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Baker, Euphemia Eleanor (Effie) (1880–1968)

by Graham Hassall

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Effie Baker, in the chador that she wore while photographing in Iran in 1830

Effie Baker, in the chador that she wore while photographing in Iran in 1830

Euphemia Eleanor (Effie) Baker (1880-1968), photographer and Bahá'í, was born on 25 March 1880 at Goldsborough, Victoria, eldest of eleven children of Victorian-born parents John Baker, miner, and his wife Margaret, née Smith. In 1886 Effie was sent to live with her grandparents at Ballarat. Her grandfather Henry Evans Baker (d.1890) imbued in her a lifelong fascination with scientific instruments, an aptitude for creativity and a sense of inquiry. Having attended Mount Pleasant State School and Grenville College, she studied at Ballarat East School of Art and received a grounding in colour and composition from P. M. Carew-Smyth at the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery's school.

With a quarter-plate camera in Perth in 1898 and in the Ballarat district next year, Effie took photographs which she developed, printed and presented in albums to her parents. She moved to Black Rock, Melbourne, in 1900 to live with her great aunt Euphemia, a headmistress whose independence and professional success impressed her. In 1914 Effie published a booklet of seven of her hand-coloured photographs, Australian Wild Flowers, which was reprinted in 1917, 1921 and 1922. In addition, she sold intricate wooden 'Australian toys', made doll's houses for charities and depicted Australian wildflowers in water-colour.

While living at Beaumaris, in 1922 Effie and her friend Ruby Beaver attended 'New Thought' meetings at the centre established in Melbourne by Julia Seton Seers, a Californian medical practitioner. There they heard Hyde Dunn who was touring Australia with his wife Clara to promote the Bahá'í faith that had originated in Persia in the nineteenth century. He emphasized the need for world unity based on racial equality and inter-religious understanding, and advocated equality of the sexes. Effie was captivated and that year became a Bahá'í.

In 1923 she visited Tasmania and Western Australia with the Dunns; next year she went to New Zealand with Martha Root, an internationally-known Bahá'í teacher and Esperantist. Effie was to join four New Zealanders on a pilgrimage to the Bahá'í holy shrines at Haifa, Palestine. She hoped that the sea voyage would cure the lead poisoning she was suffering (caused by many years of licking her paint-brushes). They left Adelaide in January 1925. After the pilgrimage and several weeks in England, Effie accepted the invitation of Shoghi Effendi, guardian of the Bahá'í faith, to remain at Haifa as hostess of a new pilgrim hostel for Western Bahá'ís. She had made firm friends with the women in his family, welcomed the opportunity for practical service to her faith and grasped the opportunity to meet some fascinating people.

Shoghi Effendi appreciated Effie's talents. Early volumes of the Bahá'í yearbook included her photographs of the Bahá'í monument gardens on Mount Carmel. She also made models of landscapes to assist him in planning new sections of the gardens. Her most difficult assignment came late in 1930 when he commissioned her to make a record of locations associated with the origins of the Babí and Bahá'í religions. Speed was essential because towns and buildings were being razed in the Persian government's modernization programme. Moreover, Shoghi Effendi wanted photographs to accompany his translation of The Dawn-Breakers (New York, 1932), Nabil Zarandi's epic account of the religions' origins.

At a time when European women expected little protection in the region, Effie travelled by train and car through Iraq to Persia where her brief experience of the 'luxury' of Tehran hotels contrasted with her journeys by mules across rugged terrain on freezing nights. Often dressed in a black chador, for eight months in 1930-31 she moved between locations, keeping well hidden her No.1A Kodak and her half-plate clamp camera with triple extension. The lack of photographic supplies and the need to check her work before leaving each place tested her abilities to the full. Without a darkroom or running water, she developed film at night to ensure that she had at least one satisfactory print from the photographs taken at each site. She brought back to Haifa more than a thousand good prints; some 400 have been published.

Returning home to Goldsborough in February 1936, she lived with her elderly mother and from 1945 with her sister Esther, a nurse. In 1963 Effie moved to a small flat at the Bahá'í national headquarters at Paddington, Sydney, again acted as hostess and took care of the archives. Although she shared prints of her photographs and art-works with her friends, she shied from publicity: her achievements were little known beyond her own circle. Cheerful, with ready humour, Effie was fond of children and gave them undeserved gifts and tales of adventure. She died on 2 January 1968 at Waverley and was buried with Bahá'í forms in Mona Vale cemetery. In 1981-82 her work was included in a national exhibition, Australian Women Photographers 1890-1950.

Select Bibliography

  • Bahá'í Assembly, To Follow a Dreamtime (Syd, 1970)
  • B. Hall and J. Mather, Australian Women Photographers 1840-1960 (Melb, 1986)
  • Herald of the South, 7, Apr 1986.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Graham Hassall, 'Baker, Euphemia Eleanor (Effie) (1880–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/baker-euphemia-eleanor-effie-9408/text16537, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 17 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

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