In November 2019 I enjoyed presenting the paper Big sky Canberra at the Australia ICOMOS Conference, Heritage of the Air: Modernism, Machines, Migration Memories.
The paper explored Canberra’s development as a uniquely twentieth century city through a fresh focus on the contribution of aerial photography and the moving image.
Concepts of the aerial view and ‘a big sky’ are invoked in the earliest descriptions of Canberra and remain central to how the city is perceived in the national imagination, and to its representation across the globe. The exciting advances in aeroplane technology of the early twentieth century transformed the way Australians came to experience distance, landscape and urban life by the century’s end. The use of aerial photography in town planning, in military applications, and in promotional imagery, was particularly influential in Canberra’s development, marking it out as a uniquely twentieth century city. However this image of Canberra, so carefully woven into the uplifting spirit of modernity, is only one of the ways that air technology and the moving image have left their mark. At times a failure to consider the ‘Canberra project’ from-the-ground meant that the technology of the air and the magic of the moving image came together in unscripted, unexpected, and sometimes tragic ways. This paper examined these unanticipated histories and the learnings they hold for a more grounded imagination of Canberra’s future.
Special thanks to the Australian National Film and Sound Archive for permission to screen footage from Australasian Films Canberra The Capital of the Commonwealth of Australia (1927), and the inspired conference team at Australia ICOMOS and the ARC-funded research project team at Heritage of the Air.
An extensive and compelling photographic archive created by William James (Jack) Mildenhall between 1921 and 1935 records the early development and community of the national capital. The archive is made up of over 7700 black and white glass plate negatives and is held at the National Archives of Australia. (1)
Smaller selections of images from this archive can be found in at least three separate collections of glass magic lantern slides. (2)
In a collection of 453 slides held at the National Library of Australia, Mildenhall’s images appear alongside the work of other photographers, as well as slides that reproduce maps, drawings and cinema advertisements. This collection includes slides showing Australia’s 1901 Federation celebrations in Sydney, and Canberra’s official naming ceremony in 1913. There are also slides which show the Murray River, a ‘laughing’ chimpanzee and a drawing of the ‘sheep-maggot fly and its parasite’. A number of these slides, which do not appear to be Mildenhall’s images, bear the same caption: the ‘first inhabitants of the ACT’. In reality, these slides appear to show Aboriginal people from areas well outside the region (Figure 2).
Alongside many black-and-white slides, some of the slides in this collection are delicately hand-coloured, and others in full photographic colour.
The larger archive of Mildenhall’s work evidently fulfils a set of prescribed government requirements, variously evidentiary, technical, political and promotional. But the three smaller collections of glass lantern slides each have the character of a working projectionist’s image bank. They are made up of those Mildenhall images that are most evocative and given to incorporation into a projectionist’s changing narrative. Martyn Jolly observes that all lantern presentations were, ‘…changed from night to night depending on circumstance, and evolved and mutated as new elements were added and others retired.’ (3) We can imagine the slide selection that illustrated a projectionist’s ‘Canberra lecture’ being revised again and again, as the story was ‘improved’ and audience needs differed.
In the context of these three slide collections Mildenhall’s images are decoupled from the administrative context in which they were conceived. Their evidentiary power is traded for a more evocative power as they achieve a second life in the stories of the projectionist.
Although my investigation of the use of these slides is at an early stage, there is evidence that at least some of them were included in presentations by Harry L Dawson in Sydney, Australia in 1927 and in Palmerston North, New Zealand in 1932. (5)
Dawson was a Methodist missionary described as a ‘racy and fluent speaker’ with ‘the art and the material to kindle an audience’. (6) He delivered evangelical lectures in Eastern Australia between at least 1916 and 1948, except for five years he spent touring New Zealand from 1930. Dawson’s lectures covered a diversity of topics including ‘The Dark Side of Sydney’ (1916), ‘World Wonders’ (1935), ‘What of The Empire?’ (1943), ‘Russian Relations with Britain and Australia’ (1948), ‘Perils of Palestine’ (1948), ‘The World’s Worst Disaster’ (1954) and ‘The Unseen World’ (1954).
