Eye Contact

Photographing Indigenous Australians

Eye Contact


More about this series

Book Pages: 336 Illustrations: 88 illus. (including 22 duotones), 1 map Published: January 2006

Author: Jane Lydon

Art and Visual Culture > Photography, Australia/New Zealand/Oceania, Native and Indigenous Studies

An indigenous reservation in the colony of Victoria, Australia, the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station was a major site of cross-cultural contact the mid-nineteenth century and early twentieth. Coranderrk was located just outside Melbourne, and from its opening in the 1860s the colonial government commissioned many photographs of its Aboriginal residents. The photographs taken at Coranderrk Station circulated across the western world; they were mounted in exhibition displays and classified among other ethnographic “data” within museum collections. The immense Coranderrk photographic archive is the subject of this detailed, richly illustrated examination of the role of visual imagery in the colonial project. Offering close readings of the photographs in the context of Australian history and nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century photographic practice, Jane Lydon reveals how western society came to understand Aboriginal people through these images. At the same time, she demonstrates that the photos were not solely a tool of colonial exploitation. The residents of Coranderrk had a sophisticated understanding of how they were portrayed, and they became adept at manipulating their representations.

Lydon shows how the photographic portrayals of the Aboriginal residents of Coranderrk changed over time, reflecting various ideas of the colonial mission—from humanitarianism to control to assimilation. In the early twentieth century, the images were used on stereotypical postcards circulated among the white population, showing what appeared to be compliant, transformed Aboriginal subjects. The station closed in 1924 and disappeared from public view until it was rediscovered by scholars years later. Aboriginal Australians purchased the station in 1998, and, as Lydon describes, today they are using the Coranderrk photographic archive in new ways, to identify family members and tell stories of their own.


Eye Contact covers much historical and intellectual ground. Beautifully written and generously illustrated with more than 80 plates, this book provides rich food for thought and makes an important contribution to our understanding of the highly potent and ambiguous nature of cross-cultural photography.” — Melinda Hinkson, The Australian Journal of Anthropology

Eye Contact is . . . a welcome entrant into the interdisciplinary arena of material culture study intersecting with photographic history. It clears a path through a landscape of nostalgia littered with the pictorial histories and genres of illustrated then-and-now documentation. . . . [T]his book brings out this body of photographic work to sit within a soundly researched historical context, and provides useful discussions on the ways in which the photographs meanings were constructed for specific purposes.” — Joanna Sassoon, History of Photography

Eye Contact is a fine contribution to visual history, colonial studies, and comparative work on visual culture and photography more broadly.” — Corinne A. Kratz, American Ethnologist

Eye Contact reveals extraordinary stories of cultural identity, persecution, racial discrimination, history, and the human condition. Colonial politics, activism and personal experience in Australia have commonality with shared experiences internationally, extending to America, Canada, South America, Europe and Asia and need to be raised in the public domain. The documentation of writers like Lydon have similarly recovered images to be embraced by inspired artists, Aboriginal communities and members of the public, to keep these histories and memories alive.” — Brook Andrew, Leonardo Reviews

“[A] rich verbal and visual text. . . . By tying colonial-era photography to the institutions within which it took place and historicizing the shifting contexts of composition, production, and distribution for the images themselves, Lydon’s beautifully produced monograph makes a significant contribution to understanding colonial photographic practice.” — Daniel Fisher, Anthropology and Humanism

“[A] thoroughly researched and thoughtful contribution to the ongoing discussion about photographing indigenous Australians.” — Helen Ennis, Australian Book Review

“[A]useful general reader on mid-colonial attitudes. As a well-written and informative survey of an era in which photography was used for quite specific purposes, it contributes significantly to the first round of interpretative analysis of what is a huge archive of photographs from the period. Lydon also offers several methodologies that Pacific historians might follow should they focus on a single site and a defined body of photographic evidence, . . .” — Max Quanchi, Journal of Pacific History

“Erudite and absorbing. It shows just how convincingly a non-indigenous researcher can make use of indigenous insights to critique the colonial archive without trying to speak on behalf of the other.” — Catherine De Lorenzo, Visual Resources

“Based upon a wealth of archival material and containing many hitherto unseen photographs Lydon’s book meticulously charts the nuances of cross-cultural engagement played out in the many photographic portrayals that make up a unique collection.” — Lindsay Smith, Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

“Because Lydon's photographic subject is the Aboriginal body envisioned by British colonialization, Eye Contact also crosses into the areas of history and body politics. What results from multiple crossings of disciplinary boundaries is an exciting interpretation of the Aboriginal body shown in the photographs, as well as the white bodies not shown in the photographs.” — May Caroline Chan, Interventions

