Documenting the first military conflict of WWI – the fall of German New Guinea – Thomas Rodoni’s glass plate negatives were found under a house at Speers Point by his son, Bill, and given to the University of Newcastle’s Cultural Collections. Curator of the exhibition, Gillean Shaw, explains the valuable insight into this little-known conflict Thomas’ images provide. We’re very privileged to be able to view this exhibition at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery for a short time …
Hi Gillean. What’s involved with your role as Art Curator at the University of Newcastle’s Gallery?
An Art Curator has a very broad role. Curation is just a part of my job, but essentially I curate and look after the University Gallery – which is a very beautiful and modern building designed by one of our award-winning ex-architecture students, Peter Stutchbury.
The gallery was built for ex-graduate students to showcase their work, but we also have travelling exhibitions and curate and make exhibitions with a special focus – like the Rodoni exhibition.
How did you become involved with the Australia’s Forgotten ANZACs exhibition (the Rodoni exhibition)?
It was the summer of 2014 – around the 4th January – and I think I was the only person on campus. An artist whom I knew by reputation had been a long-time friend of Thomas Rodoni’s son, Bill. Bill had been talking to him about his father’s collection of glass plate negatives, which had been stored under a house at Speers Point for about 40 years.
Both Bill Rodoni and his wife knew they needed to do something with this material, but I don’t think Bill had really looked at it until his artist friend encouraged him to do so. They unwrapped some incredible things – some of it was too far gone to be reprised, but a lot of it was in very good condition. They realised they were holding on to something very important – and as this was at the start of 2014, it couldn’t have been any more timely. It was exactly 100 years after the photographs had been taken. This was remarkable – such a rare find.
There was a huge amount of material, but they realised they were looking at some of the very first images of men going off to WWI.
What is known of the photographer – Thomas Rodoni’s – life?
Tom was in the very first group of men who were sent off to WWI; they weren’t actually soldiers, and they’d come from all walks of life. Tom had worked as a boilermaker in Sydney, but then developed an interest in photography. He travelled to New Guinea with his camera (we suspect somewhat illegally).
The men travelled to New Guinea to push back the Germans, who were already there with a radio; their task was to disable this radio. Everyone knew WWI was about to start, but on this particular expedition, the very first Australian casualty of the war occurred.
The more we’ve researched, the more we’ve realised just how important these images are.
Thomas was not an “official” photographer, who took photos of the war efforts during each campaign. He took the only known “unofficial” photographs of this first WWI campaign.
He ended up in Newcastle, because he married a lovely woman called Catherine Annie Wilson; they had four children and moved to Waratah.
What type of camera is it believed Thomas used to capture these images?
We have one of Thomas’ cameras in our cultural collections. In 1913-1914 they were still using glass plate negatives; film hadn’t been developed, so Tom would have been using one of the old model cameras that had been used since the 1870s. These cameras were very fragile, especially when exposed to the elements, and very difficult operate.
Generally what was done in those days was the contact process – 4 inch by 5 inch, although Tom did have some 10 inch by 8 inch glass plate negatives; these were not put through an enlarger, but simply contacted on to photo sensitive paper.
These negatives were not climate controlled at all – as they are now! When you consider that they were just under a house, with no real protection from the elements, it’s pretty extraordinary how they’ve survived.
Roughly how many pieces are on display in the exhibition?
There are roughly 50 pieces. With some of the works, the details are so exquisite … In the exhibition, we display chronologically, so we start with Thomas documenting boarding his ship on Sydney Harbour, and then we travel to New Guinea, where the men had contact with local tribespeople.
We often think of WWI as a very European war, but it actually started much closer to home. There were a couple of radio towers in New Guinea – New Zealand men were also despatched to destroy one of these – but the main one was in Rabaul.
What happened to Thomas after this campaign? He obviously made it back to Australia …
He did. As mentioned before, they were quite an interesting bunch, these men.
They weren’t soldiers, but were members of the ANMEF [Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force]. Most of them came back and went on to lead ordinary lives.
As in the case of Thomas, many of their families probably didn’t really know of their involvement in the war, or weren’t aware of how significant their involvement had been.
Tom ended up in a small arms factory manufacturing ammunition, before he married and moved to Newcastle. He died in 1956.
His vison as a photographer was extraordinary though, as is the detail we can see in his photographs … His photos of Sydney Harbour captured a skyline that is so different to today.
He also documented the training of some of the “gentleman farmers” – the ordinary guys who came to train at Liverpool, before being sent off to war. This is something we don’t see very often … Ordinary men, whose lives went on to become extraordinary.
Interview by Jo Atkins.
See Australia’s Forgotten ANZACs at the Glasshouse Regional Gallery from 11 March to 24 April.