The Centre in the Camera

A new book by Philip Jones always promises to be a treat, and although Images of the Interior: seven Central Australian photographers (Wakefield Press, 2011) was published a year ago, I’ve just recently had the pleasure of its acquaintance.  Jones is Senior Researcher in Australian Aboriginal Ethnology at the South Australian Museum, where he has curated numerous exhibitions over the course of his thirty-year career.  Perhaps as a result of this background, his books often take artifacts as their point of departure.  In true curatorial fashion, Jones looks at an object, asks what it can tell us, and proceeds to craft fascinating histories that, while they may begin firmly rooted in the physical, lead us to a more profound understanding of the cultural and psychological.

Art and Land: Aboriginal sculptures of the Lake Eyre region (Wakefield Press, 1986) was an early attempt to unravel the riddle of the toas, strange and beautiful and compelling carved icons that were collected in the early twentieth century by the missionary Johann Reuther.  Jones returned to their mysteries–were they directional signals, geographical indices of nomadic journeys or among the earliest works of art produced for non-Indigenous consumption?–in his award-winning Ochre and Rust: artefacts and encounters on Australian frontiers (Wakefield Press, 2007).  Ochre and Rust was in many ways about exchanges, the ways in which the meeting of material cultures led to deeper exchanges and understandings.  It was a book that, true to its subtitle, explored Australian frontiers.

Images of the Interior is likewise founded on an examination of artifacts, although this time the artifacts are peculiarly modern and European: photographs taken over a span of roughly fifty years from the end of the nineteenth century to the early middle of the twentieth.  The earliest of the collections from which the illustrations in this book were drawn belonged to Frank Gillen, the famed Alice Springs telegraph and post master who recorded Central Australian life and ritual with Sir Baldwin Spencer and changed the face of anthropology in the process.  The last photographs of the lot come from Rex Battarbee, famous for his brilliant watercolors of the Inland and for mentoring Albert Namatjira, probably the first Aboriginal artist whose name became a household word.  Gillen was a pioneer of photography in plain-air Australia; Battarbee a pioneer in color photography.  Gillen’s photographs were among the first to bring the frontier’s visual treasures to the coastal cities; Battarbee was among the last visual explorers of that frontier before the post-war boom in tourism brought many Australians to experience the Centre unmediated, for themselves.

The other men whose work Jones includes in this volume were brought to the Centre by a variety of passions and pursuits.  Samuel Albert White was a zealous ornithologist; George Aiston a policeman celebrated for his compassion and justice.  Ernest Kramer was a missionary who aimed to save Indigenous souls and sought to slake physical thirst as much as a presumed spiritual one through his work to provide adequate and safe water supplies.  Cecil Hackett and William Walker were medical men; the former was instrumental in identifying and treating the scourge of yaws in the desert, while the latter’s advocacy was crucial to the establishment of the Flying Doctor Service.

Each of these men documented the life and the lands of Central Australia; they were the twentieth century’s explorers, bringing unknown parts of the continent into view with new technologies, supplementing the verbal portraits that the great nineteenth-century explorers had sketched before them.  What distinguishes their accounts as reproduced in Images of the Interior was a new kind of encounter with the people of the Centre.  While the earlier explorers focused on opening up new routes for travel, new natural resources that they hoped settlers could exploit, these photographers had an opportunity to capture human encounters in ways that were not nearly so dependent on language (or the lack of it) that had characterized prior ventures.

In the accounts of Sturt or Eyre or Carnegie, Indigenous people were often reduced to mysterious savages or, at best, mute guides to be exploited for the white man’s ends.  The Arrernte and Pintupi and Pitjantjatjara who appear in the photographs reveal themselves to the camera with a depth of psychological realism that must have been shockingly new to audiences at the time.  Gillen’s depictions of ceremonial activity would have been eye-opening, no doubt, but they were in keeping with the portrayal of Indigenous people as primitives and savages.  But I wonder what viewers of the lantern slide shows many of these photographers carried to Adelaide or Melbourne would have made of the melancholy, curiosity, fierceness, shyness, patience, and pride captured in these portraits.

But what these photographs capture more than anything is the turn of the wheel as European settlement pushed further into the Centre–most notably around Alice Springs–and then outward into rougher country.  Many Arrernte people in these photographs wear European clothing, carry rifles in addition to spears, display rabbits that they have brought home from the hunt, while the Pitjantjatjara and Warlpiri seems relatively untouched as yet by the onslaught of cars and camels and the culture that came with them.  A pair of photographs on facing pages in the chapter devoted to Ernest Kramer’s work seems to me to document the insistence of this change, probably intentionally on Jones’s part.

On the left side of the spread, a group of about two dozen people are seated on the ground “north of Alice Springs,” according to the caption.  They are, with the exception of the smallest children, fully clothed in shirts and trousers.  The ground before them is swept clear; one of the men holds a picture of Christ preaching.  On the right side, a similar group of Warlpiri men, photographed near Central Mount Stuart, sit on the ground in a similar pose.  These men for the most part are adorned only with hair-string headbands (three of them sport rough shirts).  The ground before them is littered with firewood.  The painted object in this photograph is a carved shield bearing a totemic device.  Jones’s caption notes that “Kramer considered that his task was to counter such imagery with Christian iconography.”  A mere three years separates the making of the two photographs.

And so we watch the face of the Centre changing.  As I continued to flip backwards and forwards through the photographic documentation of that change that Jones has collected in Images of the Interior, my mind wandered towards the present day and to a 2009 painting by the Brisbane-based artist Vernon Ah Kee.  Whether or not he was explicitly thinking of scenes such as these, he has produced a fitting caption, an epitaph if you will, for the era that Jones has presented in this collection.

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One Response to The Centre in the Camera

  1. Samantha Faradaiys says:

    Hello Will, great blogs, check out http://www.waynequilliamphotography.com.au

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