George Bell

1862-1925    |    NSW    |    Photographer 

In 1898 George Bell became the first staff photographer employed by an Australian news publication The Sydney Mail. He worked for 27 years for Fairfax until his death in 1925 and blazed the trail for photo-journalism. Bell’s empathetic and affectionate pictures of life in the Australian bush brought to life the work of our most celebrated poets and helped define outback mythology for generations of town dwellers. While some of his pictures may now seem a little sentimental his work remains an invaluable glimpse into the past.  

George Bell was a genuine pioneer who helped create a profession. He forged a path the rest of us have followed. You can draw a direct line from his work to the traditions and work of today’s photojournalists.

Mike Bowers, Guardian Australia photographer-at-large 


George Bell


George Bell was born in Hamilton, Scotland, in 1862. The son of a farmer, Bell had a life-long thirst for adventure. As a young boy he joined a ship sailing to the Baltic and after several more voyages including to South America, he arrived in Australia in 1885. 

Bell worked initially as a surveyor in the Riverina in South-Western NSW, where he developed an attachment for the Australian bush. His affection for rural Australia lasted his entire career and came to life in his images. 

One of his first professional ventures with the camera came in 1890 when he was commissioned as photographer on the Victory expedition to New Guinea, sponsored by the New South Wales Government and the Burns Philp company.

Upon his return Bell joined Kerry and Company photographic studio where he learnt to work with the cumbersome and complicated equipment of the time.

Full plate cameras of that era used glass negatives that required great care during transportation. Bell travelled the country on horseback looking for “scenes” to be printed on postcards. It was tough and isolated work which could only be sustained by a love of the bush and its inhabitants.

According to a 1908 article in the Australian Photographic Journal, Bell did not see a town for more than two years during one assignment. Asked if he ever tired of the travel and isolation the famously reticent Bell said: ”Why should I? Its’ my particular species of toil”

There were compensations. One obituary said there was barely a town or farm house in New South Wales where Bell was not known or welcome.

At its height Kerry and Company had 50,000 postcards for sale and many pre-federation parlours in Australia had a book of such “scenes”

Geoffrey Barker, former Curator at the Powerhouse Museum, says the work Bell produced over the following ten years, stands amongst the best of this period, including many of his most memorable images. Among the best known are 'Pioneers', 'On the Road to Dorrigo', 'The Farmer’s Daughter', 'Rounding Up', and perhaps the most iconic, 'The Waterbag' or 'Halt for Refreshment'.

“Bell's pictures transcended hackneyed journalistic records of people and places, and his best photos, contain a lyrical quality, at odds with the demands of journalistic realism,” Barker said.

“His main strength was his ability gain the confidence of his subjects and click the shutter at just the right moment to slice a moment out of time, and successfully capture a story”

The low-tech cameras of the era meant many action scenes of typical daily life on farms and in towns had to be carefully set up and timed, sometimes giving the images a “staged” look.

It was a handicap The Guardian’s photographer at large, Mike Bowers, says underlines Bell’s genius.

In his definitive work on Bell to mark the 100 years of Sydney Morning Herald photography Bowers wrote: “Some of his subjects look mannequin-like but this was borne out of the slow emulsion speeds , cumbersome cameras and shutter speeds of the late nineteenth century.

“Subjects had to stay very still for long periods which is why they were often propped against walls, carts or trees.

“And although many of his photographs seem by today’s standards to be clichéd, they are beautifully composed and are an invaluable resource and a glimpse at a long-forgotten era in the Australian bush.

“The notion of the Australian swagman and a nation riding on the sheep’s back lived in poetry and writing, Bells worked cemented the imagery.”

In 1898 Bell started work for the Sydney Mail and Sydney Morning Herald as its first photographer.

At the time wood carvings used in newspapers were based on photographs and it is considered almost certain that Bell’s work had been used well before he joined the staff.

Over the following 27 years Bell pioneered the insoluble marriage of camera and press, and according to the Australian Photographic Journal of 1908, paved the way for a new respect for the role of the photographer.

The journal declared : “Time was when the reporter was the magic connecting link with the outer world….the press camera man was jocularly dubbed the ‘inevitable’ photographer: now he is respectfully called the ‘essential’ photographer—from a Government House function to a prize fight.

“All this had to be fought for. The persistent and important work of the camera forced its necessity on the community, and now a crowd at a community function looks upon the press camera man with kindly tolerance.”

Bell was also a pioneer of aerial photography in Australia, taking to the skies above Sydney for a short circuit in a flimsy Bristol biplane on 8th May 1911, somehow managing to change glass plates in an open cockpit. 

Interviewed in the Herald the following day Bell said: “There is not much to hang on to around the seat, and although there are plenty of wires about they must not be touched. Anyway, my hands were busy with the camera. 

“We were simply flying through a gale, the wind roared in my ears the whole time and my eyes began to water with the cold blast.” 

That was one of Bell’s very rare recorded interviews. The 1908 APJ article described him as adroitly evasive.. “like the intangible shadow we are cautioned not to grasp at.” 

Bowers says: “George Bell was a genuine pioneer who helped create a profession. He forged a path the rest of us have followed. You can draw a direct line from his work to the traditions and work of today’s photojournalists.”

David Broadbent is a former Canberra Press Gallery correspondent and covered Victorian politics for the Nine and Seven networks.