Photographer Joseph Docker is thought to have taken the earliest surviving calotypes in Australia. With his photographer son, they took many images of the Australian landscape and did much to support the emerging photographic industry in early Australia.
painter, amateur photographer, carver, surgeon, pastoralist and politician, was born in London, second son of Robert Docker, a merchant. Left an orphan at an early age, Docker had to make his own way in the world. He became a surgeon to the East India Company but resigned in 1834 on the grounds of ill health and migrated to New South Wales. There he received a grant of 10,000 acres on the Dartbrook, near Scone in the Hunter Valley, which he named Thornthwaite. He designed the homestead and carved much of its furniture as well as the Docker coat of arms on the stone facade. In 1835, after the death of his first wife Agnes, née Docker, he returned to Britain, marrying Matilda Brougham at Edinburgh in 1839. They returned to New South Wales later in the year accompanied by the son of his first marriage. He and Matilda subsequently had a daughter and six sons, the eldest, Ernest Brougham Docker , becoming a prominent lawyer and photographer.
Probably in the 1840s, Docker painted two oils (Mitchell Library): Ford on the Lower Hunter and View on the Lower Hunter . He also painted watercolours and composed songs. In his reminiscences Ernest wrote that his father had self-cultivated talents in 'Music and Poetry, Carving and Modelling, painting in oil and water colours’. Joseph Docker received a highly commended certificate at the 1870 Sydney Intercolonial Exhibition for his watercolour of Waterfall at Penang, Straits of Malacca , painted, Joseph stated in the catalogue, 'on common brown parcel paper’. Also shown were two watercolours of Australian Scenery (presumably on ordinary paper) and Falls of Taplia near Rio [de] Janeiro (also on brown paper).
Joseph Docker’s greatest interest, however, was photography. He modified his camera obscura for calotype (salted paper print) photography about 1850 and later built a 12 × 10 inch (30.4 × 25.4 cm) camera. Both he and Ernest (from the age of eight) experimented with calotype and ambrotype (collodion positive) photography and Joseph is thought to have taken the earliest surviving calotypes in Australia—scenes of his own home in the Hunter Valley and its environs, such as 'Thornthwaite’ from the Paddock, Scone [with cricket match in progress] (c.1850, private collection, Sydney). A few years after Scott-Archer had introduced collodion photography (in 1851) Docker was experimenting with it, dissolving coins to produce the necessary silver nitrate and gold chloride. In the early 1850s both father and son did a great deal of stereoscopic work with 'the old quarter plate camera, mounted on a Latimer-Clarke stand’, although Ernest recollected that even in a good light it was difficult to set living figures, foliage or shadows motionless for two minutes – an exposure time which may have been somewhat exaggerated in retrospect.
The family lived mainly in Sydney after Joseph Docker became a Member of Parliament (MLC 1851 to 1884), but they travelled frequently. He and Ernest produced a series of views of well-known scenic areas in most of Australia, New Zealand and Norfolk Island. Joseph was associated with the Sydney amateur photographic set and their conversazioni . In 1872 the first Amateur Photographic Society of New South Wales was formed with Hon. Joseph Docker as vice-president (his son was president). He died in Sydney on 9 December 1884 at the age of 82. A stereographic albumen print of Joseph and Ernest Docker, taken by William Hetzer and printed by Joseph Docker in about 1860, survives in private collection.