More than just a pretty face

Since coming across this striking portrait a year ago, the anonymity of its subject has given me plenty of room to reflect on its beauty. The dark and lovely creature peering intensely at the photographer in this image from our historic William Hall collection seemed entirely suited to the shroud of mystery surrounding her identity.

Actress Phyllis Baker, 1927. Photographer W.J. Hall. ANMM Collection 00013207

Actress Phyllis Baker, 1927. Photographer W.J. Hall. ANMM Collection 00013207

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Photo story- Ansel Adams Cruise and Workshop

The view from under the cloth through the lens of an 8 x 10 deardorff camera. Upside down and back to front.

The view from under the cloth through the lens of an 8 x 10 Deardorff camera. Upside down and back to front…

It is odd under here.

The warm, almost suffocated air inside the velvety fabric tent.  Like hiding under the covers. The image- all upside down, back to front and obscured, unfocused in a gridded glass plate.  It is a concept of the life in front of the lens. While I look through this camera, a passer by, enamoured with the display of vintage technology, stops to take a photograph of a photograph being taken.


We are outside the museum for an introduction to our Ansel Adams-inspired photography workshop, learning what it is like to work with large format analogue cameras like those Adams would have used.  We’ve toured the beautiful images in the exhibition with ANMM curator Richard Wood and now it is time for our workshop with tutors Michael Waite and Benjamin Stone-Herbert  from the Australian Centre for Photography.

photography large format

ACP Tutors Michael and Ben set up large format cameras for everyone to try.

Tiny slide frames are handed around. This is how we will learn to compose our shot.  Michael suggests that even contemporary landscape artists and photographers may not have any better tool for thinking about a shot than a simple rectangular frame held up to the life around them.  The perfect photo may just be found in deciphering the best way to frame the vast chaos and disordered collection of shapes in any given environment.

frames workshop participants

It is really a perfect day to be out on the harbour. Blazing sun cut by the cool breeze flapping in from the open doors and windows of our tiny ferry as it powers down the Parramatta River. Michael encourages us to concentrate on the journey. To not see the ferry as a barrier between us and the “out there” subject but as something that could frame our images. A scratched window, a red railing, a smear of reflection all adds to the scene. This idea is inspiring and releasing to almost all the participants and they head about keenly experimenting with compositions in, on and through the ferry towards the passing vistas.

photographer river




There is no shortage of beautiful and fascinating subjects- Graffiti-ed pylons, churning water, dilapidated boats and sheds along the river, or even the other photographers.



And it is lucky we are focusing on the journey.

As we pull in towards our destination (the semi- submerged shipwrecks of homebush bay) we discover the water level is too low to go any further today. We have to be content with a long distance shot or risk being marooned on the banks of the river. But there has been so much to capture already no one seems to be worried. As Ansel Adams would say “every experience is a form of exploration” and today, it would seem, we have been explorers.





Picture This: History Week 2013

History WeekWhat’s your favourite story from our photographic collection? Is it the voyage of the Sunbeam, the glamorous Hera Roberts or the mystery disappearance of two film stars? How about the ‘yachties’ – master shipwright Billy Barnett, Frank Albert or Sydney’s oldest yachtsman? For History Week this year the theme is Picture This, and on 11 September, in partnership with our friends Inside History Magazine, we will be exploring how cultural institutions are using digital communities to share photographic collections and unlock the past. Join my fellow blogger Penny Hyde, myself and our guest panellists Paula Bray, Geoff Hinchcliffe, Mitchell Whitelaw, Lisa Murray and Bernard de Broglio for a lively discussion about the exciting world of online collections! Continue reading

An American icon

Ansel Adams – Photography from the Mountains to the Sea is being installed in the USA Gallery at the museum, it opens to the public on Thursday 4 July.

Three museum staff members installing photographs

Installing Ansel Adams photographs. (L to R) Stephen, museum preparator; Will, museum conservator; and Matthew Del Grosso, Collection Specialist from Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts.

