Rilla's Critter - early photograph found
Rilla's Critter - first published under the names "Ozenkadnook Tiger" and "Goroke Monster". Copyright: Rilla Martin. Note - this is not the early copy that was found.
Some years back, my colleague Mark S alerted me to an entry in the NSW State Library's catalogue, for a photo described as:
- "Thylacine, Mt. Oliver, n.d."
The photo was in a box of photos of South Australian wildlife, related to the wildlife magazine Walkabout. Was this a hitherto unidentified photograph of a thylacine in South Australia? Could it have been a wild animal? After all, Robert Paddle put forth convincing evidence the species survived there into the 1800s in his book. Or perhaps it was a captive animal but a previously unknown photograph? Or at a last guess, perhaps it showed an aboriginal artwork?
We scoured the web, looking for references to Mt Oliver in South Australia. We tried mapping sites, historical geography sites, variations on the name (Mt Olive) and web archives. We looked for geographical features - mountains, but also localities; who knows? Perhaps Mt Oliver was a suburb name, or town, and not a mountain at all?
When all came up naught it was time to go in and pay a visit to the Mitchell wing of the State Library of NSW. Armed with the call number I waltzed up to the counter and said "I'd like to look at this photograph please!" (Well first I had to leave all my gear in a locker for security purposes; then I had to join the library, showing ID, presumably for security purposes again; then finally they let me in). While my children occupied themselves with being fascinated with real, physical reference cards, the powers that be forwarded my request to, well, whatever other powers that be.
About twenty minutes later and I was invited into the research area. The box of prints had been ferried up from the deep belly of the Mitchell wing. At last I could find out what a Mt Oliver thylacine would look like. Or not. First I had to endure the lecture on how I am not permitted to take photographs. They explained how they weighed the box before giving it to me, down to the nearest point one of a gram, and they'd be weighing it afterwards in case I decided to pinch anything. It felt like a mission into Area 51.
Taking the cardboard box in hand, I moved away to the furthest desk. Privacy for this discovery, if you please. I begin flicking through the photos - all in the same order as on the catalogue. Horses, kangaroos, people feeding wildlife, a skink. Finally I get to photograph 14, the Mt Oliver thylacine.
I cannot believe my eyes.
This is no thylacine. This is Rilla's critter! And it looks way more original than anything I've seen scanned on the web!
Excitement reigned supreme. Here was one of the first-ever prints of Rilla's critter, literally in my hands! And there was much more on this image than just the animal; more detail than any scan I have seen before - there was way more context to the image: foliage, scrub, sticks on the ground - a treasure-chest of information that cryptozoologists the world over would probably drool over as they got their (software-equivalent) rulers out and tried to make better sense of the bizarre animal - and image - that has plagued discussions for decades. Would there be extra info here to calculate the animal's size? How about its distance from the photographer? I heard one theory that because a box brownie camera was used, there was an accidental double-exposure, producing the most bizarre appearance of the animal's head, as if it was in two positions simultaneously. Perhaps details in the extra context would lend weight, or take away from, theories such as these?
But the next part doubled the excitement. How on earth did they get "Mt Oliver thylacine" out of this?
Flip the print over. On the back is hand-written text:
- Picture of Thylacine provided by Mr Oliver. Taken just over S.A.border 2 yrs ago. Name of photographer not known.
Aha! Not Mount Oliver, but Mister Oliver! It read like an editor's note from Walkabout magazine.
Quite perplexing is the suggestion the photograph was taken just over the S.A. border, because Ozenkadnook - the location attributed to Rilla Martin's photograph - is in Victoria. You'd hardly say "just over the SA border" if you were on the "SA" side. I'm sure that comment alone will generate some discussion!
And a relative date: the photo was taken "2 yrs ago". Knowing, as we do, that Rilla's photo was taken in 1964, this print must have been produced between 1964 and 1966, making it one of the earliest prints of Rilla's Critter.
Now what to do?
I re-pack the box of photographs, hand it back, pass the security check for weighing the box (to the nearest point one of a gram) ... and leave.
I suppose this photo has survived undiscovered for decades. Indeed, the library probably didn't even have it catalogued until the last few years. But another colleague (another Mark), who works at the library, encouraged me to let the staff know the importance of this photo, and so I did.
