UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER, Not titled [Portrait of three Californian gold miners] Enlarge 1 /1

UNKNOWN PHOTOGRAPHER

Not titled [Portrait of three Californian gold miners] c.1850 Description: dealer has identified subject by their miners’ shirts, and one man has miners’ belt buckle.
Place made: California, United States of America
Materials & Technique: photographs, daguerreotype Support: cased

Dimensions: image 11.0 h x 8.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2009
Accession No: NGA 2009.929
Subject: Portrait: group

Americans embraced the daguerreotype from its first appearance in New York in the early 1840s and, in the West in particular, hundreds of thousands of daguerreotypes were made in California during the peak gold rush years of 1849 to 1864. This output was far greater in number, quality and variety of examples than for any other place in the Asia–Pacific region.

The first generation of miners in California, known as 49ers, created a particular style of occupational portrait in which they were portrayed in confident, even swaggering poses—wearing their working gear of wool over-shirts, buckskin trousers, bandannas and special miners buckles. The miners were often shown holding their tools, pans, gold nuggets, pistols and knives. Many miners portraits were made outdoors on the diggings.

The example, recently acquired by the National Gallery of Australia, is identifiable as a miners portrait by the buckles and shirts. However, it is distinctive because of the male camaraderie or brotherly affection that is shown. Double or triple portraits were cheaper but it is perhaps that desire to show their bond that made these three burly young men have their collective likenesses taken. Their hair is longish, a practical choice on the fields but this also imparts a rather romantic air to the young men. The image is both very attractive and of a high level of clarity and brightness.

Possession of such an image became a badge of fraternity among the miners or an essential proof of wellbeing and success to send back home. The genre was so popular that photography studios began supplying clothes for tourists to have their pictures taken as ‘miners’. No similar genre of miners daguerreotypes is known in Australia—or even any single identified miners portrait.

Gael Newton
Senior Curator, Photography
in artonview, issue 61, autumn 2010

in artonview, issue 61, autumn 2010

Photographers of the 49ers, the first generation of miners in California, created a distinctive style of portrait in which the sitters were shown in confident, even swaggering poses. Many were made outdoors on the diggings. During the peak Gold Rush years of 1849 to 1864 hundreds of thousands of daguerreotypes were made. From its first appearance in 1839 America had embraced the daguerreotype – a one-off image made on a light-sensitive silver-coated metallic plate –with such fervour that the quality and variety of examples surpass all other countries.


Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra