

The International Exhibitions were the great cathedrals of colonial self-representation in the late 19th century. Visitors would immediately have noticed how Victoria, Tasmania, and New South Wales sought to identify themselves with the commodities they produced.

The prominent mining displays inside the Garden Palace in 1879

A photograph taken in 1879 shows the NSW Department of Mines filling its section of the Garden Palace with samples of tin, silver ores and gold ingots. The balconies to the left contained coal sections and geological maps.

Visitors to these displays would have also noticed landscape photos on the walls. These photographs mirror the extractive logic of settler colonialism and work together to create a vision that is rich in nature.

A vintage panoramic photo of Sydney and the harbor from 1875

Photographers captured stunning views of emerging colonial cities, seemingly empty vistas and budding settlements.

These photographs have been growing in popularity over the last decades of the 19th Century, proving that colonial expansion wasn’t just a result of the need to find raw materials to extract and exploit. Vision and imagery were also key factors in colonial Australia’s development. It was literally created through chemical, glass, light, and other means.

A vintage photo of an old colonial estate in Australia from 1894

Over 2000 landscape photos taken between 1850 and 1930 by six early settler photographers have been studied. These photographs show how colonization was reenacted through the imagination of places and not simply by the movement of people to one site.

The colonial earth was made possible by visions of nature. Even for those who have never planted a seed, they paid off with feelings of belonging. These photos show, as William Cronon, an American environmental historian, insists, that nature is itself a deeply human artifact.

A vintage photo of a forest in Australia

Landscape photography was popularized in settler colonies as a way to show nature as beautiful, accessible, and empty. Landscape photography was a popular choice in Victoria and Tasmania. This mode of photography is not unique to Australia, but it was popularized in Australia by Carleton Watkins (American West) and Eadweard Muybridge (American West).

A Photographic Sleight of Hand

John Lindt, Nicholas Caire and John Beattie were among the first to use cameras to help settlers feel at home in Australian settings. This lens disguised the continuing presence and ancestral ownership of First Nations peoples and turned their homelands into a wilderness using a photographic trick.

This is best illustrated in Victoria, where Caire & Lindt started framing the bush stretch between Narbethong and Healesville as a wilderness retreat in the late 1870s.

A vintage photo of a settlement in New South Wales in the 1890s

Caire was born in Guernsey, 1837. He came to this collaboration work via South Australia and the forests of Gippsland. Lindt, originally from Frankfurt had just completed photographing Bundjalung, Gumbaynggir and other people along the Clarence River, northern NSW.

Caire took Fairy Scene at Blacks’ Spur in 1878. It quickly became one his most famous photographs.

Caire’s article focuses on a glade with tree-ferns that is located on the edge of a gully. Caire and Lindt wrote in 1904 about the wildness and ancient age of the Great Forest and Fernshaw’s “refreshing” solitude. Lindt said that places like these are attractive because they can “carry you back in the morning of the time”.

A vintage photo of colonial explorers in vegetation in Tasmania in 1887

The empty natures in the Yarra Ranges were made possible by the removal of Woiwurrung, Bunurong and Taungurong at the Coranderrk Mission. Coranderrk was located just kilometers from Lindt’s “refreshing forest” and helped the photographers to create a separation between the environment, and its ancestral owners.

The mission was a site of complementary interest. Lindt and Caire promoted the natural features in the Yarra Ranges by describing Coranderrk to tourists as a place where they could imitate the anthropologist while walking through sylvan meadows or looking up at huge mountain ash.

A vintage landscape photo of a lake in Tasmania in the 1890s

Caire and Lindt were creating their visions for nature in the Yarra Ranges. Fred Kruger, a photographer, was also taking important shots of the daily life on the reservation. In the 1870s and 1880s, one of the most difficult challenges for landscape photographers was dealing with the presence of Aboriginal people in landscapes which were being coveted for their natural beauty.

Caire and Lindt rediscovered an old tradition of photography at Coranderrk and combined it with a new interest wilderness. This allowed them to balance the contradiction between Indigenous presence/absence.

A vintage photo of Lake Perry in the Hartz Mountains in the Tasmanian highlands in the early 1900s

The Tasmanian Sublime

Photographers in Tasmania also started a similar tradition of creating wilderness from the 1870s. John Beattie, the “prince of landscape photographers” in Australasia, immigrated from Scotland in 1878. He settled in New Norfolk with his family, 30 km up the Derwent Valley from Hobart.

This was the perfect spot for budding photographers. Beattie took beautiful pictures of the river and hop gardens in 1890s. But the interior of the island had a different beauty.

