12 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1

Nicolas Peterson
Australian National University
Abstract: The native tribes of Central Australia,
published in 1899, was by far and away the best pho-
tographically illustrated ethnography up to that time.
It has been suggested that Spencer and Gillen relied on
photography because of the practical difficulty they had in
communicating with the Arrernte and in understanding
what was going on. Here it is argued that the involvement
with photography arose out of the intersection of the limits
that face verbal communication when in the presence
of complex performance, and the significance of visual
information within the emerging natural-science fieldwork
orientation. However, it seems that Spencer and Gillen’s
intellectual understandings of Arrernte life and culture
were challenged by the photographs, leading them to deny
aspects of the evidence the photographs provided.
I have printed a set of the Echunpa [perentie] pictures
for Sambo and have had a neat shallow tin case made
to hold them and they are to be taken and deposited
with the Churinga in the Ertnatulinga [storehouse cave]
shortly. Sam was delighted and so was your Okilya
[elder brother], the King. (Gillen in Mulvaney et al.
1997:157)
Gillen provides no further information on this fas-
cinating event and so one is left to speculate about
the surrounding circumstances and motivations.
Although it is unknown whether Sambo requested
the ceremonial photographs spontaneously or took
up an offer of the prints, it would seem likely that it
was his idea to place the photographs in the churinga
storehouse.
1
Gillen and Spencer took a great many
ceremonial photographs, and clearly showed them
to the Aboriginal men from time to time (below), but
there is no evidence that this lodging of prints in the
storehouses was a common practice. It might also be
reasonably assumed that it was Gillen’s idea to make
a tin box for the photographs since it was integral to
both his and Spencer’s work that the photographs
were of great archival value.
2
Speculation also has
to fill the gap about motivation. Gillen is clear that
both Sambo and his father, the King, were pleased
about the whole idea.
3
The acceptance of the box and
the lodging of the images in the storehouse are clear
evidence that the photographs were highly valued
and one can only assume that that was because they
were seen to be related directly to the events/people
that they depicted.
Because the photographs printed for Sambo
recorded restricted information in an entirely com-
prehensible form, they had to be restricted in the
same way as the events and objects shown in them.
This rational view is one that is shared by many
Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal persons to the present
(e.g. Kimber 1998:50–1).
4
They are not concerned
about taking the simulacra for the real but recognise,
as WT Mitchell (1994:284) has said, that one conno-
tation of the photograph is that it is pure denotation
VIsua! knnw!cdgc: 5pcnccr and GI!!cn’s
usc nI phntngraphy In The native tribes of
Central Australia
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 13
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
and that is simply what it means to recognise a photo-
graph as a photograph. But what about Spencer and
Gillen: what did photography mean to them?
The native tribes of Central Australia (1899, herein-
after The native tribes) is a lavishly illustrated work,
and it is clear both from the volume of Gillen’s letters
to Spencer (Mulvaney et al. 1997), where photogra-
phy is by far the biggest subject entry in the index
other than for the key persons, and from Mulvaney
and Calaby’s (1985) biography of Spencer that it was
a powerful interest. Why was this? At least two views
have been expressed. Alison Griffiths (1997:29) has
suggested that the reason for the emphasis on pho-
tography, particularly of the Engwura ceremony, was
in response to the practical difficulties they had in
communicating with the Arrernte and in understand-
ing what was going on. She specifically refers to the
debate on the extent to which Gillen had command
of the Arrernte language and the over-reliance on
young Aboriginal men as translators (Mulvaney &
Calaby 1985:174). Others have seen the ethnographic
emphasis on photography in this period as part of the
colonial gaze that, in the case of Aboriginal peoples,
was dedicated to demonstrating their place in the
evolutionary hierarchy (e.g. Maxwell 1999:142; Willis
1988:205).
In this paper I argue that these, and other views
(e.g. Wolfe 1999) on Spencer and Gillen’s involvement
with photography, are limiting half-truths that fail to
engage photography on its own terms and are anach-
ronistic in their understanding of Spencer and Gillen,
and indeed of other ethnographers of the period.
5

Invn!vcmcnt wIth phntngraphy
Spencer and Gillen were both interested in photog-
raphy, quite independently of their collaboration.
Mulvaney and Calaby (1985:165) recorded that Gillen
was already a keen photographer before meeting
Spencer but that, following their meeting, he increased
the number of ethnographic subjects and paid greater
attention to the technical aspects of camera use and
developing. The level of commitment is suggested
by the fact that, in April 1896, Gillen had half a ton of
photographic materials arriving in Alice Springs by
camel (Mulvaney et al. 1997:114).
Spencer himself had a commitment to photogra-
phy before he came to Australia, having taken photo-
graphs during a holiday in the Alps in 1884 (Mulvaney
& Calaby 1985:50). His interest in photography went
along with a strong visual imagination that made him
an accomplished draughtsman and amateur sketcher
and even led him to attend art school for a while
when in Manchester (Mulvaney & Calaby 1985:28).
He apparently used visual material in both his uni-
versity and public lectures to good effect (1985:28) and
illustrated many of his publications with his own zoo-
logical drawings (1985:29). In 1894 he joined the Horn
Expedition to Central Australia, not just as the expedi-
tion biologist but also as the photographer (1985:118),
and in editing the expedition report not only wrote
half the text himself but was the source of most of the
photographs, and supplied 23 line illustrations and
eight pages of colour drawings (1985:117).
From Gillen’s correspondence it is clear that the
two men constantly exchanged prints of photographs
they had taken. As early as September 1894, Gillen
wrote (Mulvaney et al. 1997:52):
6
I am sending you a few Prints this mail, most of which
you and I developed…Have not yet had time to try
silver printing but hope to have some results to send
you next mail. Have taken a number of Corroboree
pictures since you left and shall get some more in a
few days. If I am successful in printing you shall have
a copy of anything I consider sufficiently interesting.
If there is any picture that you would specially like to
have you can let me know.
In November 1894 he sent Spencer 34 plates, that
is negatives, which he described as ‘all the best I have
on hand’ (Mulvaney et al. 1997:58), and later wrote to
Spencer: ‘Make whatever use you like of the plates
and return them thro Winnecke
7
when you have
finished with them’ (Mulvaney et al. 1997:61). He also
allowed Stirling to use his photographs, as selected by
Spencer (Mulvaney et al. 1997:81).
In return, Spencer sent copies of his photographs
to Gillen (Mulvaney et al. 1997:67, also 70, 71, 124,
151, 188, 258).
8
Gillen was much struck by the time
Spencer put into printing and toning the photographs
and commented that his Glen of Palms picture was
‘the most beautiful photograph I have ever seen’
(Mulvaney et al. 1997:124). This makes it clear, as
Mulvaney comments, that precise attribution of par-
ticular images to one or other of the men has to be
done with care (Mulvaney et al. 1997:239). Indeed, in
October 1895 Gillen wrote to Spencer (1997:82, also
239) saying:
The Negatives in your possession are not to be used...[by
Stirling for making lantern slides] until after publica-
tion...Of course if you want slides for yourself take them
by all means, I look upon these negatives as our joint
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
14 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
property—You can tell Stirling, if you like, that we are
joint owners, you possess your interest by right virtue,
or in consideration, of having supplied me with an
instantaneous lens and shutter.
By comparing published images with unpub-
lished images and original negatives, and drawing
on old and new archival sources, Philip Jones (2005)
has gone some considerable way to disentangling the
work of these men, and he thinks that more can be
done; he demonstrates that the pictorial contribution
to The native tribes was about 50-50. For the purposes
of this paper, however, unless otherwise specified, the
attitudes of Spencer and Gillen to photography will
be taken to be similar and no attempt will be made to
distinguish between them.
9
Usc nI thc phntngraphs
Two broad public uses were made of the photo-
graphs taken up to the time of the publication of the
1899 volume. They were used in publications such
as newspapers and articles and some of them were
made into lantern slides.
It was Spencer who made the greater use of
lantern slides for lectures, giving no less than 60
public lectures with them from the time of the Horn
Expedition onwards (Mulvaney & Calaby 1985:181).
Gillen also gave a smaller number of public lectures
using them, but with texts prepared for him by Spencer
(Mulvaney et al. 1997:16, 156). Gillen made another,
more interesting, use of his slides. In November 1895
he wrote to Spencer indicating that he was acquiring
the ‘machine’ for making them (1997:86), and within a
few weeks of the machine arriving he was using it to
prepare slides for a show specifically for Aboriginal
viewing. In his letter of 20 December 1895, Gillen
(1997:91) wrote:
My lantern is a great success, we had an exhibition in
the Courtyard [of the Telegraph Station] one night—
attended by an enthusiastic audience of Niggers
10

