More than a century before the word “selfie” was coined, Melbourne-born composer and pianist Percy Grainger was using photography to document his life in obsessive detail. The arranger of the famous Country Gardens had a collection of photographs that includes approximately 15,000 images. A selection of these can be seen at a new exhibition titled Grainger: Public Facades and Intimate Spaces at the Grainger Museum in Melbourne, which explores the dichotomy between the professional studio images Grainger used to promote himself and the far more intimate, private photographs with which he recorded his personal life.

Grainger arrived in England in 1901 at the age of 19, quickly establishing himself as a pianist. Almost immediately, photography became an important part of his career. “This was at a time when photography had gone through some change, in the sense that the process that created firstly the negative, then the print from the negative, was made cheaper and much more accessible for a range of people,” says Brian Allison, who curated the exhibition. “That’s not to say Grainger didn’t go to quite expensive studios, but what it meant was there was a proliferation of images that hadn’t really been seen before – people suddenly realised that a really nicely composed and beautifully printed photograph on a board with a fashionable photographer’s name underneath was a very good promotional tool.”

Percy GraingerPercy Grainger. Photos © Grainger Museum

It was a tool Grainger would take full advantage of in building his profile and career. “I don’t think there’s any question he was not aware of his good looks,” Allison says. “I think he had a very magnetic, very charismatic personality, so he would often use studios that specialised in theatre people.”

“These photographs he was acquiring, most of them were called cabinet photographs,” says Allison. “Basically the perfect size to mail to people. Often he would have a whole lot of duplicates made and sign them, ‘cordially yours’, ‘hearty regards’ or something. Sometimes to colleagues as a sort of friendship gesture, but often to fans or potential patrons.”

“He developed a very good friendship with a gentleman called Baron Adolph de Meyer, and de Meyer is generally considered the first fashion photographer in the world – he worked for Condé Nast, Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar in America. He was moving in the upper echelon of London society.”

Because De Meyer himself was famous, when Grainger had postcards made out of his photographs, he had his own name written beside de Meyer’s at the bottom. “That added cache,” explains Allison.

Percy Grainger, 1914

Grainger had an enormous number of professional photographs taken and would often visit and revisit the same studios in different countries when he toured. “He quickly realised that this was a form of serious currency in the exchange of information about himself, about his importance in terms of his career,” says Allison.

While photography had become more accessible, Grainger’s level of photographic self-documentation was unusual for the time. “I think he was a visually aware person,” says Allison. “His father was an architect and a fine watercolourist who taught Grainger to paint. So using images to communicate or document was an extension of language for him. In 1909, he and his girlfriend were photographing each other nude – probably not that normal in 1909! I think his documentation of his own life reinforces [the fact] that he had a certain self-obsession.”

So what do these private images tell us about the man behind the public persona? “It was probably as true then as it is today that making images of yourself is about reaffirming the fact that everything is okay, that you’re doing well,” Allison says. “He often had photographs taken when he was on tour and he’d send them to his mother with an inscription on them.”

The sheer volume of photographs of Grainger is itself extraordinary. “When he moved to New York, the guy who lived next door was a professional photographer named Frederick Morse, so he basically had a photographer on tap,” Allison says. “By 1926, the photographer’s wife became his manager and then they became friends and Morse started documenting Grainger in a different way as a creative being.”

Ella and Percy GraingerElla and Percy Grainger

Grainger’s private photographs allow us a window deep into the composer’s personal life. “The most interesting aspect of this private documentation is Grainger’s preoccupation with his sexuality – particularly as he entered middle age – his questioning about his need to be involved in flagellation and S&M,” says Allison.

Grainger meticulously documented the regular aftermath – the raw whip marks – of his S&M sessions. “He had to teach himself how to take photographs properly for this,” says Allison. “You couldn’t just nip down to the drugstore to print them up!”

There was, at the time, an element of risk for Grainger in documenting these kinds of sexual activities. “He was very careful about it,” Allison says. “He gave a name to the whole sexual expression side of his life – he called it the ‘Lust Branch,’ and I think he gave it that name with the view of putting this material into a museum category.”

“I think he almost took a forensic approach to the process of documenting this. There’s almost no aesthetic content in these photographs, but the images have the time, the date, the place on them. I think it was him wanting to understand and validate this unorthodox urge.”

Grainger’s enthusiasm was blunted, however, in 1956 when English conductor Eugene Goossens was forced to resign from his positions in Australia amidst the scandal that followed his being caught at Mascot Airport with pornographic material in his bags.

“Grainger then put all of his own photographs and paraphernalia into sealed containers and put a caveat on it, ‘not to be opened until ten years after my death,’” says Allison.

Jan KubelicViolinist Jan Kubelík

The exhibition at the Grainger Museum is divided into two rooms. The first examines the public façade and the way Grainger wanted to present himself to the world. “It has all the big names and photographic studios,” says Allison. “It includes pictures of other people who came into the orbit of Grainger’s life – there’s one of Jan Kubelík, the Czech virtuoso violinist, taken by Henry Walter Barnett.” The exhibition also features other musicians shot by the same photographers as Grainger, such as Nellie Melba.

An image by photographer Mary Dale Clarke of Grainger when he was in the army in New York appears in the first room, but Clarke also comes up in the second, which focuses on the private Grainger. “She was a self-styled mystic and was all about trying to find the ‘inner spirit’,” Allison says. “I think Grainger was interested in that idea too, that the photograph did more than just record the surface, that there was a possibility for it to open up a psychological or emotional state within the subject.”

But while the publicity photographs were obviously intended for an audience, what about the others in the second room? “I think most of the photographs were for himself,” says Allison, who sees in the obsessive documentation Grainger’s need to reaffirm to himself that he was okay. “He was trying to secure in his own mind that his youthfulness was not leaving him, that his body was still fit and youthful. He was aware of the evanescence of youth.”

Grainger: Public Facades and Intimate Spaces is at the Grainger Museum in Melbourne until April 8, 2018.