State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 87 May 2011


Susan Long
Questions Arise: homosexual eroticism in a nineteenth century family photographic album

I can't touch a camera without expressing myself,
Andre Kertesz1
An object that tells of the loss, destruction, disappearance of objects. Does not speak of itself. Will it include them? Jasper Johns2
The Smith Family Album3 is a typical nineteenth-century photo album. It is a well used and loved object rather than a precious one that was hidden in a cupboard for only special viewings. It is a familial object that could be touched and closely looked at on a table or on the lap by oneself or with other family relatives. It holds photographs that are intensely intimate and, as pages were turned, a visual narrative unfolded of family life. The Smith family album, however, differs from the traditional photo album in that it also contains male nudes and a series of vignettes depicting masculine behaviours in a highly performative manner. The vignettes were also published in the Australasian weekly newspaper and, as such, the album holds photographs that bridge both the private and public worlds of the family photographic album.
The Smith Family Album is a rectangular shape, portrait rather than landscape in design, and measures 32.0 × 26.6 × 4.5cm with thick cardboard pages. It is actually a scrapbook, as the word 'Scraps' appears on the spine of the album. Whether the size of the photographs dictated the album size or vice versa is unknown. However, I suspect the compiler desired a more 'artistic' look to the album rather than a random snap happy one as the size and the layout of the photographs suggest an earnest amateur at work. The prints are 12.0 × 16.5 cm in size except for the newspaper clippings, which are 11.5 × 12.5 cm, and each page holds two photographs, which create a self contained narrative on the page.
The inclusion of male nudes in a family photographic album is both unusual and puzzling. In an attempt to provide some insight into their presence, I intend to question the traditional way of looking at these photographs by (re)framing them with a range of readings and meanings. Photography by its very nature is duplicitous and offers a multiplicity of readings depending on when, where and who is doing the looking. And in the nineteenth century, 'exemplary images of bodies could be made to mean many things and could be sexually charged or not depending on the viewer's disposition'.4 As the photograph is the material manifestation of the gaze I also want to query the presence of these nineteenth-century photographs depicting male closeness and that of the male

Example of Smith Family Album. Page 19

gaze captured within the context of the Smith family album. Are these images of nude boys and theatrical male bonding spectres of a homoerotic gaze?
I am interested in the identity of the creators of the album but only to a point, as it is not my intention to establish queer identities. Rather, it is to bring to light the existence of such erotically charged photographs in a family album and the slippage that occurs when the parameters of the image and the family album shift. Obviously the meaning of a photograph is crucially influenced by the moment of production but it is also subject to changes as the photograph(s) enters into new relationships with new circumstances and publics. It is important to examine the life of an image and in so doing reflect upon

'[Two children bathing from banks of creek]'


The Cyclist's reviver'

'Defying the monsoonal depression'

Taking sun bath'


'A pleasant Sunday Afternoon in the Bush'

The Peacemaker'

'A Visitor from the Outstation'

The Peacemaker with an apology to Marcus Stone R.A.'

its trajectory through space and time, considering its context and historical traces. I am conscious that there are two historical positions in relation to the reading of the Smith family album: my contemporary location and that of the nineteenth century.

Shifting the Depicted Context

The photographs appear here without interruption as the landscape shots and other family pictures have been removed from the album. This alternative framework of presenting the album pages renders new significance to the juxtaposition of the images rather than altering the content of the photographs.
Ordinarily the group of 'Peacemaker' pictures would be considered as composing a series separate to the nude photographs, however, as they are held in the one family album they are interpreted as being part of an overall visual narrative. As we can see by the preceding images the accumulation of these pictures in the album starts to expose an ongoing theme or pattern.

