Seeing Machine: Industrial Photography in Colonial Java

Alexander Supartono

Edinburg Napier University, Edinburg , United Kingdom

The paper looks at the thematic and stylistic shifts in the photographic representation of industrial machinery and factory interiors in Java at the turn of the 20th century. The analysis will discuss the impetus behind the vernacular display of machinery photographs and the orchestration of social hierarchies on the factory floor. Often situated in souvenir, company, or family albums, photographs of factory machine and interior views often serve the compositional purposes of the image, merely as comparative indicators of scale, rather than document the craftsmanship of the working class. The idiomatic nature of machinery photographs in colonial Java was the celebration of colonial industry rather than highlights of manufacturing process, which partly explained photographs’ visual inconsistency, unpredictability, and clumsiness. Drawing from selected industrial photographic albums from archives in the Netherland, Indonesia and Australia, this paper argues that the significance of the photographs and the albums lies in their idiomatic nature as quasi-documents of the colonial industry: their main purpose and use value primarily was not to document specific technological advancements; they were devised to celebrate colonial advancement in the colony and industrialists at large.


Dr. Alexander Supartono is an art historian, curator and educator. His work seeks to situate historical and contemporary photographic and inter-media art practice within broader visual culture debates as well as advance this knowledge to academic, art specialist and wider audiences.


The Asian Studies Association of Australia (ASAA) is the peak body of university experts and educators on Asia in Australia. Established in 1976, we promote and support the study of Asia in Australian universities and knowledge of Asia among the broader community. Our membership is drawn mainly from academics and students, but also includes industry and government Asia experts. We take a strong interest in promoting knowledge about Asia in schools and in contributing to state and Commonwealth government policies related to Asia. We provide informed comment on Asia to a broad public through our bulletin, Asian Currents, and specialist research articles in our journal, Asian Studies Review. Four book series published under our auspices cover Southeast Asia, South Asia, East Asia and Women in Asia.

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