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Caire, Nicholas John (1837–1918)

by Jack Cato

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

Nicholas John Caire (1837-1918), photographer, was born on 28 February 1837 in Guernsey, Channel Islands, son of Nicholas Caire, auditor, and his wife Hannah Margaret, née Cochrane. He arrived in Adelaide with his parents about 1860. As a boy he had developed a passion for photography which his parents did not attempt to discourage by compelling him to train for any other occupation. He received help and instruction from Townsend Duryea and was soon making competent pictures of his friends. By 1865 he was travelling through Gippsland, taking wet plate pictures of Aboriginals at Lake Tyers and landscapes of the Strzelecki Ranges. Two years later he opened a studio in Adelaide. In 1870 he married Louisa Master and moved to Talbot, near Clunes, Victoria. There he practised his photography until 1876 when he bought T. F. Chuck's studio in the Royal Arcade, Collins Street, Melbourne. His skill in the new technique of the vignette won him custom when more conventional photographers still printed family portraits at full length.

In 1885 the development of the dry plate method revolutionized the scope of the landscape photographer. Caire gave up his city work, made his home and studio in South Yarra and devoted the rest of his life to outdoor photography, specializing in the bush, the gullies and the mountains of south-eastern Victoria. Full of vitality and enthusiasm, he wrote articles for Life and Health extolling the virtues of the pure mountain air; he gave lantern lectures urging people to share his delight in the bush and wrote to newspapers on the same theme. When X-ray photography came to Australia he gave his services one day a week free to the Melbourne General Hospital.

He did much to publicize the mountain and forest areas he loved. He wrote a booklet on the natural beauty of Healesville, Blacks Spur, Narbethong and Marysville. His landscape photographs entertained travellers for many years in Victorian railway carriages. In 1888 when the newly-formed Alpine Club decided to open Mount Buffalo, then known only to cattlemen, Caire spent several weeks camping on the plateau in company with two guides.

His photographs were later used in a publicity campaign to arouse interest in the snowfields and raise funds for the building of a road there. When asked by one of his daughters whether he saw many snakes on the plateau Caire, who had hauled his large box camera by ropes to dizzy ledges to capture the best views, replied, 'No, no snakes, but I saw glory!'

His pictures show a sensitive and artistic approach to photography and a deep appreciation of the bush. He insisted on perfect conditions and so usually took only one or two pictures a day, but because of their outstanding quality he could charge high fees and sell them in large numbers, enabling him to keep himself and his family in some comfort. He was fluent and widely read in both French and English, and very fond of the Australian poets; many of the titles of his pictures come from Adam Lindsay Gordon, Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson. One of his best known series, the first of its kind, illustrated the rewards and hardships in the daily life of the first settlers; many of his pictures show their huts in romantic settings of tree ferns and giant eucalypts. He photographed isolated men struggling to establish themselves before women came to Gippsland in such studies as 'The Sick Stockrider', 'Down on his Luck', 'Sunday at the Splitter's Camp', and 'The Ranger's Cabin', all taken on his lone explorations with camera. He left many albums of prints collected under subjects such as waterfalls, rivers, fern gullies and sea caves along the Victorian coast. A few of his negatives have been kept but most of his glass plates were cleaned off during the shortages of World War I when Caire needed the glass for framing his pictures, a major part of his business. He died at Armadale, Victoria, on 13 February 1918, survived by his wife, two sons and four daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Cato, The Story of the Camera in Australia (Melb, 1955)
  • Bulletin, 21 Feb 1918.

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Citation details

Jack Cato, 'Caire, Nicholas John (1837–1918)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/caire-nicholas-john-3139/text3683, published first in hardcopy 1969, accessed online 21 June 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 3, (MUP), 1969

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