Early Photographs of Sydney by William Hetzer

George St, Sydney, photo by William Hetzer, 1858-1863, original held by Powerhouse Museum

The first two photographic processes were the daguerreotype (which created a positive image on a silver plate) and the calotype (which created a paper negative). Both became commercially available in 1839 but ufortunately the small population, patent restrictions and uncertainty about their permanence limited photography’s use in Australia before the 1850s. 

The daguerreotype was certainly the more successful of the two processes, and was the one adopted by Australia’s first commercial photographer, George Baron Goodman, who arrived in 1842. The calotype on the other hand found more general use among gentlemen amateurs in England when its inventor William Henry Fox-Talbot relaxed his patents to allow non-commercial use of the process. As a result the process became more viable and one of the first commercial photographers to use the process in Australia was William Hetzer. 

Hetzer, a German immigrant, arrived in Sydney, with his wife, in 1850, where they immediately set up a photographic studio at 15 Hunter Street. Hetzer did not just specialise in calotypes and, as new collodion based positive/negative processes, like the ambrotype and albumen prints, appeared in the early 1850s he embraced these as well. His wife Thekla apparently assisted William in his studio and for this reason can possibly lay claim to being the first woman photographer in Australia, although no work credited to her survives. In addition to building up his photographic studio Hetzer taught amateur photographers new photographic processes and printed their negatives for them. 

In 1858 Hetzer embarked on what is now his best known enterprise, the publication of a set of 36 albumen prints taken with a stereo-view camera. The stereoscopic camera had become commercially available in 1855 and had revolutionized the speed with which outdoor photographs could be taken. Their uniform size also meant people could collect sets of views and this led to the setting up of publishing houses to reproduce views for sale at home and abroad. 

Hetzer’s views of Sydney – “… its harbour, principal buildings, streets and neighbouring scenery, &c.” were among the earliest outdoor photographs taken in Sydney and were certainly more extensive than others produced before 1858. The first set appears to have done well and Hetzer produced more sets of stereo-views of Sydney and its harbour, right up until 1863. 

The twenty five photographs in the Powerhouse Museum collections are of well known building such as St James Church, St Patrick’s Church, Government House, The Exchange, George St, but also include a wide range of scenic views from the North Shore to Penrith in the Western suburbs. It is important to note however, that the wide range in the quality of the images makes it is almost certain that Hetzer, like many other publishers of views, used amateur negatives was well as his own. 

On 22 December 1859, the Sydney Morning Herald published an article on the first photographic exhibition held by the Philosophical Society of New South Wales. This society, of which Hetzer was a member, was modeled on the Royal Society of London and its show at the Australian Subscription Library displayed 1013 photographs. Of these 703 were stereo photographs, and of 268 were Australian stereo views contributed by society members Joseph Docker, Robert Hunt, Arthur Onslow, Jenner Plomley, Professor John Smith, William Stanley Jevons, Mathew Fortescue Moresby, E. W. Ward, Edward Dalton and William Hetzer. Of these Dalton and Hetzer were the only professional photographers; the others were all amateurs. 

By this time Hetzer was a well respected member of Sydney’s artistic and scientific community. In addition to exhibiting his works with the Royal Society of New South Wales he was also awarded an honourable mention for his studies of trees at the 1861 Sydney Exhibition. This was held in preparation for the 1862 London International Exhibition, to which Hetzer also sent a huge 116 x 60.9 composite portrait of the 23 officers of the Sydney Provincial Grand Lodge of Freemasons.

It is unsure what happened to cause Hetzer to decide to leave Australia but in March 1867 the Sydney Morning Herald announced the auction of Hetzer’s studio at 287 George Street. This included his photographic equipment and about 3500 registered negatives, all of which were purchased by the photographer Joseph Degotardi. Hetzer and Thekla, returned to England in the same year ending their 17 year adventure in the colonies, and luckily for us, leaving behind a fascinating collection of early Sydney views.

cc by sa
by Geoff Barker, 2008

Davies, Alan and Stanbury, Peter, The Mechanical Eye in Australia; photography 1841 – 1900, Oxford University Press, New Zealand, 1986
Leibovic, Joseph, Masterpieces of Australian Photography, auction catalogue, Joesph Leibovic Gallery, Paddington, Australia, 1989 
Newton, Gael, Shades of Light; photography and Australia 1839-1988, Australian National Gallery, 1888


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