July 15, 2024

Australia’s First Photographer

George Goodman was Australia’s first photographer: in the 1840s, the only man licensed to take photos in the colonies.

The oldest surviving photograph: 1826
The oldest surviving photograph: 1826

Photography is a French invention. By the early 19th century, it had been observed that some physical materials were light sensitive; inventors and hobbyists around the world then sought to utilise this effect to permanently capture images.

The first to succeed was Joseph Nicéphore Niépce. The oldest surviving pictures date from 1826-27, when Niépce took several images of his estate at Saint-Lop-de-Varenees, in Burgundy.

Niépce’s technique was called ‘Heliography’; the images were captured on a polished pewter plate, set inside a box-like camera, coated with a light sensitive substance known as ‘Bitumen of Judea’. But Heliography had a number of shortcomings: images took about 8 hours to form, and the resulting pictures were faint and blurry.

Photographic enthusiasts then turned their attention to improving the process.

The first Daguerreotype taken by the inventor in 1838
The first Daguerreotype taken by the inventor in 1838

In 1839 another French inventor, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, demonstrated his variant at the Royal Academy in Paris.

This involved a copper sheet covered in silver plate, immersed in iodine to make it light sensitive; after exposure, the plate was treated with mercury fumes to fix the image. Daguerre’s system improved significantly on Niépce’s; capturing an image took only a few minutes, and the results were much sharper.

Pictures produced with the new method were called Daguerreotypes, after the inventor.

Relatively quick and cheap to produce, Daguerreotypes were immediately popular. Daguerre began selling licenses to use his process and a new industry, commercial photography, was born.

Richard Beard
Richard Beard

In England, Richard Beard, an aspiring entrepreneur, set out to corner the photographic market.

Paying a substantial sum, in 1841 Beard secured exclusive rights to Daguerre’s process, covering both Great Britain and its overseas colonies. He then spent an additional 20 000 pounds establishing a chain of photographic studios across England.

The business model was simple: for a few coins, anyone could have their likeness captured in a Daguerreotype.

But enforcing a monopoly would prove difficult; the specifics of the process became public, and anyone who could obtain the materials could produce an image. Beard would sue several of his emerging competitors, and would spend much of the remainder of the decade in litigation.

These legal battles led to financial difficulties; to raise money, Beard on-sold his rights to produce Daguerreotypes in Australia. The buyer was George Barron Goodman.

Australia's first photographer: George Barron Goodman
George Barron Goodman

Goodman is something of a mysterious figure in Australian history. His Wikipedia page lists his date of birth as ‘Unknown’, and while his death is listed as occurring in 1851, some researchers think he actually died decades later.

Other than the period he lived in Australia, very little is known of his life. And the date and his reasons for leaving the country, which he did suddenly, are also sketchy.

But it is likely he was born in London, in 1815, under the name George Barry Goodwin. The son of Abraham and Rosa Goodwin, he was one of five children.

His early years are a complete mystery, and it is not known what he did for a living, or how he earned the money to buy the Daguerreotype rights from Beard. It is possible he borrowed the money from his father, or he may have earned it through his own entrepreneurial efforts.

His time in Australia would show Goodman already had familiarity with a number of different lines of business.

A Daguerreotype camera, circa 1840
A Daguerreotype camera, circa 1840

Goodman appears more clearly in the historical record in 1842, when he concluded his deal with Beard, and set sail for Australia. At this time there were colonies in New South Wales, Victoria, South Australia and Tasmania (still Van Dieman’s land); fledgling settlements attractive to adventurous types, looking to make their fortune.

The passage took several months, during which Goodman became romantically involved with another passenger, Sarah Polack. Polack had been visiting relatives in England and was returning to New South Wales, where her father, a freed convict, had become a wealthy businessman.

The ship arrived in Sydney in November; Goodman and Polack were married the following January. Polack’s father, Abraham, was a devout Jew who initially objected to the marriage, but relented on the condition that the couple be wed in a traditional Jewish ceremony.

The Royal Hotel, George Street
The Royal Hotel, George Street

Goodman quickly set about establishing his photographic business, utilising a showbiz-like flair for promotion.

He initially based himself at the Royal Hotel on George Street; a prominent location, at four stories this was the colony’s tallest building. Goodman had a photographic studio built on the roof, made entirely of glass.

Early cameras were primitive and required a lot of light to function, the glass structure was designed to aid the process. But undoubtedly the location and material were also deliberately chosen, to add an element of panache.

It was around this time Goodman also adopted the middle name ‘Barron’, most likely to make himself sound more sophisticated.

Advertorial for Goodman in the Sydney press
Advertorial for Goodman in the Sydney press

Goodman’s efforts were aided by the local press, who enthusiastically promoted the arrival of photography. The wonders of the process were extolled in a series of articles, that in a modern context could rightly be called ‘advertorial’:

‘Faithful miniature likenesses are (created) in the space of a few seconds. This extraordinary process will be open to the public at the Royal Hotel. The photographic apparatus, the discovery of which is ranked among the greatest scientific achievements of the age, will be in daily operation from ten to five.’


– Article in ‘The Australian’, 7 December 1842

Other articles stated photography was one of the ‘ten wonders of the world’, suggested it had royal endorsement, and thanked Goodman for bringing it to Australia.

It was no surprise then, that his new business was a great success. People flocked to the glass studio to see this technological marvel in action, many stayed to have their portrait taken.

