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HomeIssue 45A close encounter with the past

A close encounter with the past

Images of the Interior
Seven Central Australian Photographers
By Philip Jones
Wakefield Press, 2011.
At a time of transition in our self-image –  the romance of the hardy pioneering town receding under the pressure to create a more collaborative future between the settler and original populations – it is fascinating and often heartening to look at Philip Jones’ Images of the Interior. This book presents the work of seven photographers, turning their lens on the people and landscape  of The Centre from the 1880s to the late 1940s.
With each, Jones gives a written account of their arrival, what brought them here, and their response to what they found. The chapters start with a portrait of the photographer and are illustrated with material from the archives of the South Australian Museum where Jones has worked for three decades. Each account is then followed by a selection of 12 full page reproductions of their photographs.
Almost every one feels iconic, yet it is amazing how few are well known to us. This is our heritage, the rich material that tells the foundation story of the early settler encounter with this place. The dominant impression that it leaves is of curious, adventurous men who responded to the unique beauty of the desert landscape and were very interested in the Aboriginal people they met, in both their cultural difference and in them as people, as individuals.
The most compelling images – and they come from several of the photographers – are the individual or small group portraits. Jones notes in his chapter about Francis Gillen the prevalence of the idea of ‘Aboriginal types’ at the time, and that the systematic photographing of “Queen Victoria’s native subjects” often generated “impersonal portraits with an alienated mien”. In contrast Gillen created “the first humane, engaged images of the Arrernte as individuals”.
Looking at Gillen’s portrait of a young Arrernte woman, taken at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station around 1895, I am struck by her self-possession. It’s in her gaze, her posture and her self-presentation – her ornamental scarring, the ochred string coils wound around her hair and neck, and the bird-claw and fur pendants hanging at her breast. She’s not looking at the camera but into the distance; there is a strong sense of her own context beyond the frame, to which she will shortly return and take her place as a strong and beautiful young woman.  The light falls across her from one side and sculpts the fine shapes of her body. The clarity of the image is such that you can see the texture of her skin and hair. There is nothing of the ‘type’ in this image.
A riveting physicality is projected by an Arrernte man, eying with cool self-confidence Samuel White, an ornithologist and conservationist.  The year is 1921, the place is bushland near Macumba, north-east of Oodnadatta. White captioned the photograph “One of the Rightful Owners”. The Arrernte man appears to have hunted with his spear the clutch of dead rabbits he is holding.  There are two other signs of his contact with a changing world: a European belt, low slung on his hips, a clay pipe in his mouth. There’s a sense that he’s taken what he wanted – not very much at all  – and is entirely at ease in his world, laconic in his nakedness, which he has adorned, apart from the belt, by a fringed head-dress, string armlets coiled around his biceps, and a minimal loin fringing.
There’s a similar feel in the photograph of Nanatugurba and Nanabanji, a Luritja man and boy, taken in June 1931 by evangelist and reformer, Ernest Kramer, during an expedition into western desert country. The only sign of European contact this vigorous pair reveal is the cloth bandage, which Kramer had wrapped around the boy’s sore knee but has now slipped to his ankle. Nanatugurba’s stance and gaze is utterly unflinching, his erect posture emphasised by the thrusting forward of his chest as he holds a spear-thrower in the small of his back. Nanabanji is looking at the carpet snake he has killed for food. Once again there is a sense of ease, self-possession, of command over their domain. It’s a beautifully composed double portrait, the long leanness of man and boy emphasised by the low angle and strong vertical lines of not only their bodies, especially their legs, but also Nanatugurba’s spears and Nanabanji ‘s snake, almost as long as he is.
Another wonderful photograph expresses an exuberant physicality in men who have come under a much stronger European influence. This was taken by the artist Rex Battarbee during a painting expedition out from Hermannsburg Mission in the 1930s. Two Arrernte men have accompanied him and the image shows them doing some bareback acrobatics on the mission donkeys. They are wearing shirts and trousers and one of them, a hat, and are really playing it up for the camera.
Exuberance is a quality noted by Cecil Hackett, a medical scientist and physical anthropologist, quoted by Jones in his caption for Hackett’s photograph of a little Pitjantjatjara girl.  He describes her as “one of the very charming, lithe-figured, little people whom we found very fascinating, full of fun, and always ready on the slightest provocation to break into a ripple of laughter. Really, I believed in fairies for the first time in my life!”.
In the photograph, however, Hackett has captured another mood, quite pensive, her beautiful full mouth closed on some thought or emotion. Once again, her bodily adornment is striking: her hair is twisted into ‘dreadlocks’ held at the ends by eucalypt flower buds, to very charming effect.
There are of course sad and depressing images of frontier contact, it would not be an honest book if there weren’t. There’s a heavy pair by Gillen, presented on facing pages, one showing two naked Aboriginal prisoners in neck-chains in the custody of two fully clothed and armed native police. Gillen at the time was the local magistrate and would have had to sentence these prisoners. He would also have been in charge of the native police. All four look dejected, although the prisoners more utterly so than their guards.