Familial Space to Public Library

The provenance file tells us the album was presented to the State Library of Victoria on 10 December 1979 by a Mr Wilbur D. Smith and records 'Mr Smith resumes the right to remove [the album] temporarily for his own use'. A listing held with the album also describes the donation as an 'Album of photographs of members of the family of Mr. Wilbur D. Smith mostly taken in and around Lilydale, Seville and Brighton with some being the work of W.H. Smith of Seville'. The two newspaper illustrations – the 'Peacemaker' and 'A Visitor from the Outstation' were published in the Australasian Sixth and Seventh Photographic Competitions in 1899 and 1900 respectively. They are by W. H. Smith, Seville.
The donor of the album is now deceased. However, some detective work has revealed that Wilbur D. Smith's father was in fact William Henry Smith (W. H. Smith), the only accredited photographer in the album. Also we now know that the donor Wilbur D. Smith does not appear in the album as he was born in 1911, several years after the fact. W. H. Smith is the only identified contributor to the album. I hasten to add, however, that the album does have a coherent visual style that is consistent with the published photographs 'Peacemaker' and 'A Visitor from the Outstation' and I consider it likely that W. H. Smith of Seville was the original creator and photographer of this photo album. 'W. H. Smith' is identified in one photo of two men seated in front of a weatherboard cottage. His name is written in pencil under a middle-aged man sitting on a chair with a newspaper on his lap. This label has been added after the original album captions which are in ink and a different handwriting. It is difficult to determine his family status, however he could easily be the father of the family or even a cousin or uncle. Could W. H. Smith have been simply a family friend? There is no definite answer here, however, I believe that he is most likely the photographer repeatedly behind the lens and it is his gaze that we encounter in the Smith family album.

Milieu of Late Nineteenth-Century Photography

The late nineteenth century in Australia was a time of enormous change heralded by industrialization and a growing urban population. Photography embraced these technological and cultural changes and emerged with a renewed and revitalised focus.
The practice of photography expanded considerably in the late nineteenth century with the advent of the Eastman Kodak pocket camera and the availability of bromide-gelatin coated papers. These new photographic papers made enlarging a more practical and commercially attractive procedure as well as giving the photographer greater personal control and creative input over the finished picture. Prints could now be toned and highlights of the print could be strengthened or subdued depending on the artistic will of the photographer.
Instant photography using the pocket camera also meant that photography had entered the popular imagination. 'You press the button, we do the rest', was the Eastman
company's motto. By the 1890s there were a number of Australian photographic trade journals available as well as photographers having access to English and American publications. With the advent of these publications photographers were now exposed to new camera technologies and professional applications as well as the opportunity to purchase the latest equipment and camera accessories. Amateur photographers now developed networks in which ideas were exchanged and images circulated freely. It was a time of great openness and serious amateurs now sought to use photography as a means of personal expression whether deciding to focus on the relationship between photography and private life or photography and art. Photographic competitions became popular and photographic societies also encouraged their members to experiment with different papers and toning to create artistic interpretations of their subject matter.
The serious amateur photographer still preferred to use a bellows camera on a tripod, shooting with dry plate negatives that dictated a more studied approach to taking a photograph and gave greater creative control over the final image. In contrast Kodak pocket camera users were quite happy to snap anything that took their fancy as they careered along on their bicycles – another late nineteen-century phenomenon – tour of the countryside.5 This period in Australian history saw a rapid increase in the formation of photographic societies and between 1885 and the turn of the century amateur societies were formed in most of the main cities and then in suburban and regional areas, with many other photographers who were unaffiliated engaged in creating chronicles of their families.6


