I admit it took a while for the penny to drop. Most daguerreotypes we see are reversed because the lens forms an image directly on the metal plate. This wasn’t such a problem for portraits, but it became an issue with views, where potential purchasers would immediately see that the buildings were the wrong way round. After admiring it for years (it’s in the Tasmanian Museum and Gallery, and has featured in virtually every history of Australian photography) I finally twigged that Australia’s oldest extant outdoor photograph, an 1848 daguerreotype taken by J W Newland down Murray Street towards the docks of Hobart, wasn’t reversed. He must have used a popular daguerreotype camera accessory, a ‘reversing mirror’ that clipped on the front of the lens at a 45 degree angle, so the camera faced at right angles to the view being taken.
My research colleague, Elisa deCourcy, and myself stood on Macquarie Street at the top of Murray Street and scanned the buildings. Bless Hobart, many of its nineteenth century buildings are still there, including the building in which Newland had his ‘Daguerrian Gallery’ – known then, as now, as The Stone Building – and the buildings which feature in his view, which are now part of Treasury. Closing one eye to turn ourselves into human theodolites we discovered the exact second floor window out of which Newland had stuck his full plate camera, compete with its reversing mirror, out over the footpath. The offices which currently occupy his floor were shut up tight, but Elisa was able to talk us into the empty legal chambers on the floor below, and confirm that we had found the site of one of Australia’s most important photographs. It was then that we realised something else, we had returned to take the view again 170 years later, almost to the day.