Continuum: The Australian Journal of Media & Culture
Vol. 6, No. 2, 1992
Photogenic Papers
Edited by John Richardson

The photographic witness?

Roslyn Poignant

A still photograph can be thought of as a trace of a moment that is past ... quotation from appearances. From the instant of its production it has become a fragment - even if it is part of a series or set. The question relevant to this exercise is: In what way can this constructed fragment, cut loose from its past, be summoned as a witness to that past. (Berger 96) 1

This paper has its origins in an earlier version presented at the SRMCAS seminar, London, in February 1991, which, in its turn, arose out of discussions at another seminar (on an unrelated subject) 2 about the evidential value of still photographs, and their power to evoke a particular social milieu. On that occasion, I found problematic a proposition put forward that Katharine Susannah Prichard's novel, Working Bullocks, published in 1926, and Axel Poignant's photograph, taken in 1935, and known by the same title, was evidence not only of shared cultural concerns that informed the radicalism of Perth in the thirties but also of friendships and associations. I knew this latter supposition not to be true and therefore felt an urge to unravel the nature of the connection, which seemed a more complex mix of cultural processes, made more apparent, perhaps, with hindsight.

For instance, I agree that there is a way in which the framing and the low angle Poignant selected to photograph Working Bullocks 3 endows the image with symbolic connotations that suggest parallels to Prichard's literary visualizations of the lives of the timber fellers in her novel of a decade earlier, and that this cultural contiguity is of significance for an understanding of the development of a radical social formation in the Perth of the period. Nevertheless, there are also distinctions to be made between the personal and social circumstances of the photograph's production and those of its first exhibition six years later: shifts of meaning as communicated through different contexts - a point I'll be returning to later. In the photographer's recollection, he had not read Prichard's book before he attempted his photo-essay on logging at Pemberton. Although they shared mutual acquaintances, he only ever knew the writer casually, and probably did not meet her until the late thirties.4 However, by the time the photograph was shown in the Missingham-Poignant exhibition (see below) the adoption of the title could be read as either a casual, though informed, appropriation or a conscious tribute. This may seem to be splitting hairs, but details are important, because recent debates about cultural life in pre-war Perth have set store by identifying the membership of coteries and networks of friends.5

Personal friendships were supportive, and frequently crucial, but I am wary about attributing causal connections to them; nor is it necessary to explain the social milieu of Perth in that way. As Raymond Williams has argued of this period elsewhere, radical social formations, which were largely composed of the 'dissident bourgeoisie' rather than the working classes, were characterised by an ambivalent association between revolutionary politics and modernist cultural practices (61). The emphasis on the consensual aspects of social relationships in the Perth of the period is a levelling tendency that does not take account of the ideological shifts or indeed the contradictions, which existed both at an individual and a collective level. It was these tensions which provided the motive power as various creative people in theatre, dance, the graphic arts and literature struggled, however tentatively, to engage with new forms of expression. Perth may have been at the edge of "the great world" but there does appear to have been a ferment of ideas that peaked at the end of the thirties which was indicative of a loose radical social formation of the type defined by Williams.

In Poignant's case he was among those Australian photographers, in the thirties, who were in revolt against Pictorialism and consciously changed their practice in terms of a "new" or "modern" "vision". The use of the unusual camera angle, the close scrutiny of surfaces, an emphasis on sharpness, were all said to intensify this new way of seeing - which was facilitated by the use of small, manoeuvrable precision cameras such as the Leica. Therefore to explore the relationship of his work produced in the thirties to the theories, movements, and ideologies ranging from avant-garde modernism to social realism within the continuum of the modern may provide insights not only into his practice but also into the subjects of those photographs as viewed through the screen of these aesthetic and representational modes.

First, however, it is necessary to address the point which Melissa Harpley has made, that analysis of Poignant's thirties work has been 'distorted' by ignoring, or 'hierarchising' 'the range of photographies' he practised (42-44). I would agree that for an assessment of his practice it is important to take into account his commercial work where he gained much of his experience and technical facility, and to understand that it comprised more than the portraiture for which he is mostly known.6 Economic imperative and the desire for experience dictated that he tackled most things. For example, he acquired his first movie camera in 1933 to make a film on blood transfusion, and used it later to document trade union marches and record wild life. He also used a hand-held 35mm Eyemo to catch "photo finishes" at the races. He worked for Western Mining Co. in aerial survey for a year, and processed film for the Frobenius expedition to the Kimberleys in 1937-8. Even if one confines discussion to his use of the Leica, his first commercial applications of it were all to a degree innovative. They included an aerial shot of the arrival of the Duke of Gloucester (October 1934), a photograph of the closing moments of the Firebird ballet in performance by the Dandr‚-Pavlova Company (January 1935) and the portrait of Percy Grainger (May 1935).7 Nevertheless, as he grasped the potential of the medium, his dissatisfactions with the limitations of his commercial output grew, and from 1935, he sought to extend the range of his work, first to dance and theatre, and gradually, to natural history and self-initiated projects which might be broadly described as documentary.

Thus it is relevant to evaluate the social and economic constraints which shaped Poignant's practice during his formative years in WA, and, again, I think it is important to counter the homogenising backward glance which suggests a West Perth address tells it all; it defines a cultural exterior and not the life within. When Poignant joined his wife Sandra in October 1931 he became part of a Theosophical household, headed by his mother-in-law, the journalist Muriel Chase, and shared with his sister-in-law, her husband and their children. For the first few years he also conducted his business from home. Whatever the social connections of his in-laws, living conditions were crowded and times were not easy. Although he benefitted from Mrs Chase's contacts in establishing a clientele for his home portraiture, the byline which accompanied his portraits published on the society pages was considered sufficient remuneration. Nevertheless this sympathetic and supportive family background enabled the young photographer to move from self-defined apprenticeship to a measure of professionalism. After the separation from his wife and establishment of his studio, the living he made from photography continued to be precarious. Therefore I would argue that the economic pressures, and the lack of outlets for the kind of photography with which he was beginning to engage characterised the formations of production within which he worked during the thirties, and did produce a disjuncture between his commercial work and his self-generated assignments. Poignant certainly did not scorn commercial work; his portraiture established his reputation. But those images which he was to describe later as the significant images of his thirties were mostly made on his excursions into the bush beyond Perth (Poignant, A. 8).

Without being sidetracked into biographical detail, an explanation of this inclination partly lies in elements of the cultural baggage which he brought with him as a newcomer to Australia. His arrival in 1926 in the guise of a British Boy Migrant masks his Swedish upbringing. As an adolescent, he attended a co-educational high-school, where Strindberg was on the curriculum. In the twenties the Stockholm he took possession of as his city was one which was defined by its modernity, and also by the way in which nature was present, not only in the harbour and archipelago, but also in the islands of rock left stranded in the urban landscape in the course of its construction. It is this resonance of nature within modern life that he carried with him.8 Poignant's first impressions of Perth probably coincided with Hasluck's view of it as a colonial backwater (Mucking About 126), one of its attractions being its location at the edge of an exotic hinterland. The newspaper cuttings books which he began in 1931 display the consuming interest he developed in things "characteristically" Australian: the local history, the bush, and the Aborigines. He was attracted by the detritus of the past as evidence of change wrought in the landscape: the abandoned mine, the hearse in the empty paddock, and the old-timer. But it was his experiences in Perth which gave direction to his inclinations, and transformed his interests into concerns. Thus his attention became focussed - as it did for some of his contemporaries - on the non-urban landscape as the site for his exploration of social realist forms of expression. His series, on mining, logging, the Abrolhos Islands, the Canning Stock Route, formed part of his search for the big picture; he used his camera to formulate his perceptions of Australia.

The Karri logging series is important in this regard because it was an early deliberate exercise in giving form to content.9 In spite of its lack of coherence as an essay, it exemplifies two persistent strands in Poignant's practice which are complementary: attention to sequential documentation of detail, and a concern to achieve the 'essence of a subject' within a single image (Poignant, A. 11). By regarding Working Bullocks as a break-through, he was placing the emphasis on statement rather than documentary purpose. Although he engaged fully with his subjects, given the prevailing socio-economic climate he had no expectations that the photographs he produced could be instrumental in effecting change and, even retrospectively, he distinguished them, in terms of those which had significance for him. But photographs are not bound by intention; their ambiguity lends them considerable narrative-making potential and the passage of time brings other elements into play.

