Vernacular photographies are anything that is not used as “art” …
Thomas J. Nevin began his photographic career in the mid 1860s within the urban free-settler society of a British penal colony: Hobart Tasmania. His apprenticeships were served with the highly commercial portrait photographers Alfred Bock, H. H. Baily and Charles A. Woolley. A lifelong partnership with the prolific Samuel Clifford, who advertised the sale of thousands of street views and landscape stereographs, ensured Nevin’s livelihood as a stereographer during the late 1860s-early 1870s, but by the mid 1870s, Nevin’s portraiture services were requested by his family solicitor and Attorney-General W.R. Giblin to provide the police and prison authorities with mugshots.
Thomas J. Nevin is somewhat remarkable in that his photographic records for the police, especially from the years 1872-1878, are the earliest to survive in Australian public collections and that his prisoner portraits are claimed as both art and vernacular photography. His portraiture techniques applied to judicial photography were “artistic” in a way that the mugshots produced by prison photographers in jurisdictions elsewhere (Victoria & NSW, in Australia, and Millbank and Pentonville, UK) were unequivocal, documentary captures. Nevin’s prisoner photographs were not only posed, printed and framed as commercial portraits – either soft-focus framing or vignetted with darker backcloths – in some instances, they were also hand-coloured for heightened realism.
These he displayed in his shop window to aid the public in recognizing a man wanted on warrant, as well as arranging a Rogues Gallery at the Town Hall Municipal Police Office where he was Office-keeper by 1878. “”Photograph in this office” is a common phrase accompanying warrants in the Tasmanian police gazettes by 1874. Some extant examples of Nevin’s mugshots are stamped verso with the wording “T.J. Nevin, Photographic Artist” alongside the government’s Royal Arms insignia. This was not a confusion of personal or professional identity on his part: he shared copyright with the colonial government while producing mugshots on commission, and initially used his own studio which was located in Hobart Town’s main street minutes from the central city prison, the Campbell Street Gaol.
Framing and verso stamps
Photos of convicts by T.J. Nevin 1875-78
Mitchell Collection, SLNSW
Scant attention has been accorded to Nevin’s original place in Australian photography as one of the first photographers working with police. Petty arguments in the late 20th century have arisen around his photographer attribution by art-trained photohistorians and their essentialist neo-modernist notions of aesthetics, power and the artist. Apart from Ann-Marie Willis and “her concern for the ordinary” exemplified in her discussion of police inspector Paul Foeschle’s Northern Territory images of Aborigines, few have wondered why there has never been a strong focus on our vernacular photographies. This is the challenge set forth by Geoff Batchen in his publication Each Wild Idea (MIT Press, 2002):
Extract: Preface by Geoff Batchen, Each Wild Idea, p. viii (MIT 2002).
Limited preview at Google Books.
In the footage below from the first epsiode of the six-part series The Genius of Photography (BBC 2007), the “vernacular” is defined as any photography that is not “art”: postcards, insurance records, passport photos, touristic photos, court documents, scientific images, forensic photographs taken at crime scenes etc etc.
Below: More TV snapshots
from Episode 1, The Genius of Photography: Fixing the Shadow (BBC 2007),
broadcast ABC HDTV February 2010