For the newly reopened National Portrait Gallery, we’re pleased to have commissioned Kaurna artist James Tylor to make a self-portrait daguerreotype. Used widely during the 1840s and 50s, daguerreotypes were the first commercially available portrait photographs.
James worked with Australian art historian Dr Elisa deCourcy on this daguerreotype and, in this blog, she shares more about the making process and the history of daguerreotypes.
A half-plate daguerreotype is about the size of a modern smartphone. And, like a smartphone, it was designed to be a personal experience of photography. This form of early photography was cased and exchanged hand-to-hand. Its small scale and mirrored surface meant that in the 19th century the recipient would adjust the tilt of the case in their palm to bring the photograph into view, according to the light and their own line of sight.
James Tylor’s self-portrait is personal in another dimension: it is an expression of his Kaurna heritage, interlaced with references to his own practice as a Kaurna artist. The Kaurna people are the traditional owners of the Adelaide region in South Australia.
We considered both these elements of historic colonial daguerreotype photography and James’ contemporary art practice when working on this portrait. There are very few surviving early photographs of Kaurna People in Australian museum and gallery collections, or with Community custodians. This is also true more broadly of the presence of Indigenous People in early photography collections around the country. The daguerreotype portraits of Kaurna people that do survive were made during a period when Indigenous People were forcibly and violently being removed from Country. Commissioned by Anglican missionaries and colonial families, these colonial portraits capture Kaurna men, women and children in European clothes and were considered expressions of the sitters’ Christianised ‘civility’, by European standards. Kaurna sitters were photographed in sparse studio portrait settings which worked to silence their own expressions of Culture, undermine Kin relationships and sever visual connections to Country.
This portrait of James does not evoke a past that was photographed. In drawing on the daguerreotype process, it meditates on expressions of Kaurna identity historically displaced both photographically and physically as frontier violence intensified in the mid-century.
Importantly, though, this is a daguerreotype that also resonates with the personal and the present. James’ practice as a contemporary artist is engaged with placing Indigenous technologies and knowledge back into the public spotlight. The murlapaka shield you see in the daguerreotype is a Kaurna technology made from the dried bark of a kurra red gum and painted with ngaru white clay and karrku red ochre according to Kaurna custom. This pairing, between daguerreotype and shield, brings the western technology of photography into conversation with much older Kaurna technologies and enduring visual expressions of Culture.
We see this in other examples of James’ work like, The Darkness of the Enlightenment (2021). This installation comprised of 18 photographs captured on Kaurna Country arranged alongside 30 Kaurna objects—such as wirri clubs and midla spear-throwers—made by James, with reference to documentary evidence on traditional tooling practices.
Later iterations of The Darkness of the Enlightenment, such as that hung in the National Gallery of Australia’s 4th Indigenous Triennial: ‘Ceremony’ (2022), included 18 becquerel daguerreotypes of Kaurna landscapes hung alongside tiny bronze-cast cultural objects and flora from Kaurna land. These installation works, like the daguerreotype self-portrait you can see in the Gallery and the above film, call into focus the mistranslations and misrepresentations of Kaurna Culture in colonial sources. They expose a deep and sensitive knowledge of Country colonisation worked to displace but was not able to erase.
When we were making this portrait in Kamberri, Ngunnawal and Ngambri Country, we thought about the historic daguerreotype process in a technical sense too. The other English daguerreotypes you can see displayed in the National Portrait Gallery’s early photography room were made using the mercury daguerreotype process. This was commercially successful around the globe during the 1840s and 1850s. It involved volatile chemicals, which meant photographers could never practice far from their darkrooms. Silver bromide (and silver iodine) were used to sensitise the daguerreotype plate and mercury vapour was used in developing the image. Most mid 19th -century photographers kept fuming boxes in close proximity to their camera, unaware of the chemistry’s danger to themselves and their sitters.
We used the becquerel process, itself a 19th-century process but less commonly used in the past. It was invented by French optical physicist, Alexandre-Edmond Becquerel. Unlike Daguerre’s more widespread recipe, it relied only on silver-iodine to sensitise the polished photographic plate and did not employ mercury vapour in development. Instead, it adds a step to developing. You will see in the above film that after removing the photographic plate from the camera we placed the plate under a red amberlith printing screen and left it in the sun. We waited for the plate’s latent image to emerge, only being able to tell if the portrait was successful after it had been left for around an hour in the warm Australian spring-time light. Only then does James move to wash, gild and set the daguerreotype plate. As he explains, this is a slow photographic process, made more slow by our current consciousness for avoiding toxicity. It is a process that makes you complete many of its steps and stages unsure whether you will be rewarded with a clear image in the end.
In our world where we swipe across and quickly scan photographs, the daguerreotype, alternatively, compels us to slow down and look carefully. We hope that whether you encounter this portrait in the gallery, or at home through this blog, it inspires you to think both about the photographic traditions of the past and the sophisticated visual traditions of Indigenous Peoples, thousands of years older than any photographic process.
You can see James’ self-portrait on display in Room 20 in the National Portrait Gallery. Plan your visit.