Shaping Australia 

THE man whose images inspired a legion of Brits to emigrate to Australia — E.L. Mitchell — is finally getting the credit he deserves, says historian Joanna Sassoon.

Her debut biography, Agents of Empire: How E.L. Mitchell’s Photographs shaped Australia, is a celebration of the photographer, whose work for the immigration department in the early 1900s help define international perceptions of WA and Australia.

“The book does three things,” says Sassoon.

“It tells you the life of Mitchell, the life of his photographs and how they spread across the world, and the history of his archive.”

Sassoon first came across Mitchell’s work when she working as a photographic manager at the WA State Library.

It sparked a fascination with the man and led to 25 years of research for the biography.

“I felt that there was a story to be told that showed that his photographs had an impact on people’s lives, because his photographs were used to advertise Australia and people migrated as a result of that,” she says.

His photography was so sought after and respected that he gained the position of official photographer to the governor of WA.

His work was also displayed on school text books as well as government collections.

“I wanted to tell the story of the impact of his photographs, rather than see them as art”, Sassoon told the Voice.

These days much of Mitchell’s work is kept in private hands, or at the WA Maritime Museum and the State Library, but some of his photographs are still used on iconic WA postcards. Sassoon hopes the book will give people a better understanding of the present, by glimpsing the past.

Agents of Empire is available at New Editions in Fremantle.


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