whose respect for my magic powers have been thereby
greatly enhanced.
This must have been his first showing but not his
only one, for in a letter dated 5 June 1896 he states:
‘My lantern entertainments are greatly appreciated
by the Niggers...’ (Mulvaney et al. 1997:125).
These reports are of particular interest because
they provide clear evidence that, even at this period,
some Aborigines had already developed a photo-
graphic literacy. Other evidence comes from comments
in Gillen’s letters to Spencer, in one of which he says
he has had Spencer’s picture of the Corroboree heads
framed and that ‘the Niggers were delighted with
them’ (Mulvaney et al. 1997:124), in another (1997:70)
that ‘Your picture of the Cutting Operation (mock) at
Tempe has greatly interested my niggers and I have
arranged to take a series of pictures giving different
stages of the ceremony etc shortly’, and then there is
the opening account of Sambo placing the images in
the churinga storehouse. The interest arises because
Figure 1
Arrernte widow covered with pipe clay and wearing a tyemurrelye
to scare the spirit of her husband away from the camp and into his
grave. This striking picture provides knowledge beyond the grasp
of words. The headdress covering the widow’s face and the white
paint mark the symbolic erasure of the woman’s personal identity
at a key moment in the mourning process. Courtesy of Museum
Victoria (BS610)
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 15
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
it has been reported that some people who have not
seen photographs before, and who know nothing of
the camera, find it hard to make sense of black-and-
white images at first, especially when the subject
matter requires the longer edge of the photograph
to be held vertically.
11
Just how these Arrernte had
acquired this competence, or how long it took them
to acquire it, cannot be answered from the material
available, but it is clear that it could not have been all
that long.
The use of the published photographs in The
native tribes stands out from contemporary use in two
ways: first, there is the sheer quantity of images (Table
1) and, second, there is their relationship to the text.
There are 119 photographs in the text, a number
that far exceeded any other ethnography of the time,
which Gillen felt ‘must sell’ the book (Mulvaney et
al. 1997:186). Of these, 71 are of ritual performances
or directly related to them. All the photographs are
embedded in or near to the relevant text,
12
placed in
the middle of the page, and 82% on the right-hand
side so that they catch the reader’s eye as the page is
turned. The ceremonial images are not merely illus-
trative, with only a loose connection to the text, but
are actually part of the ethnographic documentation
of the events being described. Indeed, without them
the continuous dense description of ceremonial acts
would be much less easy to digest and conceive.
Table 1 Photographs in The native tribes of Central Australia,
classified by content
C!assIIIcatInn Numbcr
Ceremonial 71
Artefacts 16
Portraits (1–2 people) 11
Site 7
Activity 4
Group with housing structure 2
Healer 2
Mortuary 2
Witchcraft 2
Portrait (group) 1
Rock painting 1
Total 119
PhntngraphIc practIcc
Spencer and Gillen’s photographic practice marked a
major break with that of the limited number of their
contemporaries who were taking photographs of
Aborigines in the last decade of the nineteenth century
and that had public circulation at that time. Broadly
speaking, three categories of contemporary photogra-
pher can be distinguished:
13
professional commercial
photographers such as Nicholas Caire, Charles Kerry,
Henry King, JW Lindt and Charles Walter; explorers/
travellers such as those on the Elder Expedition, the
Horn Expedition and the South Australian North-
West Expedition (Basedow 1914); and those surpris-
ingly few people with an ethnographic orientation
who were interested in photography, such as Paul
Foelsche and Walter Roth. The majority of the photo-
graphs taken at that time, other than by the explorers/
travellers, were studio photographs although, increas-
ingly, outdoor photographs of Aborigines were being
taken from 1889 onwards because of developments in
technology.
Spencer and Gillen’s photographic corpus in The
native tribes stands out from the work of these others
for a range of reasons. The photographic and technical
quality of their field photographs was greatly superior
to those of all but the professional photographers; a
much higher proportion of their photographs were
un-posed;
14
the quantity of images produced that
relate to a single language group and set of related
events; and the fact that their subject matter was
primarily ceremonial life. Indeed, prior to the publica-
tion of The native tribes, no other substantial corpus of
ceremonial photographs from Australia was so acces-
sible. Those published by Roth were small in number
and not always taken by him, and none of the other
photographers, either commercial or ethnographic,
had a similar corpus. Only Kerry’s series on the bora,
held on the Lower Macquarie River in New South
Wales in 1898, comes close, but it totals less than 20
photographs, and these have a stiff and stagey quality
about them, reflecting, in part no doubt, the docu-
mented reluctance of the people to be photographed
on the ceremonial ground (Kerry 1899).
In The Arunta, the 1927 update of The native tribes,
Spencer introduced a ‘Note on illustrations’ (1927:
xiii–xiv) in which he discussed the photographic
techniques used to secure the illustrations. Some of
the images were staged for the purposes of illus-
tration, such as those dealing with the Kurdaitcha
man (Spencer & Gillen 1899:482) and the Illapurinja
woman (1899:487).
15
They were set-up and photo-
graphed by Gillen, who wrote to Spencer comment-
ing that he ‘had great difficulty in procuring the
Kurdaitcha pictures and greater still in getting the
Illapurrinja’ (Mulvaney et al. 1997:90). Elsewhere
Gillen commented that he persuaded the men to go
through the rain ceremony so that he ‘might pho-
tograph them’ (Mulvaney et al. 1997:102), and that
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
16 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
on his work travels he would ‘take the Camera and
arrange beforehand with the Missionaries to organise
some Corroborees and Ceremonies…Next May I shall
go North to Attack Creek, a series of Corroborees will
be organized at and photographed at Barrow and
Tennants [Creek]’ (Mulvaney et al. 1997:86). Likewise
Spencer had staged, among others, the picture referred
to above of a subincision operation at Tempe Downs
during the Horn Expedition (Mulvaney et al. 1997:70)
because the original operation, like many other ritual
acts, took place in the dark. For such night-time
events, photographs were taken during (Spencer &
Gillen 1927:xiii):
…daylight rehearsals that were held at our request,
so that we might photograph them…All the illus-
trations dealing with the Engwura represent either
the decoration of the performers, the latter actually
arranged in position for the ceremony, or the perform-
ance itself. The great majority of illustrations represent-
ing ceremonies of various kinds are reproductions of
instantaneous photographs, often taken under difficult
conditions in regard to light and position, but, in all
cases, they represent the actual scene.
The photography cannot, necessarily, be assumed
to have been imposed on people. Mulvaney con-
sidered that the Arrernte may have agreed to the
Engwura ceremony being photographed in part
because they were grateful to Gillen for having prose-
cuted the murderous Constable Willshire and secured
his removal from the district. Gillen reported both the
right to photograph a ceremony being exchanged for
a payment of food, and of a request to take pictures
being turned down. In his letter of 7 November 1895,
Gillen (Mulvaney et al. 1997:89) wrote that:
[a] deputation of greasy Udnirringeeta brethren just
arrived, inform me that they are prepared to allow me
to photograph a Corroboree this afternoon in return for
a blow out of flour, tea and sugar. I have accepted their
terms, generously adding sundry half sticks of tobacco
if their get up be satisfactory.
What effect such a request would have had on the
preparation is hard to say, but it seems unlikely that
Figure 2
Arrernte welcoming dance. Entrance of the strangers. Alice Springs, 9 May 1901. Spencer and Gillen (1912:249) wrote that the visitors,
after being apparently ignored for half an hour, were invited to come to the camp. They ‘formed themselves into a solid square and
approached at a fairly quick run, every man with his spear aloft and all of them adopting the curious high knee action’. A picture of the
‘curious high knee action’ is much more informative than the verbal description, if one knows nothing of it, but more importantly the
picture also informs uniquely about the tenor of the whole event. Courtesy of Museum Victoria (BS786)
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 17
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
it would have had much impact if the ceremony
were part of something they were doing for them-
selves and part of their ongoing religious life. This
makes Spencer’s reference to ‘rehearsals’ problem-
atic. However, there is no indication that they re-
performed exactly the same increase rites in the
evening, although they may have done so with the
male initiation rites. Radical change would have
probably created considerable political problems, if
present-day experience is anything to go by. On the
other hand, one can presume that Gillen would not
have made the request if he had not thought that
people had skimped in the past.
The occasion on which Gillen was turned down
is reported in the same letter (Mulvaney et al. 1997:
89–90):
Your parcel of tobacco was duly conveyed to old Poll
whom it has utterly demoralised. She bids me Yabba,
‘Thank you long Puff-fessa, me big fellow look out
longa rat and all about lizard by and bye long cold
weather.’ I hoped to send you a photo of her au naturel
by this mail but when, after handing her your tobacco, I
approached her on the subject with exceeding delicacy,
she gave me a look which I shall never forget and scath-
ingly remarked, ‘You all same Euro, you canta shame!
You no big fellow master! You piccaninny master’.
The emphasis on the piccaninny was something to
remember for ones lifetime. Since then she reverted to
the subject to tell me that, ‘That one big fellow master
Puff fessa no yabba like it that him no poto-grafum,
poto-grafum, poto-grafum lubra all day. Very good long
bushie lubra, no good longa station lubra’ and in a final
burst of indignation she wound up saying, ‘No good no
good potografum lubra cock!’.
16
Spencer and Gillen say little about the aesthetic
aspects of their photographic practice. The spatial
and organisational aspects of this could be derived
from a detailed analysis of the image composition,
which is not attempted here, but it is evident from
even a casual perusal of the book that there is nothing
particularly distinctive about the aesthetic aspects.
Because the camera was being used within a scien-
tific framework, pictures of many of the ‘stationary’
dances in which the performer is kneeling are taken
holding the camera at a low angle (e.g. 1899:figures 66,
70, 71, 74, 83, 103, 104), which is somewhat unusual as
it means getting down on the ground, something that
many field photographers were not prepared to do.
In keeping with an interest in social context, approx-
imately 60% of the photographs are medium shots
and usually include others than the performers. Jones
(2005:14) has suggested that there is a slight differ-
ence in the photographic practice of the two men, with
Spencer taking wider and more panoramic views of
ceremonies, and concentrating on composed portraits
of individual ceremonial performers, while Gillen
took less formal images.
It is evident that both of the photographers were
keen to exclude European materials from the pho-
tographs since none are included; yet many of their
subjects would have almost certainly worn European
clothing, although whether they would actually have
kept it on in a ceremonial context at that time is more
doubtful.
17
Gillen is explicit about photographing
around such items, apologising for ‘the tin pot in Erkita,
it escaped my notice, the Negative is not a good one’
(Mulvaney et al. 1997:187).
18
And the original photo-
graph (874 in Museum Victoria’s Spencer Collection)
for the gold image impressed into the cover of Across
Australia, of a man and a youth sitting down, has been
modified to replace the two tin cans with two small
circular containers beside the man, the like of which
never existed among the Arrernte.
Doubtless there was both an aesthetic apprecia-
tion and influence at work in the photography: at one
point Spencer comments that ‘the whole scene with
the decorated men in front and the group of interest-
ed natives in the background was by no means devoid
of picturesqueness’ (Spencer & Gillen 1899:297). Yet it
is of some interest that despite colour playing quite an
important part in Arrernte body decoration, no regret
was expressed by Gillen in his letters at not being
able to take photographs in colour.
19
There are several
points in the book, however, where aesthetic colour
judgements are made. They comment on the artistic
capacity on the part of the makers of a ceremonial
structure fashioned with red-and-white colouring and
adorned with the red-banded black cockatoo feathers
(1899:308). Elsewhere they (1899:298) wrote:
The area occupied by these bands was first of all
rubbed with grease and then with powdered wad, an
ore of manganese which gives, when used in this way,
a peculiar pear-gray tint, which harmonises well with
the chocolate-coloured skin and stands out in strong
contrast to the edging of white down which everywhere
margins the bands
and that (1899:318):
The dark chocolate colour of the skin, the black and
red feathers, the gray bands on the body and the white
and pink down, together with the light yellow sand on
which the man sat, formed a striking mixture of colours
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
18 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
which was by no means unpleasing, and the whole
decoration was extremely quaint.
Why was phntngraphy sn Impnrtant?
The foregoing evidence, not to say the text of the book
itself, makes it clear that the commitment to photog-
raphy had little or nothing to do with the practical
difficulties in communication with the Arrernte about
what was going on in the Engwura ceremony. It arose
out of the intersection of the limits that face verbal
communication when in the presence of complex per-
formance, and the significance of visual information
within the context of the emerging natural-science
fieldwork orientation.
20
Until World War I, photography was seen as a
generator of anthropological knowledge, particularly
in respect of the study of human variation. However,
it was not until the latter part of the 1880s that
printing technology developed to the point where it
was possible to include mechanically printed photo-
graphs in books, and it took ten years before photo-
graphic illustration became commonplace in them.
The proliferation of photographs in The native tribes of
Central Australia reflects these changed circumstanc-
es. The number of photographs in the book is empha-
sised by the fact that photographs largely disap-
peared from anthropological monographs following
World War I, as has been observed by several people
(e.g. de Heusch 1962; MacDougall 2006:228; Pinney
1992). The principal reason advanced for this is
the emergence of structural-functionalism, with its
emphasis on abstract thinking and on non-visible
social relationships in social analysis (MacDougall
2006:229).
It also seems hard to sustain the argument that
the purpose of the lavish use of photography was to
demonstrate the people’s place in the evolutionary
hierarchy. While it might be argued in respect of the
first 14 photographs, taken alone, this neglects the
other 105 images. The book opens with an author-
ising image of seven old men, whom the reader is
presumably meant to assume number among those
who provided the information. This is followed
by four photographs that emphasise the hunting
and gathering culture—a family at home in a small
ephemeral structure, two pictures of a man throwing
a spear and another throwing a boomerang. These
in turn are followed by nine photographs designed
to show the physiognomy of the head. The majority
of the remaining photographs are used to build up
a visual narrative chain (Pinney, following Saussure,
1992:87), giving embodiment to the carefully described
complexity of the ceremonies.
Cnnc!usInn: dca!Ing wIth thc cvIdcncc
While there are no great mysteries or hidden agendas
behind the commitment of Spencer and Gillen to pho-
tography, there is an intriguing hint that it created an
unresolved tension for them. They could not bring
themselves to believe their eyes because the evidence
they provided, not just to themselves but also to
others, did not fit the prevailing framework for under-
standing otherness. In the Preface to The northern tribes
of Central Australia (1904:xiii–xv), they commented
that:
At present time the natives of Central Australia carry
on their ceremonies in secrecy, without the few white
men who are scattered over the country knowing, as a
general rule, anything about [this] elaborate ritual...A
word of warning must, however, be written in regard
to this ‘elaborate ritual’. To a certain extent it is without
doubt elaborate, but at the same time it is eminently
crude and savage in all essential points. It must be
remembered that these ceremonies are performed
by naked, howling savages, who have no idea of
permanent abodes, no clothing, no knowledge of any
implements save those fashioned out of wood, bone
and stone…no belief in anything like a supreme being.
Apart from the simple but often decorative nature of
the design drawn on the bodies of the performers, or on
the ground during the performance of ceremonies, the
later are crude in the extreme…[however] It is difficult,
if not impossible, to write an account of the ceremo-
nies of these tribes without conveying the impression
that they have reached a higher stage of culture than is
actually the case.
Although there is no mention of the photographs it
seems highly likely that they might have been thought
to help create this impression in readers’ minds, since
the visual impact of the designs on the bodies and on
the ground is acknowledged. Indeed, the use of the
phrase ‘designs drawn on the bodies’ is misleading
since it downplays the decorations which are much
more than designs painted on the body. Rather, they
add a three-dimensional texture to the skin, blurring
its outline, as is apparent even from the photographs.
When feather down is used, in place of plant down, it
shimmers in the slightest breeze making it seem that
the decorated person is radiating power (cf. Morphy
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 19
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
Figure 3
Arrernte Erkita corroboree. Alice Springs, c. 1896. This photograph shows men decorated for a public entertainment and only gives a
hint of the richness of the body decoration and the complexity of headdresses used in men’s restricted ceremonies. The plant or bird
down in such ceremonies covers the whole torso and can completely transform the appearance of a person. Courtesy of Museum
Victoria (XP9285)
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
20 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
1989) and transforming them into fantastic figures
that are scarcely recognisable as human beings (e.g.
Spencer & Gillen 1899:plate 74).
These images, it seems, along with the text, may
have misled contemporary readers about the com-
plexity and sophistication of Arrernte religion, in turn
disrupting the readers’ understanding of how the
Arrernte related to Western civilisation and Victorian
England: they were assumed to be humans in the
‘chrysalis phase’ of social evolution, not the advanced
sophisticates documented in the images.
Howard Morphy has suggested that there is
evidence that it was Sir James Frazer who thought
it necessary to combat this impression, and who
inserted the reference to ‘howling savages’, and so on.
Whether he did or not, the possible existence of this
impression, I would suggest, is a tribute to the power
of visual knowledge. This is not a visual knowledge
that subverts the text but one that, in the case
of Spencer and Gillen’s photographs, enriches and
enlarges it, giving embodiment to the dry and dull
descriptions, of unknown peoples, in faraway places,
performing hard-to-imagine actions, no matter the
richness of the verbal description.
Sambo and Spencer and Gillen shared a common-
sense view of these photographs: they were reality
transcripts. It is possible that Sambo thought they
were more than this, partaking of the essence of the
people in the photograph in some way. Although
today most Arrernte use the term putewe
21
for a pho-
tograph, older Arrernte speakers use the words for
shadow (ntulye) and less commonly shade (ulye).
There is no evidence that a form meaning ‘spirit’
was ever used by Arrernte in relation to photo-
graphs or the process of taking them, as is common
in some parts of Australia. However, there is linguis-
tic evidence that when Arrernte speakers refer to pho-
tographs of persons, they can be treated as inaliena-
ble parts of a person; that is, as in the same way as the
face, name or spirit.
22
Spencer and Gillen probably did not share this
view but they too had to confront the evidential
qualities of the photographic transcription. That they
failed to do so in terms of their commitment to
natural science, preferring to try to undermine the
evidence of the images, rather than modify their intel-
lectual understandings, underlines just how difficult
