Developing negatives for Attempted Portraits


In every photograph there is a story, and in each captured face, a history. What drives our desire to be immortalised in photographs, and how do we hope to be remembered?

Devonport Regional Gallery asks these questions in Attempted Portraits, which showcases the historical Robinson Collection alongside work by contemporary artists. From their commercial photography studio in Devonport, Bert Robinson and his son Albert produced over 100,000 photographic negatives between 1927 to 1975, including portraits, landscapes, and notable local events.

While developing the exhibition, curator Ellina Evans initially focused on the costumes worn by the Robinsons’ subjects, and began searching the collection. She found women in wedding dresses, men in military uniforms, children in crowns with tridents—even a man dressed as Santa Claus.

But the more she searched, the more puzzled she became by the photographs. “It got to the stage where I couldn’t quite tell who was in a costume and who wasn’t, because they were all so contrived, carefully conceived of, and taken.”

Looking past the costumes to the subjects behind them, Evans wondered what their stories might be, now rendered unknowable with the passage of time. “These portraits are attempts to tell a story, but are also failures in a way.”

Also included in the exhibition are portraits by contemporary Tasmanian artists Ilona Schneider, Lisa Garland, and Patrick Hall. While Garland’s photographs are intimate and story-driven, Schneider’s portraits candidly capture people invited off the street, and Hall prints his subjects onto bottles fitted with speakers from which they can be heard talking. Through their works, these artists shed light on the active role the Robinson photographers had in helping tell their subjects’ stories—now lost to time.

Attempted Portraits
Devonport Regional Gallery
3 September–12 November

This article was originally published in the September/October 2022 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Zali Matthews