The vintage prints, from the hand of the photographer, explore his fascination with photographing water in nature, and developing techniques to capture the movement of waves, waterfalls and geysers previously hidden to the human eye. I especially like looking into the black parts of the photographs and seeing that they are actually full of very dark details. Continue reading

60 years on, thanks for all the photographs Sam

Ship's officer with pet dog on SS CHINDWARA, 1912-1933 Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio ANMM Collection

Ship’s officer with pet dog on SS Chindwara, 1912-1933
Photographer: Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

Much of what I research seems to gravitate toward the museum’s Samuel J Hood photographic collection. Even when I try to focus on a specific historical event, the odds are, Sam or one of his photographers were there snapping away and I’m left spellbound by a spectacular series of glass plate negatives. Sixty years ago today, we lost one of our most prolific and compelling photographers. We lost a man who ensured that much of early twentieth-century Sydney was documented for us to appreciate today. Continue reading

Remembering the Forgotten Fleet

In late 2013 a new display will open to the public in the museum’s USA Gallery. This World War 2 story remembers the service of over 3,000 Australian civilians employed by the US Army Small Ships Section between May 1942 and January 1947. Many objects and photographs selected for display have been borrowed from individuals or from the families of those who served with the US Small Ships. The US Army Small Ships Association Inc has been instrumental in helping museum staff with the development of this project.

So why are we telling this story?

It is a fascinating and little known part of the Allied war effort in the Pacific. The US Army Small Ships Section played a crucial role in transporting supplies to Allied troops fighting in the Philippines, Papua New Guinea and other South-West Pacific campaigns. Sailing under the American flag, they carried food, water, ammunition, mail and building and medical supplies. They collected the wounded and repatriated the dead.

Photo of

Unloading supplies from a US Army small ship, Papua New Guinea, about 1943.
Photographer Neil Sandery

Nothing about this fleet was conventional.  The vessels were largely skippered and crewed by Australian civilians considered too old or too young or medically unfit to join the Australian Armed Services. Some were as young as 15 while others were 70 years old. A small group of US Army officers led by Captain Sheridan Fahnestock co-ordinated the charter and requisitioning of vessels from Tasmania, mainland Australia and New Zealand. It was essential for these ‘small ships’ to have shallow draft so they could navigate the uncharted coastal waters of Papua New Guinea where larger vessels could not safely go. This ‘raggle taggle’ fleet included fishing trawlers, sailing craft, tugs, private launches, speed boats, ferries, landing craft and some larger ships such as freighters. This fleet grew to over 3,000 by war’s end due to an ambitious vessel building program.

Photo of

US Army Small Ships in Papua New Guinea about 1943. Photographer Neil Sandery

Photo of

US Army Small Ships personnel in 1943 Neil Sandery, second from right. Photographer Robert Bruce Irving

While researching the story of the US Small Ships, I was struck by a series of photographs taken by Neil Sandery (1917- 1946) who joined the US Small Ships in 1942. He was a keen amateur photographer and his evocative images provide an insight into the hazards and hardships of daily life as part of the US Army Small Ships service. Sandery takes the viewer on board the vessels he skippered as well as the places he visited. His is but one of many compelling stories to emerge from researching the history of the US Small Ships service during World War 2.

Sandery was the skipper of the Timoshenko, one of two trawlers involved in the advance landing of US Army troops at Pongai, Papua New Guinea, in October 1942. Timoshenko and King John were mistaken for Japanese vessels and attacked by an American bomber. Two men were killed and 18 wounded in the attack.

Photo of

US troops on board the trawler Timoshenko enroute to Pongai 18 October 1942. Photographer Neil Sandery

Photo of

Unidentified bombers overhead, Papua New Guinea, about 1943.
Photographer Neil Sandery

This exhibition would not be possible without the generosity and assistance of individuals who served with the US Small Ships Service, the US Army Small Ships Association Inc and its President Ernest A Flint, and the efforts of others who have previously researched and written about this fascinating subject.

