Agents of Empire: How E.L. Mitchell's Photographs Shaped Australia explores the life and work of Yorkshire-born photographer Ernest Lund Mitchell, whose widely reproduced images have shaped ideas about Australia for much of the past 100 years. This monograph is based on Joanna Sassoon's 2001 PhD dissertation and journal articles she has authored on Mitchell and his photographs. Sassoon, an internationally respected historian and archivist who has managed archival collections in Western Australia and Canberra, reveals that she was prompted to learn more about the enigmatic man behind the lens and the stories surrounding his images after identifying one of Mitchell's photographs in her grandfather's 1929 Encyclopedia Britannica. How and why did this image end up halfway across the world, and what can it tell us about the context in which it was created, circulated, and understood by generations across the British Empire? Drawing from rich archival sources and published material, Sassoon provides us with answers to these questions as she reconstructs the long lives of Mitchell's photographs from their moment of creation through to their archival afterlives. Agents of Empire presents a thoroughly researched narrative that illustrates how and why E.L. Mitchell's photographs became "emblematic of an Australian way of life" (p. x).
As Sassoon explains in her introduction, this biography takes the "form of a double helix": one strand charts Mitchell's life, while the other maps the long lives of his photographs to explain how and why they became embedded in the [End Page 193] "visual DNA of Empire" (p. ix). These two threads, she continues, converge from two perspectives: "firstly case studies track the long lives of photographs to reveal the active roles they played in shaping ideas about landscape and identities in Australia; and secondly the archival afterlives of his photographs show how they continue to influence present understandings of the past" (p. ix). The introduction clarifies that this book is not simply a biographical study of photographer E.L. Mitchell. Instead, its focus is primarily on his photographs themselves as "individual documents" and the multiple meanings they have accumulated, and continue to accumulate, over their lives.
The book is structured in a logical manner. The first half of Part I (Production), titled "Agent of Empire," presents a biographical sketch of E.L. Mitchell, exploring his transition from a struggling itinerant photographer taking speculative photographs in New South Wales and Queensland to the leading commercial photographer in Western Australia after having built close relationships with his two major clients: the government and the pictorial press. Sassoon builds upon this biographical study in the second half of this section, analyzing the types of photographs that Mitchell produced based on geographical region, and how the development of his aesthetic style and the visual content of his images were influenced by his clients' desires. These collections of photographs, she observes, "paint a reassuring picture of progress, order and consensus" while omitting aspects of communities' "underlying politics," despite the fact that Mitchell was working during a time of cultural change and increasing social conflict (p. 45). In short, Sassoon argues that the common aesthetic message conveyed through Mitchell's photographs turned them into "ideal candidates to be used to shape ideas about Australia to encourage British migration" (p. 125).
In Part II (Reproduction), Sassoon explores how Mitchell's photographs found their way into a network of local, national, and international photographic collections, in addition to the role they played as agents of Empire in building an "imaginative geography and landscape of Australia" (p. 217). In this section, Sassoon presents multiple case studies that track the lives of individual photographs from Mitchell's studio, illustrating how their meanings changed from "being images of Western Australia" to "symbols and stereotypes of 'Australia' for audiences across the world" (p. 170). She studies the role that manipulation, such as cropping and retouching, played in reshaping the meaning of the photographs that she highlights, while also emphasizing the importance of accompanying text in...