it is, at any period of time, to make sense of a radically
different, coeval, Other.
ACKNOWLEDGMENT5
This is a reworked version of a paper originally
prepared for A Century at the Centre: Spencer, Gillen
and ‘The Native Tribes of Central Australia’ confer-
ence, organised by John Morton. It was sponsored by
Museum Victoria and the University of Melbourne,
and held on 2–3 October 1999. I thank John Morton
for inviting me to take up this subject and for his help
and advice; Howard Morphy for stimulating discus-
sions on this topic and for drawing my attention to
a key section of Spencer’s writings; David Wilkins
for his extended answer to a request for a linguis-
tic take on how Arrernte deal with photographs; and
Mary Morris and Robert McWilliams for assistance in
obtaining the images from Museum Victoria’s Spencer
Collection. The paper has been improved by helpful
referee comments.
NOTE5
1. According to John Morton (pers. comm.), this was the storehouse
at Simpson’s Gap.
2. On the occasions when I have visited storehouses I have been
struck by the presence of boards that have been badly damaged
or all but destroyed by termites. I have also been struck by the fact
that the Aboriginal persons present were not distressed by this,
indeed they seemed, in every case, to be quite accepting that it
could happen to very old boards. I am unclear if this is just a recent
phenomenon which has resulted because of movement off the
country and a consequent inability to curate the contents of remote
storehouses, or whether such destruction was always the case. It
does, however, give one cause to reflect on the idea of archiving and
how that relates to the storehouses.
3. I thank John Morton for this information about the relationship.
4. Kimber (1998:50) has also documented the intense emotions that
can be evoked by photographs of deceased people.
5. Patrick Wolfe (1999:151–62) has mounted an argument about
the consequences of the emergence of field photography for the
demise of the significance of ‘survivals’ in social evolutionary
anthropology, and as posing a threat to anthropological authority,
since travellers and others could equally well provide the same
photographic ‘scientific evidence’. Photographing the secret, he
argued, protected ethnographic authority generally, and specifically
that of Spencer and Gillen from their competitor, the missionary
Carl Strehlow, who excluded himself from ceremonies, and whose
own published photographs were ones that showed only the
impact of the Lutheran civilising mission.
6. Also Mulvaney et al. (1997:56, 63, 70, 71, 86, 135, 151, 159, 174,
187, 188, 190, 213, 239).
7. Charles Winnecke was the surveyor on the Horn Expedition.
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 21
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
8. Sometimes it seems that these were prints from Gillen’s negatives
but not in this case, I think, because Spencer asked that duplicates
be handed on to a third person (Mulvaney et al. 1997:67).
9. Some differences in the images taken would emerge from a
detailed study.
10. In respect of the use of this word, Morphy (Mulvaney et
al. 1997:48) has commented that ‘there is evidence that they
treated Aboriginal people with much more respect than any
other Europeans in the region and that this was recognised and
appreciated by the Arrente themselves. The constant use of the
word “nigger” is oppressive, even though in the context of the
times it was routinely used without quite the same insulting
connotations that it later acquired.’
11. In 1967 when showing footage of a ceremony filmed at
Yuendumu to the men who were in the ceremony, it was evident
that at least one man did not initially recognise himself in the film,
although he was easily able to recognise others. Given the absence
of mirrors and photographs it may not be all that surprising that
some older people did not have a clear body image of themselves.
12. Curiously, however, figure numbers in the text only appear in
Chapter 19 ‘Clothing, weapons, implements, decorative art’.
13. This is only a general and indicative division; de Lorenzo (1993)
has provided a more detailed analysis of photographs of Aboriginal
persons.
14. Catherine Rogers (1995:36) has overemphasised the number of
images posed, perhaps unaware of the way the performances were
staged.
15. Gillen commented of other photographs that they ‘are excellent,
and they are genuine—I developed the Waninga pictures in fear
and trembling knowing that if they did not turn out well I might
never have another chance’ (Mulvaney et al. 1997:174).
16. Timothy Masson (n.d.) has suggested that one possibility for
her refusal to disrobe may have been that she was menstruating.
However, I see no reason not to be attentive to what Poll herself
says: she is not a ‘bushie lubra’.
17. Even in the 1970s at Yuendumu, when men were holding
restricted ceremonies, many of the main participants and performers
were entirely naked during particular ceremonial acts. Some wore
shorts or loin-cloths, but only rarely trousers. As Spencer and
Gillen moved north to Tennant Creek, in 1901, many more of
their photographs include men in so called ‘cock-rags’, strips of
cloth hanging from a belt covering the genitals. While among the
Arrernte most of the belts were hair-string, by the time they were
working with groups in the heart of cattle station country, most of
the belts were leather.
18. Jones (2005:12–14) documented the elimination of shadows from
various photographs by retouching and cropping.
19. A screen-plate colour process was patented in 1897 that Haddon
intended to use in the Torres Strait but the equipment failed to
arrive. The first colour photographs were taken in Australia in 1899
(Edwards 1998:107).
20. See, for example, Schwartz and Ryan (2003) in respect of
geography.
21. A transcription of the Arrernte English pronunciation of
‘photo’.
22. I am indebted for this information on Arrernte linguistic usage
to David Wilkins, of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics
in the Netherlands, who responded to a call for help with a detailed,
insightful and informative reply of which this is only a part. During
the 1901 expedition, when at Tennant Creek on 13 September,
Gillen recorded the following event in his diary (Mulvaney et al.
1997:348):
A morose old fellow, who has been ill ever since we arrived here
but is now recovering and able to take part in the ceremonies,
expressed it as his opinion that our object in taking photographs
was to extract the heart and liver of the blackfellows. His opinion
had some weight with a few of the old men and there was much
discussion about it. I arrived on the scene when the discussion was
at its height and seeing that something was wrong made enquiry
and quickly discovered the cause. For an instant I didn’t know what
to do, the old men were watching me intently and on the spur of the
moment I roared with laughter in which they presently joined. To
laugh was, as it turned out, the very best thing I could have done,
for in five minutes the air of frightened seriousness had left their
faces...This, however, is the first occasion upon which I have met
with the same curious superstition amongst the Central Australian
Aborigines and it is not without interest.
REFERENCE5
Basedow, H 1914, Journal of the Government North-West Expedition,
Royal Geographical Society of Australasia, South Australian Branch,
Adelaide.
de Heusch, L (ed.) 1962, The cinema and social science: a survey of
ethnographic and sociological films, UNESCO Reports and Papers in
the Social Sciences 16, Paris.
de Lorenzo, C 1993, ‘Ethnophotography: photographic images of
Aboriginal Australians’, PhD thesis, University of Sydney.
Edwards, E 1998, ‘Performing science: still photography and the
Torres Strait expedition’ in A Herle & S Rouse (eds), Cambridge and
the Torres Strait: centenary essays on the 1898 anthropological expedition,
Cambridge University Press, pp. 106–35.
Griffiths, A 1997, ‘Knowledge and visuality in turn of the century
anthropology: the early ethnographic cinema or Alfred Cort
Haddon and Walter Baldwin Spencer’, Visual Anthropology Review
12(2):18–42.
Jones, P 2005, ‘Indispensable to each other: Spencer and Gillen or
Gillen and Spencer?’ Collaboration and Language, Strehlow Research
Centre, Alice Springs (Occasional Paper 4), pp. 6–25.
Kerry, C 1899, ‘Note’, Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales
33:xxvii–xxviii.
Kimber, R 1998, ‘Gillen time: the creation of an era’, in Connection
and disconnection: encounters between settlers and indigenous people in
the Northern Territory, Northern Territory University Press, Darwin,
pp. 49–76.
MacDougall, D 2006, The corporeal image: film, ethnography, and the
senses, Princeton University Press.
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n
22 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1
Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson
Masson, T n.d., You no big fellow master: the anthropologist’s eye for the
bushie lubra, viewed 30 January 2006, <http://www.duckdigital.
net/FOD/FOD0991.html>.
Maxwell, A 1999, Colonial photography and exhibitions: representa-
tions of the ‘native and the making of European identities, Leicester
University Press, London.
Mitchell, W 1994, Picture theory, University of Chicago Press.
Morphy, H 1989, ‘From dull to brilliant: the aesthetics of spiritual
power among the Yolngu’, Man 24:21–40.
Mulvaney, J & Calaby, J 1985, ‘So much that is new’: Baldwin Spencer,
1860–1929: a biography, Melbourne University Press.
Mulvaney, J, Morphy, H & Petch, A (eds) 1997, ‘My Dear Spencer’: the
letters of F.J. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer, Hyland House, Melbourne.
Pinney, C 1992, ‘The parallel histories of anthropology and
photography’, in E Edwards (ed.), Anthropology and photography:
1860–1920, Yale University Press, New Haven, pp. 74–95.
Rogers, C 1995, ‘Photography and anthropology: looking back at
the camera’, Olive Pink Society Bulletin 7(1&2):28–40.
Schwartz, J & Ryan, J (eds) 2003, Picturing place: photography and the
geographical imagination, I. B. Tauris, London.
Spencer, B & Gillen, FJ 1899, The native tribes of Central Australia,
Macmillan, London.
—— 1904, The northern tribes of Central Australia, Macmillan,
London.
—— 1912, Across Australia, Macmillan, London.
—— 1927, The Arunta: a study of a stone age people, 2 vols, Macmillan,
London.
Willis, A-M 1988, Picturing Australia: history of photography, Angus
& Robertson, Sydney.
Wolfe, P 1999, Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology:
the politics and poetics of an ethnographic event, Cassell, London.
NIcn!as Pctcrsnn lectures in anthropology at the School
of Archaeology and Anthropology, Australian National
University. His interest in visual anthropology began
in the 1960s when he was involved, as anthropologist,
with the making of ethnographic record films of
Aboriginal men’s secret ceremonies for AIATSIS. Most
recently he has co-edited Photography’s other histories
(Duke, 2003) with Christopher Pinney.
<Nicolas.Peterson@anu.edu.au>
n
o
t