Penny Cuthbert

Suggested Reading
Lunney B and Lunney R Forgotten Fleet 2, Forfleet Publishing, 2004
Reday L The Raggle Taggle Fleet , US Army Small Ships Association 






Sometimes, being negative isn’t so bad…

This is something I discovered recently during the process of registering part of the large collection of photographic negatives, taken by photographer Gervaise Purcell, and acquired by the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Cruise ship circular quay

View of the passenger ship CANBERRA at Circular Quay. ANMM Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Leigh Purcell

Man and woman on deck of cruise ship

Example of promotional cruise ship images produced by Purcell.
ANMM Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Leigh Purcell

Photo of cruise liner from wharf, people waving from deck

Example of promotional cruise ship images produced by Purcell. ANMM Collection. Reproduced courtesy of Leigh Purcell

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Elysium Antarctic Visual Epic – opens 13 April

Antarctica, a place I dream of exploring, but like so many of us, it seems so out of reach. That’s why I can’t wait to for the exhibition Elysium Antarctic Visual Epic to open at the museum this Saturday.

Photo of man in icy water

Videographer braves below-zero waters, Danco Island. Steve Jones/

The exhibition follows a team of 57 explorers from 18 countries that set out on a unique scientific and artistic expedition to Antarctica in 2010 to document the environment and record any evidence of climate change. Continue reading

Mystery solved! The pretty woman is…

Portrait of Hera Roberts

Miss Hera Roberts on board HNLMS Java, 10 October 1930
Samuel J Hood Studio ANMM Collection

This is one of my favourite photographs by Samuel J Hood. It is also one of the most beautiful portraits that I have seen from the museum’s collection. For quite some time though, the identity of the subject remained a mystery. Time and time and again I would go back to this photograph, zooming in and back out, trying to spot that elusive clue that would miraculously lead to a name; a name and then hopefully a story. So imagine my surprise when I came back from the holiday break and saw that someone had found exactly that. A name and a story… Continue reading

Flickr Commons turns 5!

Five years ago today the Flickr Commons was launched. Since then, about 250,000 images from 56 different libraries, archives and museums have been uploaded, promoting the world’s photographic collections in all its splendour. I don’t think any of us envisioned the response it has elicited from audiences around the world. In particular, from a large group of elite photo investigators, people the National Library of Ireland refers to as the ‘Flickeroonies’ and who we often call the ‘super sleuths’. This group have invested hours upon hours of thorough research identifying people, places and key events, adding new meaning to the images on The Commons. To celebrate The Commons’ 5th birthday and, as a hats off to these contributors, The Library of Congress sent out a call for the most viewed, commented or favourited images on The Commons. We, and quite a number of other institutions, answered the call and the result was a fascinating array of snapshots from the past.

Baby and a dog on a sailing ship, c 1910. By Samuel Hood, ANMM Collection 00023789

Baby and a dog on a sailing ship, c 1910. By Samuel Hood, ANMM Collection 00023789

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Hood’s Harbour – Tales from ‘100 Stories’

In the 1890s, young photographer Samuel (Sam) John Hood developed an excellent strategy for a lucrative business in ship and crew portraits. He would hitch a ride on a tugboat to photograph sailing vessels ready to enter Sydney Harbour and, with his portfolio under his arm, would then board the ship and convince the captain to let him sell photographs to the crew – with the promise of a similar oil painting for the captain or a free portrait. With the captain’s assent, Hood’s bill for photographs was deducted from the crew’s wages, so they didn’t have to ‘pay’ a penny upfront.

Black and white photograph of Queen Mary troopship with tug boat alongside

Samuel J Hood Studio Queen Mary as Troopship, May 1940 Nitrate negative, 8 x 10.5cm

He would then rush back to his city studio or his home studios in Balmain and, using a trick of the trade, paint the sails (based on the particular ship’s rigging plan) onto the photograph of the vessel, which he would then rephotograph and present to the crew as postcards. Apparently, few sailors saw though his retouching techniques (often also applied by skilled marine artists such as Walter Barratt, Reginald Arthur Borstel, George Frederick Gregory and John Allcot).

