Hedda Morrison’s Extraordinary Journey

My involvement with the camera club and amateur enthusiast photographer movement within Australia and overseas has brought me into personal contact with some remarkable photographers. I’ve been a member of camera clubs since 1971 (Queanbeyan-based clubs from 1971 to 1985 and the Canberra Photographic Society in 1971 and then again from 1986 until the present). I have also been involved extensively with the Australian Photographic Society and the International Federation of Photographic Art since 1976. However, my introduction to Hedda Morrison came about as the result of someone I met outside of those involvements.

I only met her in 1988. This small woman who contracted a severe bout of polio at the age of three. She died peacefully on 3 December 1991, almost eighty three. It was such a short part of her extraordinary life in which I came to know her. But I am grateful to have personally met, and shared some time, with Hedda Morrison.

My experience has been that few in the Australian photographic industry seem to be aware of this remarkable photographer’s story and achievements. Hedda’s modesty is part of the reason for that, but she and her images deserve to have been better known both in Australia and elsewhere. Let me share just a little with you.

Hedda was born Hedda hammer and her home town was Stuttgart in Germany. After undertaking studies at the Munich State institute for Photography in Germany, Hedda worked with a photographer named Lazi. She described him as ‘distinguished and demanding’.

Hedda saw an advertisement in a German photographic journal seeking a qualified woman photographer to manage a studio. The woman was required to be able to speak French and English and to be from the region of Swabia. A woman was sought because they were paid less, a Swabian because they were considered hard workers. Hedda realised that the job was tailor made for her.

The vacancy was with Hartungs Photo Studio in Beijing. Hedda obtained the position and travelled to China to take it up in 1933. She had been anxious to work overseas and the idea of going to faraway Beijing greatly appealed to her. This was to be the start of her great photographic adventure. Her family was not so enthusiastic and gave the twenty five year old a pistol as a parting gift. She dropped it overboard from the ship on the way from Trieste.

Despite her ability to speak French, English and German, it was necessary for Hedda to learn Chinese as soon as she arrived. An old gentleman taught her colloquial Chinese using sign language. He had never learned to read or write his own language.

Hartungs’ owner was a demanding businessman who required Hedda to work six days a week for him, managing a staff of seventeen men. Each working day was thirteen hours, plus unpaid overtime as necessary to meet urgent requirements. Nevertheless Hedda found many opportunities to capture her own images in Peking and throughout many other parts of China, mostly travelling alone. When her work contract was not renewed in 1938, Hedda opted to stay in China rather than return to a Germany preparing for war. Throughout the years of World War II, she worked primarily for a jewellery business.

During the period 1933 to 1946 Hedda captured some most remarkable images of China, including pictures of camels during a rare fall of snow in Peking and sense of Nanking Just after it had been ravaged. Those years encompassed Japanese occupation. Most images were made on Rolleiflex twin lens reflex cameras – in Hedda’s view “there has never been a better camera”. She also used a 9 x 12 cm Linhof Satzplasmat and a Makina 6 x 9 cm.

After leaving Hartungs, Hedda used her life savings to order photographic materials from Germany in 1941. They arrived by railway – just before the German invasion of the USSR. Hedda worked without electricity and had no running water. A portable car battery charged up by the local post office was used to operate her enlarger. It was a visiting Cartier-Bresson who suggested this arrangement to her. Eventually Hedda’s supply of materials ran out.

Some images of this period can be found in two of Hedda’s several books – “A Photographer in Old Peking” (Oxford University Press, 1985) and “Travels of a Photographer in China”, 1936-1944 (Oxford University Press, 1987). In his foreword to the first of these books, Wang Gungwu tells how Hedda mentioned her China photographs to him years earlier. “In her usual modest way, she described them as a beginner’s efforts.” The superb images show the reader many views of Peking which few Chinese ever saw, leave alone photographed.

The latter book moves beyond Peking to reveal the countryside and the people of China. One review of the book, by Sue Ferrari in the Winter 1988 issue of Against the Grain, noted that the majority of the 230 photographs “are of outstanding technical and compositional standards” and that “Hedda is printing from negatives that are 40 to 50 years old”. The review also expressed the hope that there would be more books of photos yet to be printed by Hedda. This book includes many images from an earlier one – “Hua Shan – Taoist Mountain in China” (1974), which unfortunately used inferior paper stock.