Even the most ordinary snapshot of the day was characterized by its nineteenth-century cultural coding. The amateur photograph of the late nineteenth century was based on a pre-existing image that was derived from the painting of the period and a new art movement in photography known as Pictorialism. In Australia, painters such as Streeton, Roberts and Bunny were influenced by the English Arts and Crafts movement, which was a revolt against the new age of mechanization and was a romantic effort to create art that was both beautiful and useful. Art Nouveau was to later emerge from this movement. Art in this era was already busy mythologizing a disappearing way of life in the bush and drew upon the mythic, idyllic, and iconic classical nude. It was a natural progression that Pictorialism in photography would also engage with similar subject matter.
Photographs came to mimic accepted motifs, practices and even formal qualities of painting. In the past 'the camera had previously been used for functional purposes, but now it was to become an aesthetic instrument, so that we had pictures for pictures' sake like the movement in painting of art for art's sake'.7 Prior to the 1890s the standard photographic practice was to close down the iris of the camera lens that created a picture with sharp detail from approximately three feet to infinity. The Pictorialists on the other hand opened up the lens so that the focus of the camera concentrated on the key aspect of the subject and consequently diffused any other unessential details. Pictorialists veered
towards the 'idealist' preference for blurred images and naturalist settings and were often criticized for creating over romanticized works. Lionel Lindsay was one Australian painter who experimented with the new bromide-gelatin papers and produced Bromoil prints from a combination of ink pigments and oil paint with which he won medals for at the Photographic Society of New South Wales exhibitions.8

The Nineteenth-Century Family Photographic Album

Photo albums first became popular with the arrival of calling cards, known as cartesde-visit. These were small photographs (11.4 × 6.4 cm) produced by professional studios in the late 1850s. The size and function of the photographic album changed with advances in technology, and by the late nineteenth century amateur photographers were now grouping their photos for presentation in a structured manner comparable to verbal narratives, most commonly in (family) photo albums.9 The evanescent trail of these images can be seen in the many nineteenth century albums housed in the Pictures Collection at the State Library of Victoria. Although the albums' ties to personal history and significant memory have been broken, they are now the supporting medium for what would otherwise be lost pictorial moments in history.
The family photographic album is a typical cultural relic and also a very personal item imbued with memories. The creators of the album are social biographers, so to speak, and as such construct narratives operating within everyday life. In the nineteenthcentury family albums can be seen as forms of the 'domestic museum'. The obsessive concern with their compilation is part of the nineteenth century fascination with using photography to establish a complete, objective and comprehensive social inventory in a period obsessed with taxonomy and social order.10
However, the family photo album does more than just preside over our most precious memories and extends beyond merely recording history. Interpretation of family structures, relationships and self is possible through viewing family photographs.11 In choosing, sequencing, organising and captioning the photographs for the album, the person responsible transforms the meaning of selected images into an intensely individualistic expression. At the moment of creation, the photo album is a personal artefact.12

The Smith Family Album

A definite aesthetic photographic style runs through the Smith Family Album and alerts the viewer to the fact that the photographer had 'intent', reflected in the photographs' consistently well-balanced compositions and careful framing of images. There are no casual snapshots in the album and the only blurred movement in a frame comes from a flowing creek or restless pet. The subjects of the photographs are willing participants and where family members are photographed in everyday scenarios, time has been taken to compose the picture and for subjects to adopt poses.
It is possible that W. H. Smith belonged to a photographic society and, if not, he could easily have come in contact with aspiring amateurs and consequently been caught up in the excitement at the time. The album does in fact exhibit a visual style and content that is reflective of the pictorial photographic trends of the day in its formality and romantic depictions of bush life.
Photographs move through space and time and have a life of their own after their initial point of creation. Turning the pages of this album leads me to question the traditional codes of viewing sexuality and masculinity at the end of the nineteenth century. What meaning does the viewer ascribe to these family photographs when the album includes sensual images of nude young men in the outdoors adjacent to orchestrated pictures of men making peace after falling out over a game of cards?
Here was an album I had serendipitously discovered on one of my forays into the Pictures Collection storage area. The accession listing accompanying the album in no way indicated the 'nudity' contained therein, e.g. 'Taking sun bath' was described as '[Bathing youth reclining on fallen tree]', the words naked or nude never appear in the description of any of the photographs.
Had these pictures simply been overlooked or was it that few people had noticed or wished to consider the alternative framings or queer readings of these photos?