On 22 May 1927, Empire Sunday, Dawson delivered an illustrated lecture entitled ‘Canberra: The City Beautiful’ at the Lyceum Theatre, Sydney. Five days later, The Canberra Times published an extended text from Dawson’s lecture. (7)
In his lecture Dawson tells his own ‘glorious’ history of the Canberra valley and the growing capital, recounting a series of prophetic insights from early residents, and contemporary advocates, in evidence of the site’s predestined glory.
Dawson describes the Canberra valley prior to the 18th century as an ‘abundant paradise’ in which ‘black people hunted and throve’. He then speaks of a phase of pioneers who, he tells his audience, sought ‘…the star of strong intent, a handful of heroes scattered to conquer a continent.’ Then he reveals that a Member of Parliament recently confided in him that, ‘it would seem as if nature has especially endowed her to be a capital city.’
Dawson casts Canberra’s present as a ‘model city’ in a narrative framework and language that would have been familiar to his largely Methodist audience. His narrative history of Canberra proceeds from a distant idyllic past through a period of struggle, guided by faith in a majestic future, to a glorious destination, where even the highest aspiration seems certain of fulfillment.
What better means existed to ignite an audience with such a miraculous story than a magic lantern show?
Dawson’s presentation not only drips with attributed stories that magnify the beauty of the Canberra valley and the glorious destiny that awaited it. He also dwells on its historical connection with greatness, reminding his audience that the Molonglo River’s weeping willows had been grown from cuttings taken from Napoleon’s tomb on the island of Saint Helena.
While it is uncertain whether the specific slides referenced here were used in Dawson’s presentations, it is easy to imagine his use of a similar selection.
The adventure of viewing these three Mildenhall glass slides collections through the lens of Dawson’s narratives provides an opportunity to reimagine the Canberra-fervour which would have been ignited in their audience. I look forward to further investigation of these collections, and the projection of their contents. They promise additional insight into how stories of Australia’s developing capital were grafted into already familiar and powerful narratives. They also promise an understanding of how such story-making processes fostered a ‘shared imagining’ of the future capital and the community it would serve.
Dawson’s magic lantern presentations are essentially productive in nature. They use prophetic stories from Canberra’s past as foundations on which to build a story of the city’s glorious future. His history is mostly one of adding things, rather than of taking things away. However, several of Mildenhall’s magic lantern slides remind us that building a functional new city is not just about making things appear. It is also, necessarily, about making certain other things disappear.
The frenzied work of augmenting an inadequate sewerage system to accommodate the arrival of parliamentarians and their staff in Canberra in 1927, is an example. As the new capital’s buildings, bridges and roads spread out across the surface of the Canberra valley, its water and sewerage infrastructure tentacled deep under the surface and into the surrounding landscape.
The wholesale extraction of fresh water from and injection of human waste into the surrounding ecosystems of the new capital was a story less glorious perhaps than the one told by Dawson. From this perspective it could be seen as the beginning of a slow environmental degradation of the Canberra valley which continues in many respects to this day.
Thinking about how these glass lantern slides have and might have been used to project the story of the emerging capital into an already familiar narrative challenges our history-making. Canberra’s contemporary urban identity is evidently still subject to complex processes of story-telling today.
Note: it has been suggested that Figure 2 may represent the work of Thomas Dick, a photographer who worked with a group of Aboriginal men as subjects between 1910 and 1927. I am still actively researching this possible connection. Dick’s work is considered in McBryde, I. (1985). Thomas Dick’s Photographic Vision. Seeing the First Australians. I. D. a. T. D. (eds). Sydney, George Allen and Unwin: pp.137-163.
(1) Mildenhall undertook government-commissioned work in Canberra from 1921 and was official government photographer from 1926 to 1935. Most of the work Mildenhall produced over this period is included in the photographic archive referred to at the National Archives of Australia, NAA: A3560 – Mildenhall collection of glass plate negatives.
(2) The following three collections of glass lantern slides reproduce selected Mildenhall images.
Collection of 453 slides – National Library of Australia. Mildenhall collection of photographs of Canberra Retrieved, Glass Lantern Slides. February 24, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-141420488
Collection of 86 slides – National Library of Australia. 1913-1935 Coloured lantern slides of early Canberra Retrieved February 26, 2019, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-133545764