by Edwin James Welch
Edwin James Welch, The Tragedy of Cooper's Creek
Photographs taken and destroyed
At one of the early meetings of the Exploration Committee, after the decision to organize a search party had been arrived at, it was suggested by Sir William Stawell that photographic materials would be an important addition to the outfit if such could be arranged, and any of the members of the party knew how to use them. This was long prior to the introduction of dry plates, and the initial difficulty of adding the weight and cumbrous impedimenta of the wet plate process to the loading was a fatal bar to the project, in addition to the ascertained fact that none of those who were going knew anything about the art.
But Sir William was not easily discouraged, and found a firm of American photographers in Melbourne who undertook to supply dry plates prepared by themselves, and teach a man how to use them. Welch was asked, and consented to learn, and, briefly, the arrangement was carried out in this way. A stereoscopic camera of the old wet plate pattern was supplied and four dozen plates sensitised with iodide of silver in the usual way, afterwards dried and preserved by immersion in a strong solution of coffee.
[Note from Burke & Wills Web: The photographic equipment was purchased from Freeman Batchelder and Daniel O'Neill of Batchelder & O'Neil, 57 Collins-street east for £11, 15/- in 1862].
Only one could be used each day, as there was but one slide, and he was well posted in the matter of exposures, which would necessarily require to be long. This equipment he packed with his other instruments on a quiet horse which he led himself, and every man in the party was ready at all times to hold blankets and rugs over him at night when a plate had to be changed, or a fresh one inserted in the slide. Four trial plates were exposed in Studley Park, prior to leaving, and the results were eminently satisfactory.
The whole forty-eight plates were used as directed, the major part of them on Cooper's Creek, at all the points of interest herein described, entailing no small amount of labor and anxiety at times; and hopes that were high were doomed to cruel disappointment in the end. Instead of sending them on at once to the photographers for development, as instructed, the old man referred to, who took delivery of them on behalf of the Committee, opened them in the full glare of daylight "just to see what they were like!" before he sent them on. The result may be imagined, but the wrath of everybody concerned in their production may not be described when the photographer reported:
Even had any or all of them been defective, merely from the photographic standpoint, they would still have been of the greatest value for reproduction by an artist, and the accuracy of delineation would have been beyond the reach of criticism. Negatives of all the places where the stirring scenes had been enacted were included in the number, pictures that could never again be obtained under similar conditions.