Naked Youth and the Photographic Nude

The common assumption of the nineteenth century was that there was a vast difference between the nude and the undressed. The nude created an aesthetic impression whereas the naked subject drew attention to the lack of dress that dispelled any feelings of 'pure' aestheticism.13
Kenneth Clark in 1956 drew upon this nineteenth-century assumption when he offered this characterization of the nude: 'to be Naked is to be deprived of our clothes, and the word implies some of the embarrassment most of us feel in that condition. The word "nude", on the other hand, carries, in educated usage, no uncomfortable overtone. The vague image it projects into the mind is not of a huddled and defenceless body, but a balanced, prosperous, and confident body: the body reformed'.14 Photographers had provided photographic nude studies of the human figure for artists since the 1840s and articles on nudity in photography (largely written by men) had begun to appear in camera journals after 1890. These articles suggested that young boys would make especially appropriate models because their bodies were less sensually provocative than those of women. In the nineteenth century the male nude was not articulated for the female gaze.15
The ideal male body in the later part of the nineteenth century was beautiful, good and heroic. Each was a quality that could be eroticized and generate an admiration of the masculine body consciously or not of a homosocial character. The heroism of youth was that of vulnerability associated with innocence – the poseur's willingness to become

'Evening' by F.Holland Day: Smithsonian lnstitute: The 1896 Washington Salon And Art Photographic Exhibition

vulnerable to the camera's eye.16 The athletic muscular body was the preferred ideal by which to judge all male bodies and the adolescence was the ideal (transitional) period, the body being ripe for 'bodily formation.17 The ambiguity of boyhood made hazy the intent of the male gaze beholden by the beauty of youth.
'Meditation', 'The Cyclist's reviver', and 'Taking sun bath' are conspicuous photographs to the viewer as they are not a customary documentation of the 'fictive pictorial space' of the family album. Nor are they typical of records belonging to the social inventory of the family 'museum'. Nude males or naked youth do not figure largely in family photo albums. The identification of the subject of a photograph always dominates our perception of it. In each of these photographs the distance between the lens and subject varies, but it is the presence of the nude youth that arrests our vision. All three subjects are on logs in a bush setting, however, I think it would be fair to say that in this instance the native floras and fauna are of secondary interest. I suggest that here the photograph(s) is acting as surrogate for its image content. By this I mean the interest of the photographer/viewer is in the subject of the photograph, in this instance the male nude. Aesthetically, the Smith images are very much a cultural artefact of their era. The attempted neo-classical poses of the models in A Meditation' and 'The Cyclist's reviver' are not dissimilar to 'Evening' by F. Holland Day,18 although somewhat amateurish by comparison. At the turn of the century, Day's influence and reputation as a photographer rivalled that of Alfred Stieglitz. His firm of Copeland and Day was also the American publisher of Oscar Wilde's Salomé, illustrated by Aubrey Beardsley. 'Evening', like the
Smith album nude photos, maintains a respectable relative distance between the subject and the viewer, detracting from any close visual liaison with the 'other'.
The captioning of the nude photographs in the Smith Album is not playful or amusing, unlike those attached to other family photos in the album. The titles are more reflective and couched in the language of pictorial photography or classicism making them safer for public and family consumption. Reframing a photograph as 'art' in the nineteenth century made it secure from censure and the use of titles de-emphasized the potential of reading the body image erotically. This use of contextualizing images with romantic titles left the reading of the photograph in the eye of the beholder and how long the eye lingered was known only to the spectator.
The subject of a photograph is always of primary importance. However, its physical presence can also throw light on the photographer's intention and its use. The material traces of the photographs in the Smith family album also indicate that these pictures had another life before they were lodged in the album. 'Defying the monsoon' and 'Taking sunbath' have very distinct pinholes in each corner – an indication that these two photographs have been pinned on a wall and viewed in another location. Whether this was a public or private place we do not know, just as we will never know the identity of the invisible spectator(s). Upon further investigation, I discovered other photographs in the album also had pinhole marks, however, these were less obvious.
'The Cyclist's reviver' also has faint pinholes in all four corners but more interestingly it has a grey lead pencil line and soft fold dividing the picture in half. This fold changes the composition of 'The Cyclist's reviver' favouring the nude and excluding the scenery to the right of the male model. The photo may have been folded to change the composition but also it may have been folded and placed in a book for safekeeping. Was it a keepsake? Did 'The Cyclist's reviver' now fit into the palm of a hand or pocket where it could be kept and discretely touched and looked at when so desired?
The Smith album has also had more than one owner and a secondary owner at a later date has labelled several photographs with pencil. I especially like the label given subsequently of 'Taking sunbath' which has penciled on the edges of the page 'young Les', an indication that for this owner of the album, the photograph was very much about family history – the nudity seems to have passed them by.