Berger has argued that: 'All photographs are possible contributions to history'. But there are some photographs he calls expressive, which, it seems to me, are those in which the photographer's skills and sensibilities coalesce to register an instant - a quotation from appearances - which both 'preserves the particularity of the event recorded' and - through a chain of correspondences in appearances - resonates in such a way as to generate an idea (109-122). An expressive photograph invites questions. In that attribute lies its evidential value - and the possibility of teasing out the range of meanings.

I would call Working Bullocks an expressive photograph. Elsewhere, I have referred to the way in which other photographs with the same quality, such as the aerials of the Anzac Day Service, and the Kalgoorlie Two-up School, sited among abandoned mineshafts, articulated contemporary ideas and located universal themes in particular historical moments (9). However, there are several photographs of Aboriginal people, taken between 1938 and 1942, which it is possible to consider in more depth because they received wider dissemination than was usual for Poignant's documentary images. They are Jack and his family, and two portraits, one of a young mother suckling her baby, and the other of an Aboriginal stockman, both taken on the Canning Stock Route in 1942. Because they have been read by some commentators as "sympathetic" and expressing "humanism", these portraits have been seen as marking a change in the portrayal of Aborigines. For the remainder of this essay, therefore, I want to examine this proposition by contextualising them both in their own period and in relation to the imaging of Aborigines in earlier periods.

Australian photography 1947

A good point of entry for a discussion of the two Canning Stock Route portraits is to take Australian Photography 1947, in which they first appeared, as a text. Promoted as the first annual of Australian photography, and as being a 'rigorous' selection from some 700 amateur and professional submissions, it was produced in conjunction with a major exhibition staged in Newcastle, NSW, as part of the celebrations to mark 150 years of white settlement. According to the promoters - who were the publisher, O. Ziegler, and others associated with photographic institutions of the day - the aim was to encourage standards of excellence that could be measured on some undefined international scale - categorized as 'overseas experts'. In the foreword Hal Missingham asserted: 'Photography, like painting, is one aspect of visual art', and he went on to argue that it had its own aesthetic.

The first consideration in the selection of prints ... has been directed pointedly towards those photographs that unmistakably pronounce themselves as PHOTOGRAPHS; that are not imitative of other graphic methods. As an artist I feel this to be of the greatest importance.... It is interesting to notice in photography the parallels that exist in painting; to compare the romantic and diffuse subject matter of early Australian work with the present awakening interest in the harder and perhaps more factual aspects of our immense land; with their searching after character and texture, attention has been focused on the unaccountable details which in their sum total make a new but unmistakeable vision of our country.

Although the rhetoric approximated more to that of American Straight photography than of documentary, his sentiments were supported by a following piece, titled 'Factual Photography', written by Max Dupain, in which he seems to have forsworn his avant-garde images of the mid-thirties. He writes in reference to John Grierson's definition of documentary as 'creative treatment of actuality':

One does not consider "creative treatment" as having anything to do with montage or superimposition of images - that is a darkroom juggling which echoes in hollow mockery the mischief of our purple past.

His new allegiance to the Grierson style of documentary was discussed, however, in terms of 'of quality of eye' and 'vision', so that 'the subject is penetrated to its very depths'. Nevertheless the new men (there were only a handful of women contributors) generously yielded space to the honoured elder, Harold Cazneauz, spokesman for pictorialism, and when one turns to the photographs themselves, practitioners of the latter style are well represented. Not surprisingly perhaps, a very high percentage of the photographs were taken before the war, and only three refer to the war.10 There is only one other Aboriginal portrait, and the Canning Stock Route portraits are so startlingly different from the rest that the question must be asked: Why were they selected for the dust jacket and frontispiece of a book which aimed to present a new but unmistakeable vision of our country? There are several other images that might well have been selected to symbolise new beginnings, including Missingham's own Mother's Knees - the image of a baby standing, supported between his mother's knees (108).11

A possible interpretation of the prominence given these two images is that they appears to indicate a moment of intersection between two image formations: the image of the Aborigine, and an image of Australian national identity. If this is so, is it an expression of documentary impulse, or does it reflect an undercurrent of change in attitudes in the wider community? To effect an analysis of this one must not only consider the circumstances of production and circulation of these photographs but also relate them to those of both contemporary and earlier images of Aborigines.

