Doris McKellar

Photograph: Friends of Doris McKellar

Doris McKellar, ‘[Friends of Doris McKellar],’ c.1917, University of Melbourne Archives, 1975.0048.00051

The early decades of the twentieth century in Australia favoured the emancipation of women, bringing to many improved economic security as well as better educational opportunities. In the previous post Bernice Agar was discussed as an example of a thriving commercial photographer with influential artistic flair. For Agar, professional camerawork was a passport to economic security and upward social mobility. In this post, we look at the amateur, everyday snapshots of Doris McKellar, which are of interest precisely for their ordinariness and typicality. McKellar’s campus snapshots depict carefree images of young people, yet these Kodak moments are often more complex than they initially seem. Many inadvertently tell the story of the vulnerability of youth in the face of the Great War.

Most of these photos were taken with a Kodak No.3A Folding Pocket camera. Like many ‘Kodak Girls,’ Doris McKellar (née Hall) came from a wealthy family. Born in Melbourne in 1897, she was the eldest child of Percival St John Hall, a solicitor, and Harriet ‘Hattie’ Louisa Hall (née Moore). They lived at Glenmoore house, a two-storey villa in Elsternwick. Doris was educated at Cromarty School for Girls, Elsternwick, where she excelled academically, and in 1912 she was the dux of the school.

One of Kodak’s most enduring inventions was not a camera, but a marketing strategy. The ‘Kodak Girl’ followed George Eastman’s invention of a camera so easy to use that ‘anyone could use it’. Launched in 1893, Eastman’s ‘Kodak Girl’ was a fashionable, vibrant and independent young woman who appeared in advertisements in a distinctive blue and white striped dress, taking pictures as she freely roamed.

Post of a Kodak Girl

Doris McKellar’s photographs depict everyday life in Melbourne (albeit a relatively privileged everyday life) from 1915-1919, and 1934-1954. The earlier photographs she took were as a student at the University of Melbourne , while her later family photographs document life within a wealthy professional family, their social activities, including holidays at the beach, and excursions into the countryside.

In McKellar’s snapshot portraits, the viewer glimpses feelings of vulnerability in her sitters, despite their social privilege. The shadow of war passes over certain happy snaps featuring young men dressed in fresh military uniform. They are about to join WW1.

Photograph by Doris McKellar

Doris McKellar, ‘Au revoir,’ 1917, University of Melbourne Archives, 1975.0048.00038

As well as recording these poignant moments of leaving-taking, McKellar also recorded historical moments of a larger order. The French General Paul Pau visited Australia in 1918, meeting with war veterans and attending war rallies. In October, he attended a reception at the University of Melbourne.

Photograph of General Pau at University of Melbourne reception

Doris McKellar, ‘[University reception to General Pau],’ October 1918, University of Melbourne Archives, 1978.0048.0006

The Doris McKellar Collection movingly connects personal events to broader political moments. The photographs of the young men in uniform are all the more affecting for their informality. In the apparent candour of the snapshot moment, the smiles underscore the youthful innocence of the subjects – although, as Nancy Martha West points out in Kodak and the Lens of Nostalgia, the notion that one should smile for the camera came with the introduction of the snapshot to the masses. Are these smiles as natural and spontaneous as they seem, or are they made in response to the presence of the camera?

Doris McKellar, 'English 3 Class,' November 1917, University of Melbourne Archives, 1975.0048,00045

Doris McKellar, ‘English 3 Class,’ November 1917, University of Melbourne Archives, 1975.0048.00045

Almost 100 years after the above photograph was taken, I write this blog in the building that houses the English and Theatre program at the University of Melbourne. ‘English’ as a discipline has undergone many transformations – and at times, has nearly disappeared – but what strikes me about this image is how similar the expressions worn by these women are to those worn by young students today: one is surly, or aloof, and stares disinterestedly at a point off camera; to the right, Doris herself poses with hands on hips, looking energetic and engaged. In terms of photographic history, this image is interesting for the mixture of poses – or allusions to photographic genres – it contains. Some sitters adopt the attitude of the snapshot and grin naturally at the camera. Another glances beguilingly from beneath her fringe, recalling the pose of the glamorous society shot. An older woman, perhaps the teacher of English 3, stares patiently into the lens. The passivity of her expression seems more connected to earlier practices of portraiture than snapshot photography – her calm, yet serious look perhaps a vestige of an earlier photographic ritual.

