Images of the Interior: Seven Central Australian photographers
Philip Jones 2011
Wakefield Press, Kent Town, SA, 161pp, ill., 27 cm, ISBN
We should be grateful that the Aborigines and the landscape of Central Australia were first pictured by men who were not professional photographers and whose outlook was not distorted by the romantic notion of the Noble Savage or his supposed demise. The images of these early photographers record in a matter of fact way the Aboriginal people encountered by government officials and visitors of various kinds.
In this fine anthology of historical images from the Centre, South Australian Museum Curator Philip Jones has brought together the work of seven amateur photographers ranging from the 1890s to the 1940s. Together with an erudite introduction, he provides a useful biographical essay to accompany each of them. Jones' polished prose style serves to make this more than just a book of interesting photographs. All of the material in this book is from the South Australian Museum's collections.
Despite their amateur status, these men attained a high level of competence as photographers. Frank Gillen (1855-1912), the anthropologist Baldwin Spencer's Alice Springs colleague, quickly discovered the use of the camera in recording anthropological data but did not value his own photographs sufficiently to want to distinguish them from Spencer's. While some of his portraits of individuals probably had more to do with establishing the racial origins of the Aborigines than anything else, they have taken on an iconic character.
Perhaps the most interesting (and certainly the most prolific photographer) of the seven was William Delano Walker (1897-1938), a medical doctor from Port Pirie whose scientific investigations had been stimulated by the Royal Society of South Australia's medical members. Using his camera to document railway workers' camps, as well as Aboriginal groups with health problems arising directly from European contact, Walker's self-funded expedition of 1927-28 politicised him to the point of writing a highly influential report containing some confronting images. Unlike other contemporaries, Walker emphasised the environmental destruction wreaked by the cattle industry and its disastrous impact on both the Aboriginal economy and Aboriginal health. Not only did this bring about important administrative changes in the Northern Territory, but it led to the establishment of the Alice Springs-based Aerial Medical Service in 1934. What more might he have achieved had it not been for his fatal plane crash in June 1938?
Another medical doctor to make good use of his camera was Cecil John Hackett (1905-95), who took part in the 1926-27 expedition to Central Australia by South Australia's Board for Anthropological Research and was Norman Tindale's partner in his work on the Pitjantjatjara in 1933. …