Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Eric Keast Burke (1896–1974)

by Kimberley Webber

This article was published:

Eric Keast Burke (1896-1974), photographer and journalist, was born on 16 January 1896 at Christchurch, New Zealand, only child of Walter Ernest Burke, clerk, and his wife Amy Eliza Mary, née Thompson, both New Zealanders. The family moved to Sydney in March 1904. Keast was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School (Shore) and enrolled at the University of Sydney (B.Ec., 1922). After a year in the Signal Corps, Australian Military Forces, on 19 February 1917 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Embarking for the Middle East in December, he served as a sapper with the Anzac Wireless Squadron, Mesopotamian Expeditionary Force. The unit operated at Baghdad, and in the field in Persia and on the Kurdistan frontier until November 1919. Burke gained an abiding interest in architecture and archeology. He enjoyed the 'grand fellowship' of army life and was to edit the unit history, 'the memory book of our great adventure', With Horse and Morse in Mesopotamia (1927).

Returning to Sydney, Burke was discharged on 28 January 1920. He became associate-editor under his father of the Australasian Photo-Review, published by Kodak (Australasia) Ltd. At the Shore chapel on 23 November 1925 he married Iris Lily Daniell. In 1932 he published Achievement, a photographic study of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, 'our challenge to Cheops'. Burke exhibited his work in Australia, Europe, London and the United States of America, and was elected an associate of the Royal Photographic Society of Great Britain in 1938 for a portfolio of male figure studies. That year he was appointed Australian chairman of Kodak International salons of photography. During World War II he served as a captain in the Volunteer Defence Corps, worked in intelligence and acted as a 'nightspotter'. He edited APR from 1946 until the journal folded in 1956 and was subsequently employed as Kodak's advertising manager.

Recognizing the significance of photography to Australian history, in 1943 Burke had published a series of articles on early photographers, among them William Jevons, John Lindt and Charles Kerry. Iris became his valued research assistant. In 1953 he found Otto Holtermann's collection of Beaufoy Merlin's and Charles Bayliss's glass plates, 'neatly stored in fitted cedar boxes' in 'a small suburban backyard shed', a discovery he emotionally compared with that of Tutenkhamon's tomb. The negatives disclosed 'every detail of the lives of our gold-fields pioneers'; Burke reprinted a selection in APR that year and later published an expanded study, Gold and Silver (1973). He lectured on the collection, prepared exhibitions and presented a television series, 'Peeps into the Past with Keast Burke', for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. As consultant in photography to the National Library of Australia, Canberra, he ensured the preservation of historic photographs.

Following his retirement in 1960, Burke was editor and art director of Australian Popular Photography in 1961-69, a contributor to the Australian Dictionary of Biography and a frequent judge of photographic competitions. He was a man of enormous enthusiasms, with interests as diverse as bushwalking, native flora and fauna, genetics, maps and map-making, amateur radio, architecture and engineering. A member of the Book Collectors' Society of Australia, in 1963 he founded the short-lived Australian Documentary Facsimile Society. Survived by his wife, daughter and three sons, he died on 31 March 1974 in Concord Repatriation General Hospital and was cremated. Collections of his work are held in major Australian galleries and libraries.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Photographer, May 1974, p 20
  • Australian Author, July 1974
  • Biblionews, Mar 1984, p 4
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 3 Apr 1974
  • Keast Burke papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Additional Resources

Citation details

Kimberley Webber, 'Burke, Eric Keast (1896–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (Melbourne University Press), 1993

View the front pages for Volume 13

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Eric Keast Burke, n.d.

Eric Keast Burke, n.d.

Australian War Memorial, J02028 [detail]

Life Summary [details]


16 January, 1896
Christchurch, New Zealand


31 March, 1974 (aged 78)
Concord, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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