Some 82 years before Jørn Utzon won the competition to design the Sydney Opera House and 57 years before the completion of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, a giant room-sized camera sitting atop a 23-metre-tall tower, funded by the world’s largest gold nugget, captured the harbour for posterity.
Three of the negatives produced by this improbably large camera in 1875 have now been added to UNESCO’s International Memory of the World Register, an initiative launched to safeguard the documentary heritage of humanity.
The listing recognizes the plates as the word’s largest wet plate negatives for the time, representing the best in 19th century creative photographic technology. The largest of the plates measures more than 1.6 metres wide.
Now held by the State Library of New South Wales, the images were created for an 1870s publicity campaign to sell the wonders of Australia to the world. They document the future site of the Sydney Opera House, with the developing city beyond still surrounded by virgin bush.
The exercise was spearheaded and funded by Bernhardt Otto Holtermann, a German-born entrepreneur famed for his role in discovering the largest gold nugget ever found – the Holtermann Nugget, which weighed 290 kilograms and measured 1.5 metres long.
The nugget helped fund a purpose-built, 23-metre-tall tower, attached to Holtermann’s house in North Sydney, which he created with young Australian‐trained professional photographer Charles Bayliss. The three-metre‐square room at the top of the tower was turned into a giant camera.
“It’s quite extraordinary that these colossal images were created in Australia, far from the great global centres of progress and invention and less than 40 years after the invention of photography,” said State Library curator Margot Riley.
“The survival of the giant wet plate negatives defies belief due to their fragility and were nominated separately from the larger Holtermann collection to claim their rightful place in the global history of photography.”
UNESCO established the Memory of the World register in 1992, in response to “a growing awareness of the parlous state of preservation of, and access to, documentary heritage in various parts of the world.”
The giant negatives join 77 other new nominations for the register, as chosen by the International Advisory Committee at a four-day meeting at UNESCO Headquarters, Paris, held from 24-27 October.
Director-General of UNESCO, Irina Bokova, stated, “It is my deep and firm conviction that the Memory of the World program should be guided in its work to preserve documentary heritage and memory for the benefit of present and future generations in the spirit of dialogue, international cooperation and mutual understanding, building peace in the minds of women and men.”
There are five other Australian documents on the register, including the Mabo Case Manuscripts and the Endeavour Journal of James Cook inscribed on the register in 2001, the Convict Records and the Story of the Kelly Gang, inscribed in 2007, and the Manifesto of the Queensland Labour Party to the people of Queensland (9 September 1892), inscribed in 2009.