V — Entering the Landscape: Foelsche as Pictorial Photographer
During late 1877 Foelsche was asked to photograph the goldfields south of Darwin for the Paris Exhibition of 1878. He loaded a wagon with his camera, tripod, portable darkroom and chemicals, and his photography entered a new phase, in which he captured the forms and shades of the Territory landscape.
Foelsche's 1877 and 1878 photographic commissions took him to the goldfields and the townships of Stapleton, Southport and Yam Creek. On these trips he found his own gift as a landscape photographer, overcoming challenges of harsh light, wide horizons and the difficulties of transporting cumbersome equipment. Inspector Foelsche had no qualms about modifying the landscape to achieve his aim, chopping down trees and shrubs to clear lines of perspective through his images, from foreground to background.
Foelsche sought out shaded pools and rivers, exploiting the softening and reflective qualities of water, and positioning human subjects nearby. It is easy to imagine that Foelsche's own childhood, spent in a small village on the banks of one of Europe's great rivers, the Elbe, influenced this aspect of his photography.
His placement of human figures was a special feature of Foelsche's landscape photography, giving his work a theatrical quality. This staging is rarely obvious, partly because of Foelsche's unerring eye for composition, so that his figures always seem to be in their natural positions. By framing figures with trees and branches, or in doorways, he created his own idiosyncratic vignettes, within the wider scene.
The fine detail in Foelsche's landscape studies is an unusual feature in nineteenth-century photography. The limited size of photographic prints (no larger than an A4 sheet) meant that few photographers had reason to add such detail. But Paul Foelsche owned a lantern-slide projector, and perhaps the opportunity to appreciate large-scale images of his photographs influenced his compositions and gave this policeman-photographer a forensic eye for detail.
During the early 1880s Foelsche began taking his cumbersome photographic equipment on his police inspections, as far south as Katherine. These excursions resulted in some of his most successful landscape photographs. Foelsche paid particular attention to the composition of these images, clearing the foregrounds of vegetation and positioning people like actors on a stage.
32. First shipment of wool from Victoria River Downs, 1891
This 1891 photograph records the first consignment of wool from Victoria River Downs station, ready to be loaded aboard a small river-boat for Port Darwin. The two wagon-teams have arrived at the Victoria River Depot after an overland journey from the head station, about 130 kilometres to the south. An experimental flock of 1,000 sheep had been brought to Victoria River Downs in 1890. These did well initially, and the flock was doubled, but the experiment was short-lived. The climate was too severe, particularly for lambs.
The photograph contains several fascinating insights into this frontier period. It shows a complete wagon team with its white overseers, Aboriginal workers and bales marked with the VRD initials. The pipe-smoking Aboriginal women may be with their own menfolk, but their clothing also suggests a link to the white men. This is not a snapshot, but a carefully composed image. Foelsche has positioned the wagons, men and women precisely for best effect, against the backdrop of the Victoria River and Steep Head.
33. 'Our House' hotel, Stapleton, 1879
This photograph, taken in December 1879, shows the lengths taken by Foelsche to create a pictorial landscape in the European style. His main objective was to record the 'Our House' hotel, on the road from the township of Stapleton to the goldfields, near the Adelaide River. First licensed in June 1874, the hotel advertised 'good liquor of all classes'.
The pool of water enabled Foelsche to fill the foreground with reflections, creating a scene within a scene. He enlisted a passing wagon, added his police buggy (at left), and directed an Aboriginal man to hold his white horse at the water's edge, casting a further reflection. The hotel patrons stand motionless in the distance. In the near foreground, tree stumps indicate that Foelsche may have cleared this view for his camera.
34. Ant-hill, six miles south of Rum Jungle, September 1887
Foelsche's 1887 study of a six-metre high ant-hill, near the track leading to Rum Jungle, about 80 kilometres south of Palmerston. His wife Charlotte is seated in the first buggy, just discernible. The identity of the second buggy's occupants remains a mystery.
