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Morrison, Hedwig Marie (Hedda) (1908–1991)

by Jack Waterford

Hedda Morrison, for 60 years a superb photographer of societies old and young in China, Sarawak and Australia, died of cancer in Canberra on Tuesday, a few days short of 83.

Born in Germany in 1908, she studied photography at the Munich Photo School and, finding the emerging Nazi Germany not at all to her liking, applied in 1933 for a position managing a photographic studio in Beijing. The advertisement specified a need for a Swabian woman — Swabians being reputed to be hard workers and women able to be paid less — with English and French; the hours were from 7am to 6pm, six days a week and the job also involved managing a staff of 17 men.

Her family had some misgivings and gave her farewell presents of a pistol and an umbrella, both of which she dropped overboard as she left on a liner from Trieste; her original intention had been to go via Siberia but this became impossible once the Japanese invaded Manchuria.

Hedda worked in Beijing — in her words "in the twilight of its days as the centre of the old China" — for 13 years, spending much of her time exploring the city and its neighbourhood by bicycle, taking thousands of photographs of the city, its architecture, theatre and way of life (much of which has now radically changed) and its people. She travelled extensively about China, including to Nanking just after it had been ravaged by the Japanese, mostly alone, but never feeling in any way insecure; "Chinese attitudes towards a solitary woman traveller could not have been more correct or helpful, and I met with courtesy wherever I went."

Working mostly with a Rollaflex twin-lens reflex camera, she found a lot of patience was needed. "In those days before electronic flash I often had to pose people and ask them to keep quite still. The only flash I had in Peking was an elaborate contraption made for me by a German friend which used the rubber bulb of an old-fashioned car horn to puff magnesium powder over burning Meta fuel. It emitted an enormous flash and was useful in photographing dark interiors. It was also dangerous, and I once set myself aflame when photographing the Ming frescoes of a temple in the Western Hills."

Hedda left the Hartung agency in 1938 and worked for several years with a business adapting Chinese jewellery and silverwork to custom jewellery and embroidery for use by Westerners, but she continued to take photographs. She had invested all of her savings in an order for film and photographic paper which arrived by rail from Germany just before the the German invasion of the Soviet Union. During the Pacific War, she lived in the Chinese house of a French diplomat.

After the war, she married Alastair Morrison, (son of the famous Australian and London Times journalist, George Morrison, known as Morrison of Peking) who had been at the British legation before joining the army at the outbreak of war. In 1947, she went with him to Sarawak in Borneo. There she continued her superb photography of societies — particularly the Dyaks — facing change.

Hedda came to Canberra in the mid 1960s when her husband came to work at the Defence Department. She continued her photography; the couple maintained and developed their interest in nature, bushwalking and people.

Hedda, a perky sparrow with a wonderful dry wit and a touch of wickedness, practised her art to the last, and her passing is a great loss of a link to the past. She will be cremated at Norwood on Friday.

Original publication

  • Canberra Times, 5 December 1991, p 7

Additional Resources

Citation details

Jack Waterford, 'Morrison, Hedwig Marie (Hedda) (1908–1991)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/morrison-hedwig-marie-hedda-20706/text32355, accessed 24 November 2017.

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