The photograph ‘English 3’ also captures the excitement that attended this particular incarnation of the New Woman. McKellar was studying Arts and Law at the time the photo was made, and went on to be one of the first women in Australia to graduate with a Law degree, and then gain employment as a barrister and solicitor. The women in this photograph didn’t know that the Depression, followed closely by WW2, would usher in a large-scale reversal of liberal attitudes towards women. Australian women’s magazines, which had thus-far supported the concept of the career woman, began to emphasise that home-making should be a woman’s top priority. After the temporary mobilisation of women to the workforce during WW2, John Curtin’s government, bent on restoring the ‘natural order’ of things, initiated a massive program to rehabilitate returned soldiers to work. As Caroline Ambrus writes, a woman’s place was ‘in the home or wherever else she [was] told to go.’ The early feminist movement, argues Ambrus, failed to provide an ideology able to withstand the corrosive effects of wars and depressions. It’s interesting to note, as West does, that after WW1, Kodak’s marketing turned away from the ‘Kodak Girl’ campaign to focus  on advertising strategies that targeted photography’s ability to preserve domestic memories, thus confirming familial unity.

In 1925 Doris married Rolfe Warren McKellar, a publisher with Stockland Press. She soon after gave up her professional career but continued her involvement with the Victorian Women Graduates’ Association and then the University Women’s College (currently known as the University College). In 1932 her son, Ian Campbell McKellar was born. McKellar assisted with the family’s publishing business during WW2 after her husband enlisted as an officer, however it is unclear if she continued in this capacity after the war or continued to pursue her interest in photography.

Many thanks to the University of Melbourne Archives for the use of these images. More photographs are held in the collection, and many of these have been digitised. Head over to for more Doris McKellar, as well as other fascinating collections.


Bernice Agar

Bernice Agar, 'Studio Portrait of Dora Walford, nee Alexander', 1923

Bernice Agar, ‘Carla Vera Jacques in her wedding dress’, 1919, Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection, Sydney Living Museums, Rec. no. 42063 .

In The Story of the Camera in Australia, Jack Cato writes that Bernice Agar, ‘for over a decade held first place for her beautiful portraits of society women. When she married and retired, the leading camera men of this country breathed a sigh of relief’ (136). With her strong frontal lighting and unusual posing of subjects, Bernice Agar was at the vanguard of stylish society photos in interwar Australia. She also photographed women artists, such as Thea Proctor, and the opera singer Clara Butt. The sitters in her portraits were worldly, sophisticated women, who displayed impeccable taste when it came to clothes and coiffure.

In line with methods adopted by women photographers in the UK, Agar would invite society figures to pose for her, providing them with free prints and selling the images to magazines, a practice also adopted by the Australian portrait photographers May and Mina Moore. Many of her images were published in Society and The Home.

Agar’s oeuvre suggests how ‘golden era’ society photography might have evolved into early fashion photography in Australia. The critic Halla Beloff dryly notes that women have played a prominent role in every genre of photography except fashion photography; but Beloff was viewing mainly North American and British photography when she made this assessment. Does the view apply to Australian photographic history?

The relation between society portraiture and fashion photography is ambiguous and varies depending on local context. In Australia, newspapers and periodicals in which such society-fashion images were published preceded (by a long interval) the magazines that focussed exclusively on fashion, such as Vogue Australia and Flair, which only emerged in the 1950s and 1960s. The Australian Women Weekly, which naturally had a different editorial focus, was nonetheless a key fashion publication prior to Vogue – but AWW had only been in circulation from 1933. Publications such as Society and The Home might have cultivated a desire in the Australian public for images of glamorous women in beautiful couture.

The alluring image above is a wedding photograph of Carla Vera Jacques (née Dibbs). The Sydney press reported on the society wedding, noting that:

the wedding dress was a recently arrived Paris evening model of supple oxidised silver tissue with a skirt (jupe) with front panels and side draps of d’argent dentelle while the corsage consisted of a simple deep band of tissue, with sleeves of silver tulle held by should straps of tiny silver roses.

The breathless attention to detail of the dress is fetishistic, expressing the novelty of the costume while emphasising its socially correct origins as a recent arrival from the ultimate fashion authority, Paris. The commodity fetishism expressed in this 1919 journalism anticipates more recent examples of fashion writing.

When it comes to fashion photography in Australia, the names Helmut Newton, Athol Shmith and Henry Talbot are likely to come to mind – but what came before, and what else was happening outside of the mainstream publications? These questions link to a much richer story, and there is currently exciting scholarship in this field. The research of Margaret Maynard, for instance, is breaking new paths in uncovering the history of fashion, and its photography, in Australia.