f
o
r

r
e
p
r
o
d
u
c
t
i
o
n

She specifically refers to the debate on the extent to which Gillen had command of the Arrernte language and the over-reliance on young Aboriginal men as translators (Mulvaney & Calaby 1985:174). But what about Spencer and Gillen: what did photography mean to them? The native tribes of Central Australia (1899. in the case of Aboriginal peoples. 124. Have taken a number of Corroboree pictures since you left and shall get some more in a few days. 1997:81). If there is any picture that you would specially like to have you can let me know. hereinafter The native tribes) is a lavishly illustrated work. 151. 1997:67. and that is simply what it means to recognise a photograph as a photograph. 1997:124). In 1894 he joined the Horn Expedition to Central Australia. as selected by Spencer (Mulvaney et al. Others have seen the ethnographic emphasis on photography in this period as part of the colonial gaze that. In this paper I argue that these. also 239) saying: The Negatives in your possession are not to be used. and later wrote to Spencer: ‘Make whatever use you like of the plates and return them thro Winnecke7 when you have finished with them’ (Mulvaney et al. and from Mulvaney and Calaby’s (1985) biography of Spencer that it was a powerful interest.8 Gillen was much struck by the time Spencer put into printing and toning the photographs and commented that his Glen of Palms picture was ‘the most beautiful photograph I have ever seen’ (Mulvaney et al. In return. 188. in October 1895 Gillen wrote to Spencer (1997:82. having taken photographs during a holiday in the Alps in 1884 (Mulvaney & Calaby 1985:50). He apparently used visual material in both his university and public lectures to good effect (1985:28) and illustrated many of his publications with his own zoological drawings (1985:29). in April 1896. that precise attribution of particular images to one or other of the men has to be done with care (Mulvaney et al. Wolfe 1999) on Spencer and Gillen’s involvement with photography.Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n I am sending you a few Prints this mail.5 an accomplished draughtsman and amateur sketcher and even led him to attend art school for a while when in Manchester (Mulvaney & Calaby 1985:28). Mulvaney and Calaby (1985:165) recorded that Gillen was already a keen photographer before meeting Spencer but that. particularly of the Engwura ceremony. From Gillen’s correspondence it is clear that the two men constantly exchanged prints of photographs they had taken. Maxwell 1999:142. Willis 1988:205). His interest in photography went along with a strong visual imagination that made him In November 1894 he sent Spencer 34 plates. 1997). 71.Of course if you want slides for yourself take them by all means.. 1997:58). most of which you and I developed…Have not yet had time to try silver printing but hope to have some results to send you next mail. not just as the expedition biologist but also as the photographer (1985:118).[by Stirling for making lantern slides] until after publication. and it is clear both from the volume of Gillen’s letters to Spencer (Mulvaney et al.g. which he described as ‘all the best I have on hand’ (Mulvaney et al. Why was this? At least two views have been expressed. and in editing the expedition report not only wrote half the text himself but was the source of most of the photographs. Spencer sent copies of his photographs to Gillen (Mulvaney et al. Indeed. As early as September 1894.g.. He also allowed Stirling to use his photographs. and other views (e. This makes it clear. he increased the number of ethnographic subjects and paid greater attention to the technical aspects of camera use and developing. 1997:239). Spencer himself had a commitment to photography before he came to Australia. 1997:52):6 Involvement with photography Spencer and Gillen were both interested in photography.. 258).. are limiting half-truths that fail to engage photography on its own terms and are anachronistic in their understanding of Spencer and Gillen. also 70. Gillen had half a ton of photographic materials arriving in Alice Springs by camel (Mulvaney et al. and supplied 23 line illustrations and eight pages of colour drawings (1985:117). was dedicated to demonstrating their place in the evolutionary hierarchy (e. If I am successful in printing you shall have a copy of anything I consider sufficiently interesting. where photography is by far the biggest subject entry in the index other than for the key persons. Alison Griffiths (1997:29) has suggested that the reason for the emphasis on photography. 1997:61). that is negatives. I look upon these negatives as our joint Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 13 . 1997:114). was in response to the practical difficulties they had in communicating with the Arrernte and in understanding what was going on. Gillen wrote (Mulvaney et al. following their meeting. as Mulvaney comments. quite independently of their collaboration. The level of commitment is suggested by the fact that. and indeed of other ethnographers of the period.

more interesting. you possess your interest by right virtue. Gillen made another. It was Spencer who made the greater use of lantern slides for lectures. or in consideration. They were used in publications such as newspapers and articles and some of them were made into lantern slides. in one of which he says he has had Spencer’s picture of the Corroboree heads framed and that ‘the Niggers were delighted with them’ (Mulvaney et al. if you like. the attitudes of Spencer and Gillen to photography will be taken to be similar and no attempt will be made to distinguish between them. giving no less than 60 public lectures with them from the time of the Horn Expedition onwards (Mulvaney & Calaby 1985:181). The interest arises because . for in a letter dated 5 June 1896 he states: ‘My lantern entertainments are greatly appreciated by the Niggers. Gillen also gave a smaller number of public lectures using them. Other evidence comes from comments 1 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 in Gillen’s letters to Spencer.. in another (1997:70) that ‘Your picture of the Cutting Operation (mock) at Tempe has greatly interested my niggers and I have arranged to take a series of pictures giving different stages of the ceremony etc shortly’. This striking picture provides knowledge beyond the grasp of words. use of his slides. In his letter of 20 December 1895. 156).Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson property—You can tell Stirling. and within a few weeks of the machine arriving he was using it to prepare slides for a show specifically for Aboriginal viewing. For the purposes of this paper. 1997:125). Figure 1 Arrernte widow covered with pipe clay and wearing a tyemurrelye to scare the spirit of her husband away from the camp and into his grave. however. we had an exhibition in the Courtyard [of the Telegraph Station] one night— attended by an enthusiastic audience of Niggers10 whose respect for my magic powers have been thereby greatly enhanced. and drawing on old and new archival sources. Courtesy of Museum Victoria (BS610) By comparing published images with unpublished images and original negatives. unless otherwise specified. that we are joint owners. but with texts prepared for him by Spencer (Mulvaney et al.9 This must have been his first showing but not his only one. The headdress covering the widow’s face and the white paint mark the symbolic erasure of the woman’s personal identity at a key moment in the mourning process. These reports are of particular interest because they provide clear evidence that.. of having supplied me with an instantaneous lens and shutter. even at this period. 1997:16. Gillen (1997:91) wrote: My lantern is a great success.’ (Mulvaney et al. some Aborigines had already developed a photographic literacy. and he thinks that more can be done. and then there is the opening account of Sambo placing the images in the churinga storehouse. 1997:124). Philip Jones (2005) has gone some considerable way to disentangling the work of these men. he demonstrates that the pictorial contribution to The native tribes was about 50-50. re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n Use of the photographs Two broad public uses were made of the photographs taken up to the time of the publication of the 1899 volume. In November 1895 he wrote to Spencer indicating that he was acquiring the ‘machine’ for making them (1997:86).

