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

It’s April 11, 1983, and Princess Diana is walking into Brisbane City Hall.

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

He leans over, and in a quick moment snaps the photo.

In a blue-and-white dress, Diana is glowing, looking directly at the camera, as she steps over the threshold alone, from a crowded King George Square into City Hall.

Diana moves on, and Robert Noffke’s photograph is consigned to the council’s own photographic archives.

That snap is one of more than 250,000 photos Noffke has taken over a 53-year career at Brisbane City Council as the city’s official photographer and archivist.

Princess Diana walks into Brisbane City Hall in April, 1983, pictured by Brisbane City Council photographer Robert Noffke.
Princess Diana walks into Brisbane City Hall in April 1983.(Supplied: Brisbane City Council/Robert Noffke)

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

Clerk to photographer

Noffke joined Brisbane City Council in 1968 as a teenage clerk, working in the water supply and sewerage department.

It was the Clem Jones era, the start of a time of great change for Brisbane, as streets were paved, sewers connected, parks and pools developed and the first city plan created.

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

Elton John clutching a teddy bear with former Brisbane lord mayor Roy Harvey
Brisbane lord mayor Roy Harvey met Elton John in the 1980s, and Robert Noffke had to dash down to the Botanic Gardens to take a photo.(Supplied: Brisbane City Council/Robert Noffke)

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

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

When an opening for a clerk in the council’s photographic department came up, Noffke applied and was accepted, going on to college to study photography before securing a role as cadet photographer.

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

“Often you only got the one chance because, by the time you took the back off and put on a new back, the moment had passed.”

One such moment came in 1982 when Elton John was in town.

“We got a phone call one lunch hour from the lord mayor’s office to say the mayor was going to meet Elton John in the City Botanic Gardens, and [lord mayor Roy Harvey] was going to give him a present,” Noffke said.

Charting a city’s life

Being council’s photographer wasn’t always about glamorous princesses or pop stars.

A 1986 photo of South Brisbane's Grey Street, showing old houses and buildings
Grey Street, looking down from Highgate Hill, before many industrial buildings were demolished for Expo 88.(Supplied: Brisbane City Council/Robert Noffke)

The daily photographic tasks more often involved recording the city’s new buildings, housing developments, and even crawling into drainage tunnels with council engineers to document any defects.

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

Old garages and workshops on South Brisbane's Grey Street in 1986
Robert Noffke walked through South Brisbane in 1986 documenting the city’s changing face as Expo 88 loomed.(Supplied: Brisbane City Council/Robert Noffke)

His job also required a good head for heights. Well before the days of Workplace Health and Safety, a climb up Story Bridge only required one safety feature.

Told to meet the council engineer at the bridge to photograph its repainting, Noffke was reminded to wear sand shoes for grip.

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

There were no safety harnesses or cherry pickers, he said, when the council’s engineer simply swung out onto the bridge structure and began climbing, telling Noffke to follow.

“We went the whole way up the outside of the structure to the top, and then had to walk across the beam, because the painters were already halfway across the beam,” Noffke said.

Three men in the 1960s at a desk working on microfilm.
Robert Noffke (left) first worked in the council’s housing connections department before securing a job as a cadet photographer for the council.(Supplied: 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 scanning and digitising many of his 250,000 photos for upload to the Brisbane Image Archive.

Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner said Noffke had given Brisbane a remarkable visual history.

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

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

A smiling grey-haired man.
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 contributed to Brisbane’s visual memory.

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


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