Museum of Brisbane

In the spotlight: curator Michael Aird

We recently caught up with Captured: Early Brisbane photographers and their Aboriginal subjects guest curator Michael Aird about his fascinating research around Aboriginal portraits, which spans almost three decades. Keep on reading to find out more about the meticulous processes involved with finding the photographs and uncovering the stories behind them.

Michael Aird

Tell us a little bit about your background and how your interest in photography first came about?

I grew up on the Gold Coast, surrounded by my family who always had cameras and were very interested in documenting our family history. I went to university in 1987 to study archeology and anthropology, at a time when not many Aboriginal students were enrolled in tertiary education. But I had relatives who had done so before me, so I followed.

My main research interest has always been culture and history, and after graduating I fell in love with photography and knew I wanted to work with photos.

How long have you been researching portraits of Aboriginal subjects?

I have been researching Aboriginal portraits for almost 30 years, and am always on the look out for any photographs. I am constantly researching the origins and identities of the subjects. My main research interest is Aborigines in South East Queensland.

Where did the inspiration for Captured come from?

Three years ago, I was contracted by Jane Lydon as a Queensland researcher for her upcoming book on Aboriginal photographs. I wrote a chapter for that book and concentrated my research on the four photographers that are focused on in Captured. In effect, Captured is a continuation of the research for that chapter.

Can you give us an overview of Captured? What can visitors expect to see?

Captured is based around four photographers – John Watson, William Knight, Thomas Bevan and Daniel Marquis – from Brisbane’s early studios and the people who were photographed in them. It is a summary of my research at this point in time.

Throughout my research, I have been able to uncover more than 120 different photos for this exhibition. Some of the images have been floating around for 100-plus years; some have previously been wrongly credited in terms of locations, the photographer and the subjects; and some have never been seen publicly because they were in private collections.

Can you tell us a bit about your process? What does researching an exhibition like Captured involve?

I work with a range of different images; they can be photos people send me, things I find in books or on the internet, or records from public collections. I have an extensive network of people that I work with, helping me to track down early images of Aboriginal subjects; I send them my findings and they send me theirs. Looking at the photos, I try to find to details that can help identify where the photographs were taken or more information about the subjects. This can be anything from looking at scars on people’s faces or details in the backdrops of the photo. I have worked with private collectors and major art galleries, offering advice about provenance.

What are some of the interesting stories you have uncovered in your research?

Probably the most exciting discovery is that at least five images Queensland Government Geologist Richard Daintree took to London in the 1870s for the Exhibition of Art and Industry that were originally attributed to him were actually taken in the Brisbane studio of Daniel Marquis.

There are also several photographs that we have gotten from overseas institutions, including the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge Collections and British Museum, which has pretty interesting implications for how far these photographs have travelled across the world.

Has technology influenced your research at all?

Definitely. Sometimes I’m just working from photocopies or images in books, so the quality of image is not always very good, but with technology, the process has gotten much easier.

Now if I want copies of images, it’s as easy as taking a small digital camera into the library and taking a photo, or using a small portable scanner and my laptop. The quality of images is much better now thanks to technology.

I can also look up photos on Google and it’s so much easier to share photos via social media or email, so the volume of images that I have access to is much greater. Technology has definitely made the process easier.

What would you like people to get out of the exhibition?

There’s a natural variation in the quality of what is exhibited, some of the images are better quality than others, but my main intention is for visitors to look at the people in the pictures as people.

I am not interested in naming the subjects or saying anything about their lifestyle and where they are from. The viewer needs to fill in the gaps about these questions for themselves. Captured is a rare opportunity that allows the public to view and have access to a volume of images that have previously been ignored.


Visit Captured: Early Brisbane photographers and their Aboriginal subjects, open until 22 June 2014.