Imaging of the Aborigines

The brief review that follows should not be read chronologically, or regarded as definitive; other readings are possible.12 The shifting frontier of colonial Australia is so extended over space and time that the difficulties of using photographs as visual documentation is greatly increased by the way in which, in the very processes of image formation under discussion, photographs of Aborigines have been displaced both spatially and temporally. Therefore, while it is necessary to locate a photograph as precisely as possible, it is also important to grasp the way in which photographs of Aborigines have been redeployed. Broadly speaking certain types of representation can be correlated with particular phases of the confrontation and parallels can be discerned with photographic images from other frontiers, such as the North American.

For instance, the course of the confrontation in the Clarence River district of NSW has been established (Rowley vol. I 108-116), from first encounter in the 1840s, through stages of accommodation and conflict, then retreat, until, by the early 1870s, only remnants of the tribes survived as fringe-dwellers on the edge of settlement. It is from these people that the photographer, J.W. Lindt selected the models for his well-known studio portraits (fig. 1).

These photographs, are images of displacement. The Aborigines' removal from the bush to the constructed studio set, parallels their actual displacement as the land's owners; and the stripping of the clothes they customarily wore also reflects the denial to them of a place within the settlement. An aura of lethargy and anomie pervades these images, which are visual metaphors for death. With their weapons laid aside and their wildness neutralised by the studio's ambience the sitters have been transformed into specimens - like the authentic local plants arranged around them.13 From the number of these photographs extant it is evident that they were widely disseminated as carte de visite; they are also to be found, in larger formats, in most European anthropological archives - for the prints were collected as "anthropological facts."14

Many of Lindt's portraits were recycled well into the 20th century. One in particular, a head and shoulders portrait of a man and woman in close embrace, facing the lens, horrifically exemplifies subjugation by camera. Yet it was used as a frontispiece as late as 1942, to represent 'vanished tribes', in N. Bartlett's broadly sympathetic booklet.15

Images of transformation

There are a number of photographs (for example, some taken by Fred Kruger at Corrandeck, Victoria) which apparently show Aboriginal adjustment to the dominant society - pursuing activities such as fishing, hop-picking, cricket - always in European dress. Commissioned by the missions, they were often used as lantern slides by protection and amelioration societies to raise funds for broadly humanitarian purposes, and sometimes specifically to publicise a school's activities, especially when paired to tell a before and after story. This is also a common American genre, associated with the Native American School (Malmsheimer). In Australia these images of transformation belong to a phase of encounter designated 'Civilisation by Tuition' (Rowley vol. I 86) when children were taken or - sometimes voluntarily placed in schools. They are characterised by what they do not show. It was a process by which individuals such as Bessie Flowers, who attended Annesfield School, Albany, in the 1860s, attempted "the passage" into white society. The photograph of Bessie and her husband (Tilbrook 44) which was taken in 1868 after her transfer to Victoria and marriage to Donald Cameron at Ramahyuch Mission, Gippsland, would appear to attest to the confident adjustment to just such a transformation. The hidden future for her was, however, that in spite of her literacy, her musical accomplishments, and competence as a teacher, she and her family were to be forced off the mission by the Assimilationist Half-Caste Act of 1886, and thereafter she struggled to hold her family together until her death in 1897 (Green).

The postcard and the stereo card

With the advent of the postcard at the turn of the century new modes of dissemination of Aboriginal images had arrived - ones that appropriated images from any area and circulated them widely, nationally and internationally. Again it frequently involved the recycling of old images. The percentage of postcards using Aboriginal themes is not recoverable, but a sample of 291 from one collection of Aboriginal subjects, dated between 1900 and 1920 has been analyzed by Peterson, who sought to classify them under three heads: the romantic, the realistic and the documentary.16 Not surprisingly, for the period under discussion, the category of documentary (in the sense that it implies the image can be instrumental in change or amelioration) collapses into one or other of the categories. His is an interesting endeavour, thwarted by the size of a sample that was probably also atypical. However he found that the images could be categorized as either romantic or realistic (although even these categories tended to merge).