On the opposite page are two Arrernte women, housemaids at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, dressed in long skirts, belted at the waist, and blouses buttoned to their necks. They are standing against a stone wall of one of the buildings, with their cleaning equipment all around them.
Jones informs us that Gillen negotiated permission for photographs to be taken and that he offered forms of payment, such as tobacco and food. He also took no for an answer, as in the example of his housemaid Polly who refused to pose naked for him and abused him roundly for suggesting it. Here the housemaids had surely consented to pose for him but they don’t seem happy. Both have their head tilted to one side, a sign of reluctance, or at least shyness I feel. There’s nothing of the self-confidence of the young woman first-mentioned. Both photographs were taken around the same time, 1895.
Another image that is initially striking becomes depressing when you think about it, with Jones providing the necessary perspective in his caption. It was taken by White during his 1914 expedition into the Everard Ranges in the far north of South Australia. It shows a magnificent smooth rock formation with a deep depression in its side. Members of the expedition have laid tarpaulins on the slope of the rock and are scooping water from the depression and pouring it down the tarpaulins into a trough fashioned at the base in order to water their camels. How ingenious! But then Jones reminds us that in this way the expedition probably deprived local Yankunytjatjara people of their water supply and this at a time when the area was heading into a major drought.
This kind of impact on Aboriginal people is definitely the downside to the marvelous adventures evoked by many of the expedition images. A minor theme is the evidence they reveal of the spirited, hardy women accompanying the men this book celebrates: Samuel White’s wife, Ethel; George Aiston’s wife, Mabel; Bill Walker’s wife, Mollie.
William Walker’s story is one of the most interesting. A medical practitioner, on an inland tour over 18 months in 1928-29 he amassed more than 10,000 images, far outstripping the output of any photographer before him, each of whom, Jones informs us, had taken no more than a few hundred images of The Centre. Walker’s images selected by Jones focus on the way in which the landscape and society was being transformed by settler industry: we see men at work on the arduous task of building the Oodnadatta to Alice Springs railway; Aboriginal women employed sorting wool at Coondambo sheep station in north-west South Australia; miners at rest in Coober Pedy, with a relaxed Mollie Walker in their company; wild camels being mustered near Marree.
We don’t see but learn in the text about a body of his work that had a significant impact on Aboriginal lives at the time.  In an act of ‘citizen journalism’ he compiled a dossier of photographs accompanied by a written report revealing the realities of life for Aborigines  in and around Alice Springs. Walker circulated 50 copies of the report to politicians and public figures – who had not previously seen “such confronting images”, says Jones – as well as to leading Commonwealth newspapers. None of the images was published but they created a sensation, described in the Adelaide Register as “appalling evidence” of the “neglect of our elementary duty towards the survivors of the primitive race dispossessed of this country by the act of British settlement”.
Walker’s action achieved two immediate results: the Aboriginal Children’s Home at Jay Creek was completed to rehouse children from the overcrowded Bungalow; and the case for Alice Springs to receive a resident medical officer was advanced. The appointment of Dr W. B. Kirkland followed a year later.
In the earliest examples more than a century has passed since these photographs were taken, more than half a century for the most recent. Much has changed in that time of course, but what’s more interesting is how connected to the present these images feel, how enduring the character of the landscape is, how close we still can feel to the dynamics of the early encounters between white and black – shifting between hopeful promise and tragic portent.
From the top: Young Arrernte woman at the Alice Springs Telegraph Station, c. 1895. Photograph by Francis Gillen.   Nanatugurba and Nanabanji, a Luritja man and boy, June 1931. Photograph by Ernest Kramer. • A Pitjantjatara girl. Photograph by Cecil Hackett.  Bailing out water for expedition camels in the Everard Ranges. 1914. Photograph by Samuel White. Below (slightly cropped): Bill Walker pulling one of his own teeth with the help of his wife Mollie. 1927. All images from the South Australian Museum Archives and reproduced in Images of the Interior.



  1. How sad it is that the misguided whites have done so much damage. Many whitefellas who like and respect the true blackfella could do nothing against the church, politicians and the do-gooders who are led by the vested interest who have made a business out of the people who just need their self-esteem and pride returned.
    We have just apologized for something we did not do and no-one today would do what was done, and it was as bad as the child molestation performed by the church against all children.
    But those who will live to see the day, and as far as I am concerned, it is here today, we will have to apologize for genocide by welfare.
    The obesity was never there in the past, neither was alcohol, and both are a result of very bad welfare. That will be seen as criminal by future generations.
    What we did to the Vietnam returned soldiers and what we are doing to the Aboriginals will be the shame of Australia.

  2. Thanks Kieran, great article and great pictures. Will keep an eye out for the book. Puzzled by the comments though, we are a weird lot. PS: Tholstrup, what is it you are thinking we did to Vietnam returned soldiers? “Bad welfare”?


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