Jack Waterford – Through the lens: an emerging capital

The following transcript is from a talk presented by Jack Waterford AM, Editor-at-Large – The Canberra Times, at the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.

I feel a little bit intimidated speaking here because I'm not a great expert on William James Mildenhall. I'm a passionate fan. In particular I'm also that sort of ring-in only arrived yesterday sort of person who isn't even BL. So sometimes when I look at a photo and say very confidently that's that, I'm fairly used to being pulled up by people saying no that's not that, that's so and so and so and so and you can tell it because of that, and it's just all past me. So I'm not a close expert on where Scotts Crossing was or Lennox Crossing or so forth, but I know plenty of people who are.

I know places and things like that, that if you like have sharply focused my own appreciation of this and my own feeling that the collection of photographs that we have about the early Canberra is an absolutely precious treasure that belongs to us all and is well encapsulated by being held by the National Archives. I think to some extent that the exploitation of this collection as well as many other fabulous things at the archives has is something that's probably yet to reach its finest point.

Many of you will recall that about 25 years ago the National Archives at some stage began thinking about what they could do with this collection and began the first of a number of books they put out of photographs from the collection. One of the problems was there's about 7000 negatives all together on glass, was that none of them are captioned. None of them are even dated. On a vast array of them you can very readily determine the date because it's at the opening of the first Parliament House in 1927 for example or at some stage of the construction of West Block or the Ainslie Rex Hotel near where I live now and used to live and it's still recognisably that.

But in any event the archives did a partnership with the Canberra Times with a lot of photographs. Every Thursday we put in a photograph of people, of a place, or of an event of early Canberra which said does anybody know what this is, we're trying to caption it. Every time we put one in we got over 100 phone calls. They were very confident phone calls, oh that's Uncle Jack and that's Coggan's bread thing. It was in Braddon just down from the old Canberra Times. They would give you chapter and verse on it and they were pretty sure that the car in the background was CS Daley's car or something like that. Then other people would ring to correct it. On one occasion we identified all of the members of a school boy cricket team from Telopea Park or something like that.

This is - if you like - it's starting to get really right at the edges of living memory, particularly with 1920s or something like that, but there's still enough connections with the past that make it very much part of our story and because of where we are, very much a part of the national story. There are not very many cities in the world that only 90 years ago were still sheep paddock, and which are now well-developed cities on the style and with the grace and the beauty of Canberra. The photographs that we have are a real record of the first establishment. When you think of that, it's amazing how casually we got into this arrangement that Mildenhall was this photographer. He was actually a public servant, he was a paymaster, first of all in the railways department. In fact a lot of his early career was on the old tea and sugars going along the transcontinental railway as it was being built, and paying off the people at all of the little fettlers camps all the way to Kalgoorlie. Sometimes on those he was travelling by camel. In 1921 he came up to Canberra where he fairly soon met his wife and he was the paymaster in the old Department of the Interior which at various stages had names like Department of Home Affairs and whatnot But most people here in this room would I think remember it as Department of the Interior until it became at least the Department of the Capital Territory.

He was paymaster there, but it occurred to him that somebody ought to be making some sort of photographic record of the early Canberra because this was - they had - by no means had started on the building of the Parliament House or any of the significant buildings there then. But under Walter Burley-Griffin from about 1918-1919 they'd started laying out some of the streets, building sewerage lines, et cetera, et cetera. The outlines of the Griffin plan were beginning to take shape, but nobody was making much of a record. His interest in it was that he was a very keen amateur photographer.

Now, from that I suppose that what I want to talk about today is about four separate aspects of those photographs that are really worth noting about. The first one is just the sheer artistic composition of them. Many of them are great works of art. He was not a photographer who stood people up and made them stand here or shift here or can somebody move along the back. In fact, he was not a great portrait photographer as such at all, although there's a couple of fabulous portrait ones of which the one that I like most is of the Aboriginal man, the lone protester at the opening of Parliament House, which is an immortal photograph and which will be being used a thousand years from now.

But when you look at them - and I'll just use this one as an example - this is a photograph here that was actually taken by - developed by - this is his actual photograph, Mildenhall himself. If you look at it, there's an awful lot of work that has gone into making that the image that it is. If you like it's the symmetry of the water in it. All of you will of course recognise where it is I expect. It's the Molonglo River all right.

Audience member:  [Inaudible].

No. It's the Royal Canberra Golf Club and on the path that goes around to Government House from Weston. But he was no mere snapper just taking shots, and nor of course was he the modern day snapper who could pick up the equivalent of a mobile telephone today or one of those things and take hundreds and hundreds of shots and just reduce back to several. He was using complicated equipment. He was using equipment that was personally expensive to him as well as ultimately expensive to the department. He spent a lot of time and effort getting his images right.

He was also, in ways that I don't really have to explain at any great length, very conscious that he was recording history and particular things, so that at particular events or places he was not just, if you like, recording something socially or something of casual interest because of the personalities or the people involved. But he was showing stages of the building of a capital, the great events of it; most obviously the opening of Parliament House, but various others. Or if you like, here with some of these photographs that I've got here, things like the impacts of floods that swept through the town, I think twice or three times during the 1920s in particular, and which ended up shaping various parts of Canberra history in its path.

The most obvious one of which being the abandonment of the idea of having the railway station in Civic just behind or where the Griffin Centre ended up being just behind the old Canberra Times. The old Canberra Times was deliberately sited to be next to the railway station because as you would all remember the very generous New South Wales Government had agreed to build a railway line from Yass that would connect it up to Melbourne. The original owners of the Canberra Times fondly imagined that after printing the paper on site there the great bundles of the paper would steam west and then south to Yass and parts there, and then other ones would go north up the road and whatnot. This is part of the great commercial dream of the Canberra Times.

Anyway, if you see some of the bridges here, this one here for example, and you'll realise why that dream never happened. The next thing that I want to point to is what you might call the shock of recognition. I think that that divides into several parts. The first shock of recognition is you look at something like that and you said oh I know that, that's the Ainslie Hotel. In fact, the Ainslie Hotel still looks like that in a lot of ways but has been added on to so many ways, a tarted up gentrified, trees put in front of it, and whatnot, that you could excuse some people for not recognising it.

But for anybody with some history of and growing up in the place, there are lots of places that you would see like that that you might have to spend a little bit of time locating yourself with. But once you have, you can say oh yes I remember that. But you can also remember out of it a lot of things about the growth and development of Canberra. For example, it's a part of the story of Canberra, and has been since 1920 - but it is particularly a story that is known to people who arrived in Canberra in say the 1960s or the 1970s.

That the new people who came, the newly married couples who met perhaps in the hostels or something and got settled, went out to live on a blasted plain that might have been Belconnen, that might have been the Woden Valley, it might ultimately have been Tuggeranong or Gungahlin or so forth. But when you went out there, there was scarcely a tree in the landscape, there was lots of dust, it was freezing, freezing cold in winter, and it was boiling, boiling hot in summer. There was very little relief from the general environment. That is a part - a self-conscious part of the way we planned and developed this city. People were given trees. People were encouraged to grow trees. People met their neighbours, formed associations, got furious because the school wasn't opening on time and it was behind schedule or whatever, formed associations, became little communities, and all of that's very much a part of the thing of Canberra. But one very visible sign of it is that this blasted plain became an extensively treed plain.

Now I think it was about 20 years ago that somebody said that inside the Canberra city limits were 15 million trees. Well if that was true 20 years ago, I guess it's probably 25 million trees now. But there are places that you look at, and this would be as good a thing as any. That's - that was Limestone Avenue there around about its intersection with Chapman Street. So you're looking back at Reid. Now even from the top of Mount Ainslie you can scarcely see Reid these days. It is so thick with trees. But not only is it so thick with trees, but the temperature in Reid of an ordinary winter's day is about two or three degrees higher than it is out in deepest Gungahlin or Tuggeranong. Likewise, in summer it's quite a bit cooler, just because of the effect of those trees.

