In 1847, the English-born photographer Douglas Kilburn opened Melbourne’s first commercial photographic studio. As a way of attracting attention to his business he took at least eight daguerreotypes of Aboriginal people from the five tribes that surrounded Melbourne. These daguerreotypes, of which the National Gallery of Victoria owns three, are the earliest surviving photographs of Aboriginal people and are a highlight of the collection. Kilburn wrote that he approached his models on the streets of Melbourne and, because of their reluctance, often bribed them into sitting for him. Once in the studio, he posed some in possum skin cloaks to make them appear more ‘authentic’ to a European audience. The daguerreotypes were popular with local artists such as Eugène von Guérard and Victor Prout who copied them, and they also reached an international audience when they were used as the basis for wood engravings in the Illustrated London News and journals in India and Denmark. Although Kilburn intended the images as ethnographic studies rather than individual portraits, his unnamed sitters project a proud and dignified presence. Today, early photographs such as these have become very important as signs of survival and continuity to Aboriginal people, particularly artists, who often make reference to them in their own works.
Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia