Lake Cave and the Magic Lantern

On the first images of Lake Cave, Margaret River

In November 1900 three men descended into a crater in the far south-west of Western Australia. Abseiling down into a sunken forest and scrambling over rubble, they found the entrance to a stream cave draped with exquisite crystal formations. One of the men was budding explorer and photographer Charles Price Conigrave, and the images he took are the first ever taken in Lake Cave.

Lake cave, suspended table

The suspended table by Charles Conigrave 22 Nov, 1900. Reproduced from a print copy of The Windsor Magazine, date unknown

The cave is a short drive south of Margaret River, in the land of the Wadandi people. Their ancestors were sheltering in nearby caves many thousands of years ago, far back in the heights of the last ice age. Caves are of great spiritual significance to the Wadandi, and they could tell their own histories of the crater sunk deep into the forest floor.

The cave is formed by a stream buried by the young, windblown limestone of the Leeuwin-Naturaliste Ridge. The stream may have been flowing here for millions of years before it was buried by sand: it begins on the Nindup Plains to the east, and flows out to the Indian Ocean in the west. At some time in the ancient past a cavern collapsed, leaving behind a giant crater, or doline.

The doline first appears in recorded history in 1867. Colonial girl Francis Bussell almost rode her horse over the edge while out chasing wild cattle. Remote and obscured by forest, the giant crater remained hidden for decades and many doubted her account. In the 1870s many other caves had already been explored and were being shown to visitors. By the 1880s locals were demanding that the caves be protected from vandalism. Frances Bussell (by then Frances Brockman) was particularly vocal in her appeals to the state government.

Frances Brockman (nee Bussell)

With the discovery of the Yallingup Caves in 1900, action was finally taken. A Caves Board was created, and Irishman Tim Connelly appointed as caretaker in Margaret River. Local surveyor Marmaduke Terry was employed to fully document the caves of the Ridge, and in September he located the Lake Cave doline. He sent a message to Frances informing her that her legendary, giant crater had been found.

Two months later, museum zoologist Charles Conigrave visited the area. He was only 18, but came well equipped with scientific curiosity and a box camera. Tim Connelly invited him on the first exploration of the doline, and along with William Nelson, they entered the cave on the 22nd of November. Conigrave wrote a detailed report on the expedition. He describes how they entered the cave:

“… When we arrived, the rope ladder was at once brought into requisition, to enable a descent to be made, as this was the only means of reaching the bottom. The 50 foot sections being joined, one end was securely fastened to a branch of one of the trees mentioned above, and the descent of the cliff was undertaken. This was, by no means, an easy task, and was one of the adventures of the expedition, as the swaying of the ladder, when the weight of the body and the necessary photographic and other paraphernalia came upon it, was such as to try the nerves…..”

They negotiated steep, loose and crumbling edges before locating the cave entrance, 50 metres down into the doline. They manoeuvred themselves and the bulky camera equipment down a steep and rocky tunnel, and into the flow of an underground stream. The cave they found there was astonishingly beautiful:

“… On lighting the magnesium ribbon, the view revealed was one that baffles description, the only simile occurring to one, being that of a subterranean Polar sea. The lake was surrounded by crystalline ledges and galleries, from which rose many stalagmites, whilst from the ceiling above depended numberless stalactites of all shapes and sizes, some as light and delicate as an icicle, and others as large and massive as the column of a building. The effect of the brilliant light upon these snowy white formations, as it scintiilated from point to point was magical and surprising …”

lake cave, margaret river

Charles Conigrave 22 Nov 1900. From a print copy of The Windsor Magazine, date unknown.

Conigrave relates that they took five photographs. “Of course these views, of which I may say I am justly proud, being the first ever taken of this cave, were secured under great difficulties.”

Even with electric lighting, cave photography is still challenging today. The process in 1900 must have been time consuming, with at least one person required to light and hold the magnesium flares while another worked the camera. The ribbon flares could be hazardous, emitting bright light, heat, toxic fumes and ash. The angle of the photographs indicates that Conigrave probably used a tripod, as the cave floor is mostly water. Handheld images would have been blurred by long exposure.

Tim Connelly was so taken with the beauty of the cave that he recommended it be opened to the public. By the end of 1901 stairs and a walkway had been built, and he was guiding visitors into the new ‘cave wonderland’.

From the Western Mail Feb 09, 1901. Sadly the images printed here are too poor quality for reproduction

Conigrave returned to his work at the West Australian Museum. In February 1901 his images of Lake Cave were published in the newspapers, and over the next five years he gave a series of magic lantern slideshows. These were the favoured photographic entertainment before the arrival of cinema. It is hard for us, with our pocket cinemas, to imagine the wonder audiences must have felt, gathering together in muted light to witness the ‘magic’ of illuminated images appearing on a screen.

Magic Lanterns were an early form of projector. The idea had been around for centuries, but really took off with the invention of photography. Conigrave prepared his own glass slides from his images. The negative was clamped or fixed to a glass plate, before being fitted into a slot between a light source and a magnifying lens. This video from the Victoria and Albert Museum shows a lantern in action:

Conigrave, by engaging audiences with photos of exotic places and his magic lantern, became famous as an explorer. In 1911 he secured a grant from the WA Museum to make an expedition to the Kimberly. Conigrave’s intentions were scientific, but early 20th century Western Australia was a colonial society, and funding was provided in the understanding that his report would further the settlement of the North. It must be acknowledged that exploration was a process in the dispossession of indigenous people, with an outcome still being played out today.

Conigrave, low down and second from the left

Conigrave returned from the Kimberleys with a series of photographs. He bought back the first European images of indigenous rock art, and gave lantern slide lectures on the landscape and people of the North. In later years he gave shows about the Abrolhos Islands; the Northern Territory, Papua New Guinea, the Stirling Ranges, and the Porongarups. His wife, Violet Pearce, was also a photographer and she sometimes accompanied lectures with musical performances on the pianoforte. In 1932 Conigrave drove around Australia in a Pontiac, documenting all the way. His images can be viewed here

Despite his stardom at the time, Conigrave has been almost forgotten. He wrote mostly for newspaper audiences, rather than for the more enduring mediums of journals and books. His original slides are untraceable, and most contemporary reproductions are very poor quality due to print mediums of the time. But his lantern slideshows played a major role in attracting interest and funding for the visitation and protection of the Margaret River caves. In 1905 museum director Bernard Woodward reported that:

Mr. Conigrave has done more than anyone else in popularising the caves, not only as an explorer, but also as a lecturer, as he has already given more than twenty lectures on the caves.

Conigrave was a pioneer with his use of real-time social image sharing to educate and inspire audiences. The exploration of Lake Cave and its promotion by magic lantern highlights the power of travel photography, still so resonant today. Our modern insta-galleries are a natural progression from early technology, and are still inspiring us to explore and experience exotic places.

article by Jinni Wilson

%d bloggers like this: