Old black and white photos

John Smith, the University

John Smith, the University's first chemistry professor

Even in this age of digital colour images at the press of a button or the click of a mouse, quality black-and-white photos continue to have an appeal that isn't easy to explain. Phillip Adams came close in a piece that accompanied a collection of classic Harold Cazneaux photos. Adams wrote: "In a post-modernist, deconstructionist, semiotic, global media world – in which images and ideas overwhelm in their profusion and confusion – it's marvellous to look at a Cazneaux print. Thank heavens, the picture isn't polychromatic. Praise the Lord, it doesn't move."

Chemistry professor John Smith leaning against a ladder near the Great Hall

Chemistry professor John Smith leaning against a ladder near the Great Hall

I'll go along with that. So here are some more old black-and-white photos with Chemistry School connections, reproduced from the University Archives with the help of Reference Archivist Julia Mant. And below, how Harold Cazneaux came to the University to work his magic.

In the beginning, there was John Smith, the University's first Chemistry professor, who took the two photos pictured above in the 1850s. The self-portrait at top shows Smith in his lab examining a sample of fleece; and above, he leans against a ladder (belonging to Hudson and Son, Builders of Botany Road), propped up outside a north doorway of the Great Hall. Wearing one of his trade-mark stove-pipe hats, he looks down at a watch in his hand, timing the exposure.

Two things impress me. One is how quick off the mark he was. The wet collodion process favoured by Smith had only been reported, by Frederick Scott Archer, in 1851. The other thing is the quality of the photos. As Kodak's Keast Burke noted, writing not long after the discovery of the Smith plates in the 1950s: "Most of the great inventions of the last Century had to pass through long stages of experimental models but with photography the reverse was the case – the images produced by the daguerreotype and by the wet plate processes were perfect from their inception."

The results may have been "perfect" in good hands, or close to it, but it wasn't easy. In the wet collodion process, collodion containing potassium iodide was spread on a glass plate. When the coating became firm, the plate was dipped in a silver nitrate bath, then mounted in the camera and, after exposure, developed with pyrogallic acid and fixed, as now, with "hypo" (sodium thiosulfate). And all this had to be done on the spot, using some kind of portable darkroom. The process didn't work if the plate was allowed to dry out. Burke especially admired the photo with the ladder: "Technically this is the best of all of the Professor's pictures – it is really magnificent."

Overlapping with Smith and succeeding him was Archibald Liversidge and, after Liversidge, Charles Fawsitt. In the photo below, taken in 1932, Fawsitt sits at the "electro-pneumatic ivory keyboard" of the University War Memorial Carillon, playing for the benefit of the Carillon Committee. Sixty-two bells respond to his touch, the largest of them, the one called the AIF Bell, weighing over 4 tons.

Chemistry professor Charles Fawsitt playing piano

Chemistry professor Charles Fawsitt playing piano

Earlier there had been "some tension and much discussion" in the Senate over a proposal to erect a separate building, a campanile, for the bells but in the end, it was decided that this would cost too much. The bells were installed in the Clock Tower and their sounds have been a familiar part of University life since the Carillon was inaugurated at an Anzac Day ceremony in 1928.

Harold Cazneaux at the University

Main Building

Main Building

In 1927, Sydney University turned 75. To celebrate the occasion, the University commissioned Harold Cazneaux to produce a photographic record of its students and buildings. It was a good choice. Cazneaux was a freelance commercial photographer, best known at the time for his contributions to the monthly magazine The Home, published between 1919 and 1942 and notable for its "alluring mix of architecture, domestic interiors, decorative arts, gardens and society dames" and for "Cazneaux's exquisite photographs". Today, Cazneaux is recognised as one of the best of Australia's pioneer pictorial photographers.

At the University that year, Physics was settling into its new building, featured by Cazneaux in his photo-essay, and everyone was watching preparations for the installation of the Carillon bells. There were complaints, however, about the "deplorable condition" of the University grounds – "Everywhere make-shift paths and roads … are in turn quagmires or dust storms, according to the elements"– and the students were on the verge of riot when they were again banned from taking the Commem Day procession into Town.

The Archives have 91 glass plate negatives taken by Cazneaux at the University, a gift from his family, and these show not only the well-known locations (such as the Main Building above) but also many scenes of scientific interest including the Chemistry labs (below).

Chemistry students at work in the labs

Chemistry students at work in the labs

Sources

  • Hermes editorial, Dust or Mud, 32(1) (1926), 2.
  • K. Burke, John Smith's Photography, Aust. Photo-Rev., 63(12) (1956), 732; Early Photographic Processes and the John Smith Collection, Proc. Roy. Aust. Chem. Inst., 26(8) (1959), 354.
  • C. Turney, U. Bygott and P. Chippendale, Australia's First. A History of the University of Sydney, Vol.1, 1850-1939, University of Sydney (1991).
  • Phillip Adams in Harold Cazneaux: The Quiet Observer, National Library of Australia (1994).
  • P. Watts in Harold Cazneaux Photographs, Historic Houses Trust of NSW and National Library of Australia (1994).
  • Cazneaux at the University of Sydney, Eds. P. Bell and T. Robinson, University of Sydney (1997).