Catalogue essay by Erin Wilson, from the exhibition In Your Words on at Devonport Regional Gallery until 24th February 2019
If I was to ask anyone familiar with the Robinson Collection to describe to me what it was, I believe most would say it is a collection of historic black and white photographs. This has been the public face of the Robinson Collection over the past twenty years, as photographic prints of the collection have been displayed annually in the Gallery. However, as the Curator of this magnificent collection, I would describe it slightly differently. To begin with, I would say this is a collection of photographic negatives – because it is in fact an archive of tens of thousands of negatives, rather than photographs, from the Robinson & Son Photographic Studio.
There is something special about archives, which rouses an entirely different experience than viewing fragments of archives, already interpreted, arranged and presented in a museum or gallery. While the photographic prints can be highly evocative, I have witnessed how viewing the archive itself can evoke an entirely different reaction. When the Robinson Collection is described by the period or region it covers, or the number of negatives it contains, it is still somewhat abstract. However, standing in front of row upon row, shelf upon shelf of archival boxes each containing hundreds of negatives; holding original, yellowing Kodak boxes; or catching the distinct smell of the nitrate negatives, has a power of its own. It is only when going to the source of the archive that you can get a sense of the magnitude of this collection, both in its scale and historical value.
For each negative selected and displayed in the Gallery, there are thousands of others that have only been seen by a few sets of eyes. My interest as the Curator of this collection lies in what is hidden and what is absent, and the potential of bridging these gaps. As this collection is cared for and displayed in an art gallery, there is a tendency to treat the photographs as fine art objects – particularly when so many are visually powerful and beautiful. However, these photographs were the snapshots of the day when owning a personal camera was rare, and this task lay with commercial studio photographers. It is significant that the Robinsons were commercial studio photographers – their aim was never to holistically capture life in the region, and as such the collection is not a complete or comprehensive historical record.
However, I do not see this incompleteness as a shortcoming, but as a starting point with immeasurable potential. What this incompleteness means is that the value of this collection is not limited to the physical archive. This collection already extends beyond the Gallery’s archive. Each of these negatives existed to produce an original print, and these original prints can still be found in countless photo albums and on living room walls across the region. What has become clear to me in considering this incompleteness is that the Robinson Collection is not only an amazing resource for the community, but likewise, the community are an invaluable resource for the Robinson Collection. These photographs capture snippets of a time now passed, but the knowledge of those times lies in the experiences and memories of those who lived them.
As such, I have begun a project which aims to strengthen the connection between the Robinson archive and its community. Traditionally, a Curator will select pieces from a collection for display in a gallery, and community members will visit the gallery to view the selected pieces. My aim is to disrupt this linear approach, so that the archive itself becomes more accessible, and the gallery is as much a site for the community to share their knowledge as it is for gaining knowledge. This desire is taking form in the design of a series of collaborative curatorial experiments under the banner of ‘The Robinson Project’. The first iteration, this exhibition, is titled In Your Words. This exhibition has been the first step in connecting members of the community directly with this archive: members of the community who lived and worked in Devonport and its surrounds in the period the Robinsons were photographing, whose knowledge and memories of this period are invaluable – and need to be recorded.
As I mentioned earlier, for every photograph displayed, thousands are not. It is important to critically examine what is shown, what is not, and how this process of selection could be approached differently. As such, for this exhibition I engaged nine members of different parts of the community, and their stories, as the starting point: simple stories from each about their lives and experiences in Devonport, which will be beautifully familiar and nostalgic for some, and a unique insight into a time now passed for others. After sharing these stories, each went through the archive to find photographs to pair with these stories; photographs which then played their own role, eliciting more memories and details to add to the richness of the stories told.
The experience of approaching the collection in this way, through the stories and perspectives of those who lived the archive, reinforced for me the limitations of individual curators such as myself speaking on behalf of the collection. There are countless simple, but important examples. If it were not for this process, I would have believed the Fruit Palace was simply a fruit shop – a reasonable assumption given the window display of fruit in the photograph. Without speaking with Judy and Joe I would never have known that there was a milk bar out the back that was the place to be for local high school students on a Friday night in the 60s. Similarly, without speaking to Janice about the fire station or Arden about the Haines whistle, I wouldn’t have any awareness of some of the sounds of Devonport which could never be captured in a photograph – nor would many others viewing these photographs.
The experience of gaining different perspectives on life in the region is also an invaluable result of this approach. This could be as simple as two perspectives of the same photograph or event, such as the Devonport Show, which Bill called for 17 years, and Stephen recounted attending as a child. Or more broadly, insights into the different experiences of Helen in East Devonport, Pat in Quoiba and Jim in William Street, who despite the differences in their childhoods each vividly recounted fond memories of Saturdays spent at the Star Theatre. Each of these personal recollections are made more vivid because of the Robinson photographs, yet also bring these images to life in a new way.
As you walk through the exhibition or read through the following pages, viewing these Robinson images and listening to the voices of those who have shared their stories, I hope you too are moved by the power of these simple but beautiful stories, and see the potential that lies in activating this archive as a site of shared memories, stories and the self-representation of the people of this region.
– Erin Wilson
*The Robinson Project is a series of collaborative curatorial projects involving community members and Curator Erin Wilson