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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Mitchell, Ernest Lund (1876–1959)

by Joanna Sassoon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Ernest Lund Mitchell (1876-1959), photographer and farmer, was born on 9 August 1876 at Horton, Yorkshire, England, second child of Oliver Mitchell, wool and waste dealer, and his wife Eliza, née Lund. Ernest came to Melbourne with his parents and sisters in October 1884 because of his father's asthma. The family later went to Sydney before returning to Yorkshire about 1891, where Ernest was apprenticed to his uncle Percy Lund, owner of a printing firm at Bradford. Mitchell migrated to Sydney with friends in the Frederich Der Große, arriving on 31 December 1899, by which time he owned good cameras and was a skilled photographer.

Travelling around rural New South Wales, Mitchell sold rubber and worked as a photographer while concurrently following his interests in prospecting. About this time he married Helena 'Lena' Louise; they were to have no children. In 1906-07 Ernest was a partner in Emu Studio at Lismore then went to North Queensland where he met Ion Idriess. By 1909 he had moved to Western Australia and in the next two years photographed the State extensively. In 1911 he undertook his only international expedition—to Java. He established a studio at 364 Murray Street, Perth, about 1913.

Mitchell's photographs dominated the Western Australian commercial and official markets from 1909 until the late 1920s. He undertook private commissions and was engaged by commercial clients, such as the Western Mail, and several State government departments. After winning a gold medal at the Samarang Exhibition, Java, in 1914, he was appointed official photographer to the governor of Western Australia. Mitchell's images of landscapes, towns, primary industry and Aboriginal people in the Kimberley and the Pilbara and at the Moore River Mission were widely reproduced in government publications. His pictures received an international audience as part of the official pearling display at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924, and one was published in the 1929 edition of The Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Through reproduction in official Immigration and General Information Department publications, Mitchell's work helped to shape international perceptions of Australia and Western Australia. By 1914 his photographs were incorporated into collections of the Western Australian government printer and the London offices of the agent-general and the Australian High Commission, and were widely distributed through picture agencies. They were used in geography and history texts, adventure narratives, pictorial atlases and encyclopaedias, official advertisements to migrants in England, lantern slide shows and picture postcards. His pictures of Aboriginal people also featured in adventure stories, including books by Idriess. Always a son of the British Empire, Mitchell remembered his photograph of the train derailment during the 1920 visit of the Prince of Wales as one of the high points of his career.

Mitchell was a tall, fine-figured man, with a moustache. A Freemason, in 1900 he had joined Lodge Cambrian No.10 in Sydney, and in 1918 Swan Lodge in Perth. He was a member of the Perth-based Commercial Travellers' Club, and used political and pastoral connections to further his photographic career and agricultural interests. In 1926, in partnership with a shearing contractor, Robert Strachan, he purchased land at Carnamah. Within a year, Strachan and Strachan's wife were dead and Mitchell was left with unanticipated debt at the beginning of the Depression. As his photographic trade was in decline, he closed his studio in 1931 and moved with his wife to the farm, where he remained until 1946. Having little knowledge of agriculture, he relied on an Italian migrant Phillip Di Masi and his family to manage the property. Snapshots of this period painted a picture of poverty, contrasting with his previous commercial photographs used to advertise the State.

Mitchell returned to Perth in 1946 and lived at Claremont. He regularly corresponded with family members in England, whom he never met, but did not succeed in returning to Britain as he wished. Survived by his wife, he died on 3 January 1959 in hospital at Claremont and was cremated with Anglican rites. The State Library of Western Australia holds some of his glass negatives, and his prints are widely distributed in private and public collections; some are also held in the Royal Geographical Society in London and archives of picture agencies in England.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Sassoon, An Archaeology of Memory. A Biography of Photographs Taken by E. L. Mitchell 1908-1930 (Ph.D. thesis, University of Western Australia, 2001)
  • E. L. Mitchell papers (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Mitchell family papers (AJCP, M2760).

Citation details

Joanna Sassoon, 'Mitchell, Ernest Lund (1876–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mitchell-ernest-lund-13101/text23619, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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