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 archives.unimelb.edu.au for more Doris McKellar, as well as other fascinating collections.

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