The price helped drive its popularity: a simple Daguerreotype cost one guinea (excluding frame), readily affordable for much of the population. Goodman highlighted this in interviews, stating he was ‘bringing photography to the people’.

He would eventually produce thousands of photographs. As his business flourished, he would introduce other innovations, including hand-coloured pictures, and a range of artificial backgrounds.

Daguerreotype by George Goodman Daguerreotype by George Goodman

Daguerreotype by George Goodman
Daguerreotypes by George Goodman

After nine months in Sydney, Goodman took his show on the road. In October 1843 he set sail for Hobart, and would subsequently visit Launceston, Melbourne, and Adelaide, as well as several smaller towns in regional New South Wales.

In each place, Goodman became the first to demonstrate photography and he received more rapturous press coverage, alongside brisk business. There was also some controversy: in both Melbourne and Adelaide there were reports of unpaid suppliers and outstanding debts.

Returning to Sydney in late 1844, Goodman set up a new, dedicated studio at 49 Hunter Street. The oldest surviving photograph taken in Australia would be produced here.

Dr William Bland, the oldest surviving photo taken in Australia
Dr William Bland, the oldest surviving photo taken in Australia

Dr William Bland was a London-born physician with a colourful backstory. He had served in the Royal Navy, and while stationed in Bombay in 1813, had fallen into dispute with another enlisted man, purser Robert Case.

The men agreed to settle their differences with a duel, during which Bland shot and fatally wounded his opponent. Convicted of murder, he was sentenced to seven years ‘transportation’, and sent to Sydney.

Bland arrived in the colony in 1814. His medical expertise was much in need, and while still a criminal, he was largely treated as a free man.

For his services to the colony, Bland was granted a pardon in 1815. He then went into private practice, and became wealthy and successful; by the time of Goodman’s arrival, he was considered one of Sydney’s leading citizens.

He sat for a Daguerreotype somewhere between November 1844 and January 1845. The resulting picture shows a serious man with thinning white hair, wearing a heavy coat, staring into the middle distance.

Our first image of life in Australia.

Two Fold Bay, 1850s
Two Fold Bay, 1850s

Having enjoyed great success as a photographic pioneer, Goodman’s time in Australia would end in surprising acrimony.

In May 1847 he suddenly sold his photographic studio to his brother-in-law, Isaac Polack. He used the proceeds to open a pub in The Rocks, ‘The Circular Quay Hotel’, but a year later he sold this and decamped to Two-Fold Bay (present day: Eden), a tiny settlement on the remote south coast, best known for its whaling station.

He lived there for two years, running a general store and working as an auctioneer.

Why Goodman left Sydney was not recorded, although a clue comes from his return. Back in the city in early 1850, and trading alcohol under his original name of George Barry Goodman, in March he appeared before a magistrate, having accused his father-in-law of assault.

As reported in the local press, Goodman and Abraham Polack had run into each other one evening, and a fight had ensued; Polack had eventually lashed out at Goodman with his cane, splitting his lip and breaking his nose.

Goodman had gone to the police, and both men were summoned to court. But before the trial was concluded, they came to a private settlement.

What they fought over, and what the settlement involved, is not known. A story covering the case in ‘The Sun’, reported: ‘The whole affair was a tale of mystery’.

It seems that Goodman and Abraham Polack had never fully reconciled their differences, which created enormous tension within the marriage. The sale of his business, and subsequent retreat to Two Fold Bay, all seemed to be part of Goodman’s attempts to distance himself from the Polacks.

Lithograph of Abraham Polack
Lithograph of Abraham Polack

Goodman’s conflict with them likely led to his decision to leave Australia, which he did later in 1850.

Exactly when he departed is not recorded. He left suddenly and on his own, without his wife or either of his two children; having arrived with such fanfare just a few years earlier, his departure went unremarked on in any of the local newspapers.

Goodman’s story now becomes murky again.

An obituary in November 1851 records a ‘George Goodman’ as having passed away in Paris, after which Sarah Polack remarried. Her wedding announcement notes that her previous husband had died.

This date of death for George Barron Goodman appears on his Wikipedia page, and many online resources. However, some researchers believe it is a false trail.

Evidence exists to suggest that on his return to England, Goodman married a woman named Ellen Webster. The pair took each other’s name, and the couple were subsequently recorded as Ellen Goodman Webster and George Barry Goodman Webster.

An obituary for the latter appears decades later, recording his death as having occurred on 8 March 1891, in Chorlton-upon-Medlock, near Manchester. The obituary briefly mentions some biographical details, that match those of Australia’s first photographer.

It could be that the earlier death was a concocted story, to allow both Goodman and Polack to re-marry, without the complication of a long-distance divorce. It could also be that Goodman was trying to escape some remaining debts in Australia.

But whether the person who died in 1891 was actually George Barron Goodman, or just someone with a similar name, may never be confirmed. Most sources accept 1851 as his date of death.

NSW State Library online exhibition, showcasing Goodman's work
NSW State Library online exhibition, showcasing Goodman’s work

Sarah Polack’s second husband was Claude Adams, a customs officer. The marriage appears to have been happy, the couple stayed in Sydney and had several more children together.

George Goodman left behind an enormous trove of Daguerreotypes. Hundreds of these, including the photo of Dr William Bland, are now in the permanent collection of the State Library of NSW.


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