Next to Foelsche's buggy is the wooden box used to hold his glass plate negatives. Foelsche prepared his photographs so well that he generally required only a single plate for each photograph.
Like many of Foelsche's landscapes, this photograph is not confined to a single subject. The tree and ant-hill frame another theme, that of the travellers who have arrived at this ancient scene.
35. Kathleen Falls, on the road to the Victoria River, September 1887
This photograph illustrates Foelsche's single-mindedness in constructing his pictorial views. He identified the required scene and its vantage point, and if any trees or vegetation blocked the view, they were removed. Here, Foelsche allowed only one pandanus trunk to intrude, providing a link across the water to the background, and framing the view between two sets of waterfalls. The other palms were chopped down, their stumps still visible.
A detail of Foelsche's companion view to this photograph (reproduced below) shows the Aboriginal boy engaged for this pruning job, leaning against the pandanus palm, axe in hand.
36. Natives on the Adelaide River, December 1888
Foelsche composed this complex pictorial study in December 1888, at the start of the wet season which would transform this gentle stream into a raging torrent. In the background is the Adelaide River Bridge, recently completed for the Port Darwin – Pine Creek railway.
Foelsche has constructed an imaginary scene, in which the Aboriginal group crossing the stream encounters a European in his boat. Foelsche has carefully placed all the characters, framing them in the dappled light between the trees, and using the river to draw the viewer's eye into the frame.
37. Wreck of the Young Australian steamer, Roper River, 1889
In 1871 the Young Australian paddle steamer was sent by the South Australian government to assist in transporting equipment and stores for the construction of the Overland Telegraph Line. A year later, the steamer was grounded on rocks in the Roper River, about 20 kilometres south of the Roper Bar. The wreck remained a landmark for several decades.
Foelsche visited the wreck in 1889 and made two atmospheric photographs. He placed two white companions and an Aboriginal man on it, as though they were survivors, and photographed the scene from the river bank. The moody scene evokes the transience of the European presence in this landscape.
38. Baob trees marked on A.C. Gregory's North Australian expedition, 1891
These baob trees mark the Victoria River base camp of the explorer A.C. Gregory, used during his North Australia Expedition of 1855-1856. The inscription 'letter in forge', on the tree at right, refers to a letter Gregory left here before returning to Brisbane in October 1856. The iron forge is just visible at the base of tree on the left. The botanist Ferdinand von Mueller was a member of Gregory's expedition and named this particular species of baob Adansonia gregorii, after the explorer. Foelsche corresponded extensively with von Mueller and had sent him more than 200 plant specimens, now preserved in the Melbourne Herbarium. Perhaps Foelsche also sent him a print of this photograph (or a companion image, depicting another baob marked by Gregory), as no photographer had accompanied Gregory's expedition. Foelsche has caught the essence of these ancient baob trees, which are sacred to the Ngaringman people of the Victoria River.
39. Wickham River, looking toward Victoria River Downs head station, 1891
Foelsche has placed his tripod on the southern bank of the Wickham River, looking across to the out-buildings of the Victoria River Downs head-station. He has taken advantage of a still afternoon, combining the oblique afternoon light, reflection and lengthening shadows. The men in the boat are obligingly motionless, and the boat rests at its mooring without a ripple. The man in the stern is H.W.H. Stevens, Foelsche's son-in-law, and manager of the Victoria River Downs station.
Foelsche's mastery of these riverine scenes suggests that he drew upon his own childhood familiarity with the Elbe River, in his native land.
40. Wickham River crossing, near Victoria River Downs head-station, 1891
Foelsche's 1891 atmospheric study of light, shade and reflection at the Wickham River crossing, just downstream from Victoria River Downs head-station. Light filtering through the canopy of gnarled paperbark trees and palms accentuates the whiteness of Foelsche's police horses and his companion's shirt. Foelsche has positioned the man and horses in the pool to gain their reflections, adding complexity to a subtle pictorial study.
