Portraits of War: The Crown Studios Project

Louis BromhamFor the first time in nearly a century an extraordinary and haunting collection of over 230 photographic portraits of WWI soldiers from NSW currently on display in an exhibition at the State Library of NSW.

Produced as part of the Library’s WWI centenary program, Portraits of War: The Crown Studios Project reveals the fascinating story behind the creation of the portraits and delivers a moving experience that bears witness to the individual faces of Aussie soldiers who served their country and faced a hostile and deadly conflict far from home.

The pocket-sized images on show are drawn from the Library’s collection of some 1,600 portraits taken in 1918 – prior to the soldiers heading overseas – by Sydney’s largest photographic studio at the time, the Crown Street Studios, as part of an ambitious WWI collecting project.

“When the project began it encountered a storm of newspaper criticism and monopoly accusations by Sydney photographers,” said Alex Byrne, NSW State Librarian & Chief Executive.

“However, thanks to the tenacity and support of the Principal Librarian at the time, William Ifould, the project continued and he secured the portraits for future generations.”

The project was initiated through a generous proposal made by Sydney’s Crown Studio’s proprietor Mark Blow in 1918. Blow’s idea was to compile a portrait collection of all WWI soldiers from NSW by photographing the men in his studio or by asking relatives of soldiers to forward existing images for copying. The entire collection would be donated ‘free of charge’ to the Mitchell Library – now part of the State Library of NSW.

Ifould addressed the monopoly concerns by inviting all photographers to supply photo-portraits as long as they met the required size and quality conditions. Unfortunately, the project was never completed. A damaging fire at the Studio in December 1918 hindered the collection process and while copies of the portraits were protected in a fireproof safe, the Studio did not re-open again until 1 July 1919.

“The information on the back of each print is just as compelling as the portraits themselves with personal details handwritten, including whether soldiers made it home or not,” says Exhibition curator Louise Tegart.

“The exhibition features a portrait of Sgt Gates, a Sydney-based plumber before enlisting in 1917 and who was killed in action in 1918, aged 24. His only brother, Private Frank Gates, was killed in action just the day before.”

“The portraits capture the faces of men of all ages set against different backgrounds and sadly, it could be the only photograph families had of their sons, brothers or uncles.”

Portraits of War: The Crown Studios Project
State Library of NSW, Macquarie Street, Sydney
Exhibition continues to 21 September 2014
Free entry

For more information, visit: www.sl.nsw.gov.au for details.

Image: Louis Bromham – courtesy of the State Library of NSW