Posted by: Lisa Hill | December 24, 2011

Images of the Interior: Seven Central Australian Photographers by Philip Jones

Images of the Interior: Seven Central Australian PhotographersI hope I’m not going to sound as if I’m spruiking for Wakefield Press, (because they do send me quite a few books for review), but really, if you’re interested in Australian history, you probably can’t do better than to browse their online catalogue.  So far I have read and enjoyed Ochre and Rust also by Philip Jones (which won the PM’s Prize for History); Grand Central State by Jack Cross; and The Home of the Blizzard by my hero Douglas Mawson.  All of them have been both enticingly informative and beautifully made – which seems to be a bit of a rarity in modern publishing.

Images of the Interior offers superb photography and illustrations.  Philip Jones is a historian who has curated many exhibitions at the South Australian Museum (some of which you can view online, e.g. Australia’s Muslim Cameleers).   While I’m sure his books have value for professional historians, he writes for general readers who are interested in less well-known aspects of our history, bringing the story of Australia to life.  No one, reading this book and perusing these 19th and early 20th century pictures, could fail to appreciate the challenges of outback life and travel or the fading dignity of the Aboriginal way of life as it was being subsumed by European settlement.

Images of the Interior is not a long book, only 155 pages not counting references at the back, but it features some very interesting characters.  What I like about it is the way it celebrates the contribution of ordinary people to our understanding of our history.  Francis J Gillen (1855-1912), for example, was a telegraph stationmaster on the  Overland Telegraph Line, and he was a bit of a ‘character’ with little formal education.  In 1875, as a young officer on the line (which had opened in 1872) he had had grand plans to make a lot of money and to make a name for himself ‘pressing outward through the boundaries of Civilization & Settlement’.   Alas, having invested ‘large portions of his salary in horse racing, lotteries and ill-starred mining ventures’ he was, by the turn of the century still working in very remote places with little financial success to show for it.

However, he had made his name in a way he could never have anticipated and today that name lives on because of his interest in photography.  Colonial scientists had soon realised that remote telegraph stations could help with collecting ethnographic and natural history data, and throughout the 1880s and 1890s telegraphic station staff began to enliven their isolation by collecting and documenting such information as suited their own interests, often sending it on to the South Australian Museum and the National Museum of Victoria (now – alas – the Disneyfied Museum Victoria). Gillen was enlisted in this data collection with a questionnaire from the ‘armchair ethnographer’ Edward Curr and he sent back a vocabulary of the local Lower Arrernte people.  Gillen’s remote station became a hub for this activity and he himself soon became interested in photography after a visit by the pioneer photographer David Lindsay…

The book reveals the difficulties these pioneer photographers had with the photographic technology of the time.  Whether attempting landscapes or portraits, there were significant limitations on what they could do, which makes their achievement all the more remarkable.  Gillen’s photos of the Arrernte people were also enhanced by the respect he showed them: it was not long after his arrival as Station-master at Charlotte Waters in 1891 that (using his authority as a Justice of the Peace) he arrested a police trooper for murdering two Aboriginal men.  Although the trooper was acquitted, the Arrernte respected his attempt at justice and willingly participated in his photographs, the purpose of which Jones says they understood before giving Gillen permission to photograph their ceremonies.  (Sometimes they even staged re-enactments for him when he had missed one that he thought was of interest).

It was the limitations of photography that made it essential to negotiate before pictures could be taken; whereas later it became possible to take an impulsive snap without the subject being aware of it, in Gillen’s day photography involved the laborious and intrusive setting up of a tripod and large camera and posing the subject for lengthy periods of time.  However there is reason to believe that Gillen would still have sought permission anyway: Jones says that he was

among the first Europeans to comprehend the depth and complexity of Aboriginal religion.  His landscape photographs were the first to reveal the sacrality of Aboriginal ‘country’ and his portraits provide the first humane, engaged images of the Arrernte as individuals. (p13)

In all his ethnographic activity he was assisted by his wife, Amelia, who also spoke the Arrernte language and probably helped Gillen with his research into women’s life.  I would have liked to know more about her too (and the other wives who played supporting roles in this work).

There are twelve of Gillen’s photos in this book, the saddest of which is the one showing two Aborigines chained around their necks, arrested for stealing or spearing cattle from local pastoralists who had taken up their land.  By contrast with their Aboriginal escorts in European clothing, and with other portraits of Arrernte people in their traditional places, they are pitifully thin.

There are other remarkable photos: Captain Samuel A White (1870-1954) was an ornithologist and early environmentalist who took some fascinating shots: there’s one of expeditioners baling water for the camels from granite rock holes, another of a railway push trolley on the then brand-new East-West Railway linking Adelaide and Perth in 1917, and my favourite, three ‘Dort’ vehicles setting off across the inland from Adelaide to Darwin, as jaunty as if it were a Sunday drive in the suburbs!

George Aiston (1879-1943), like Gillen, lacked formal education, but he became an authority on Aboriginal material culture through his own personal research.  A Boer War veteran, he became a police trooper who chose not to carry a gun, presiding over an ‘area the size of France’ from his posting at Mungeranie on the Birdsville Track.  This man who left school aged eleven developed a classification system for Aboriginal stone tools and as an acknowledged expert catalogued an important collection of tools at the Australian Institute of Anatomy, also presenting a lantern slide show about ‘Aboriginal Life in Central Australia’ to an audience which included the Prime Minister James Scullin.  Some of his photos are stunning, especially the one that shows the Birdsville Mail Coach struggling over the sand dunes.  The hardships these people endured in these remote places are almost beyond belief…

Other remarkable men featured in this book include

  • the evangelist Ernest Kramer (1889-1958), who documented the tragic destruction of a way of life among Central Australian aborigines with photos that show a striking absence of men
  • the medical researcher Cecil Hackett (1905-1995) whose under-acknowledged work in eradicating the horrible disease yaws was derived from his fieldwork in Central Australia, photographing the Pitjantjatjara and Ngadadjera people as he went along
  • William Delano Walker (1897-1938) who, accompanied by his stoic wife Mollie, undertook a 16000 km extended holiday in 1927  and took 10,000 well-documented photos, which included confronting images of the living conditions and deplorable health of Aboriginal fringe dwellers.  His report forced public attention on the issue which resulted in improved access to health care in Central Australia.
  • Rex Battarbee (1893-1973), founder of the Arrernte School of Watercolour Artists of whom the most pre-eminent was Elea (Albert) Namatjira.  Jones makes the point that before Battarbee, people who had not made the arduous trip into the interior had only ever seen black-and-white images of it.  Striking as are the images in this book, most of them are black-and-white photography and they do not reveal the extraordinary colours of the outback.  It was Battarbee who revealed its true colours with his paintings.  However, the arrival of colour photography in the mid 1940s meant that he was also able to take photos in colour as well as in black-and-white, using these images to convince the sceptical that the vivid colours he used in his paintings were authentic.

There is a pdf extract from this superb book which shows some of the text and images at Wakefield to whet your appetite, but it can’t compete with the quality of the reproductions in the book which is not quite A4 in size and printed on high quality gloss paper.  It’s too late for Christmas, but it would be a lovely gift for anyone interested in Australian history and should be in every secondary school library.

© Lisa Hill

Author: Philip Jones
Title: Images of the Interior: Seven Central Australian Photographers
Publisher: Wakefield Press, 2011
ISBN: 9781862545847
Source: Review copy courtesy of Wakefield Press

Availability:
Direct from Wakefield Press
Fishpond: Images of the Interior: Seven Central Australian Photographers


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