VIII — Foelsche, The Photographer
Paul Foelsche began his photography during the 'wet-plate' era. He mastered this complex procedure, producing images which capture the spirit of the Northern Territory landscape and the personality of his subjects. Yet, until now, Foelsche has remained almost unknown.
Paul Foelsche was not the Territory's first photographer. He was preceded by at least five others, including Joseph Brooks, a member of Goyder's 1869 Survey Expedition. Brooks' photographs were shown in Adelaide during the weeks prior to Foelsche's departure. Perhaps these images inspired Foelsche to pack his camera equipment…
Captain Samuel Sweet's Influence
At Port Darwin, Foelsche was certainly influenced by Samuel Sweet, an accomplished photographer who captained the South Australian survey ship 'Gulnare' on the northern coast during 1869-1871. Foelsche's first photographs of Palmerston are very similar to Sweet's. It seems likely that Sweet passed on photographic knowledge to the younger man, and perhaps some prints, when he left Port Darwin late in 1871. Foelsche's method of framing his compositions and his attention to detail may owe a good deal to Sweet.
In the Field
For his landscape views, Foelsche loaded his photographic equipment into the spring-cart used for his official tours of duty. Before the mid-1880s, when he began using prepared dry-plates, this was a heavy load of equipment. It consisted of his camera, tripod, portable darkroom and tripod, chemical jars, and boxes of glass plates. For his townscapes, Foelsche also used a folding wooden platform for his camera tripod, giving him an elevated view of buildings and streets.
Improving Nature: Foelsche at Work
Foelsche mastered the art of mixing photographic chemicals and used only the purest distilled water for his work. Very few of his negatives are spoilt.
He built a small photographic studio next to his house in Palmerston, and it was here that he made many of his portraits, using a round-backed cedar chair, and a canvas backdrop. For the most part, the subjects in his portraits appear relaxed, but Foelsche used two particular techniques to achieve his results. Firstly, to counter the reflective sheen from the faces of his subjects, Foelsche asked them to apply a mixture of powdered charcoal, to dull the effect. He found that the charcoal from the 'cotton bush' was best. Secondly, to disguise the presence of the chair-back, Foelsche asked his subjects to fold their arms in a certain way. This generally worked, but a small part of the chair-back can be seen in several portraits.
52. Iwaidja people waiting to be photographed, Port Essington, November 1877
During November 1877 Foelsche sailed north-east from Port Darwin to Port Essington, site of one of the first British settlements in northern Australia. His objective was to obtain photographic portraits of the Iwaidja people for the 1878 Paris Exhibition.
This photograph shows Iwaidja people waiting on the beach in front of Foelsche's photographic tent, next to a trepang fishery shed. Behind the tent are stockyards for the Cobourg Cattle Company, owned by Foelsche's old friend, John Lewis. Foelsche visited Port Essington regularly during the 1870s and came to know Iwaidja elders, obtaining their agreement for his photographic project.
Each photograph took almost an hour of complex work, mixing chemicals, exposing and developing the glass plates. Foelsche wrote of this trip: 'I worked in a tent, 110 [degrees] in the shade, rather too hot for any European to work 10 hours a day in'. (Foelsche to J. Lewis, 19 December 1877, PRG 247, State Library of South Australia.)
53. Daly River cattle station, September 1887
Foelsche's enthusiasm for photographic composition sometimes overshadowed the main subject, as in this study of the Daly River cattle station. In the foreground he has positioned three Europeans, two Chinese, two Aboriginal people, three horses, two carriages and a dog. The cart and the buggy frame the cast of characters. At left, the two Chinese men provide a smaller frame for the two Aboriginal stockmen. Between them, the eye is drawn to the edge of a distant building. On the right, the two European stockmen appear to be regarding the dog on the horse's back. But both the horse and dog are looking towards the last character - the seated man, neatly framed by the stockman's arm, horse's head and bridle.
54. Camp on the road to Daly River cattle station, September 1887
Foelsche's landscape photographs were usually meticulously composed. This photograph seems to be an exception. It is an image of the photographer's own overnight camp, on the way to the Daly River cattle station in September 1887. Foelsche's wife Charlotte, who rarely appeared in his photographs, returns his gaze directly. Behind her are their two hammock beds, tightly strung between trees. Foelsche's revolver hangs from one tree, within reach of the right-hand hammock. The Foelsches' bearded companion, who sits stirring his tea, has probably camped further away, out of the picture. A bottle of whisky or brandy stands on Foelsche's empty chair, behind a travelling bag emblazoned with his name. Foelsche rarely appeared in photographs, and his shadow rarely fell across his images. This image, the closest to a snapshot left by him, provides a rare personal insight.
55, 56, 57. Three Studies of the Adelaide River railway bridge, 1888
In December 1888 Foelsche made a series of four eccentric studies in which the Adelaide River railway bridge provides a backdrop to his own staged scenes. Foelsche's manipulation of human figures suggests a theatre set design. In fact, at least two of the Europeans in these photographs were members of Palmerston's theatrical society. Perhaps they encouraged Foelsche's own tendency to 'choreograph' these photographs.
The first photograph to the left was Foelsche's 'official version' of this scene. Few people would have noticed that the man seated on the rock has a white cockatoo on his knee, but this can be confirmed by comparing it with the photograph below , where the cockatoo is motionless. This cockatoo, known as 'Cocky Haynes', resided at the nearby Adelaide River hotel, where it was known to shout the orders with sound-effects of popping corks, fizzing bottles and 'guggling of beer'. The bird's presence here is a sign that we should not regard these as ordinary landscape photographs.
Most of Foelsche's photographic contemporaries were committed to portraying nature or events in an entirely truthful and objective manner. Foelsche's photography was both strikingly innovative and subtly masked.
Foelsche's Photographic Techniques
Paul Foelsche began his photography during the 'wet-plate' era. Each photographic image was captured on a glass negative coated with chemicals, which had to be printed immediately. A field photographer needed a large camera and tripod, glass plates, chemicals, storage boxes and a portable darkroom. This equipment weighed as much as half a tonne, and Foelsche needed a sturdy horse-drawn spring cart to carry it.
After about 1880 'dry-plate' photography allowed a photographer to prepare a number of glass plates in advance, so that only a camera and tripod was needed. Printing could occur later. This increased mobility allowed Foelsche to extend the range of his photographic trips.
Foelsche printed all his photographs himself, but he never sold a photograph. As a policeman and a public servant, he couldn't be seen to be profiting from his photography. He sent many of his photographs to International Exhibitions, and presented albums to friends and important visitors to Palmerston, such as the South Australian Governor in 1891, or the Earl of Brassey in 1887.