From 1870 until the late 1940s, the NSW Government Printing Office (GPO) Photographic Branch documented much of the government’s activities using the format of dry glass-plate negatives. The resulting images – crisply defined, wonderfully detailed and numbering in the tens of thousands – are today held in NSW State Archives. A small selection of these images is featured in Sydney Snapshots.
Printing and photography
In 1840, Sir George Gipps, ninth governor of the colony of NSW, established the GPO to provide printing services for the colonial government. This initially included printing the Government Gazette, bills and papers, but later expanded to printing postage stamps, duty stamps and railway tickets, as well as providing official state photographic services.
From 1841 to 1959, the GPO was located at the corner of Phillip and Bent streets, Sydney (now the site of the Aurora Place commercial tower). For a short period, between 1848 and 1856, the office also occupied buildings along the northern perimeter of the Hyde Park Barracks. In 1959, the GPO relocated to a purpose-built printing factory in the inner‑city suburb of Ultimo, where the photographic collection was stored in a space that had
the atmosphere of somewhere outside time. It was a long low room whose walls were lined with rows and rows of glass negatives stored vertically in wooden racks … The only light came from fluorescent tubes; the place smelt of printing and photography.1
When the office finally closed in 1989, its vast collection of 200,000 negatives – constituting an extraordinary pictorial and social record of NSW in the 19th and 20th centuries – was transferred to NSW State Archives.
Wool scouring works, Hughes & Co, Botany, February 1912. NSW State Archives: NRS-4481-3-[7/15879]-M1699
- 1. Leigh Raymond, Priceless pictures from the remarkable NSW Government Printing Office collection 1870–1950, NSW Government Printing Office, Ultimo, 1988, p6.
The GPO collection covers a diverse range of subjects: roadworks and wharf construction, fleet visits, suburban soldier settlements, factory workshops, tourist sites, opening ceremonies for departmental buildings and significant state events. Some snapshots of Sydney from a century ago – showing traffic congestion in the CBD, trams running from Circular Quay to Randwick, and frontline health workers during the 1918 influenza pandemic – remain remarkably fresh and relevant today.
Beyond its sheer volume, one of the most fascinating aspects of the GPO collection is the wealth of incidental background detail captured by government photographers. Behind or alongside the government-focused subject matter, Sydney’s streets, buildings, beaches and waterways form the stage setting for sometimes curious bystanders, who become accidental characters as they go about their daily lives. Tantalising glimpses of soldiers and sailors, nurses and schoolchildren, immigrants and wartime evacuees – never intended to be documented for posterity or revealed to the masses – now tease the present-day viewer from the edges of each scene. What are their stories?
NSW State Archives, as a result of a collaboration with the State Library of NSW, has recently published more than 44,500 digital images from the GPO collection online. This provides rich source material to inspire thoughtful responses from creatives and the public alike, and offers exciting possibilities to breathe new life into this historical collection.
Visitors boarding Connecticut, August 1908. NSW State Archives: NRS-4481-3-[7/15952]-F179
Windows onto history
Glass plates may seem an exorbitant medium for the purposes of government photography, producing images of a far higher quality than was necessary for use on the pages of departmental annual reports, brochures and other government communiqués. Today the glass plates retain their original richness of detail, ready to be rediscovered and fully explored through the process of digitisation.
The fragile nature of each negative is inherent not only in its glass structure but also in the silver gelatin emulsion side of the plate on which the image sits. Plates can be cracked or broken, damaging the image and potentially producing tiny shards of glass that can scratch other, intact negatives housed in the same container. Prior to digitising, conservators carefully assess the structural integrity of each glass negative. They stabilise and clean the negative before creating a digital copy using a professional-standard flatbed scanner. Digitisation helps to preserve the image before any further deterioration of the emulsion can occur and prevents damage to the plate from additional handling.
The outcome of this important work is showcased in Sydney Snapshots, allowing contemporary audiences to peer into these vivid windows onto history at the Museum of Sydney – just down the road from where the original Government Printing Office stood for more than a century.