Amateur Ornithology and Amateur Photography: Readers’ Photographs in The Emu

Julia Peck

Response To:

The Photographer as Reader: The Aspirational Amateur in the Photo-Magazines

Peter Buse’s interesting assessment of aspirational amateurs in photography magazines in his Either/And article raises several pertinent questions. These include: what traces does the aspirational amateur leave behind? and, who are these heterogeneous aspirational amateurs? In this short response, drawing upon research into the early years of The Emu, an ornithological journal in Australia, I propose that one way to engage with aspirational amateur photography is to look to the ways in which photographers were able to create esteem for themselves within fields of study that were still open to, or dependent upon, amateurs. In the study of natural history, for example, much depends on data collection and fieldwork, and here the amateur, especially in the early twentieth century, had a significant place.

The Emu, first published in 1901, was the official journal of the Australasian Ornithologists’ Union (in 1910 becoming the Royal Australasian Ornithologists’ Union – the RAOU) and initially served a diverse group of amateur and professional ornithologists. The Union aspired to a broad membership and aimed to be popular [1]. The Emu was produced primarily by contributions from its members as well as other interested parties [2]. Some of the Union’s Council were paid professionals in various fields of naturalist history, but many were part-time amateur ornithologists and naturalists with occupations in the civil service [3]. Dedicating weekends, evenings and holidays to the study of nature, these men and women [4] gave considerable time and resources to the study of natural history. Many ornithologists frequently integrated photography into their field studies and The Emu published photographs from its very first edition. Although mainly middle class, this group pose challenges to the definition of ‘amateur and ‘professional’ in the early twentieth century that was due in part to the increasing professionalisation of the sciences and the decline in the status of the amateur.

Many of the members of the first council had similarities to the mid-nineteenth-century amateur photographers identified by Grace Seiberling: amateurs were those who ‘pursued an activity, or rather, who pursued many different activities with enthusiasm, ease and confidence, who appreciated the arts and … [were] curious about the natural world’ [5]. As Michael Pritchard has also pointed out in his contribution to Either/And, ‘Who were the Amateur Photographers? 1839-1914’, the meaning, status and quantity of amateurs shifted significantly over time. Early amateurs, in particular, were monied and used their leisure time for rational pursuits that were taken seriously; it is likely that photography would have been one of several learned activities with which they engaged [6].

The men and women who contributed to The Emu, in contrast, came from a diversity of backgrounds and contributions varied from the anecdotal to the scholarly. Indeed, The Emu encouraged this range of styles of contributions and had a section, ‘Stray Feathers’, for the shorter observational notices. Some amateur ornithologists had more means and time to devote to their pursuit, and made use of photography, including its technical improvements, as well as introducing some of their own ingenious devices. This group were not usually of independent means and they were not necessarily taking an interest in all of the natural sciences and scientific advances of their day. The amateurs contributing to The Emu, then,seem in some ways as different from the mid-Victorian amateurs as they are from snapshooters associated with the Kodak camera. They had a narrower field of enquiry to the mid-Victorian amateurs, but their investments of time, money and energy into their interest also enabled them to gain recognition from similarly engaged peers, some of whom had greater social standing. Their deep interest in, and passion for, their subject, may then have reaped dividends in terms of who they were able to socialise with and on what terms. Whilst defining the amateur in this context remains challenging, the term ‘aspirational amateur’ is fitting.

Photography played a pivotal role in the study of natural history, yet apart from the replacement of the gun with the camera [7] it is hard to glean quite what contribution photography made to the study of ornithology in the early twentieth century. Photographs were arguably of little use for identification purposes (because photographs were primarily in black and white) and still photographs were limited in the information they contained regarding bird behaviour. Depictions of nests and habitats were sometimes more successful, although again, information dependent on the representation of colour was absent. By the early twentieth century photography was considered a natural accompaniment to the study of ornithology and the practice of the medium potentially enabled the amateur to developed disciplined observational skills whilst providing a material reward for their endeavours, especially if the photograph was successful.

Whatever the actual scientific, observational or behavioural value of photography for early twentieth century ornithology The Emu used black and white photographic illustrations from its very inception. In the first issue there was no commentary to accompany the photographs, although in the second issue the editors provided some notes to these first photographs. No clear purpose for the photographs was ever stated by the Union’s Council, but William Vincent Legge in his Presidential Address on the founding and future of the Union addressed the purpose of The Emu. Legge felt the journal should be moulded on The Ibis (journal of the British Ornithologists’Union), making good use of illustrations:

We may not be able to command the artistic talent that is connected with the parent journal, but no effort should be spared to make the illustrations as good as possible, as it is certain that they will go as much as possible to popularising the journal as the subject matter of its pages. Resource, no doubt, be had to photography, as it has been seen how excellently this class of illustration has served the purpose of A.J. Campbell’s recently published work. [8]

The visual, it seems, played a significant role in the building of popularity of the Unionand in encouraging participation of a broader public. Whilst the initial contributions to The Emu were made by members of the Council, they knew they needed a broad readership to sustain the Union, but this broad membership also suited other discourses at play in the Australian context – the spread of natural history as a suitable pastime and the establishment of the study of natural history as a ‘national’ pursuit shared and broadcast across the continent [9]. The Emu’s launch and use of photography also seems to coincide with a broadening interest in the question of what one might do with a camera, and the broader, and of course well-established discourse of self-improvement and the idea of productive/useful leisure. In this aspect, a clear parallel can be drawn with the aspirational amateur historian photographers considered by Elizabeth Edwards in her Either/And contribution, ‘The Amateur Excursion and the Sociable Production of Photographic Knowledge’.

Initially the more established professional and amateur naturalists provided the photographic illustrations and texts in The Emu but in 1915 the editors signalled a new development in its engagement with photography. Under ‘Camera Craft Notes’ the editors suggested:

So many members of the Unionare interested in bird photography that it has been decided to develop space in each issue of The Emu to the subject. It is hoped that members will contribute notes and prints. As many photographs as possible will be published, but those of the rarer birds, nests and eggs will, of course, be given preference. Notes on the behaviour of birds when faced with a camera, devices used to obtain photographs under difficulties, hints for the field and the dark room, and so forth will be welcomed. [10]

There then follows an account of the frustration Charles Barrett (noted amateur naturalist and experienced natural history photographer) had in photographing Emu-wrens in Tasmania, an endeavour that did not meet with success. Under the heading ‘Rare Photographs’ there are contributions from J.S.P. Ramsay. Ramsay was co-owner of Mercer and Ramsay, a company specialising in photo processing and printing [11]. But he was also a son of E.P. Ramsay, the first Australian-born curator of the AustraliaMuseumin Sydney[12]. E.P. Ramsay retired early due to ill health, and it is believed that this impacted on his son’s studies and career prospects [13]. J.S.P. Ramsay spent much of his life pursuing an interest in natural history, predominantly through photography, whilst running a successful business, yet one wonders if J.S.P. yearned for his father’s professional success. H.L. White of Belltrees, Scone (N.S.W.), who was a noted collector of skins and eggs, as well as a patron of ornithological activities [14],  submitted Ramsay’s contribution to The Emu: three photographs and details from a letter of the patience required for the photographs’ production. It is noted that both the Podargus (Tawny Frogmouth) and the Shrike-Tit were troublesome to make but these are not the focus of his notes and the photographs remain ambiguous without a fuller commentary: it assumes the readers were sufficiently aware of the importance or relevance of the images [15].


Ramsay’s photographs were typical of photographs of birds at their time of making, although also accomplished for their technical success and for his patience in securing results. Indeed Peter Slater celebrated Ramsay’s photograph of the Podargus as the ‘first nocturnal picture’ [16]. But perhaps the significance of these images is not so much attached to their technical proficiency, however, but in the ways in which readers could and did become contributors to The Emu, and in many respects The Emu’s production was dependent upon their amateur members’ contributions.

The Camera Craft Notes were probably intended to attract and sustain the less experienced and knowledgeable readers. The inclusion of Ramsay’s photographs seems to have been the springboard, for him at least, to making longer and more scholarly contributions to The Emu. Ramsay seemed able to use this experience, together with knowledge gleaned with his father’s professional life, to transform his field observations into more scholarly contributions [17]. This raises the possibility that other aspirational readers were able to make use of their writing and observational practices for intellectual and personal development that had an audience in The Emu, although only further research will confirm whether this is indeed the case. The existence of Camera Craft Notes also seems to have facilitated further types of contributions to The Emu, including those from women and from those who photographed birds in their gardens [18]. The Emu maintained its mix of lists, scholarly articles, reviews and digestible anecdotes, but found a way to further accommodate the aspirational amateur in the form of photography. In Ramsay’s case this seems to have enabled him to promote his activities in a more scholarly and accomplished way, drawing attention not only to his photography, but also to his field activities and expeditions.

The Emu’s magazine pages, therefore, were peppered with photographic contributions from more or less experienced, more or less accomplished and more or less aspirational amateurs, in additional to the contributions from those with professional standing. Brought together by their love of birds and an interest in local and national bird species, the readers and contributors to The Emu participated in a form of knowledge exchange that supported their own personal and photographic development, as well as participating in wider discourses and activities surrounding nature and nationalism. 


  1. ‘Objects, &c.’, The Emu, 1:1, October 1901, 1-3. back
  2. ‘Objects, &c.’, The Emu, 1:1,  October 1901, 5. back
  3. [3] The Emu, 1:1, October 1901, endpaper; Libby Robin, The Flight of the Emu: A Hundred Years of Australian Ornithology 1901-2001,Melbourne, 2001, 353-371.

  4. Of the initial 137 members, six were women, although the first Council was exclusively male: The Emu, 1:1, October 1901, endpaper; Robin, The Flight of the Emu, 3. back
  5. Grace Seiberling, Amateurs, Photography and the mid-Victorian Imagination, Chicago, 1986, 3. back
  6. Seiberling, Amateurs, Photography and the mid-Victorian Imagination, 3. back
  7. David Elliston Allen, The Naturalist in Britain: A Social History, London, 1976, 119, 230, 233. back
  8. William Vincent Legge, ‘Presidential Address’, The Emu, 1:2 Jan 1902, 38. back
  9. Tom Griffiths, ‘The Natural History of Melbourne: The Culture of Nature Writing in Victoria, 1880-1945’, Australian Historical Studies, 23:93, 1989, 339-365. back
  10. ‘Camera Craft Notes’, The Emu, 15:1 July 1915, 47. back
  11. Paula Southcombe and Julia Gardoll, ‘JSP Ramsay and theMacleayMuseum’, email communication, 27 August 2012. back
  12. Catherine Snowden, John Ramsay and Alison Lea, The J.S.P. Ramsay Collection, John Simeon Pierson Ramsay (1884-1981): Part One Glass and Cut Film Negatives Period to c. 1932 (Catalogue to the collection)Sydney: The Historic Photograph Collection, Macleay Museum (HP84.52). back
  13. Paula Southcombe and Julia Gardoll, ‘JSP Ramsay and theMacleayMuseum’, email communication, 27 August 2012. back
  14. Robin, The Flight of the Emu, 274. back
  15. J.S.P. Ramsay, ‘Camera Craft Notes’, The Emu, 15:1, July 1915, 48. back
  16. Peter Slater, Masterpieces of Australian Bird Photography, Adelaide, 1980, 55. back
  17. J.S.P. Ramsay, ‘Notes on Birds Observed in the Upper Clarence River District, N.S.W. Sept-Dec. 1918’ The Emu, 19:1, July 1919, 2-9; J.S.P. Ramsay, ‘Field Notes on the Painted Honey-eater (Entomophilia picta)’, The Emu 19:4, January 1920, 273-274. J.S.P. Ramsay, ‘Miniature Cameras in Relation to Bird Photography’, The Emu 33:3, October 1933, 193-194. back
  18. See, for example, Miss J.A. Fletcher who photographed whistling Shrike-Thrushes in her back garden: ‘Camera Craft Notes’, The Emu, 15: 2, October 1916, 140-141. back

Image references

  1. Fig. 1: J.S.P. Ramsay: Tawny Frogmouth and Young, The Emu 15:1, July 1915. © Natural History Museum, London back
  2. Fig. 2: J.S.P. Ramsay, Yellow-Bellied Shrike-Tit and Nest, The Emu, 15:1, July 1915, 49. © Natural History Museum, London back