The result is that the photo is now correctly catalogued and described; the inscriptions on its reverse are published for the world to see, and a digitisation request has been made, in order to make the image public via the library's website for all to enjoy.
The direct link to the library's entry should be here: http://acms.sl.nsw.gov.au/item/itemDetailPaged.aspx?itemID=412699&ei=fBYmT5nuNcOOiAeO0oXSBA&usg=AFQjCNFKTo_ETLWzDwsS_FdqnH22eN8USg
(If that link doesn't work, someone please let me know, as I can't test on this computer).
And an excellent analysis (and comprehensive discussion) about this photo can be found on Darren Naish's website, here: http://scienceblogs.com/tetrapodzoology/2010/08/rilla_martins_1964_photo.php
Finally, Curator of Photographs Allen Davies had this to add about technical aspects of the print in the library's collection:
Thank you very much for your email alerting us to the photograph we had mistakenly catalogued as a Thylacine. I read your links to it's identity with interest.
Certainly, we now have a Rilla Martin 'Ozankadnook Tiger' photograph in the collection. I have corrected the catalogue entry to reflect that identity. I have also added the inscription from the back of the photograph to the catalogue entry. Additionally I have made a comment about the photographic print, as I'm sure other researchers will want to know how this image differs from others.
Most photographs in the Walkabout collection were taken by professional photographers, and it's possible to determine when they were published from stamps on the reverse. However the handwritten comment on the back of this print "Picture of Thylacine provided by Mr Oliver. Taken just over S.A.border 2 yrs ago. Name of photographer not known.'' may indicate that it was a photograph which accompanied a letter to the editor. The magazine published letters and sometimes photographs from readers each month. However, I do not know if this image was published.
My conclusion after examining it - and I'm not going to add to the extensive commentary about what it shows - is that the photograph at PXA 907/box 68/14 was produced in the 1960s. It is a single weight glazed glossy silver gelatin print, typical of that period. In that sense it is an original. However, the lack of detail in tonal range and overall blurriness suggests to me that it is a copy of another photograph. Of particular interest are the 'three eyelashes' commented on by others. In this print, the 'eyelashes' are blurred together, as if out of focus. If the 'eyelashes' were added by the newspaper - and other copies that show them quite distinctly - then this is definitely a second generation image. Even if it were made from the original negative, then it is a poor enlargement, lacking in detail.
The image measures 15.3 x 20.4cm, printed on a 16 x 20.1cm paper. At the time, this would have been called a whole plate or '6 by 8' [inch] photograph. That was a typical print size for enlargement by newspapers, as it matched the quarter plate cameras used by newspaper photographers, before the 35mm revolution in the mid 1960s.
Clearly this is an enlargement, as Rilla Martin's camera was a Brownie Box, taking much smaller negatives. Unfortunately, I'm not sure which camera exactly, as the earlier models used 117 and 120 film, which took 6 x 6cm negatives - and the various plastic Brownie 127 models introduced in 1952, which used smaller 127 film, taking 4 x 4cm or 4 x 6cm negatives. It would be nice to know which camera she had, but in any case, the enlarged photograph we have has to be a partly cropped version of the full original negative.
Having said that, what distinguishes this photograph from the other reproduced images of Rilla Martin's image is that it has not been cropped as severely and a much more extensive view of the animal's surroundings is revealed.
On that point alone, it should be of interest and generate comment from other cryptozoologists!
Again, thank you for alerting us to this very unusual and interesting photograph.
Ps. All that stuff about library security? Good on 'em! Without it, we probably wouldn't be preserving gems such as this :)
Pps. Photo shown below is NOT the copy at the State Library of NSW.. I just put it here so you'd get a thumbnail in your FB feed :)
Citing this article
Rehberg, C. (2012). Rilla's Critter - early photograph found, Accessed: date,
This article was first published 30 Jan 2012 under the heading "Rilla's Critter" as a Facebook note atand was migrated to the WLMD website on 1 Feb 2021. During the migration, the title was changed and the sections "Citation" and "Revisions" added. The article photograph (which is not the new copy that was found) was duplicated at the top of the article and caption added.