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Western art


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Zig Zag Railway, Lithgow



Melvin Vaniman

United States of America

1870 - 1912


‘The eye is the easiest educated and the impressions last the longest. You take the whole scene in at once, while you have to read through a book.’ Melvin Vaniman 1904 1

Melvin Vaniman was born on a farm near Virden, Illinois, on 31 December 1866, the eldest of four sons in a family of German Baptist Brethren. Like the more famous Amish, the Brethren were a tight-knit farming community, living simply and eschewing much of the modernisation of everyday life. Given this background, Vaniman’s accomplishments are striking: he became an opera singer, photographer, aeronaut, mechanic and dirigible balloon inventor.

The possibilities and challenges of photography, both in terms of technical equipment and subject matter, were of particular interest to Vaniman. With his knowledge of mechanics, he made improvements to panoramic cameras and even designed a new camera. He was an early pioneer of aerial photography, taking images of Sydney and its environs from ship masts, specially built poles and, eventually, a hot-air balloon. He came to Australasia in 1902 on a contract with the Oceanic Steamship Company, to take photographs for use in promotional campaigns, and travelled extensively. Later his interest in photography diminished as he concentrated on experiments with air travel. In 1912 he was killed when his airship exploded near Atlantic City in America.

The Zig Zag Railway at Lithgow in New South Wales was one of Australia’s major 19th-century engineering feats. Vaniman probably photographed it while working for the New South Wales Railway Commission. The structure’s elegance, as much as its engineering virtuosity, appealed to artists. Like Conrad Martens, Vaniman depicts the sandstone viaducts from a ridge across Lithgow Valley. The image is carefully constructed to give a sense of scale: a group of dead trees on the left establish the middle ground and Vaniman has captured the moment when three small, distant trains appear on each of the levels.

1. 'The New South Wales railway budget', 2 May p 214

© Art Gallery of New South Wales Photography Collection Handbook, 2007




Media category


Materials used

platinum photograph


38.2 x 118.4 cm sight; 52.6 x 132.8 x 5.0 cm frame

Signature & date

Signed l.l., [inscribed on glass plate negative] "Melvin Vaniman". Not dated.


Purchased 1989


Not on display

Accession number


Artist information

Melvin Vaniman

Works in the collection


Shown in 5 exhibitions

Exhibition history

Referenced in 3 publications


Judy Annear, American beauty: from Muybridge to Goldin, Sydney, 2003. no catalogue numbers

Josef Lebovic Gallery and Helen Ennis, Masterpieces of Australian Photography, Late Nineteenth Century Photography, Sydney, 1989, 127, 126 (illus). cat. no. 223

Steven Miller, Photography: Art Gallery of New South Wales Collection, 'In every house, and in every tent', pg.33-51, Sydney, 2007, 50 (illus.).