The majority of the photographs taken at that time. Of these. increasingly. with only a loose connection to the text. such as those dealing with the Kurdaitcha man (Spencer & Gillen 1899:482) and the Illapurinja woman (1899:487). 1997:186). The ceremonial images are not merely illustrative. JW Lindt and Charles Walter. In The Arunta. but are actually part of the ethnographic documentation of the events being described. All the photographs are embedded in or near to the relevant text. either commercial or ethnographic.11 Just how these Arrernte had acquired this competence. prior to the publication of The native tribes. but it is clear that it could not have been all that long. comes close. who wrote to Spencer commenting that he ‘had great difficulty in procuring the Kurdaitcha pictures and greater still in getting the Illapurrinja’ (Mulvaney et al. and that Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 1 . and these have a stiff and stagey quality about them. The use of the published photographs in The native tribes stands out from contemporary use in two ways: first. find it hard to make sense of black-andwhite images at first.12 placed in the middle of the page. and the fact that their subject matter was primarily ceremonial life. no other substantial corpus of ceremonial photographs from Australia was so accessible. and 82% on the right-hand side so that they catch the reader’s eye as the page is turned. other than by the explorers/ travellers. but it totals less than 20 photographs. especially when the subject matter requires the longer edge of the photograph to be held vertically. Charles Kerry. without them the continuous dense description of ceremonial acts would be much less easy to digest and conceive. second. Indeed. and none of the other photographers. a much higher proportion of their photographs were un-posed.Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n Table 1 Photographs in The native tribes of Central Australia. there is the sheer quantity of images (Table 1) and. in part no doubt. 1997:90). Spencer and Gillen’s photographic corpus in The native tribes stands out from the work of these others for a range of reasons. and who know nothing of the camera. reflecting. explorers/ travellers such as those on the Elder Expedition. outdoor photographs of Aborigines were being taken from 1889 onwards because of developments in technology. 71 are of ritual performances or directly related to them. Some of the images were staged for the purposes of illustration. Those published by Roth were small in number and not always taken by him. held on the Lower Macquarie River in New South Wales in 1898. Elsewhere Gillen commented that he persuaded the men to go through the rain ceremony so that he ‘might photograph them’ (Mulvaney et al. were studio photographs although. the 1927 update of The native tribes.14 the quantity of images produced that relate to a single language group and set of related events. 1997:102). Only Kerry’s series on the bora. the Horn Expedition and the South Australian NorthWest Expedition (Basedow 1914). cannot be answered from the material available. and those surprisingly few people with an ethnographic orientation who were interested in photography. classified by content it has been reported that some people who have not seen photographs before. There are 119 photographs in the text. a number that far exceeded any other ethnography of the time. which Gillen felt ‘must sell’ the book (Mulvaney et al. had a similar corpus. Indeed. or how long it took them to acquire it. Broadly speaking. Henry King. three categories of contemporary photographer can be distinguished:13 professional commercial photographers such as Nicholas Caire. Classification Number 71 16 11 7 4 2 2 2 2 1 1 119 Ceremonial Artefacts Portraits (1–2 people) Site Activity Group with housing structure Healer Mortuary Witchcraft Portrait (group) Rock painting Total Photographic practice Spencer and Gillen’s photographic practice marked a major break with that of the limited number of their contemporaries who were taking photographs of Aborigines in the last decade of the nineteenth century and that had public circulation at that time. The photographic and technical quality of their field photographs was greatly superior to those of all but the professional photographers. Spencer introduced a ‘Note on illustrations’ (1927: xiii–xiv) in which he discussed the photographic techniques used to secure the illustrations. the documented reluctance of the people to be photographed on the ceremonial ground (Kerry 1899). such as Paul Foelsche and Walter Roth.15 They were set-up and photographed by Gillen. there is their relationship to the text.

in all cases. 9 May 1901. Likewise Spencer had staged. be assumed to have been imposed on people. if one knows nothing of it. after being apparently ignored for half an hour. and of a request to take pictures being turned down. but. they represent the actual scene. The photography cannot. A picture of the ‘curious high knee action’ is much more informative than the verbal description. the latter actually arranged in position for the ceremony. inform me that they are prepared to allow me to photograph a Corroboree this afternoon in return for a blow out of flour. 1997:86). The great majority of illustrations representing ceremonies of various kinds are reproductions of instantaneous photographs. 1997:89) wrote that: [a] deputation of greasy Udnirringeeta brethren just arrived. generously adding sundry half sticks of tobacco if their get up be satisfactory. Entrance of the strangers. often taken under difficult conditions in regard to light and position. took place in the dark. the picture referred to above of a subincision operation at Tempe Downs during the Horn Expedition (Mulvaney et al. Alice Springs. Gillen (Mulvaney et al. photographs were taken during (Spencer & Gillen 1927:xiii): …daylight rehearsals that were held at our request. so that we might photograph them…All the illustrations dealing with the Engwura represent either the decoration of the performers. were invited to come to the camp. Courtesy of Museum Victoria (BS786) on his work travels he would ‘take the Camera and arrange beforehand with the Missionaries to organise some Corroborees and Ceremonies…Next May I shall go North to Attack Creek. every man with his spear aloft and all of them adopting the curious high knee action’. tea and sugar. They ‘formed themselves into a solid square and approached at a fairly quick run. 1997:70) because the original operation. but it seems unlikely that 1 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 . a series of Corroborees will be organized at and photographed at Barrow and Tennants [Creek]’ (Mulvaney et al. Mulvaney considered that the Arrernte may have agreed to the Engwura ceremony being photographed in part because they were grateful to Gillen for having prosecuted the murderous Constable Willshire and secured his removal from the district. necessarily. In his letter of 7 November 1895. Gillen reported both the right to photograph a ceremony being exchanged for a payment of food. For such night-time events.Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n Figure 2 Arrernte welcoming dance. I have accepted their terms. like many other ritual acts. among others. What effect such a request would have had on the preparation is hard to say. but more importantly the picture also informs uniquely about the tenor of the whole event. Spencer and Gillen (1912:249) wrote that the visitors. or the performance itself.

Doubtless there was both an aesthetic appreciation and influence at work in the photography: at one point Spencer comments that ‘the whole scene with the decorated men in front and the group of interested natives in the background was by no means devoid of picturesqueness’ (Spencer & Gillen 1899:297). 1997: 89–90): Spencer and Gillen say little about the aesthetic aspects of their photographic practice. approximately 60% of the photographs are medium shots and usually include others than the performers. ‘No good no good potografum lubra cock!’. there is no indication that they reperformed exactly the same increase rites in the evening. It is evident that both of the photographers were keen to exclude European materials from the photographs since none are included.’ I hoped to send you a photo of her au naturel by this mail but when. but it is evident from even a casual perusal of the book that there is nothing particularly distinctive about the aesthetic aspects. The occasion on which Gillen was turned down is reported in the same letter (Mulvaney et al. On the other hand. Yet it is of some interest that despite colour playing quite an important part in Arrernte body decoration. no regret was expressed by Gillen in his letters at not being able to take photographs in colour. Jones (2005:14) has suggested that there is a slight difference in the photographic practice of the two men. ‘Thank you long Puff-fessa.19 There are several points in the book. one can presume that Gillen would not have made the request if he had not thought that people had skimped in the past. This makes Spencer’s reference to ‘rehearsals’ problematic. However. has been modified to replace the two tin cans with two small circular containers beside the man.18 And the original photograph (874 in Museum Victoria’s Spencer Collection) for the gold image impressed into the cover of Across Australia. together with the light yellow sand on which the man sat. Very good long bushie lubra. In keeping with an interest in social context. it escaped my notice. the gray bands on the body and the white and pink down. although they may have done so with the male initiation rites. 103.17 Gillen is explicit about photographing around such items. a peculiar pear-gray tint. which is not attempted here. if present-day experience is anything to go by. she gave me a look which I shall never forget and scathingly remarked.Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n Your parcel of tobacco was duly conveyed to old Poll whom it has utterly demoralised. the like of which never existed among the Arrernte. She bids me Yabba. They comment on the artistic capacity on the part of the makers of a ceremonial structure fashioned with red-and-white colouring and adorned with the red-banded black cockatoo feathers (1899:308). of a man and a youth sitting down. something that many field photographers were not prepared to do. me big fellow look out longa rat and all about lizard by and bye long cold weather. pictures of many of the ‘stationary’ dances in which the performer is kneeling are taken holding the camera at a low angle (e. 83. The emphasis on the piccaninny was something to remember for ones lifetime. Since then she reverted to the subject to tell me that. you canta shame! You no big fellow master! You piccaninny master’. 74. Radical change would have probably created considerable political problems.g. the black and red feathers. while Gillen took less formal images. and concentrating on composed portraits of individual ceremonial performers. which is somewhat unusual as it means getting down on the ground. although whether they would actually have kept it on in a ceremonial context at that time is more doubtful. formed a striking mixture of colours Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 1 . which harmonises well with the chocolate-coloured skin and stands out in strong contrast to the edging of white down which everywhere margins the bands and that (1899:318): The dark chocolate colour of the skin. I approached her on the subject with exceeding delicacy. an ore of manganese which gives. after handing her your tobacco. yet many of their subjects would have almost certainly worn European clothing. the Negative is not a good one’ (Mulvaney et al. poto-grafum. The spatial and organisational aspects of this could be derived from a detailed analysis of the image composition. ‘That one big fellow master Puff fessa no yabba like it that him no poto-grafum. 71. with Spencer taking wider and more panoramic views of ceremonies. 70.16 it would have had much impact if the ceremony were part of something they were doing for themselves and part of their ongoing religious life. 104). poto-grafum lubra all day. apologising for ‘the tin pot in Erkita. no good longa station lubra’ and in a final burst of indignation she wound up saying. Elsewhere they (1899:298) wrote: The area occupied by these bands was first of all rubbed with grease and then with powdered wad. Because the camera was being used within a scientific framework. 1997:187). where aesthetic colour judgements are made. ‘You all same Euro. however. when used in this way. 1899:figures 66.

However. The book opens with an authorising image of seven old men. This is followed by four photographs that emphasise the hunting and gathering culture—a family at home in a small ephemeral structure. not to say the text of the book itself. makes it clear that the commitment to photography had little or nothing to do with the practical difficulties in communication with the Arrernte about what was going on in the Engwura ceremony. however. In the Preface to The northern tribes of Central Australia (1904:xiii–xv). It arose out of the intersection of the limits that face verbal communication when in the presence of complex performance. Indeed. there is an intriguing hint that it created an unresolved tension for them. Apart from the simple but often decorative nature of the design drawn on the bodies of the performers. Rather. bone and stone…no belief in anything like a supreme being. anything about [this] elaborate ritual. They could not bring themselves to believe their eyes because the evidence they provided. The majority of the remaining photographs are used to build up Conclusion: dealing with the evidence While there are no great mysteries or hidden agendas behind the commitment of Spencer and Gillen to photography. The number of photographs in the book is emphasised by the fact that photographs largely disappeared from anthropological monographs following World War I. While it might be argued in respect of the first 14 photographs. giving embodiment to the carefully described complexity of the ceremonies. To a certain extent it is without doubt elaborate. or on the ground during the performance of ceremonies. since the visual impact of the designs on the bodies and on the ground is acknowledged. if not impossible. who have no idea of permanent abodes. The principal reason advanced for this is the emergence of structural-functionalism. did not fit the prevailing framework for understanding otherness.. The proliferation of photographs in The native tribes of Central Australia reflects these changed circumstances. It also seems hard to sustain the argument that the purpose of the lavish use of photography was to demonstrate the people’s place in the evolutionary hierarchy. following Saussure. and it took ten years before photographic illustration became commonplace in them. When feather down is used. and the significance of visual information within the context of the emerging natural-science fieldwork orientation. two pictures of a man throwing a spear and another throwing a boomerang. MacDougall 2006:228. but at the same time it is eminently crude and savage in all essential points. Why was photography so important? The foregoing evidence. the use of the phrase ‘designs drawn on the bodies’ is misleading since it downplays the decorations which are much more than designs painted on the body.20 Until World War I. no clothing. it was not until the latter part of the 1880s that printing technology developed to the point where it was possible to include mechanically printed photographs in books. with its emphasis on abstract thinking and on non-visible social relationships in social analysis (MacDougall 2006:229).. These in turn are followed by nine photographs designed to show the physiognomy of the head. as is apparent even from the photographs. taken alone. no knowledge of any implements save those fashioned out of wood. they commented that: re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n At present time the natives of Central Australia carry on their ceremonies in secrecy. photography was seen as a generator of anthropological knowledge.A word of warning must.Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson which was by no means unpleasing. particularly in respect of the study of human variation. without the few white men who are scattered over the country knowing. howling savages. de Heusch 1962. be written in regard to this ‘elaborate ritual’. not just to themselves but also to others. as a general rule. Morphy 1 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 . Although there is no mention of the photographs it seems highly likely that they might have been thought to help create this impression in readers’ minds.g. they add a three-dimensional texture to the skin. to write an account of the ceremonies of these tribes without conveying the impression that they have reached a higher stage of culture than is actually the case. as has been observed by several people (e. Pinney 1992). in place of plant down. and the whole decoration was extremely quaint. this neglects the other 105 images. a visual narrative chain (Pinney. the later are crude in the extreme…[however] It is difficult. It must be remembered that these ceremonies are performed by naked. whom the reader is presumably meant to assume number among those who provided the information. blurring its outline. 1992:87). it shimmers in the slightest breeze making it seem that the decorated person is radiating power (cf.

Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n Figure 3 Arrernte Erkita corroboree. This photograph shows men decorated for a public entertainment and only gives a hint of the richness of the body decoration and the complexity of headdresses used in men’s restricted ceremonies. Alice Springs. Courtesy of Museum Victoria (XP9285) Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 19 . The plant or bird down in such ceremonies covers the whole torso and can completely transform the appearance of a person. c. 1896.

that is. 151. Gillen and ‘The Native Tribes of Central Australia’ conference. there is linguistic evidence that when Arrernte speakers refer to photographs of persons. 70. 5. however. Also Mulvaney et al. in turn disrupting the readers’ understanding of how the Arrernte related to Western civilisation and Victorian England: they were assumed to be humans in the ‘chrysalis phase’ of social evolution. I have also been struck by the fact that the Aboriginal persons present were not distressed by this. 187. coeval. 174. underlines just how difficult it is. 63. Howard Morphy for stimulating discussions on this topic and for drawing my attention to a key section of Spencer’s writings. not the advanced sophisticates documented in the images. 188. along with the text.Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson 1989) and transforming them into fantastic figures that are scarcely recognisable as human beings (e. the possible existence of this impression.22 Spencer and Gillen probably did not share this view but they too had to confront the evidential qualities of the photographic transcription. 190. name or spirit. 159. It is possible that Sambo thought they were more than this. at any period of time.g. as in the same way as the face. On the occasions when I have visited storehouses I have been struck by the presence of boards that have been badly damaged or all but destroyed by termites. Although today most Arrernte use the term putewe21 for a photograph. protected ethnographic authority generally. I would suggest. David Wilkins for his extended answer to a request for a linguistic take on how Arrernte deal with photographs. performing hard-to-imagine actions. 4. in every case. It does. give one cause to reflect on the idea of archiving and how that relates to the storehouses. to make sense of a radically different. who excluded himself from ceremonies. no matter the richness of the verbal description. older Arrernte speakers use the words for shadow (ntulye) and less commonly shade (ulye). Kimber (1998:50) has also documented the intense emotions that can be evoked by photographs of deceased people. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS This is a reworked version of a paper originally prepared for A Century at the Centre: Spencer. There is no evidence that a form meaning ‘spirit’ was ever used by Arrernte in relation to photographs or the process of taking them. preferring to try to undermine the evidence of the images. and Mary Morris and Robert McWilliams for assistance in obtaining the images from Museum Victoria’s Spencer Collection. they can be treated as inalienable parts of a person. Other. 3. 213. However. According to John Morton (pers. the missionary Carl Strehlow. to be quite accepting that it could happen to very old boards. Charles Winnecke was the surveyor on the Horn Expedition. The paper has been improved by helpful referee comments. Sambo and Spencer and Gillen shared a commonsense view of these photographs: they were reality transcripts. Patrick Wolfe (1999:151–62) has mounted an argument about the consequences of the emergence of field photography for the demise of the significance of ‘survivals’ in social evolutionary anthropology. Photographing the secret. and whose own published photographs were ones that showed only the impact of the Lutheran civilising mission. is a tribute to the power of visual knowledge. 71. These images. and so on. 0 Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 . giving embodiment to the dry and dull descriptions. enriches and enlarges it. 2. in the case of Spencer and Gillen’s photographs. comm. it seems. or whether such destruction was always the case.). rather than modify their intellectual understandings. may have misled contemporary readers about the complexity and sophistication of Arrernte religion. It was sponsored by Museum Victoria and the University of Melbourne. partaking of the essence of the people in the photograph in some way. 6. This is not a visual knowledge that subverts the text but one that. NOTES re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n 1. as is common in some parts of Australia. 86. indeed they seemed. (1997:56. since travellers and others could equally well provide the same photographic ‘scientific evidence’. and specifically that of Spencer and Gillen from their competitor. organised by John Morton. this was the storehouse at Simpson’s Gap. Whether he did or not. Spencer & Gillen 1899:plate 74). 135. he argued. 239). I thank John Morton for this information about the relationship. I thank John Morton for inviting me to take up this subject and for his help and advice. and who inserted the reference to ‘howling savages’. Howard Morphy has suggested that there is evidence that it was Sir James Frazer who thought it necessary to combat this impression. I am unclear if this is just a recent phenomenon which has resulted because of movement off the country and a consequent inability to curate the contents of remote storehouses. That they failed to do so in terms of their commitment to natural science. in faraway places. of unknown peoples. and as posing a threat to anthropological authority. 7. and held on 2–3 October 1999.