“I found Lydon’s book to be a resounding success: it is an enjoyable read; an important, well-timed contribution to the disciplinary fields of history, photography, and anthropology; and an especially welcome addition to scholarship that examines the power of media practices to produce and re-imagine meaning.” — Sabra Thorner, Visual Anthropology Review

“Jane Lydon has made a significant contribution to the field of visual anthropology and history with her engaging and theoretically refined investigation of a remarkable photographic record: the historical photographs of one of Victoria’s most significant Aboriginal mission stations, Coranderrk.” — Pam McGrath, The Asia Pacific Journal of Anthropology

“Lydon sometimes compares the original plates with prints which have been retouched, providing clues to the intentions of photographer or patron. Lydon analyses what the photographs meant or were intended to mean to the settlers, or their kinfolk back in Europe, in the light of contemporary documentation, but she avoids the easy stereotypes, remaining sensitive to the contradictory currents and ambivalences in settlers’ consciousness.” — Jeremy Beckett, Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

“One day we might reach critical mass and begin to understand the complex cross-cultural and historical workings of photography. This book makes a major contribution to that critical mass, liberating histories and taking the reading of photographs into new dimensions.” — Elizabeth Edwards, Australian and New Zealand Journal of Art

“This interesting book focuses on photographic practices relating to Coranderrk, a settlement for Aboriginal people established near Melbourne in 1865 . . . . [Lydon’s] subtle and complex insights leave the reader sensitised to pictorial representations of Aboriginal people.” — Penny Lee, Anthropological Forum

“This is a well written book, intelligently conceived and well argued. It is theoretically sophisticated while remaining accessible.” — Peggy Brock, Journal of Colonialism & Colonial History

“This is an important analysis, one that is complex and sweeping. It offers a subtle analysis of, and discourse on, the embedded and layered webs of colonial attitudes and values. . . . [A] sophisticated, detailed and informed analysis. This book represents an important contribution to a neglected and under-explored critical facet of Australian history.” — Karen Donnelly, History Australia

“With its eye-catching cover, bold title and eighty-eight illustrations, Jane Lydon’s Eye Contact is an impressive scholarly work detailing the role that visual imagery, but particularly photography, played in developments at the Aboriginal mission at Coranderrer in Victoria from its beginnings in the 1870s to its closure in the early 1900s.” — Anne Maxwell, Australian Historical Studies

"Eye Contact is an important and seminal book." — Niel Gunson, Aboriginal History

"Insightful. . . . The importance of Eye Contact goes beyond the recovery of aspects of untold Australian history, in that any consideration of the function of representation of Aboriginal people is a meditation on the nature of culture in Australia." — John Mateer, Melbourne Age

"[P]rovides a remarkable insight into indigenous community life in the late 19th and early 20th centuries." — Lilydale & Yarra Valley Leader

"The Coranderrk photographs perform seemingly contradictory roles; they are both 'memorials to a vanishing race' and a vital resource for contemporary indigenous people searching for their descendants in order to keep the past alive." — Mireille Juchau, TLS

"Photos graphically recall a people's historic identity." — Carolyn Webb, Melbourne Age

“Jane Lydon’s meticulous investigation of the role of photography in the cross-cultural engagement that took place at Coranderrk from the mid-nineteenth century to the early twentieth century unfolds with a narrative drive. The community at Coranderrk comes alive. We care about the residents, how they have been represented in successive periods, and how their descendants now use the photographs to reclaim the past and construct their own narratives.” — Roslyn Poignant, author of Professional Savages: Captive Lives and Western Spectacle

“What makes this study especially rich and important is the way Jane Lydon takes full advantage of photographic theory without imposing it reductively or simplistically. This is particularly impressive because she shows in very nuanced ways that different photographs were produced for different reasons at different times and that these photos embody various ideas about Aboriginality and science.” — David Prochaska, coauthor of Beyond East and West: Seven Transnational Artists


Availability: In stock
Price: $27.95

Open Access

Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Jane Lydon is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Australian Indigenous Studies at Monash University in Melbourne. She is the author of Many Inventions: The Chinese in the Rocks, 1890–1930 and a coeditor of Object Lessons: Archaeology and Heritage in Australia (forthcoming).

Table of Contents Back to Top
List of Illustrations ix

Preface xiii

Acknowledgments xxv

Introduction: Colonialism, Photography, Mimesis 1

1. "This Civilising Experiment": Charles Walter, Missionaries, and Photographic Theater 33

2. Science and Visuality: "Communicating Correct Ideas" 73

3. Time Traps: Defining Aboriginality during the 1870s–1880s 122

4. Works Like a Clock 176

5. Coranderrk Reappears 214

Epilogue 248

Notes 253

Bibliography 271

Index 295
Sales/Territorial Rights: World

Rights and licensing
Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3572-6 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3559-7
Publicity material