The Gallery recently acquired one of the rarest and most sought after pioneer works of Australian photography – a daguerreotype portrait of an Australian Aboriginal man and two younger companions – that had lain for over two decades in a private collection in London. The gem-like image belongs to a group of at least ten portraits of Victorian Aboriginal people taken in 1847 by Douglas Thomas Kilburn (1811-1871), the first resident professional photographer in Melbourne. Kilburn's portraits are the earliest surviving photographs of Aboriginal people in Australia and among the earliest anywhere of Indigenous people.
Born in London, Kilburn came from a large merchant family. His Irish grandfather William was successful artist and fabric designer but nothing is known of Douglas's education or employment before he arrived in Australia possibly with his first wife and child. This was around 1842 probably at the same time as younger brother Charles became a selector and formed a customs business trading as Kilburn Brothers. In 1847, Douglas Kilburn set up a studio in his residence in Little Collins Street.
Kilburn had a great advantage over any other aspiring photographers in Australia as his younger brother William E Kilburn (1818-1891) had opened one of the first photographic portrait studios in London in 1846 and soon secured royal favour. His brother's success no doubt encouraged Douglas to teach himself photography using equipment and instructions sent out by William. Douglas later exhibited watercolours, introduced colouring to his daguerreotype portraits and did pioneer work with photography on paper. After first advertising for paying customers in August 1847, by October Kilburn had undertaken a speculative venture making portraits of Port Phillip Aboriginal people coming into the town. Kilburn later described how 'upon seeing their likenesses so suddenly fixed, they took him for nothing less than a sorcerer'.
In these early years, portrait exposures were still at least a minute and sitters had to be braced or supported. In Kilburn's Aboriginal portraits the various combinations of male and female figures have a close-up and bunched composition unusual for early daguerreotypes. The three people in the Gallery's portrait appear to be using each other for support rather than the usual neck and head braces and chairs employed by early photographers. They wear a considerable array of adornments and artefacts, including cloaks, some of which might have been supplied by the photographer as Aboriginal people living close to town no longer lived or dressed in completely traditional ways. Their mixed dress, appearance and presence was not welcome and in the 1850s they were banned from lingering in the newly incorporated City of Melbourne. Kilburn hoped to find a market for his Aboriginal portraits in London but it seems there was not a great demand either overseas or locally.
Eight Aboriginal portraits are known through reproductions but only three of these have been located. They are held by the National Gallery of Victoria, and have been extensively researched by curator Dr Isobel Crombie. Two other portraits are held in private collections and the sixth example is in the National Gallery of Australia. These were all acquired at different times and from different sources in England.
On his return to Australia, Kilburn continued as a photographer in Hobart where he prospered though diversified activities and became a politician. He died in Hobart in 1871 survived by his second wife and four sons and a daughter by his first wife.
Despite Kilburn's difficulties in persuading his sitters to pose and their supposed fear of the camera, the Aboriginal people in his daguerreotypes seem curious and composed. That their descendents and the public can now return their gaze is the miraculous gift of the art of the camera.
Gael Newton Senior Curator, Photography
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010