In the meantime, head over to Sydney Living Museums’ splendid new website for more information and great images. The Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection (part of Sydney Living Museums) holds two Bernice Agar photographs, as well as many other great links to its wide-format collection. If you live in Sydney, why not visit in person to view the collection? It includes architectural pattern books, architectural fragments, wall and floor coverings, manufacturers’ trade catalogues and sample books, garden ornament, fittings (including curtain and blind hardware, door and window furniture), soft furnishings and trimmings, personal papers and manuscripts, pictures, photographs, books, periodicals and oral histories.

Thanks to Sydney Living Museums for permission to reproduce this fabulous photograph. Find more at:

‘If I could locate another woman’


Margaret Michaelis,  Parramatta River, Sydney [self-portrait], 1948, NGA 86.1384.267

Gail Jones’ intricate and luminous novel of 2004, Sixty Lights, tells the story of Lucy Strange, a colonial quester in the Victorian age who becomes passionate about photography and its metaphysical implications. Sixty Lights could be described as a kunstlerroman of the photographer – perhaps the first of its kind, in contrast to the Australian kunstlerromans which focus on the painter, such as Patrick White’s The Vivisector and David Malouf’s Harland’s Half Acre.

If kunsterromans relate to an ‘actual’ artistic referent, then Sixty Lights surely looks to the brilliant, idiosyncratic oeuvre of Julia Margaret Cameron. Some of the traces the novel bears include the protagonist’s intended marriage to a colonial in India several years her senior, and her maculate hands and apron, stained by silver nitrate.

Rereading Sixty Lights recently, I was curious to find the following passage within a letter written by the protagonist to her benefactor:

You ask for news of my work and I can report truthfully that my knowledge of chemistry is improving – largely through correspondence with the Society of Photographers – and that I am slowly mastering the wet collodion technique […] although the men of the Society of Photographers consider thumbprints a sin and me an irredeemable sinner for refusing their wise counsel […] If I could locate another woman interested in photography, I feel sure I could speak honestly and openly of these matters and defend more confidently my maculate aesthetic. (199)

In this aside, the narrator touches on a time in photography when women would seek out other women to enhance both creative and professional prospects. Although photography was a new discipline and theoretically  amenable to self-expression through experimentation, it was not devoid of the hierarchical structures endemic to the traditional arts of painting and sculpture, nor those of the applied arts. Photographic societies could be elitist and were male-dominated; in Australia, few women amateur photographers have been located from 1840-1870, probably in part due to their exclusion from such societies. This marginalisation continued until the early twentieth century in Australia, in contrast to the situation in North America, which had more flexible entry from the 1880s.

In the golden age of studio portrait photography, 1880-1920, women such as Ada Driver and the Moore sisters hired only women assistants. Such tutelage was early feminist by design, instilling confidence and financial autonomy in the next generation of women photographers. Women became increasingly mobile, socially as well as geographically, and learned how both artistic and commercial ambitions could thrive as a result of feminine networks.

One key aim of our research in ‘The Complete Craze’ is to illuminate the social connections and networks that supported women’s photography; and to imagine women’s photography, too, as a form of social association. When productive connections took place, like that between Ruth Hollick and Pegg Clarke – what made them work? When connections did not seem to either stick, or even happen at all – as in the non-relationship between Olive Cotton and Margaret Michaelis, both running their Sydney studios in close proximity during the war years – how could this happen? What can longing to connect, and missed connections, tell us about the politics underpinning photography’s social dimension?

In two days I’ll visit the archives of Cotton and Michaelis at the National Library of Australia and the National Gallery of Australia, respectively. I hope to find some information that might explain their missed connection, with the view to place this in a broader context of the early history of women photographer’s collectivity, prior to the politically conscious, strategic collectivism and sociality of feminist photography after the 1960s.

Welcome to Women in View

Welcome to Women in View, your friendly introduction to research undertaken for the ARC project, ‘The Complete Craze: Women’s Photography and Colonial Modernity,’ at the University of Melbourne.

Led by project mentor Associate Professor Anne Maxwell, with research associate Dr Lucy Van and research assistant Ms Morfia Grondas, this project takes in the history of photographic practices by women across the Asia-Pacific region from the late colonial to mid-twentieth century period.

This blog looks back on a forgotten history, and shines a light on the innovations, stories, and of course, the images made by women photographers. Here you will find the early amateur photographer, Elizabeth Louisa How, and the first Indigenous woman photographer (that we know of), Mavis Walley.  We look at art photographers such as Olive Cotton and Jill Crossley, early photojournalists such as Pat Holmes, and a range of ethnographic and travel photographers. As we view, gaze and discover, we think about what photographs can tell us about nation, gender and class in the context of a rapidly developing modernity. We especially consider how discourses of women’s photography intersect with colonialism.

As well as profiles on individual women photographers, this blog will also share news from the archive, as well as information about upcoming photographic exhibitions, talks and publications.