Princess Diana, Elton John and Brisbane: Council photographer Robert Noffke retires after 53 years

ByDavid M. Conte

Dec 1, 2021

It is April 11, 1983 and Princess Diana walks into Brisbane City Hall.

In front of her is the council photographer, a young man keeping the tips of his shoes off the red carpet in accordance with strict instructions from the pre-royal briefing.

He leans in and in an instant takes the picture.

In a blue and white dress, Diana shines, looking straight at the camera, as she walks alone through the threshold, from a crowded King George Square to City Hall.

Diana moves on and Robert Noffke’s photograph is entered in the council’s photographic archives.

This photo is one of 250,000 photos Noffke took during a 53-year career on Brisbane City Council as the city’s official photographer and archivist.

Princess Diana enters Brisbane Town Hall in April 1983.(Provided: Brisbane City Council / Robert Noffke)

Many of his images are now available for free online through the Brisbane Archives, including his photos from the royal visit in 1983.

Photographer clerk

Noffke joined Brisbane City Council in 1968 as a teenage clerk, working in the water and sanitation service.

It was the Clem Jones era, the start of a period of great change for Brisbane, as the streets were cobbled, sewers hooked up, parks and pools landscaped, and the first city map created.

“The roads were dirt and we had to use the outhouse in the back yard,” Noffke told ABC Radio Brisbane.

Elton John hugging a teddy bear with former Brisbane mayor Roy Harvey
Brisbane Mayor Roy Harvey met Elton John in the 1980s and Robert Noffke had to rush to the Botanic Gardens to take a photo.(Provided: Brisbane City Council / Robert Noffke)

For Noffke, he was happy to have a job. But he had his eye on the next step, hoping that he could continue his childhood love of photography.

“The first thing I saved and bought was a little brownie camera,” he said.

When a position as a clerk in the council’s photographic department arose, Noffke applied and was accepted, continuing his studies in photography before securing a position as a junior photographer.

“When we started it was the old Graflex 5×4 camera, the ones you see in old movies with the sliding back,” Noffke said.

“Often you only get one chance because, by the time you take the back off and put on a new back, the time has passed.”

One of those moments came in 1982, when Elton John was in town.

“We got a lunchtime phone call from the Mayor’s office to say that the Mayor was going to meet Elton John at the city’s Botanical Gardens, and [lord mayor Roy Harvey] was going to give him a present, ”Noffke said.

Tracing the life of a city

Being the Council photographer wasn’t always about glamorous princesses or pop stars.

A 1986 photo of Gray Street in South Brisbane, showing old houses and buildings
Gray Street, which overlooks Highgate Hill, before many industrial buildings were demolished for Expo 88.(Provided: Brisbane City Council / Robert Noffke)

Daily photographic tasks most often involved recording new city buildings, housing estates, and even crawling through drainage tunnels with city engineers to document any faults.

Before Expo 88 transformed South Brisbane, Noffke walked down Gray Street and photographed buildings soon to be demolished, capturing the last moments of South Brisbane’s industrial age.

Old garages and workshops on South Brisbane's Gray Street in 1986
Robert Noffke traveled through South Brisbane in 1986, documenting the changing face of the city in the run-up to Expo 88.(Provided: Brisbane City Council / Robert Noffke)

His job also required a good sense of vertigo. Long before the days of occupational health and safety, a climb of the Story Bridge required only one element of safety.

He was told to meet the city engineer on the bridge to photograph his repaint, Noffke was reminded to wear sand shoes for grip.

A 1994 photo of the story's bridge showing ladders added for workers to climb
Ladders were added to the structure of the Story Bridge so workers could climb and cross the steel beams to repaint it in 1994.(Provided: Brisbane City Council / Robert Noffke)

There was no safety harness or aerial work platform, he said, when the council engineer simply swung on the structure of the bridge and began to climb, telling Noffke to follow him. .

“We walked all the way outside of the structure to the top, then we had to go through the beam because the painters were already halfway through the beam,” Noffke said.

Three men in the 1960s at desks working on microfilm.
Robert Noffke (left) first worked in the housing relations department of the city council before getting a job as a junior photographer for the city council.(Provided: Brisbane City Council)

Anonymous archivist

In 2000, the council closed its photographic unit and Noffke was transferred to the Brisbane City Archives, where he began digitizing and digitizing several of its 250,000 photos for upload to the Brisbane Image Archive.

Mayor Adrian Schrinner said Noffke gave Brisbane a remarkable visual history.

“There are a number of websites and social media pages that share a lot of these images,” said Cr Schrinner.

“The images we all look fondly on to remember aspects of Brisbane’s past, we have to thank Rob for that.”

A smiling man with gray hair.
Robert Noffke is retiring after 53 years working for Brisbane City Council as a photographer and later archivist.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Lucy Stone)

As he retires, Noffke says he is proud to have helped Brisbane’s visual memory.

“I feel like I left something for Brisbane and the residents that they can use,” he said.


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