Beattie started making trips into the forest around the valley, to the central highlands and finally all the way to Lake St. Clair in 1879. He joined the Anson Brothers’ photography studio in 1882 and quickly rose to be their most prominent artist.

An Anson Brothers 1887 image shows a stand of Ferns along the Huon Road. This image, unlike Caire’s, shows settlers enjoying the same kind of immersion in nature as Caire’s.

Many of Beattie’s photos are romantic. He presented regular Hobart and Launceston presentations between 1896-1806. His magic lantern shows reflected the wild Tasmanian landscape.

The sublime is captured in photographs of Lake Marion, the Du Cane Range, and one of Lake Perry and The Pinnacles. Beattie was influenced by American transcendentalist poets through his love for the mountaintop. my soul sings.”

These profound sentiments were based on Romantic ideas from William Wordsworth and Edmund Burke, but they also relied heavily on new space experiences. Beattie’s breakthrough years came in the 1890s. This decade saw Australian Romantic paintings of wilderness go into decline, and were replaced with photographic images of nature.

Photography and romanticism have influenced how people remember the history of dispossession. The imagery of the wilderness created by settler photography was used to create a fantasy of spatial control and enduring symbols for the natural world.

Aboriginal Extinction, Romantic Communion

Beattie did the same as Caire, dividing his visions about nature from his portraits. He was an insatiable collector and opportunist of photos of “last” Tasmanians and leaning into the myth of Tasmanian Aboriginal extinction.

Advertisements for these images were sometimes found on the back cover of Beattie’s landscape collection covers, gently leading interested viewers to the other side.

Beattie’s photos of Aboriginal people were merely reproductions of portraits Francis Nixon, first Bishop of Tasmania, and amateur photographer, took at putalina (Oyster Cove) in 1858. Nixon captured the last few Aboriginal survivors, who had been exiled on Wybelenna Station in Flinders Island. He also observed a decade of surveillance at the former penal probationary station south of Hobart.

These images were copied by Beattie in the 1890s and each one was labeled with the phrase “the final of the race”

This language was not a coincidence. It was also adopted by one the most successful landscape photographers in Australasia. The twin fantasies of Aboriginal extinction and Romantic communion in the wilderness shaped the late 19th-century settler visions about nature.

This dynamic had a profound impact on landscape photography beyond the Australian colonies. Alfred Burton, a Dunedin photographer, became well-known for his 1885 album, The Maori At Home. This album, which was published across the Tasman in New Zealand by Alfred Burton, delicately balanced ethnographic imagery with wilderness imagery much like Caire.

A vintage photo of colonial explorers Burton and Payton outside a whare

Burton used his camera to carve Maoris from their ancestral homes. This created a “terra incognita”. He made visual partitions between Ngati Maniopoto and the Waikato landscapes. Also, he divided Ngati Tuwharetoa’s population from the massive geography of Tongariro and Ngauruhoe.

A vintage black and white photo of an active volcano in New Zealand in the late 1800s

Burton and a group of adventurers returned to these beautiful environments a year later in 1886. From the mid-1890s onwards, more settlers would follow Burton’s lead. After a long struggle against Ngati Tuwharetoa’s resistance, Tongariro’s heights became New Zealand’s first National Park.

These same processes also shaped settler attitudes towards Yosemite National Park, one of America’s most iconic national parks. Photographers like Watkins or Muybridge created similar partitions between human and natural subjects at Yosemite.

A photo of Mirror Lake in Yosemite by Eadweard Muybridge

This division was beautifully represented in a series of photographs that captured stunning landmarks using the still waters of Yosemite’s reflective lakes. These works transformed the myth of the empty wilderness into the stunning motif of a beautiful glassy lake.

It is possible to assume that Caire, Beattie and Burton would have consciously copied this technique from their American kin, but evidence does not support this.

Land Control

It is more likely that similar visions of nature emerged in parallel, drawing on similar histories of dispossession in different settlement colonies.

Photographers helped colonists establish dominion over stolen land in a variety of locations where pastoralists were unable to graze their cattle and geologists failed to find economic deposits.

This drive was perfectly captured in the earliest visions that Australia had of nature. It was recorded onto glass negatives and lantern slides and on paper cards.

Here is where the commodities enter the story. To control land, the settlers used landscape photography as a holistic approach. Caire and Beattie created a way of telling stories and creating images that encourages settlers to feel a connection with the natural world.

Customers were attracted to the oxygenated forests and the romantic thrill of climbing a mountain. Photographs of these experiences were a commodity. They were displayed in galleries and sitting rooms.