British photographic history

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Photographic disaster in Australian floods

PHOTOGRAPHIC DISASTER IN BOOVAL (IPSWICH), QUEENSLAND, JANUARY 2011-- I received an email on Friday 14th January from Ian Parker of the Club Rollei in Jersey (Channel Islands) telling me of the tragedy that had just overtaken Sandy Barrie the well-known camera and image collector. I then heard from Ian Carron in Melbourne with the same news. I then contacted one of Sandy’s friends, Marcel Safier in Brisbane, to make some arrangements, packed a few essentials, got straight in my car and drove north from Sydney to Brisbane some 800kms to see what I could do to help.

As I approached Grafton there were some 800 trucks parked by the roadside waiting for the flooded Princes Highway to be re-opened. I had to detour via the Summerland Highway and Bruckner Highways through Casino and Lismore to Byron Bay to re-join the Princes Highway to Brisbane. I finally arrived in Brisbane late Saturday afternoon, the journey having taken nearly twice as long as normal. Early Sunday morning Marcel drove me out to Booval to Sandy’s home.

Arriving there the first thing that hits you after the visual of all the mud in the trees and everywhere else, furniture and wrecked cars in front yards, was the foul smell as the sewers were also flooded. The recent Queensland floods had inundated his house to around two feet (600mm) short of the second floor ceiling. His six by eight meter shed at the bottom of the garden had been totally under water. He had moved his car up the hill to be safe, but sadly it also was under water and lost.

After a warning to evacuate from the State Emergency Services, he had spent the whole previous day to the flood moving the more valuable literature cameras and images upstairs in the firm belief they would be safe up there. The stream is some 100 meters to the rear of Sandy’s home, and some 30 meters lower. When I first saw it, … having receded, … it looked so innocent.

On Saturday Channel Seven news spent two hours doing a feature story on his circumstances which was shown nationwide as a five minute slot on the Sunday news.

Lydia Egunnike a conservator from the State library, but working under the auspices of the AICCM (Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Material, was kept busy during the day removing for treatment and either freezing or refrigeration as appropriate, literally several Car and trailer loads of prints and negatives.

The camera collection is mostly ruined. Possibly some several thousands of items altogether, mostly rare and unusual things too, collected with loving care over the many years Sandy has been collecting.

The books, catalogs and ephemera were almost all totally ruined, irretrievably stuck together. This was estimated at around four tons for removal! The conservators chose a few of the especially rare items to take away for conservation and preservation.

Marcel and I started sorting brass lenses with iron parts in them (such as iris diaphragms) for drying so they didn’t rust. We found a Thornton Pickard multi lens camera first.

Next we opened up the wood and brass cameras so the bellows could dry. They were already growing mould at a great rate of knots, and the glue on the wood was already letting go.

At the same time a number of folk from the local collectors group, Cameraholics, were separating and drying prints. All were doing sterling back-breaking and foot-killing work. I joined the print rescue team just before it got dark.

Half way through the afternoon the Police arrived to check Sandy’s firearms were still under lock and key, only to find some ammunition and ordinance of First World War vintage. Later the army arrived to remove these items to a secure facility.

Poor Sandy meanwhile was in a state of shock, both missing his Voigtlander Daguerrian brass camera, and also finding valuable ($500-$600 each) photographic prints in the house contents that had been cleared by the non-photographic helpers that cleared his house. Also out front in the garden were huge printers, laminators and computers. A sad sight indeed … maybe the best part of one million dollars worth altogether.

Still in the shed was the unique and massive nearly three meter tall goliath-sized plate camera that had floated off it’s stand, and had fortunately come to rest tilted so the water drained out of it. Mercifully the weather was good, and there was no wind, so the prints that had been laid out on stretchers to dry didn’t blow away.

I guess the lesson we all learned from this is that if you have a large collection of anything, you need to identify the mostvaluable items (not by price, but rather in terms of replaceability) so that they can be salvaged quickly, and then the more replaceable items can be left for subsequent rescue or replacing. The important thing is to have many hands available to help, with heaps of packing materials, and suitable transport and safe alternate storage available.

Tony Hilton

Brisbane (for the moment)

January 2011

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Comment by John Davies on February 19, 2011 at 23:35

Had already read Tony's article about this tragedy in 'Photographic Trader'. Sandy is to be congratulated on his resiliency and look forward to his next edition of his most valuable reference book - 'Australians Behind the Camera 1842 - 1945'. It is so very sad that so many years of collecing and research has been lost. At least the information in his memory has not been lost.

John Davies

Comment by Marcel Safier on February 18, 2011 at 20:21

Sandy has to renovate his home as well as revive what he can of a once great collection that was not insured nor was his house as it was in a previously flooded area. He will continue to throw his time into research such as continuing to chronicle the photographers of Australia for a new edition of his book "Australians Behind the Camera 1842-1945" which provides the most comprehensive directory available and contributing to Ron Cosens’ database on the photographers of Great Britain and Ireland Some donations have been received from a number of generous collectors and further donations including camera and photohistory reference books in particular to rebuild Sandy’s once extensive library will be gratefully received.

Marcel Safier, Brisbane

Comment by Michael Wong on February 17, 2011 at 18:50
My heart goes out to Mr Barrie. You see and hear about it on British TV, but it is only when a first-hand account is given of the disaster, the enormity of the flood and its effect on the people and the destruction their personal (and cherished) belongings really come alive. It is a tragedy beyond imagination.
Thank you, Tony, for sharing this with us and if there is anything we can do to help ............

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