Images of the Interior, seven Central Australian photographers

Images of the Interior


Images of the Interior
Seven Central Australian Photographers

by Philip Jones

After the publication of The Policeman's Eye, The Frontier Photography of Paul Foelsche by Philip Jones in 2005, he has now highlighted and presented the work of seven men who, apart from their many other skills in vastly different fields, also were accomplished photographers. Between them they provided the first European impressions of Central Australia, its landscape and its society from the 1890s until the 1940s.

The seven photographers discussed by Philip Jones in his Images of the Interior are Francis J. Gillen, Captain Samuel Albert White, George Aiston, Ernest Eugene Kramer, Cecil John Hackett, William Delano Walker and Rex Battarbee. These seven men worked hard to gain single images of remarkable people, places and events and worked even harder to preserve them as documents for posterity.

Photography was a late arrival in Central Australia. Most of its early history, changes and developments came down to the city via the Overland Telegraph Line or Traeger’s pedal wireless. At the same time their images had to compete for space in magazines and newspapers. It was only the work of Aiston and Walker which was successfully presented to the public in their life time.

During the time these men took their photographs the theme of the ‘bush’ emerged as a strong formative element in a new Australian identity. It was also the time that assumptions about the interior frontier and its people hardened into stereotypes which still affect our perception of this country today. Police Trooper Aiston began his photographic pursuit in 1912 when he was posted at Mungerannie on the Birdsville Track, just as the Track was entering the public imagination as a defining landscape. Today these same photographs enable us to have a look behind those stereotypes to the reality of the frontier itself and discover that reality was often far different from early assumptions.

These seven amateur photographers somehow convinced Aboriginal people to enter those images, sometimes in the interest of science, sometimes to enhance the sense of the picturesque, but often also, as Samuel White put it, as the rightful owners of the soil. The love for their ‘hobby’ is not only shown by the quality and quantity of their work, but also by the efforts they took to preserve it from droughts, floods and often years of storage before they could be developed and moved to safer places. Luckily most of their collections as well as thousands of photographs are now safely held by the South Australian Museum and several other institutions.

Gillen produced some 400 glass negatives plus numerous prints and about 100 glass lantern slides. White’s collection, held at the South Australian Museum and State Library consists of diaries, manuscripts and 500 glass negatives, 200 glass slides and a large archive of correspondence. An even larger collection is that of Walker. It contains more than 20,000 photographic negatives, prints, correspondence, reports, publications and other manuscript material.

None of the photographers presented by Philip Jones were professionals, they were there to do a job, be it policing the district, in the case of Aiston, or telegraph operator, as Gillen was for many years at Alice Springs and Charlotte Waters. There was also a medical scientist, an artist, a doctor and a missionary. Often these men had a fair amount of spare time and used it to collect and record information for the South Australian and other Museums or to publish their research or journals. Most of White’s bird specimens were sent to John Gould in England.

One of the more unusual photographers was Kramer. Born in Switzerland he arrived in Adelaide in 1909. He would spend 25 years in the Centre as a non-denominational missionary. By 1920 Kramer, his wife, and two children had reached Alice Springs where they settled from 1924 until 1935. While in the Centre, he learnt the Arrernte language, collected ethnographic objects, took pictures and travelled more than 20,000 kilometres over desert tracks, with his donkey or camel team. During these years he still found time to publish an account of his evangelical bush caravan, take part in scientific or other expeditions, give lantern lectures, keep records and write reports for the AFA in Adelaide.

Regardless of the reason for being in the Interior or the job they had to do, they all used photography to advance their own distinctive project. Their photography was rarely an end in itself. Even with their unsophisticated equipment, and the harsh conditions under which they operated, they were able to produce many magnificent pictures, each with their own perspective.

Images of the Interior contains a sample of each photographer’s work, 84 illustrations in all. However it contains far more than that. Philip Jones, who has worked for 30 years at the South Australian Museum, has also included a biography of each of them with their family background, work, interests, aspirations, obsessions and achievements as well as their publications. The end product is a very interesting but also highly readable and enjoyable account of these men’s determination, sometimes assisted by their wives, to complete their project successfully.

Review by Nic Klaassen

Images of the Interior by Philip Jones,
with chapter references and numerous high quality illustrations,
is available at $39.95, from
Wakefield Press

Telephone 08 8352 4455


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