Sydney in the thirties

9 September 2021 | Posted In: #140 Spring 2021,

A collection of photographs by prolific amateur photographer Percy James Bryant has been added to the City of Sydney Archives.

At the age of 17, Percy ‘Sam’ James Bryant traded a piece of furniture which he’d built for his very first camera. That simple swap in 1923 sent Bryant on a decades-long photographic journey. Now, almost 100 years later, a huge collection of Bryant’s images has been donated to the City of Sydney Archives.

As an amateur photographer, Bryant took hundreds of photos in and around Sydney — from happy snaps on Bondi beach, to public events and fascinating cityscapes. “He never thought they were any good, they were just photographs,” said Bryant’s grandson, Chris Lloyd. But as a historical record, these photographs give us a unique insight into the life of a working family in Sydney at a time of huge societal change.

Bryant’s life was tough in a way that was common in the early 1900s. “He never knew or met his father and his mother died when he was very young of TB, leaving him and three other children,” said Lloyd. “He was the eldest and he endeavoured to fund those children and kept them alive.” He was never educated past the age of 12, and made ends meet by growing vegetables, labouring and bartering pieces of furniture he made.

Bryant got a job wiring the lights on the Sydney Harbour Bridge which was being built at the time. He would smuggle his camera onto the worksite and from the top of the arch he captured incredible photos of a growing city. “He loved taking photos of the harbour and the bridge. The bridge was for him one of those iconic things about how Sydney and Australia grew,” said Lloyd, adding: “I don’t think his story is particularly remarkable or unremarkable. He’s just typical of the unrealised story of working dogs in this world, the people who made Sydney really.”

His photographs were passed on to Lloyd, who donated a collection of slides and negatives to the City of Sydney Archives. “He did see public service as far more important than private,” said Lloyd. “So this would be an enormous piece of pride for him, that they went to an institution that was a public institution.”

  • View the collection here
  • Courtesy City of Sydney