Ikon Studio Archive
Scope & significance
The Ikon Studio archive of candid street photography is a documentation of everyday life on one busy Sydney city street recorded over several days in 1950. The collection comprises nearly 5000 images, frames from 127 rolls of 35mm black & white negative film, providing a capture of the pedestrians who passed the photographer’s lens in Martin Place sometime between autumn and summer 1950. Standing on the gently sloping footpath of Martin Place the street photographer focussed on people but also caught the backdrop of building facades and city traffic - buses, trams, cars and trucks. In image after image the Ikon Studio subjects are captured in splendid stop-motion clarity framed by the streets and city architecture.
Over the course of each day, changes in light and the ebb and flow of pedestrian traffic are recorded through the sequence of films, capturing individuals, couples, friends and family groups. Although the identities of the people in the photos are unknown, the images are brimming with of information about them, each image a direct record of how the subjects dressed and carried themselves. And, less directly, each image is also a record of their awareness of the street photographer and the camera. Some avoid the camera’s ‘eye’, others engage. The sequence of images on each roll shows that in many cases the subject or subjects posed for one or more additional portraits. Some people can be seen in three, four or five consecutive photographs. We cannot know how many passers-by the photographer missed or chose not to catch, but the ‘targets’ or ‘marks’ who were photographed must have been those thought most likely to purchase a print. We don’t know which of the negatives were printed for client orders.
Street photographers were a familiar aspect of city life from the 1930s to the 1950s. Born out of a need for employment in the depression, these mobile photographers also met a public need for inexpensive photographic ‘portraits’ and, during World War II, became organised into profitable businesses. Their commercial success was enabled by new, cheaper photographic technology that was portable, could ‘freeze’ motion and take multiple exposures in rapid succession without having to regularly reload films. These easy to use handheld compact cameras meant that anyone with the equipment and film could be an operator. They snapped pedestrians as they passed, then quickly handed out cards with details of where to order prints. The exposed films were developed, proofed and could be viewed at inner-city kiosks within 24 to 48 hours of the portrait being taken.1 One measure of the popularity of these candid photographs, drawn from the City of Sydney archives, was the Town Clerk’s Minute that Sydney clients had ordered an estimated 830,000 black-and-white postcard-sized prints in a single year.2
Selection of street photographer cards. City of Sydney Archives: A-00121418, A-00121920, A-00110938.
Each time I have acquired a fair collection of street-photographers' little pink and yellow cards, I take a day off and do the rounds of the arcade photographers' booths, gazing at inch-square proofs and eagerly ordering a couple of copies of each. 3
Local government came under pressure to regulate the emerging profession and in 1949, after almost a decade of debate, the Sydney City Council introduced licensing for 50 street photography locations in the Sydney city area.4 The number of licensed street photography sites was reduced in the late 1950s,5 perhaps reflecting an increase in personal camera ownership. The last licensed street photography position in Sydney was cancelled in 1971.6
The Ikon Studio archive provides a unique insight into the practice of street photography. Every single frame shot by the photographer, in order of exposure as the day unfolded, is embedded in one of 127 continuous rolls of surviving negative film. These frames give immediate evidence of the photographers ‘street view’ experience and also reveal the subjects varying responses to being photographed. Additionally, the entire suite of photographs is an account of city foot traffic passing a constant viewpoint from a single licensed street photography location. This is unlike collections of printed street photographs. These collections usually relate to an individual or family, including prints taken at different locations, at different times, by different photographers. Every frame exposed by the Ikon Studio photographer can be viewed, not just those images selected for printing by a client at the time. This distinction enables the viewer to see beyond the individual candid memento and to reflect on the business of street photography itself.
The Ikon Studio archive photographs were all taken in Martin Place, an important street in the life of the city, a place of banking and commerce, public spectacle, demonstration and celebration, the site of the monumental General Post Office and the Sydney Centotaph. It was pedestrianised in the 1970s but at the time that the Ikon Studio photographs were taken in 1950 Martin Place was one of the city’s most congested streets. One reporter grumbled in 1947 that the hectic crowds made it almost impossible to walk in Martin Place, complaining of ‘seven or eight street photographers who leap like panthers and like nothing better than six people posing hand in hand across the footpath’.7
Although Sydney City Council records from 1941 reveal that Martin Place was initially deemed inappropriate for licensed street photography,8 a number of positions along the street were eventually included in the council’s list of licensed locations. The Ikon photographer stood at the licensed location ‘Martin Place at Elizabeth St, Outside Prudential Building.’9 , located at 39–49 Martin Place, Sydney. The Prudential Insurance Building was constructed in 1939, demolished in 1969 and is the site of Sydney Metro’s Martin Place Station, due to open in 2024.