That ghastly stand of trees that is Haig Park, and which I think badly needs some redevelopment, was originally built as a windbreak for Canberra. It was not - I mean it was named after the general who led Australian troops to victory during the First World War. But it is a terrible dank and dark place because it's all pines and nothing really grows or thrives there. But it wasn't built to be beautiful so much as to be a windbreak for Canberra because Canberra stopped there. But there are images that you'll see all the time of the blasted plain.

Canberra is essentially a plain. The early developers of it did not come here and cut down all of the trees and then begin developing it into sheep paddocks or whatever. It was always essentially fairly bare. You see those signs, but you see also the effect on it of people building roadways on it. That road, Limestone Avenue, at the time incidentally was called Weetangera Road and came all the way from Yass and ultimately went to Queanbeyan as well, but was named after the station Weetangera which is where the first school in the ACT began in about I think 1870 or so. I sometimes smirk when these sort of arriviste schools like Ainslie Primary School and Telopea Park claim to be the oldest schools in the ACT for having started in about 1926 or 1927, because there were schools in the ACT for 50 years before that.

But you can also see on a place like this, this is still obviously the very visible outline of it. But anybody who's lived here any length of time can more or less date themself by the various extensions that occurred. I had the great pleasure in 1970 of being engaged as a labourer during the Senate extensions and was using a sledgehammer somewhat similar to the sledgehammer being shown on the railways there where on double bricks we're just banging on walls with a sledgehammer until after about half an hour or so you could dislodge one brick, and then once you got that one brick out you could knock the whole wall down in about another 20 minutes. But the first brick was the hardest one and the mortar in those days was fairly mortifying.

The next thing apart from the historicity of a lot of this shock of recognition or recognition that this was an important thing, is that we look at these people - these people from 80-90 years ago - and we recognise ourselves. We recognise where we came from and something. There is such a thing as a distinctly recognisable Australian face. There's a way in which we look at the environment. Most of Mildenhall's photographs are not posed. The people are not standing there to take [thingo's]. But there are people who are leaning on shovels, there are people who are working hard with mattocks and so forth. But they look a lot like our dad looked or a lot like our grandfather looked.

Audience member:  [Inaudible]

Yes. I brought a long a couple of books here that I'll pass around, which are reasonably well-known. I think - the only pity I feel about it is that there's one that I had that I couldn't readily find. But these are books of Australians back in periods like the 1920s. This is one called Crooks Like Us, which is a collection from the New South Wales Police Museum of photographs from their scientific files. There's all these lads from Darlinghurst and so forth who's been caught in the Razor gangs or something. But if you look at them, and then you look at the people in Mildenhall photos, you sort of recognise immediately that these are Australians and the sort of work they are doing is very much like the work of a [unclear] but I think very much the same.

But very much the sort of work that our grandfathers did and which those of us who are old - which I guess is about a third of you here in this room - would instantly recognise as not all that terribly different from the way we lived in the 1950s. Men working with teams of horses ploughing and so forth, like that, is a sight that I can remember as a kid from Western New South Wales. The ubiquitous hat. The sort of slow casual way of looking at things. Canberra is rightly a place, I suppose, where we should have such images which are Canberra images but which are Australian images, because we're not just ourselves but we are if you like in certain respects quintessentially the people of the national city, of the national capital.

This was not supposed to be a city where everybody lived in La-La Land unaware of the world outside as the politicians sometimes paint us. This was supposed to be an ideal city; a city which could show Australians how Australians could live; a city which was not only well-modelled and laid out but was economically laid out so that people had the resources, the social capital, the physical infrastructure that was necessary to live in dignity. This was supposed to be a showpiece, not only to the rest of the world but to the rest of Australia about how ordinary men and women might live.

When we see these sort of signs of this place, we see the lie in the suggestion, if you like, that the grandfathers and grandmothers of Canberra are some sort of fat cats who've never done a scrap of work in their lives or never had dirt under their fingernails. That we are as well as everything else, in a bush environment, a bush setting, a very Australian setting. Our notions of Canberra, our notions of ourselves as a nation or as a national capital, are very much based on living inside an environment rather than imposed upon an environment.