The turn of the 20th century marked the end of the sailing ship era and the growing dominance of steam vessels. This had implications for Hood’s business, as steamship crews were less inclined to request photographs of their vessels.

… By the 1920s, Hood had moved from ship postcards to the newspapers’ social and sport pages. With an excellent eye for everyday subjects, he was a leader in the early development of photojournalism.

The entire collection of the Samuel J Hood studio is enormous – of about 33,000 images, the museum holds more than 9,000, primarily related to maritime scenes. The industry around, and activity on, Sydney Harbour during the busy early to mid-20th century remained some of Hood’s favourite subjects. His iconic photograph of the troopship Queen Mary in 1940 (pictured) captures the drama of manoeuvring a large vessel on the harbour.

Stephen Gapps
Curator, Environment, Industry and Shipping

An excerpt from 100 Stories from the Australian National Maritime Museum. Available as a free eBook for iPad from the iBookstore or hard copy versions available for purchase through our museum store.

Bringing a champion back to life

18 footer MYRA TOO on Sydney Harbour, c 1951. William Hall ANMM Collection 00013522

18 footer MYRA TOO on Sydney Harbour, c 1951. William Hall ANMM Collection 00013522

Meet Myra Too. In 1951 this vessel dominated Sydney sailing news headlines, and for a time was unbeatable in the hotly challenged 18 footer sailing competitions in Sydney Harbour.

Extract from the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 1951 page 10.

Extract from the Sydney Morning Herald, 25 February 1951 page 10.

Designed and built by Sydney shipwright and sailing identity Billy Barnett, Myra Too entered the 18 footer racing scene and won the state, national and world championship in 1951. As a nation of sporting enthusiasts, Myra Too challenges our best athletes for sheer success. Sailing for the Sydney Flying Squadron, Myra Too beat back a number of strong New Zealand and interstate competitors to take the third of its trio of titles. Continue reading

King Neptune, his wife, a surgeon, a barber and – some bears.

Orient Line menu, to mark crossing the equator 1953, ANMM Collection 00042590

Orient Line passenger liner menu, 1953, ANMM Collection 00042590

The danger of sea travel and the mysteries of the ocean have produced some elaborate and fascinating mythology over the thousands of years humans have been at sea. At the whims of weather and water, the rough and adventurous lives of sailors and seafarers led to the creation of a wide variety of superstitions, omens and rituals. Gods had to be supplicated, mermaids avoided and traditional rites observed in order to maintain a safe and productive journey. Perhaps the most enduring of these rituals is the Crossing the Line Ceremony. Continue reading

A Sterling day out with the family

Portrait of Captain Edward Robert Sterling

Captain Edward Robert Sterling, 1910-1925
Samuel J Hood Studio
ANMM Collection

My latest research efforts have been focussed on an American shipping family, headed by shipowner and master, Captain Edward Robert Sterling. During the 1900s to the 1920s, Samuel J Hood would take his trusty Folmer & Schwing Graflex camera to Sydney Harbour to photograph vessels and their crew and passengers. Hood relied on the income produced from portraits he took of captains and their families before he moved on to photojournalism. The Sterling family were one of those families, and what a fascinating family album he produced! A thorough search of census, birth, marriage and shipping records later revealed a vibrant family life that seems all the more animated through Hood’s photographs. Continue reading

The sinking of TAHITI – a disaster captured on film

Passengers peer through windows on the deck of the liner VENTURA and hang over the ship’s railings, completely engrossed in the scene in front of them. Some are still climbing ladders up the side of the vessel, while others wait in lifeboats below. Several hundred metres away a ship, their ship, RMS TAHITI is sinking before their very eyes – set to become a relic at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean.

Passengers of the sunken liner TAHITI await transfer to VENTURA

Passengers of the sunken liner TAHITI await transfer to VENTURA. ANMS1122[018] ANMM Collection Gift from Shirley Eutrope

It is 18 August 1930 and the passenger liner TAHITI, two days after its starboard propeller shaft first fractured and then smashed through the side of the hull, is finally succumbing to the irreparable damage. Continue reading