Jones. Even in the 1970s at Yuendumu. even though in the context of the times it was routinely used without quite the same insulting connotations that it later acquired. 19. ‘Knowledge and visuality in turn of the century anthropology: the early ethnographic cinema or Alfred Cort Haddon and Walter Baldwin Spencer’. Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 1 . C 1899. of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics in the Netherlands. P 2005. 21. The first colour photographs were taken in Australia in 1899 (Edwards 1998:107). de Heusch. Jones (2005:12–14) documented the elimination of shadows from various photographs by retouching and cropping. Journal of the Government North-West Expedition. Sometimes it seems that these were prints from Gillen’s negatives but not in this case. 20. although he was easily able to recognise others. PhD thesis. many more of their photographs include men in so called ‘cock-rags’. Paris. This is only a general and indicative division. strips of cloth hanging from a belt covering the genitals.) has suggested that one possibility for her refusal to disrobe may have been that she was menstruating.d. Cambridge and the Torres Strait: centenary essays on the 1898 anthropological expedition. While among the Arrernte most of the belts were hair-string. 18. 49–76. In respect of the use of this word. pp. ‘Note’. weapons. Griffiths. who responded to a call for help with a detailed. REFERENCES Basedow. but only rarely trousers. de Lorenzo (1993) has provided a more detailed analysis of photographs of Aboriginal persons. implements. Some wore shorts or loin-cloths. the very best thing I could have done. To laugh was. As Spencer and Gillen moved north to Tennant Creek.This.) 1962. D 2006. and they are genuine—I developed the Waninga pictures in fear and trembling knowing that if they did not turn out well I might never have another chance’ (Mulvaney et al. when at Tennant Creek on 13 September. A 1997.Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson 8. During the 1901 expedition. His opinion had some weight with a few of the old men and there was much discussion about it. L (ed. decorative art’. Visual Anthropology Review 12(2):18–42. however. I see no reason not to be attentive to what Poll herself says: she is not a ‘bushie lubra’. 10. Alice Springs (Occasional Paper 4). 1997:348): A morose old fellow. by the time they were working with groups in the heart of cattle station country. 1997:48) has commented that ‘there is evidence that they treated Aboriginal people with much more respect than any other Europeans in the region and that this was recognised and appreciated by the Arrente themselves. I think. A screen-plate colour process was patented in 1897 that Haddon intended to use in the Torres Strait but the equipment failed to arrive. re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n 13. when men were holding restricted ceremonies. Journal of the Royal Society of New South Wales 33:xxvii–xxviii. 22. 14. Gillen commented of other photographs that they ‘are excellent. Catherine Rogers (1995:36) has overemphasised the number of images posed.’ 11. many of the main participants and performers were entirely naked during particular ceremonial acts. Curiously. Edwards. Schwartz and Ryan (2003) in respect of geography. The corporeal image: film. See. ‘Gillen time: the creation of an era’. 9. Northern Territory University Press. The constant use of the word “nigger” is oppressive. I am indebted for this information on Arrernte linguistic usage to David Wilkins. ethnography. UNESCO Reports and Papers in the Social Sciences 16. is the first occasion upon which I have met with the same curious superstition amongst the Central Australian Aborigines and it is not without interest. The cinema and social science: a survey of ethnographic and sociological films. However. ‘Performing science: still photography and the Torres Strait expedition’ in A Herle & S Rouse (eds). for example. Kimber. R 1998. ‘Ethnophotography: photographic images of Aboriginal Australians’.. 1997:174). Kerry. for in five minutes the air of frightened seriousness had left their faces. figure numbers in the text only appear in Chapter 19 ‘Clothing. 1997:67). 6–25. the old men were watching me intently and on the spur of the moment I roared with laughter in which they presently joined. in 1901. most of the belts were leather. Given the absence of mirrors and photographs it may not be all that surprising that some older people did not have a clear body image of themselves. insightful and informative reply of which this is only a part. Darwin. Adelaide. 17. Morphy (Mulvaney et al. H 1914. MacDougall. it was evident that at least one man did not initially recognise himself in the film. I arrived on the scene when the discussion was at its height and seeing that something was wrong made enquiry and quickly discovered the cause. University of Sydney. as it turned out. 12. expressed it as his opinion that our object in taking photographs was to extract the heart and liver of the blackfellows. For an instant I didn’t know what to do. ‘Indispensable to each other: Spencer and Gillen or Gillen and Spencer?’ Collaboration and Language. Cambridge University Press. and the senses. in Connection and disconnection: encounters between settlers and indigenous people in the Northern Territory. Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. C 1993. In 1967 when showing footage of a ceremony filmed at Yuendumu to the men who were in the ceremony. Some differences in the images taken would emerge from a detailed study. pp. South Australian Branch. Gillen recorded the following event in his diary (Mulvaney et al. Timothy Masson (n.. perhaps unaware of the way the performances were staged. Princeton University Press. E 1998. who has been ill ever since we arrived here but is now recovering and able to take part in the ceremonies. Strehlow Research Centre. pp. de Lorenzo. 16. however. A transcription of the Arrernte English pronunciation of ‘photo’. 15. because Spencer asked that duplicates be handed on to a third person (Mulvaney et al. 106–35.

net/FOD/FOD0991. A-M 1988. Morphy. Angus & Robertson. You no big fellow master: the anthropologist’s eye for the bushie lubra. B & Gillen. . J 1985. FJ 1899. Tauris. Melbourne University Press.Spencer and Gillen's use of photography—Peterson Masson. Wolfe. re n pr ot od fo uc r tio n <Nicolas. Schwartz. Morphy.). Pinney. 2003) with Christopher Pinney. 2 vols. —— 1904. The northern tribes of Central Australia. 74–95. B. London. W 1994. with the making of ethnographic record films of Aboriginal men’s secret ceremonies for AIATSIS. Gillen to Baldwin Spencer. London. ‘My Dear Spencer’: the letters of F. J. ‘Photography and anthropology: looking back at the camera’. <http://www. H & Petch. pp.html>. Mitchell. Australian National University. New Haven. Colonial photography and exhibitions: representations of the ‘native and the making of European identities.au>  Australian Aboriginal Studies 2006/1 Nicolas Peterson lectures in anthropology at the School of Archaeology and Anthropology. Picturing place: photography and the geographical imagination. H 1989.duckdigital. P 1999. Maxwell. London. viewed 30 January 2006. London.J. London.Peterson@anu. A 1999. I. Mulvaney. Picture theory. Spencer. Macmillan. The native tribes of Central Australia. 1860–1929: a biography. Macmillan. Rogers. T n. —— 1912. Yale University Press. Hyland House. ‘From dull to brilliant: the aesthetics of spiritual power among the Yolngu’. in E Edwards (ed. Melbourne. J (eds) 2003. Mulvaney. Leicester University Press. ‘The parallel histories of anthropology and photography’. Man 24:21–40. Most recently he has co-edited Photography’s other histories (Duke. J & Calaby. C 1992.d. as anthropologist. Across Australia. London. Picturing Australia: history of photography. Olive Pink Society Bulletin 7(1&2):28–40. Macmillan. Settler colonialism and the transformation of anthropology: the politics and poetics of an ethnographic event.. Anthropology and photography: 1860–1920. —— 1927. Cassell. Willis. Sydney. J & Ryan. The Arunta: a study of a stone age people. A (eds) 1997. University of Chicago Press. Macmillan. ‘So much that is new’: Baldwin Spencer. London.edu. His interest in visual anthropology began in the 1960s when he was involved. C 1995.