The Ikon views are either looking up towards Macquarie Street or down towards George Street, giving the photographer working at that location an extended field of view, a much broader frame than that available to photographers working on level ground. The advantage of the site can be seen in the details of surrounding streets, building facades, parked cars, passing trams, streetlights and other markers of city life that provide the backdrop of the candid photographs. The Sydney Hospital domes, GPO building or the Australian Provincial Assurance (APA) building can be seen in many images. The license location used by the Ikon Studio photographer was cancelled by council in mid-1958.10
Ikon Studio was one of a number of commercial street photography firms operating in Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s. The larger studios, like Leicagraph Co, Smiling Snaps or Mac’s Photo Service, are known through dozens of postcard-sized prints surviving in family or public collections. The smaller studios are mostly known through just a handful of prints. Ikon Studio was a small studio with only a single print from the mid-1950s identified to date.
Ikon Studio was registered as a company by photographer George Gilbert Singleton (1897-1987) in August 1946 with the business address given as 103 Reservoir Street, Surry Hills. The studio shot weddings, social events, street photographs and similar candid snaps at parks and on beaches. They had an agency at P10a Her Majesty’s Arcade, Sydney, where clients could view and order photographs and they often advertised in the ‘Photographer General’ section of the Sydney White Pages. The studio operated until at least November 1958.
Singleton is a shadowy figure. Between October 1944 and April 1946, prior to establishing Ikon Studio, he worked as a photographer with William Brown at Lefroy Studio in Piccadilly Arcade off Castlereagh Street. In March 1946 he registered Slade Portraits, for ‘general studio and photography’, at the same Surry Hills address he later used for Ikon Studio. 103 Reservoir Street was also the residential address of Singleton and his photographer wife Daphne Joyce Rodgers (c1917-1982) who married in December 1943. The Singletons, husband and wife, are probably the photographers who created the Ikon Studio archive. Although only one photographer was able to work a licensed location at a time, they may not have been the only photographers who worked from the licensed location outside the Prudential Building on Martin Place.
Provenance & format
When the Ikon Studio archive was acquired for the Caroline Simpson Library & Research Collection from a Sydney dealer in 2018, the uncut, numbered and processed rolls of black & white 35mm photographic negative film were stored in slender cardboard boxes with internal dividers to fit up to 40 tightly rolled films. The rolls have since been removed from their original acidic cardboard storage boxes, digitised as continuous film strips, sleeved and rehoused in archival enclosures.
Each film roll contains between 36 and 40 individual images with a sequential number inscribed on the leader section. Two rolls are also inscribed with the dates 4 May 1950 and 1 November 1950. The roll numbering and dates allow us to sequence the 127 rolls chronologically, indicating they were the product of no more than 10 days – or part days – of photography during that year. Inscription numbers were used by street photographers to manage client sales and link films back to individual photographers or firms. These film numbers would also be important for tracking sales to pay individual photographers, who usually worked on commission. Two different alpha series number sequences – beginning ‘K’ and ‘N’ – on the Ikon rolls might indicate the work of two different photographers.
Very few street photography negatives have survived despite the vast quantities of rolls exposed in Sydney alone. The enormous volume of film processed made it unlikely the negatives were stored for more than a few years, and when firms went out of business remaining negatives were probably discarded. The only rolls of street photography negatives identified in Australian public collections to date are the 127 Ikon Studio archive rolls and a single roll taken by Leicagraph photographer Ted Waight in February 1940 held by the State Library of NSW.
Series/ number sequences
A sequence number is inscribed on each of the 127 rolls of processed 35mm negative film, indicating the order they were shot. There are two number sequences beginning with ‘K’, spanning K490 - K700, and ‘N’, spanning N001 - N187. Rolls at the beginning of both alpha sequences are dated: K490 is inscribed 4 May 1950 and N01 is inscribed 1 November 1950.
1. Street photographer cards. City of Sydney Archives: A-00121418, A-00121920, A-00110938
2. Town Clerk’s Minute, 6 March 1941. City of Sydney Archives: A-00121920
3. Anthea Goddard, ‘Portrait of the writer’, Sunday Sun Supplement, 29 June 1947, page 2
4. Proceedings of Council 1949, page 170-171. City of Sydney Archives: A-00530020
5. Proceedings of Council 1958, p369. City of Sydney Archives A-00530029
6. Town Clerk’s Minute, 22 January 1971. City of Sydney Archives: A-00094136
7. The Sun (Sydney), 26 January 1947, p7
8. Town Clerk’s Minute, 6 March 1941. City of Sydney Archives: A-00121920
9. List of ‘appropriate location of street photographers’, 3 December 1940. City of Sydney Archives: A-00121920
10. Letter from Town Clerk to Professional Photographers Association, 21 July 1958. City of Sydney Archives: A-00114887