Nineteenth-Century Masculinities

Visual representation is never separate from its cultural formation and it is useful to consider the societal norms of the day surrounding masculinity and its social representation. By the late 1890s (after the Oscar Wilde trials) the choreography of bodies figured prominently in the sanctioned codes of male touching, gestures and posing. Self-control, restraint and distance became the hallmarks of ideal masculine identity.19 There was now a societal awareness of other male sexual behaviours and in England 'by the 1890s, fashion plates no longer showed men touching'.20 However, by

'A visitor from the Outstation'

(by W.H. Smith, Seville)

from The Australasian' Seventh Photographic Competition

'anecdotal accounts',21 Australians seem to have been less affected by the scandal at the centre of London high society, associating such behaviour with the effeminate and overrefined nineteenth-century English upper class. This reality was far removed from that of the 'unique' and 'masculine' Australian identity promoted by such newspapers as the Bulletin. In short, English men were seen to be effeminate whereas Australian men celebrated their colonial superiority and difference by exhibiting an identity informed by 'rugged pioneering individualism'.22
The complex realm of homosocial Victorian friendship was at once both distant and close and imbued with unspoken tensions. In this arena of male bonding the performative ideal of physical closeness takes on decided ambiguities.

The Australasian Newspaper Photographs

The Town and Country Journal ran its first photographic competition in 1891-92. Other illustrated papers, such as the Australasian (1895), Sun (1895) and Queenslander (1896) followed. With the chance of winning a prize and having their work reproduced in half-tone, photographers enthusiastically accepted the newspaper competitions.23 The

'Country or Bush Life – Second Prize: The Peacemaker.' W.H. Smith, Seville. Second Prize in 'The Australasian' Sixth Photographic Competition.'

staged photographs in the Smith Family Album and those that were published in the Australasian in 189924 and 190025 are reflective of the sanctioned, stylized 'manner' of men touching in this period. Questions arise, however, because within the context of this family album they provide evidence of slippage that may be occurring at the seams of nineteenth-century 'male same-sex intimacy and its complicated intersection of vision, aesthetics and desire'.26
The Australasian newspaper illustrations sit opposite their original photographs in the scrapbook, being immediately preceded by the male nudes: 'Meditation', 'Cyclist's reviver', and 'Taking sunbath'. The pictures viewed in this immediate sequence run counter to the other family photos subsumed into the broader social narrative and cultural context of this album.
'The Peacemaker' and the earlier 'Peacemaker with an apology to Marcus Stone R.A.' are clear examples of such orchestrated 'touching' between men, which in this instance hinged on repairing 'friendships' after falling out over a game of cards. 'A Visitor from the Outstation' has no sanctioned touching but the languid pose of the man in the doorway draws one's attention.
The page bearing the most wear and tear in this album is the one that holds the two Australasian clippings: 'A Visitor from Outstation' and 'The Peacemaker'. Naturally these photographs would have been highly valued and shown to all and sundry as acknowledgement of the photographer's skill and the models accomplished posing. By contemporary standards the scenes appear stilted and highly mannered but the social actors in these pictures also appear to be relaxed and enjoying themselves. Apart from one character in 'Peacemaker with an apology to Marcus Stone R.A.' who appears to be on the verge of laughing, the amateur actors appear to be at ease with the photographer's directing and staging.
It was a surprise to discover that these particular photos in the album were not only performed for the camera but also staged for a newspaper photographic competition. The presence of the newspaper illustrations reinforces the uncertainty of vernacular photographs. For 'A Visitor from the Outstation' and 'Country or Bush Life' exist as both photographic historical objects of their time and also as a deliberate representation of the everyday nineteenth-century world. As Susan Sontage points out:
Although there is a sense in which the camera does indeed capture reality, not just interpret it, photographs are as much an interpretation of the world as paintings and drawings are'.27
The seductive power of photography is, and always has been its capacity to offer multiple readings of images. Democratic in nature, it promotes a blurring of distinctions and a proliferation of meanings: 'Photography being the permissive medium that it is means that the trajectory of a photograph(s) can subsequently be invested with different values with each new reengagement. We can encounter the photograph as an artefact in a variety of ways'.28 On a wall, in a photo album, in a newspaper – each of these situations suggest a different use for the photo, but none can secure their meaning.