In 1940 Hedda met Alastair, a son of the famous Australian-born Peking correspondent for the London times and subject of Cyril Pearl’s biography “Morrison of Peking”. Alastair had gone to Peking to recuperate from illness and took over the house where Hedda was living. After the war, in 1946, she married Alastair Gwynne Morrison and together they left China for two years in Hong Kong.

The Morrisons moved to Sarawak in 1947 to allow Alastair to take up a position with the British administration there. Hedda took the opportunity to photograph the Iban (Sea Dyak) and people of other racial groups in their changing worlds. Sarawak also became the base for extensive travels throughout Asia and the Pacific. Those travels included visits to Australia. One visit took them on a five month journey right around the continent in a kombi van. One outcome was the book Sarawak (Federal publications, 1957) containing a remarkable collection of images taken with Rollei cameras on Kodak materials.

In 1988 a friend of Hedda who had learned of my involvement in photography told me about her. Terry Colhoun explained that the Morrisons had lived in Canberra since coming to Australia permanently in 1967. He asked whether I would look at some prints because he felt sure they belonged in the national gallery of Australia or another appropriate collection. I gladly agreed to the request and took Canberra Photographic Society members Jim Mason and Keith Bogg with me. We were overwhelmed by what we saw. To sit in Hedda’s home and look through a sample of her prints was to go on a wonderful journey of exploration. Image after images of almost every country in the Asia-Pacific region was there for enjoyment.

Hedda was able to identify from memory the location of every picture. Not that she needed to – her entire collection of more than 60,000 black and white negatives was intact and comprehensively catalogued. We learned that there had been only a small number of public exhibitions of any of the work and they had been nearly twenty years previously – two at the Menzies Library in Canberra; one in Sydney. Something had to be done.

During her twenty four years as a resident of Canberra, Hedda had the opportunity to take photographs at numerous National Press Club luncheons. This gave her an opportunity to capture various well known people on film. The Club, sadly, was not able to locate any of those images for me when approached while researching this article.

There were more travels overseas as well, including return visits to a very much changed China in 1979 and 1982. But Hedda’s real pleasure came from exploration of the Australian bush. In a four wheel drive vehicle, Hedda and Alastair travelled to many places in Australia. They bush walked and bird watched, and Hedda sensitively recorded our natural landscapes. By the time I met her, Hedda had slowed somewhat physically and was no longer venturing so far on foot. But she as still looking at landscapes, appreciating them and making new images.

In March 1989 Hedda shared some of her images with members of the Canberra photographic Society and other interested people from Canberra’s photographic community. As always she described herself modestly, but she nevertheless related some lovely anecdotes. She told how in the tropics’ high temperatures developing of film was done at 3 AM – the coolest part of the day. Film and print washing had to wait until hours later when the heavens released their regular afternoon downpours. She told how she created artificial light by igniting magnesium powder, puffed over burning Meta fuel by the bulb from an old style car horn – until obtaining her first flash until in 1949, long after leaving China.

Society members were convinced of the need to act. In March 1990, with modest financial assistance from Canberra’s then Pro Foto business, a retrospective exhibition of fifty years’ work was held in the Canberra Theatre Centre’s then Link Gallery, covering all areas visited during Hedda’s continuing journey. It was not easy to select the images to include. Some old prints were displayed but, at the age of 81, Hedda made many new prints on her now favoured Ilford materials.

The ACT Government’s then Minister responsible for the arts (later Senator) Gary Humphries opened the exhibition and became aware of Hedda and her life’s work. Numerous representatives of the photographic industry, as well as relevant government and visual arts organisations, were invited to attend in the hope that the importance of the collection would be recognised. Few came. One who did was Brian Keil, who started and operated Pro Foto. This was the flyer for the exhibition and (below) the image on the flyer:



Below are are just three of the other images displayed in the exhibition, plus two captioned images I took at the opening:




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Hedda Morrison speaking with Gary Humphries (centre) and a guest at the exhibition opening

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Hedda Morrison speaking at the exhibition opening – CPS President Murray Foote (left) and Gary Humphries listening

The exhibition “Travels of an Extraordinary Photographer” was reviewed in The Canberra Times by Garry Raffaele who described her as an “extraordinary photographer” and wrote “her artifice-less pictures are shot through with rich undertones and rich social veins” and “She selects with a cutting eye and with great sensitivity”. Attempts to obtain sponsorship from the industry, so the show would travel around Australia, were not successful.

