When a vast trove of photographic negatives was discovered in a random Chicago storage locker, the late, previously unknown Vivian Maier became a global art world sensation. The saga of the Sydney Morning Herald vintage photo archive is a lot like that—but on a Citizen Kane-scale, and in Arkansas. It's a long and unexpectedly sordid tale in which an Australian media conglomerate sought to digitize its 7,000,000-image photo archive, shipped it all to Little Rock for that purpose, and lost hold of it when the scanning company was raided by the FBI in an unrelated matter. Recently, the archive resurfaced, with over 2,000,000 images intact, for sale and seemingly crying out to be sorted, celebrated, and perhaps repatriated. For Daniel Miller of Santa Monica's Duncan Miller Gallery, it was a deal he couldn't refuse, a vernacular photography buff's dream come true. "It's incredibly rare to discover an archive as significant as this one," Miller says. Then the reality of organizing the collection set in.
"Literally an entire country's history is included in these images," Miller says, and that's just part of the monumental task—and enchanting opportunity—he now faces. "Filed away, deep in these 2,000,000 photographs made some 60 years ago, are works by many of the most significant Australian art photographers. Some of what we have discovered were their own art projects, some were assignment projects the artists took so they could do that art." Either way, it's something special. It's also something much more physically intense than what we might associate with digital, cloud-based photo archiving. These aren't just images, they're actual vintage prints. Silver gelatin on paper, mostly. Remarkably well-preserved, and notable because, as Miller points out, "The best prints in the SMH archive were actually made by each photographer at the time. Weeding through the millions of them to find those gems, that is the magic."
With pictures ranging from the stylish, glamorous, pop culture sensibility of a mid-century "Lifestyle" section, to edgier journalistic issue-based works about industry and politics, to spontaneous street photographs showing ordinary citizens going about the business of life, this project offers a fascinating way to learn about the history of photography in Australia. According to Miller, just one of the artists—the prominent industrial photographer of the 1950s and 1960s Wolfgang Sievers—spawned a dozen or so protégés. "He was very prolific in his hometown of Melbourne, and he traveled widely around the country working on commercial projects. His style is very specific and defined—certain angles, times of day, clean lines, high key contrast, and gorgeous printmaking. He literally created the school of industrial photography in Australia."
Beyond the industrial side of mid-century Australia, the archive contains images of more pastoral, agricultural scenes, as well as chic beach lifestyles, avant-garde portraiture, candid street scenes, and more. A quick perusal of the "subjects in the archive" tab at the SMH website reveals something of the scope and breadth of the situation, with sections pertaining to Aboriginal people, to Actors, Artists and art, Fires and firemen, Motor cars, and Yachting. In other words, it's a sweeping epic such as Hugh Jackman could bring to life, but told silently, without words, in black-and-white.
Click here to follow the progress of the Sydney Morning Herald photo archive. And if you're in LA Sept 16–Nov 4, check out The Australians, an exhibition from the archive, at Duncan Miller Gallery's Santa Monica location.