Victor Tarhanoff, the hero of Darwin's visual history

Footage from Victor Tarhanoff’s film The Story of Port Darwin (1941)
and now part of the NFSA’s Film Australia Collection

In 1938 a steel industry construction foreman called Victor Tarhanoff began filming 16mm Kodachrome amateur footage in and around Darwin, Northern Territory. First posted to Darwin in 1935 and living an itinerant life as he moved from one construction site to another, from 1938 Tarhanoff filmed footage that today contains the earliest surviving colour images of Darwin. His beautiful films offer a unique insight into Darwin life before and after the Second World War. The footage includes aspects of the city such as: the modern bank buildings on Smith Street in the CBD; diners in the elegantly grand Darwin Hotel; the local Chinatown and shopfronts, showing the multicultural nature of the city; his young son Victor Tarhanoff junior with Indigenous and Chinese children; and Governor General Lord Gowrie and Northern Territory Administrator CL Abbott, reviewing an army and naval march-past. Victor Tarhanoff’s Darwin films have not been widely screened or seen in public for over 40 years.

Victor Tarhanoff was in Darwin at that time to supervise the construction of two large oil tanks which joined a cluster of others on Stokes Hill, just above the main Darwin wharf. A fortnight before the Japanese first raided Darwin on 19 February 1942, Tarhanoff, his wife and son were evacuated on the last Burns Philp steamer to leave before the attack. On 19 February the Japanese bombed not only the wharf but also the oil tanks on Stokes Hill. Being full of fuel, the tanks blazed, then in the words of Victor Tarhanoff jnr, 'melted as if made of wax’. (An image of the tanks after an attack is available at the National Archives of Australia’s Virtual Reading Room).

When he moved back to Darwin to set up his own business and take part in the city’s postwar reconstruction, Tarhanoff filmed the melted tanks, the bombed wharves, the multiple sunken ships, the extensively damaged CBD, graves of those killed in the first raid, and the tiny huts of temporary employees working on the rebuilding. Evidently a gregarious and generous man, Tarhanoff occasionally injected editorial comment into his films’ intertitles, for instance, 'Darwin today remains a shanty town’, and 'The bombed and [temporarily] repaired wharves are inadequate to meet Darwin’s requirements’.

From 1946 and until their move back to their home base in Brisbane in 1949, Victor and his wife, dressmaker Veronica Tarhanoff, became leading public figures in Darwin, with Victor co-founding and ultimately leading a very active Darwin Photographic and Amateur Cine Society, which ran screenings, lectures, competitions and excursions and still exists today as the Darwin Camera Club. A report from the Centralian Advocate of 26 July 1947 captures the flavour of one of the society’s events, a ‘cabaret ball and cine show’ at the Darwin Hotel:

After the films, dancing was enjoyed by the 360 people present. The masked dancer (Mrs Tarhanoff) skilfully danced the Strauss Waltz and the Caucasian Sword Dance. The two dresses worn for these numbers were made and designed by her and were donated for a raffle in aid of the British Flood Relief funds.

When I started to research Victor Tarhanoff for the NFSA compile Frontline Australia 1942, the NFSA had no information on who he was, let alone any context for his Darwin films. I was able to locate Victor Tarhanoff Junior in Queensland, and he gave me many valuable details about his parents – such as the fact that his mother continued her valued dressmaking into old age. On 19 February 2012, Victor Junior, or Vic, as he likes to be called, attended, with family members, the Darwin premiere of Frontline Australia 1942, which includes segments from three of his father’s films, The Story of Port Darwin – Part 1 (1941), The Story of Port Darwin – Part 2 (1946), and Out of the Ashes (1947). This public event commemorating the 70th anniversary of the bombing of Darwin was curated and managed by Jacqui North, Big Screen Coordinator. Victor Snr had accompanied his silent films with recorded music. For the screenings of these three films in 2012, music and sounds of the era were added and the material slightly reduced in length.

Visit the ABC Radio National website to listen to an interview with NFSA Historian Graham Shirley.

Visit the Film Australia Collection YouTube channel to view The Story of Port Darwin and Darwin: Doorway to Australia in full.



Thanks for posting these films, which were produced originally by my uncle Victor Tarhanoff, only brother of my mother Antonina. This look at his films brings back memories of times shared at the home of Uncle Victor and Auntie Ronnie, where nevertheless we children never saw any of the footage you have posted. However, two other home movies were once seen by me at a young age, and I have never forgotten the magic of being introduced to the idea of home movies, and the capacity for recording history that might seem ordinary at the time, but has lasting value for future generations interested in all facets of our past.

Karen Price on 14 Feb 2012, 2:18 p.m.

Thank you for posting these exciting glimpses from my Great Uncle's time in Darwin. How wonderful for us to be able to share these images with our children and grandchildren. I visited Uncle Vic and Aunty Ronnie often when they lived at Mt Gravatt in Brisbane but knew little of their earlier time in Darwin.

Leonie Dempster on 14 Feb 2012, 3:36 p.m.

Thank you, Karen, for this appreciation that so amply captures the experience of home movies - or indeed 'amateur' movies in a general sense - for so many generations. Victor was a member of the now largely forgotten Australian Amateur Cine Society, which was quite a force among non-professional filmmakers and whose term 'amateur' only differentiated them from filmmakers who were paid for their art and craft. Amateur filmmakers produced work comparable with that of professional counterparts, and their works were screened Australia-wide via AACS affiliates and even at the occasional film festival (e.g. early Sydney Film Festivals) as well as to families and communities. The more I learn about Victor's time in Darwin, the more I realise how much his film work, and the work of his fellow Darwin filmmakers and still photographers, meant to their generation and community. Your posting demonstrates how much Victor's work can still captivate audiences today.

Graham Shirley on 14 Feb 2012, 3:43 p.m.

This website has proven to be a goldmine of information about Darwin and its history. I had no information other than the fact of Darwin's having suffered a devastating attack by Japanese airplanes. My children were not taught this history when they were at school. This anniversary is such an opportunity to learn about how close Australia came to invasion, and to realise that Darwin, Broome, Townsville and Cairns, as well as southern places in Australia, were subjected to attack. I appreciate all the footage on the site, and the soundtracks reflecting the music of the time. It was nice to see young Victor as a child again too. There must have been painstaking work done to produce this material from old records. With a historian in the family, and one at the NFSA, it has become possible to have preserved in our country's history the work of my uncle Victor Tarhanoff, a man whose Russian history may have been quite different had he not emigrated with his family, met a wife who was also an immigrant, and used his many skills and talents to leave his mark permanently in the records of
this lucky country.

Karen Price on 14 Feb 2012, 6:33 p.m.

My heart swells with pride and love for my grandad at being called 'The hero of Darwin's visual history'. His love for the camera has past down the generations and I hope that my daughter in turn will appreciate the art of capturing history through film... or digital means :) Its great to know that this media is available for future generations to learn from. Proud to be a Tarhanoff!

Vanita Tarhanoff on 14 Feb 2012, 8:08 p.m.

As the eldest grandchild of Victor Tarhanoff Snr, i clearly remember being shown these some of these movies as a child. I also recall many political dicussions around the kitchen table. The feelings regarding the antagonists at the time never waned. The sense of fear and threat in relation to those events remains. As Graham so kindly points out, my grandfather did have a heart of gold and was a man of great integrity, talent, intelligence and intiative, much of which can be seen in his five grandchildren, 10 great grandchildren and 2 great great grandchildren.

Jennifer Smith on 15 Feb 2012, 12:52 p.m.

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