Photo quest for new home

Avid photo collector Vern McCallum is anxious to secure the future preservation of his anthology. Journalist Jenny McLaren finds out about his expansive collection.

HUGE RANGE OF IMAGES: Portland man Vern McCallum has collected over 18,000 historical photos. Some date back to 1859. Picture: Rob Gunstone

HUGE RANGE OF IMAGES: Portland man Vern McCallum has collected over 18,000 historical photos. Some date back to 1859. Picture: Rob Gunstone

Three pairs of dark, soulful eyes peer out, ever watchful, from a large sepia photograph.

Vern McCallum swears they follow him as he goes about his daily work of keeping history alive.

The three Mount Clay Aboriginal tribesmen are seated shoulder-to-shoulder, ill-at-ease in baggy clothing, their faces daubed with white paint, two clutching boomerangs, the other a woomera.

The portrait was captured in 1859 by travelling photographer Thomas Hannay, just 25 years after the Hentys came ashore in Portland and only a few decades after the advent of photography.

The image is among precious few surviving of indigenous tribes of the era. Of the thousands of historic photos he has amassed half a century, it is also one of Mr McCallum’s favourites. 

For this avid collector, it embodies the very reason that drives his passion.

“These blokes have been homeless for a long time,” he says of the trio.

“We have to make sure that we look after them.

“It (the collection) is our history and it has to be preserved, no matter what.

“It is not something you can afford to lose. It belongs to the general public and it is important that we preserve it.”

Keen to share this unique visual record of the region’s history, Mr McCallum has brought his vast collection out of storage from where it usually resides in a spare room and under his house, for an exhibition at the Castle d’Art Gallery at Allestree on Portland’s eastern approaches.

Of the 19,500 photos that currently make up the Vern McCallum Photo Collection, 1000 are on display as prints – those deemed worthy like the Mount Clay image in metre-wide proportions – the remainder catalogued in thumbnail prints or stored on computer.

They depict the life and times of the Western District and its residents, from Hannay’s 1859 images to almost present-day, from Warrnambool through to Portland and Mt Gambier, and inland from Hamilton to Horsham and most communities in between. 

There are images of early homesteads and their occupants, streetscapes, shops and places of worship, people at work and at play, indigenous communities and natural landmarks.

For the most part, they have been sourced from private collections, retrieved from boxes under beds and in dusty cupboards. Some have come in the form of slides, negatives and even early glass negatives.

Mr McCallum traces his “hobby that got out of hand” back 50 years, when as a young bloke, he was given a small postcard-sized photo taken in Digby about 1890 featuring his great-grandfather Donald McCallum’s wheelwright shop, where, he also happened to build coffins. Keen to view the shop in more detail, Mr McCallum was advised to learn photography.

Under the tutelage of Merino photographer Stan Hayes, a darkroom was set up in the family’s pantry to teach the then young shearer-cum-truckie the fine art of developing photos. 

Hooked on the process of being able to blow up a photo and zoom in on the fine details, it was after Mr McCallum’s involvement in compiling the photo display for the 1977 Merino-Digby ‘back to’ that things really took off.

“People just came from everywhere wanting to give me photos,” he recalls. In the days before scanners, he would take a picture of the photos with his 35mm camera and then develop them in the darkroom.

It was the acquisition of the prized Thomas Hannay collection that he regards as the highlight of his career. 

“It was a bit like getting the Mona Lisa dropped on you,” he says, recalling the day he was presented with Hannay’s 105 photos, each glued to a page of an A4 exercise book.

They had been in the care of Portland historian Joe Wiltshire, but when Mr Wiltshire died, his widow offered them to a grateful Mr McCallum.

A Melbourne photographer, Hannay left a rich photographic legacy as he snapped his way through the fledgling settlements of the Western District in 1859, among his work the rare series of early Aboriginal photos.

“They are like gold dust. They are absolutely priceless. These are pictures you will never find again and we need help to preserve them,” Mr McCallum enthuses. 

After scanning and copying the Hannay collection, Mr McCallum donated the originals to the State Library but retained the rights for five years to protect them from unauthorised use. Curiously, the Vern McCallum Photo Collection contains no original photos. All are copies from the originals lent by their owners and then returned. It’s a practice Mr McCallum says has allowed him access to far more images than possible had he limited the collection to originals.

 “I don’t want the originals. I’d sooner make copies and give back the originals,” he says. “That way I get access to a lot more photos. Sometimes people give them to me if they, or no one else in the family wants them.”

As the self-appointed custodian of such a valuable historical record, it’s a responsibility that weighs heavily on Mr McCallum’s shoulders. At 71, he is anxious to secure the future preservation of the collection.

“It’s absolutely unique ...  it’s something you won’t see anywhere else. It’s a living, breathing thing and it’s still growing all the time,” Mr McCallum says. “To lose this sort of stuff would be absolutely criminal.”

Mr McCallum has approached both the Glenelg Shire Council and the State Library for support in helping to preserve the photos.

In conjunction with a number of like-minded supporters, he is planning to establish an incorporated body to facilitate government grant applications to help fund and maintain the collection. To date, he has funded the collection from his own pocket.

Not that he’s counting. “It’s priceless. Really, how could you put a price on something like this?”

He also sees plenty of opportunities for using the collection for the community’s benefit, including growing the tourist dollar.

“Tourist information centres here are already digitised, so the photos could be on computer for visitors to sit and look through. People doing family history research would travel to do that because they’re dead keen on it,” Mr McCallum says.

He hopes a future listing of the Budj Bim Cultural Landscape as a UNESCO World Heritage site could also present an opportunity for a permanent home for the collection.

Mr McCallum envisages schools using the collection as a teaching tool for students’ research skills to caption the photos.

Glenelg Shire Council said it had declined an offer to auspice the collection in August following a strategic plan submitted by Mr McCallum because it did not have adequate resources. However, it said it had been working closely with Mr McCallum to find suitable options to share the collection with a broader audience and would continue to support him to find options. The collection is on display at the Castle d’Art Gallery until the end of January.