Arrangements were made for Helen Ennis, then Curator of Photography at the National Gallery of Australia, to view Hedda’s prints. She was keen to acquire some of them for the Gallery’s collection. We recognised that the entire collection of negatives would, ideally, remain intact as the photographs were an extraordinary historical resource which needed to be preserved. At the time a Japanese institution wanted them, but there was a chance they would remain in Australia.

Subsequently, all the prints were given to two Australian institutions: the National Gallery of Australia and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney. Helen Ennis was pleased with that arrangement. Hedda’s negatives, however, were to leave Australia. Alastair Morrison made the judgement that the negatives were of greater historical interest, rather than of specific photographic interest. Many institutions do not take negatives, being only interested in prints actually made by the authors. Alastair sought to ensure the negatives went to an institution that had the facilities to properly care for them.

In the few years that I knew Hedda Morrison I shared a number of wonderful times with her. Of course, Canberra Photographic Society had to invite her and Alastair to join in when it entertained two senior visiting Chinese photographers. We had two Chinese banquets with them – the best was the one when the Morrisons chose the dishes. When those two visitors saw some of her images at Hedda’s home in 1991, they were astounded and fund it difficult to accept that she had had access to such places as the private sections of the Forbidden City grounds. The Society was honoured to extend Honorary Life Membership to Hedda in 1990. It was a sad coincidence that she died on the day of the society’s 1991 awards presentation night.

In his obituary headlined “Photographic chronicler of pre-communist China”, The Canberra Times journalist Jack Waterford said “Hedda, a perky sparrow with a wonderful dry with and a touch of wickedness, practised her art to the last, and her passing is a great loss of a link to the past”. Anthropologist Professor Freeman brought a book of Hedda’s images to her funeral for all to enjoy. Many did and remembered her over a lunch which followed. We shared with Aaistair and each other what a privilege it had been to know this lady and see her unique images, which will be an enduring reminder of an extraordinary traveller and an inspiration to many. Her journey was over.

A new book “Hedda Morrison’s Hong Kong, Photographs and Impressions 1946-47” was published in September 2005 and initially launched in Hong Kong, where it aroused great interest amongst both older and younger people. The Australian launch of the book was held at the National Library of Australia on Thursday 24 November 2005. Then Canberra Photographic Society President Jim Mason and his wife Loralee attended the launch. So too did members Marion and Rob Milliken, and myself. There was a story about the book and the launch in The Canberra Times Panorama lift-out of Saturday 26 November. In brief, the book (by Australian photographer and writer Edward Stokes) was launched by Dr John Yu AM, President of the Australia-China Council (and previously Australian of the Year). Alastair Morrison also spoke, as did Edward Stokes and Linda Groom from the National Library. Numerous copies of the book were purchased, and signed by the author and Alastair Morrison. All the Canberra Photographic Society members present were amongst the purchasers

The new book by Edward Stokes was a welcome addition to the available material relating to Hedda’s photography. The negatives of the images in the book are now housed at the Harvard University and had been unseen since filed away by Hedda. Interestingly, Edward Stokes had been unaware of the retrospective exhibition that Canberra Photographic Society had organised in 1990 until we told him about it at his book launch.

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Edward Stokes (left) and Alastair Morrison at the book launch

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L. to R.: Brian Rope, Jim Mason, Marion Milliken, Alastair Morrison, Rob Milliken

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Edward Stokes signs a copy of the book

After Hedda’s death in December 1991, Alastair donated a number of Hedda’s items of photographic equipment to Canberra Photographic Society. The proceeds from the sale of those items were used to establish the annual Hedda Morrison Print Portfolio competition, now an important fixture on the Society’s calendar.

In 1993 the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney conducted a four month’s long exhibition of Hedda’s images and related materials, entitled “In Her View – the photographs of Hedda Morrison in China and Sarawak 1933-67. A number of Canberra Photographic Society members attended the opening by Mrs Kathryn Greiner. The invitation to the launch noted that Hedda Morrison had been described as “one of the finest photographers to work in Asia” and that her “extraordinary careers spanned three continents and more than half a century of social and political change”.


Invitation to Power House exhibition launch

Interested readers can view further material about Hedda at http://www.powerhousemuseum.com and http://hcl.harvard.edu/libraries/harvard-yenching/collections/morrison/. There is also some material on the National Library of Australia Website (http://www.nla.gov.au). That library also houses numerous prints of Hedda’s Australian landscape images.

– Brian Rope


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