The Shadowcatchers: a history of cinematography in Australia

'The Adorable Outcast’ (1928) Bill Trerise and extras on location in Fiji.

Courtesy National Film and Sound Archive

'The Shadowcatchers: a history of cinematography in Australia’ (2012) by Martha Ansara is a stylish coffee-table book which is being launched this month. Martha describes part of the journey she has taken with the NFSA and the national audiovisual collection to find some of the beautiful images that accompany her work.

Sometime in 2008, I found myself on a bus in the industrial outskirts of Canberra, traveling to the fabled vaults of the National Film and Sound Archive. I was looking forward to my journey’s end and looking back also to the beginnings of this trip, which started many years previously, when the NFSA had not long been in existence. The sleek new building wasn’t even thought of then and the Archive seemed to consist of a heap of uncatalogued boxes of goodness knows what, dumped into the shabby old Institute of Anatomy, with here and there an archivist clinging to a cluttered desk, puzzling over a stack of index cards. I remember being led up some stairs to a narrow mezzanine which overlooked one of these strange storage/work spaces. It was lined on one-and-a-half sides with filing cabinets, and in these filing cabinets was the photographic collection – all kinds of photographs, as alphabetically arranged as possible, and often having little more identification than a title. I think it took me a day to look through every drawer in every cabinet in search of photographs relating to the film oral histories I was recording, but I can no longer remember what I found.

So here I was again, perhaps 20 years later, traversing the wilds of Mitchell to continue my search. My oral history work had been transformed into a photographic history of Australian cinematography, entitled The Shadowcatchers, soon to be published (or so we thought) by the Australian Cinematographers Society (ACS). And by this time, the digitisation of the Archive’s photographic collection had begun and images could be easily viewed through an elegant online catalogue. Meanwhile, however, the collection had expanded – as collections do – and I found that within the vaults the grey filing cabinets still existed and there were many more of them than ever before. In fact, it took me a week, flipping as fast as I could through neatly arranged drawers of photographs, to identify the wonderful production stills which would fill out the history which the NFSA’s digitised images were already contributing to the book. The photos – covering the period from 1901 to the present – were all now beautifully catalogued, but again some had only a title and many of the people in them remained unidentified.

At any rate, over the next year or more the Archive scanned the selected photographs for us, upgrading those that had previously been scanned at too low a resolution at the beginning of the digitisation program. Amanda McCormack, who looks after Access, patiently sent them on to us – again and again. Today’s digital technology moves so fast that everything is out of date almost as soon as the work on it has been completed and as cinematographers have high standards for images, we were nothing if not demanding. Eventually, I paid another visit to the NFSA to talk with digitisation specialist Darren Weinert who, like so many Archive workers, is more than a technician, having a great enthusiasm and a broad knowledge of his field. He then located the absolutely best originals of some photos and scanned again … and eventually, the layout for the book began.

'Kakadu Man’ (1989) Film Australia, National Interest Program. Kakadu National Park, Northern Territory. John Hosking (cinematographer).

Courtesy Film Australia Library, National Film and Sound Archive

But this was hardly the end of our efforts. We had earlier looked through the NFSA holdings of oral history interviews for those that had been transcribed (we were running out of puff and further transcribing was out of the question) to find just the right anecdote to bring our historical text alive. But even though the anecdotes were now in place, along with the historical text and all the photos, the ACS Book Committee was still faced with writing captions. How I wish that we had been more strenuous in our efforts in the 1980s to organise identification of photographs by veteran filmmakers! By 2011 few of these pioneers were still alive and in most cases our long hours of detection failed to yield conclusive results. A quarter of the photographs in The Shadowcatchers come from the NFSA, and of these most were taken on film sets prior to the 1950s, and too many of our captions are peppered with the word 'unknown’. Surprisingly, we found that it was equally as difficult to extract caption information from the cinematographers and photographers who sent us photographs from the present era. It is hard for busy people to understand the importance of accurate identification; but today’s material which we think of as just another film or just another document, soon becomes a precious historical artefact —or not, if it lacks proper information.

Eventually, of course, the book was all laid out and ready for printing – but that’s another saga which I won’t burden you with now. We changed printers in the end and happily were offered a fifth colour (books traditionally print in four) and the resulting rich blacks are a cinematographer’s dream. The books are arriving by ship just in the nick of time for our big launch and industry party on 31 May 2012. (Yet another saga there too!) We’ve seen the advance copies and are delighted. We hope the NFSA will be too – the Archive’s contribution cannot be over estimated. And the patience of archivists, which seems to be integral to the archiving mentality, is something the ACS book committee deeply appreciates.

For me, The Shadowcatchers is, among other things, a tribute to the importance of the NFSA to our national heritage – to our understanding of the past. The NFSA was established originally with very active support from Australia’s filmmaking community. It is in the Archive that our work lives on for future generations, and ensuring that it does so in a meaningful way is a far more complex operation than most of us on the outside understand. Cinematographers owe a big debt to the women and men of the NFSA for their skills and their willingness to tackle such an enormous task.

For those who are reading this blog, if you visit the NFSA in the next few months you will find some large photographs from The Shadowcatchers on the walls, or if you want to see more photographs, take a look at the sample pages from the book via our website

To WIN a copy of the book (drawn 25 May) follow The Shadowcatchers on Twitter or connect with us on Facebook.



Great to see this book with all its photos and stories finally emerging 'from the shadows'. What a great journey you describe, Martha. And the need for identifying people in photographs can't be stressed too highly. It's never too early to label photographs, but it can so easily be too late.
I'm looking forward to seeing my copy of the book.

Dominic Case on 23 May 2012, 7:11 p.m.

From the Author:
The books are going out to those who have pre-ordered on Monday or Tuesday (28/29 May).
I hope it will be a lovely surprise for the recipients - At the ACS, we're all very happy with the results - We upped the quality in the end by getting better advice re: absolutely the best paper possible and five colour printing instead of the usual four.
Cinematographers love their blacks and we've got BLACKS!
Perhaps people will read the text as well!

Martha Ansara on 25 May 2012, 7:06 p.m.

Thanks for the blog Martha, what a journey! As you mentioned, the NFSA has installed a mini exhibition of some of the images used in the publication. Making the final selection was very difficult, as we sorted through many fantastic shots. The Shadowcatchers mini exhibition is in the Liversidge Foyer of the NFSA Canberra building, showing now.

Stephanie Scroope on 29 May 2012, 8:41 a.m.

It's great to see this sort of book made and published. I've always wanted to see an Australian version of the film Visions of Light, and even began a process over 13 years ago to develop one with producer Jacqui Fine, with the help of the NSW ACS. So I am even more thrilled to see text and images, and good blacks! Well done Martha and the ACS. I look forward to seeing the exhibition and the book.

Susan Thwaites on 01 Jun 2012, 4:59 p.m.

Yes, Susan, I remember the project - a film like that would still be very much welcomed I know...and not just by me.

Martha Ansara on 22 Jul 2012, 10:08 p.m.

I don't mind looking at all the old photographs find it very therapudic.

Debbie O'Donnell on 03 Sep 2012, 7:59 a.m.

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