Quoted in Pat Booth, ed, Master Photographers: the world's great photographers on their art and technique, New York: C. N. Potter, 1983, p. 135.


Susan Sontag, On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977, p. 199.


'The Smith Family Album', c1885- c1900. Forty-eight photographs, 2 newspaper illustrations in album 32.3 × 26.2cm, LTAF 191.


Michael Anton Budd, 'Every Man a Hero: sculpting the homoerotic in physical culture photography', in Deborah Bright, ed., The Passionate Camera, New York: Routledge, 1998, p. 53.


'Notes for the Photo. Tourist or Cyclist', in James Aebi, ed., The Australian Photographic Annual and Year Book of Photographic Societies of Australasia, 1898 also Australasian Process Workers' Companion and Photo-Tourists & Cyclists' Guide, Sydney: Harrington & Co., Ltd, 1898, p.140.


Gail Newton, Shades of Light: photography and Australia 1839-1988, Canberra: Australia National Gallery/Collins Australia, 1988, pp. 68-69.


Jack Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia, Melbourne: Georgian House, 1955, p. 147.


Ibid, p. 148.


Andrew L. Walker, 'Photo Albums: images of time and reflections of self', Journal of Qualitative Sociology, vol. 12, no. 2, June 1989, p. 155.


Peter Hamilton, The Beautiful and the Damned: the creation of identity in nineteenth-century photography at the National Portrait Gallery 6 June-7 October 2001, Hampshire: Lund Humphries, 2001, p. 147.


Charles Williams, Meaning of Family Photographs,, (accessed 17 June 2010).


Glenn Willumson, 'Making Meaning: displaced materiality in the library and art museum', in Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart, eds, Photographs Objects Histories: on the materiality of images, London: Routledge, 2004, p. 63.


Angelo S. Rapport, Famous Artists and Their Models, London: Stanley Paul, 1913, p. 18.


Kenneth Clark, The Nude: a study in ideal form, Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books, 1956, p. 23.


Naomi Rosenblum, World History of Photography, (accessed 9 November 2010).


Budd, 'Every man a hero', p. 51.


John Potvin, Material and Visual Cultures Beyond Male Bonding, 1870-1914: bodies, boundaries and intimacy, Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2008, p. 18.


'Evening' in the Smithsonian Institute: the 1896 Washington Salon and Art Photographic Exhibition, (accessed 3 May 2010).


Potvin, Material and Visual Cultures Beyond Male Bonding, p. 2.


Prints, Drawings and Paintings Department. Victoria and Albert Museum, Dressing the Male: men in fashion plates, London: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1999.


R. A. Fotheringham, 'Exiled to the Colonies: "Oscar Wilde" in Australia 1895-1897', Nineteenth Century Theatre & Film, vol. 30, no. 2, July 2003, p. 64.


lbid, p. 61.


Alan Davies and Peter Stanbury, The Mechanical Eye in Australia: photography 1841-1900, South Melbourne, Vic.: Oxford University Press, 1985, p. 241.


Australasian, 21 January 1899, p. 141.


Australasian, 9 June 1900, p. 1262.


Potvin, Material and Visual Cultures Beyond Male Bonding, p. 2.


Susan Sontag, On Photography, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1979, p. 6


Jed Pearl, 'The Restless Medium', The New Republic, (accessed 27 April 2010).