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Nicholas John Caire (1837–1918)
Billy the Bull, native of Gippsland
From the album: Gippsland Scenery
Australia, Victoria, c. 1880
Albumin print, 16 x 20 cm

Before 1900 Australian aborigines were rarely photographed outdoor. But they were often portrayed anonymously in photo studios, in front of backdrops with painted „wilderness” and with traditional attributes. Between 1870 and 1890, stereotypes such as „the warrior”,„the young girl” or „mother with child” were produced in their thousands for the commercial market. The contemporary European public regarded the allegedly anthropological photographs as realistic depictions of people and scenes from their everyday life.

In contrast, photographer Nicholas J. Caire took this outdoor shot of a native Australian with boomerang and spear in front of a windbreak built of branches and shrubs. It is a portrait of an Aborigine called „Billy the Bull”, an inhabitant of the Lake Tyers area. William Bull was the father of Hector Bull who came from the same region and who was painted by Percy Leason in 1934. The depiction here is probably closer to reality than the above mentioned studio photos. Although the man is holding traditional hunting equipment in his hands he is wearing trousers, shirt and waistcoat. As soon as the people came under the influence of European missionaries they were forced to wear clothes. However, the photographer, famous for his landscape pictures, was not able to escape the convention of depicting Aborigines with traditional artefacts even though the subject here had probably given up his nomadic life and had to earn his money as a labourer.

Gippsland lies on the south coast and was appropriated by whites very early. The massive colonisation of Australia reduced the Aboriginal population from an estimated 750,000 at the time of first contact with Europeans in 1788 to a total of 67,000 in 1901. This systematic decimation was caused by imported disease, land theft and belligerent acts. A large majority of those who were driven from their land were re-settled in reserves and mission stations. Many lived on the edges of the rapidly growing cities in conditions of extreme poverty and, even though they played an important role in Australia’s booming economic life, in agriculture and as servants. In contrast there are almost no photographs of Aborigines as agricultural labourers, shepherds or sheep shearers.

After his arrival in South Australia in 1858 Nicholas John Caire worked as a barber but continued to pursue an interest in photography and in 1867 he became a professional photographer in Melbourne. He moved to the neighbouring colony of Victoria in 1870 and worked there as both photographer and barber in the gold mining settlement of Talbot. The following year he was able to open a studio in Bendigo, a larger town, and succeeded commercially by making carte-de-visite portraits and landscape pictures. His main interest was art and this led him to paint as well. He is regarded as one of the precursors of pictorialism because of making a genre picture out of formal group portraits or landscapes with depictions of human destinies and picturesque effects. This corresponded to a growing demand which in turn became part of the construction of an Australian national identity.

Ulla Fischer-Westhauser, © WestLicht


The author would like to thank the Victorian States Library in Melbourne for important information that helped to write this text.

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