There again is a perfect example I suppose of what I would describe as characteristic Australian kids. You can tell they're Telopea Park ones incidentally rather than Ainslie Primary ones because they've got shoes on. It was the toffs that lived on the south side. The Ainslie kids were basically the labouring classes and didn't run for them in those days. I see pictures like that and that could Quambone Public School back in 1952. I see images like this and I've particularly collected of my Mildenhall ones of water and flood and so forth like this.

But whatever they are, if you just saw that by itself you might not know whether it was in Victoria or New South Wales or Queensland, but it would be recognisably Australian right from the start. Mildenhall, if you like, as a chronicler of this time, as a person who was taking a self-conscious thing for the record I think was quite right to intersperse pictures of people working like that on the beautiful environment in Canberra, but also with, if you like, the monuments that we were building and creating as we turned this city first of all into a town and then into the bones of what was to become a city of which not only we're all proud but of which all Australians are proud.

It's one of the problems that the NCA continually copes with, you know, that all right thinking Australians - even a lot of right thinking Canberra people - if you like hate the idea of public service, they hate the idea of public servants, they despise and detest and distrust politicians, and they think that Canberra is full of people who lack connections with the quote 'real world'. Yet, they're inordinately proud of Canberra. They recognise that Canberra is a great thing, is a great place. Millions of Australians have come to Canberra and they've looked, perhaps sometimes wanting to sneer, but they've ultimately looked with marvel at the War Memorial or the new Parliament House. They've looked at it with pride and they talk about it as if you like one of the great achievements of Australia.

Now sometimes I fear, when I'm in a more cynical thing, that we're in a process of destroying some of that heritage and have not - of debasing our notions of excellence or whatnot. But I myself share that pride and that sense of need to sort of be involved in this grand project. It's a project, as I say, that's - as far as Mildenhall is concerned - is no older than my father. So I think that it's a fabulous thing that we've got this collection, that somebody conceived of the notion of doing it, that people conceived of the need to conserve it and to look after it.

That we're again in a process of making it available to the people again, and making it available not just with the books and the framed photographs and things such as that I love, but also with all of the advantage of digitisation and whatnot that already one can see it in umpteen mediums of a sort with which I'm, I must confess, too clumsy and useless to be able to play with myself. But I can be reasonably confident that my great-grandchildren will have as much access to it and as much informed access to it - that's another not only well-crafted photograph in its own right, but it's a photograph you could well imagine somebody choosing for a book 150 years from now. I think it's something of which we can all be pleased and proud and yearning to exploit.

I'm going to finish off there. I should add a couple of other slight mystery things about William James Mildenhall, one of which was that I don't know whether he took any photographs, they don't appear to be in the record, of his time on the transcontinental railway project. But while he was still with interior but around about the time that he stopped being the official photographer of Canberra - and he did it of course because somebody had conceived the notion that government shouldn't do what the private sector could do just as well. So some commercial photographers in the town objected that William James Mildenhall was there taking photographs everywhere. Really if photographs had to be taken well it ought to be taken by somebody who could make a quid for himself out of it.

Audience member:  [Inaudible].

Yes, well I thought it was an idea that had only come around in about 1980s or 1990s, but it was around about that time and he was told to cease taking photographs. I'm sure he didn't, because as I say the foundation of his interest was his own keen amateur artistry in this field, but we don't appear, any longer, to have such a collection of it. But the other one was his skills as a photographer being well-known, he was invited to go on aerial flying party over parts of Australia, the western desert in particular, where Western Australia joins the Northern Territory and so forth and some parts of the Carnegie expedition. He took photographs there, but I don't know whether they're in the National Archive Collection at all, and if they are they're certainly not a part of this collection.

But there may yet be resources of Mildenhall which we don't entirely have. I think it would be a great work of research and exploration to discover what happened to these. The next thing that I would say about him as a person was that he was a great democrat about this. If one goes back through old Canberra Times, one will find that about once every couple of years or so, Mildenhall would be giving a lecture on the development of Canberra and he would be showing slides and whatnot of his photographs, and he would be talking at a Royal Institute of Engineers or he would be talking to some Rotary group or something like that. But they were always very well attended, and of course by people who are much more intimately familiar with the sites and whatnot.

