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In 2001 a small but interesting album of nineteenth-century photographs was presented to the Mitchell Library. Containing portraits of Fijian and Aboriginal people, it was compiled around 1870 by George Earngey, a surveyor and amateur anthropologist from northern New South Wales. Notable among the photographs are some arresting head-and-shoulder shots taken in JW Lindt’s Grafton studio. Lindt would later become famous for his photographs of ‘Aboriginals of New South Wales’, many of which are held at the Library.
The discovery of these previously unknown portraits in the Earngey album sheds new light on the development of Lindt’s portrayal of Aboriginal people and the ways in which he responded to, and shaped, perceptions of race in the nineteenth century.
Lindt and Earngey both arrived at the frontier town of Grafton in 1868; Earngey as a Harbours and Rivers clerk and Lindt as a photographer to join the business of fellow German, Conrad Wagner. Grafton, in the country of the Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung people, was one of the ‘rising towns’ of the north. Just 20 years before, the only white presence in this area had been the scattered bush camps of cedar-getters.
By the 1870s, the Gumbaynggirr and Bundjalung people had witnessed the growth of a settlement that boasted a School of the Arts, a newspaper, a gaol and several photographic studios. Earngey, proud of the town he would make his home, purchased photographs of its main street and picturesque river and, perhaps at the same time, Lindt’s unsettling portraits of its original inhabitants.
The portraits are mugshots, posed according to the dictates of the emerging science of anthropology, which aimed to measure and compare people of different races to establish the differences between them. This visual reckoning of difference, enabled by photography, was fundamental to the highly problematic nineteenth-century mapping of ‘favoured’ and ‘unfavoured’ races, and created an international trade in photographs of Indigenous subjects.
Portraits like these were sent from all corners of the world to museums in Europe, where they could be slotted into the prejudiced racial hierarchies of eugenics and Social Darwinism, which asserted the superiority of whiteness.