The buggy is Foelsche's own 'spring cart', just large enough to carry his tripod and bulky camera equipment strapped down behind the seat. The man, probably a stockman at the Victoria River Downs station, can be recognised as the oarsman in the previous photograph.
41. Katherine River, 14 miles up from the crossing, July 1893
From 1883 to 1893 Foelsche made several photographs of the Katherine River Gorge. This image is one of his most successful. By positioning a standing man in a rowboat against the distant cliff wall, Foelsche has unobtrusively added a human scale to this impressive scene. Perhaps the man was unaware that Foelsche's negative contains sufficient detail to confirm that he is naked. He had probably been swimming in this pool, now a favourite tourist destination in the Nitmiluk National Park, co-managed by the Jawoyn Aboriginal people.
42. View on Katherine River, ten miles above the crossing, July 1893
Foelsche's view of the Katherine River, photographed from the top of the gorge on a late afternoon in July 1893. The pipe-smoking Aboriginal couple are probably Jawoyn people of Nitmiluk, the Katherine River Gorge. The man holding the axe has just completed clearing vegetation from the edge of the gorge, opening the river vista for Foelsche's camera, and creating a frame for the couple themselves.
Foelsche generally avoided large panoramas over a wide extent of country. This photograph is an exception, in which he used the river itself to lead the viewer successfully from the foreground to the far horizon.
43. Unloading supplies at Victoria River Landing, September 1893
Foelsche made at least two visits to Victoria River Downs station during the early 1890s. This photograph of the Victoria River Depot documents the arrival of the supply boat Crayfish, having navigated the 150 kilometre journey up-river, after the coastal journey from Port Darwin. Having unloaded the supplies (apparently consisting mainly of bags of flour), the men are resting in the late afternoon.
This isolated river port provided a lifeline for the head station, 130 kilometres to the south. The alternative was a 500 kilometre overland journey to Palmerston. The Victoria River Depot was used until the 1930s, when road transport finally made it redundant. It is now an historical reserve, close to the small township of Timber Creek.
On Steep Head the blackened limits of a recent bushfire probably resulted from Aboriginal burning practices.
44. Burial platform, September 1896
This is one of Foelsche's last pictorial views, taken in September 1896. It depicts an Aboriginal burial platform in the bush south of Palmerston, possibly near Rum Jungle. Foelsche took two photographs of the platform from different angles, cutting down several small trees in the process. In an anthropological article published a year earlier, Foelsche wrote that while infants children and old people in the Port Darwin region were buried in shallow graves, young people are placed in trees; a sort of platform is made in the branches some 10 feet from the ground…the body is wrapped in paper bark…and placed on the platform covered with bark and leaves, where it remains till quite dry, when, in some instances, the relatives (always women) collect some of the bones and skull and carry them about with them for several months, when they are buried. The names of deceased persons are seldom mentioned. (Foelsche, 1895) Foelsche's buggy and his camera box are visible in the background. We can assume that the site was not far from a road, as by 1896 the 65 year-old Foelsche was becoming less physically active, restricted by pain in his legs.
45. Paul Foelsche's family at Mindil Beach, about 1890
Paul Foelsche's whimsical study of his family on Mindil Beach, a mile or so from Palmerston, in about 1896. His usual precision is evident, with the canopy of leaves just brushing the land on the horizon. The composition's central figure is his wife Charlotte, who faces her husband directly. The scene has added poignancy, for she was to die just three years later.
At right, barefooted and holding a kite in insouciant fashion, is Foelsche's energetic son-in-law Hildebrand Stevens, one of the Territory's pioneering figures. He was to die in Singapore's Changi prisoner-of-war camp half a century later, aged 93. Next to him is his wife, Rosie Emma, Foelsche's eldest daughter. William Andrews, husband of Foelsche's other daughter Mary, stands on Rosie's right, next to a Chinese servant and an Aboriginal boy. Mary sits with her two daughters, Rita and the younger Dorothy (later the custodian of Foelsche's landscape negatives until her death in the late 1960s). An unidentified man, seated cross-legged and smoking a pipe, completes the group.