Level 3 Mortlock Wing State Library of South Australia North Terrace Adelaide SA 5000

Paul Foelsche’s portrait photographs of Aboriginal people of the Darwin region, 1880s.

Paul Heinrich Matthias Foelsche (1831-1914) was the first resident photographer in Australia’s ‘Top End’. He was also its first police inspector, accompanying the Goyder Expedition to Port Darwin in 1869. His landscape and portrait photographs are windows onto the European-Aboriginal frontier of the late 19th century. Foelsche not only policed this frontier, but also recorded it, in fascinating detail.

Foelsche portraits

Left: Foelsche’s 1888 portrait of a young Larrakia man known to the Europeans as Davey Guillemaine, aged 25. His chest is decorated with ceremonial designs, suggesting that a performance had been held shortly before. Davey was probably employed as a police-tracker by Foelsche.

Right: An unnamed Alligator Rivers man, aged 27, photographed by Paul Foelsche during the 1880s. He is wearing a woven headband, grass necklace and cane armlets, as well as the patterned sarong provided by Foelsche.

Foelsche began his series of Aboriginal portraits in 1877, responding to requests from physical anthropologists investigating ‘types of mankind’. But he soon came to know the Aboriginal people of Darwin and Port Essington as individuals, rather than as racial specimens. He discarded the measuring scale, and his scientific studies became evocative portraits – and vital records of the ancestors of Aboriginal peoples of the Top End. This album contains more than 200 of Foelsche’s portraits of men, women, boys and girls from the principal language groups around Darwin.

Foelsche went to the trouble of recording the names, ages and language groups of his subjects. He provided them with patterned sarongs to wear for the photographs, which he developed using the laborious ‘wet plate’ process.

The subject needed to be still for several seconds, and Foelsche asked them to sit on a chair with their arms folded in their laps, so as to obscure the chairback.

An unnamed Minnegie man

An unnamed Minnegie man, from the Mary River, south-east of Port Darwin. In 1886 Minnegie people walked to Port Darwin, partly to participate in Foelsche’s photographic project. The young man, aged 20, is wearing a headband coated with white pipeclay, a feather head ornament, grass necklace, cane armbands and a netted bag (probably containing personal items) around his neck.

Biliamuk Gapal

Biliamuk Gapal, aged 36, photographed by Paul Foelsche in 1886. A prominent Larrakia identity, Biliamuk had been one of the first to engage with the South Australians at Port Darwin in 1869 during the Goyder Expedition. He and two other Larrakia men visited Adelaide in 1870. Later, he worked briefly for Foelsche as a police tracker. He was also occasionally imprisoned for minor offences, and while in gaol during 1886, Biliamuk produced pencil drawings which were included in the 1888 ‘Dawn of Art’ exhibition at the Melbourne International Exhibition.