He appreciated as a public servant, if you like, that a part of his duty in being this photographer was to share the images that he created, not just with the subjects of it but with the world at large. The next part of it is that the work he was doing as a photographer became the foundation of what became later known as the Australian News and Information Bureau, or ANIB, which was a part of the Department of the Interior which created propaganda for life in Australia that was shown in Britain or Germany or other places to encourage people to emigrate and which was a part of pamphlets were put out and whatnot.

So right from the start or from fairly early on in the process of his being the official photographer, these images of Australia, and these images of ourselves, were in fact not just going back to us, but were going to the wide world outside. It may well be that the ancestors of some of our ten pound poms or something like that first had some of their interest twigged by seeing some his images of a good sheep station spoiled or the snow on the ground in front of old Parliament House. I rather like to think that just as so many people imagined that Australia was sort of roaring with kangaroos or - I think all German think for example that every river is absolutely infested with crocodiles, which actually attracts the attention and brings people here. Well it may be that Mildenhall started off a good deal of that process.

Audience member:  I was just looking at that photo can you comment on the type of soil in Canberra that you need four horses and three [unclear].

Well that's because they didn't put down spuds first of course as you would well know. That's a name I'd have thought I'm pretty sure I can say. It certainly looks like one. I might say that I was showing those photographs at a prison which I don't know where they are - not the prisoners but the criminals there. But I showed them to one of my great uncles who died aged 99 not so long ago and he looked through it. He pretended that he didn't recognise any of the actual characters in it but he said something like that's a 1935 Vincent Shadow. He could tell immediately all of the vehicles that were concerned. I think that's if you like a great part as well of that shock of surprise that you see.

I think it's also a part of a myth that we all have of ourselves that we grew up in a village, a tiny village where basically we knew everybody and everybody was on reasonably friendly terms with each other. I've talked about this self-image of ourselves in other things. But when you walk about the front door, say as kids to go to school, there were kids walking out the front door to go to school all down the street. But next door they were auntie's kids, your cousins, and - your parents have been in effect going to the - lived in the same sort of environment.

Well that of course is not Canberra because Canberra was planted her. But another great benefits and pleasures of Canberra I think is the way that we created relationships, patterns, institutions, clubs, societies, common interests, and so forth, and became that part of a community. I think one of the most important and the best parts of all of that is if you like keeping a memory alive and every now and again refreshing it with images that are as warm, as cool, and as fabulous as these.

Audience member:  Do you think we're losing that now?

Well, you know, it is said - I'm not trying to be racist about this - but that for 40 years Japanese have been taking more photographs than anybody else, possibly more than the whole rest of the world put together. But then nobody's ever, if you like, seen a Japanese photograph album. I sometimes think that of people I see with their mobile phones taking images of everything, that no doubt they're taking fabulous shots and so forth like that, but are they savouring over them and enjoying them in much the same way that we look at an old photograph album and suddenly remember that tennis competition that we were involved in, the pleasure of meeting friends again, and so forth. I suspect we're not.

But every now and again this new technology can do something so fabulous that we just can't think of it. I'll give you one typical example. It's a fellow walking down the street in New York a couple of years ago. He hears a noise and he looks around him and hears a plane coming in to land on the Hudson River beside him. So quick as a flash he does what everybody would do except me because it wouldn't even have occurred to me: he pulls out his mobile phone and begins videoing it in effect. Now within an hour a billion people around the world had seen that video of that aircraft landing in the Hudson River.

Well probably Mr Mildenhall couldn't have done that. But I think nonetheless that we've still got to think of some of the power of a single good image. We've got to think again of old phrases about a picture being worth a thousand words. Because I think to some extent we have too many images these days and we don't have enough, if you like, memory out of it; enough hold on it and enough sense of association with it. In that sort of sense I've seen some absolutely superb photography in my term – and as a working journalist I suppose I get to see more than most. To say of an image that people will be looking at that image with admiration and with some sort of shock of recognition 100 years from now, I'm not sure how many I've seen of that regard.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2017