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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Morrison, Hedwig Marie (Hedda) (1908–1991)

by Claire Roberts

This article was published online in 2016

Hedda Morrison, by Anne Morris, 1986

Hedda Morrison, by Anne Morris, 1986

National Library of Australia, 24441399

Hedwig Marie Morrison (1908–1991), photographer, was born on 13 December 1908 at Stuttgart, Germany, elder of two children of Richard Hammer, merchant, and his wife Hannchen, née Grosser. At the age of three Hedda contracted polio. Despite a surgical procedure as a teenager, she walked with a limp for the rest of her life. She acquired her first camera when she was eleven and became a keen photographer. After completing her secondary education at Queen Katherine Convent, she was sent by her parents to the University of Innsbruck, Austria, to study medicine. Having no interest in becoming a medical practitioner, she persuaded them to allow her to study (1929–31) at the Bavarian State Institute for Photography, Munich, Germany,  where she completed a certificate course. Hammer gained experience in the commercial studios of Adolf Lazi at Stuttgart, and the Olga Linckelmann Photographische Werkstatte, Hamburg.

Influenced by a horoscope for the coming year that indicated she would undertake a voyage to a distant land, and alarmed by the rise of Nazism, she secured a job as manager of the German-run Hartung’s Photo Shop in Peking (Beijing), China, after answering an advertisement in a German photographic journal. She worked in the shop for five years, learning Mandarin in the process. After 1938 she remained in the then Japanese-occupied city as a freelance photographer. Being a German citizen she occupied a privileged position, at least until World War II spread to the Pacific late in 1941. Her sensitively observed and beautifully composed photographs of cultural sites and the daily life of Chinese people, taken between 1933 and 1946, featured in a series of books, beginning with Alfred Hoffman’s Nanking (1945) and her own Hua Shan (1974). A Photographer in Old Peking (published in 1985 but based on her manuscript written in 1946) and Travels of a Photographer in China 1933-46 (1987) followed.

In 1940 Hammer had met Alastair Robin Gwyn Morrison, an ornithologist and son of the notable G. E. ‘Chinese’ Morrison. The couple married on 5 July 1946 in a Church of England ceremony at the British consulate, Peking. In 1947 Alastair entered the British colonial service and was appointed a district officer in Sarawak where they lived for the next twenty years. Hedda accompanied her husband on his official journeys and made numerous independent photographic tours. She published Sarawak (1957), Life in a Longhouse (1962), and later—with Leigh Wright and K. F. Wong—Vanishing World: The Ibans of Borneo (1972). Her work was included in The Family of Man exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, New York (1955). Between 1960 and 1966 she worked part time in the Sarawak government’s information office, taking photographs, training photographers, and establishing a photographic library. The Sarawak government recognised her services to the country by appointing her an Officer of the Order of the Star of Sarawak (1965).

In 1961 the Morrisons had driven around Australia in anticipation of where they would eventually live. Six years later they settled in Canberra where they enjoyed the city’s intellectual life and surrounding landscape. At weekends they ‘went bush’ where Alastair bird-watched. Hedda took photographs for the Australian Information Service and at numerous National Press Club luncheons. In 1990 she was made a life member of the Canberra Photographic Society. She was a quiet but determined and alert observer. ‘A perky sparrow with a wonderful dry wit and a touch of wickedness’ (Waterford 1991, 7), she died in Canberra on 3 December 1991, survived by her husband, and was cremated. They had no children. Her archive of negatives and photographs, widely recognised for its rich artistic and documentary value, was bequeathed to institutions in Australia and the United States of America: Harvard-Yenching Library, Harvard University; Cornell University; and the National Library of Australia. Smaller collections were gifted to the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, and the National Gallery of Australia.

Research edited by Brian Wimborne

Select Bibliography

  • Lum, Raymond. ‘Hedda Morrison and Her Photographs of China.’ In Treasures of the Yenching: Seventy-Fifth Anniversary of the Harvard-Yenching Library. Exhibition Catalogue, edited by Patrick Hanan, 297–300. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2003
  • Roberts, Claire, ed. In Her View: The Photographs of Hedda Morrison in China and Sarawak 1933–67. Sydney: Powerhouse Publishing, 1993
  • Roberts, Claire. ‘China Bound: Hedda Hammer.’ Harvard Library Bulletin 23, no. 3 (2012): 50–51
  • Waterford, Jack. ‘Photographic Chronicler of Pre-Communist China.’ Canberra Times, 5 December 1991, 7

Additional Resources

Citation details

Claire Roberts, 'Morrison, Hedwig Marie (Hedda) (1908–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2016, accessed online 30 September 2020.

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