The main differentiating features he isolates are that romantic images are constructed either within recontextualised bush setting or against a neutral background where the figures are naked or traditionally clad, whereas the realistic images show people in European attire, in contemporary living situations. The associated text conditioned the reading of the image, and Peterson found that those in the realistic mode frequently functioned to bolster racist attitudes. For instance, images of the realistic genre were also featured on stereo cards which were in circulation at that time, and a popular educational series by Underwood, captioned a photograph of a group of neatly dressed Aborigines seated in relaxed pose in front of a standard house as 'the most primitive type of mankind'.

Images of appropriation

A variation on the Peterson model offers the possibility of exploring the imaging of Aborigines as they have been represented in popular publications in different periods and regions, but I shall begin to focus more closely on the Western Australian scene by choosing an example from The Western Mail. A recent selection from the annuals (Murphy and Nile 27-31) includes the frontispiece illustration from 1904, in romantic vein, which incorporates several photographs. Central to the composition, is the representation of an Aborigine, his defiant stance safely contained within an inner decorative frame. Contrary to Lowenthal's suggestion that Aborigines were rarely included in the 'cluster of images' that distinguished the unique as opposed to the characteristic Australia (Lowenthal 84-91), this is an emblematic montage of things uniquely Australian - plants, animals and people - 'Our Native Australians'. Constructed to represent the idea of Nation, the use of Shelley's words, made its message explicit: ' From your dust new Nations spring'. It is an image of appropriation.

Images of the thirties

By the thirties the manner in which Aboriginal people were represented can be more closely aligned to attitudes and policies, which in WA were shaped by specific conditions. In the Southern part of the state the continuous struggle of the Aborigines to adapt to white settlement, and make a place for themselves, was repeatedly thwarted by successive waves of immigrant settlers. By the late twenties, as conditions worsened for the latter, the Aboriginal people became even more marginalised. However, they were not dying out - mainly because people of mixed descent had increased more than four-fold since the beginning of the century. The "cause" was identified as miscegenation - about which there was a great deal of muddled thinking. On the one hand it had to stop, and on the other it was seen as easing the way for those Aborigines who were already light-skinned enough "to pass". In relation to the Northern frontier, Jacobs has written: 'The two powerful forces which held the north in its crude organic unity were Aboriginal labour and Aboriginal female sexuality' (185). These themes were central to Prichard's Coonardoo (1928), and her play Brumby Innes, which won the Triad Award in 1927, but was not published until 1940 - being a little too close to the bone. The settler society closed ranks against both policy makers and protesters.17

That Poignant followed these issues can, perhaps, be gauged by the fact that the following examples of the uses of the photographs were drawn from his own collection of newspaper cuttings, pamphlets and books. In spite of this interest, however, it is a matter for speculation that he did not himself photograph Aboriginal people until the end of the decade.

However, within the thirties discourse on Aboriginal matters it is possible to discern several specific ways in which photographs were used, by the ameliorators, the policy makers, and others. In the course of his administration of the Southern district, O.A. Neville (the Protector of Aborigines, and later Commissioner for Native Affairs), had come to the conclusion that 'the destiny of the natives of aboriginal origin, but not of the full-blood, lies in their ultimate absorption'.18 Since 1915 he had kept meticulous records of the people under his control and believed that he could establish the ratio of the racial mixture in most of them - ideas which he later expounded in Australia's Coloured Minority.

He used the photographs he had taken to demonstrate these 'truths' of 'biological assimilation' (see Three Generations; fig. 2 and its caption detailing the supposed degree of gradation (72).

As in As I found them and Bush Waif (figs. 3 & 4) he arranged photographs in pairs to tell a before-and-after story that put the case for the separation of children from their parents, principally on the basis of colour (56). 19

His advocacy of this policy was persuasive and in WA a new act of 1936, which embraced people of even remote Aboriginal ancestry, gave him jurisdiction over children under 21, and over marriages. Such rigid control was not only unjust, but also impossible to exercise fully, and, although his views dominated the Conference of Commonwealth and State Aboriginal Affairs in 1937, they were soon superseded by the strategy of a long term process of assimilation by 'gradual elevation' - a policy that was to embrace Aborigines of whatever degree of descent.

In 1936 The West Australian had published a series of reports by Hasluck on Aboriginal living conditions in the southern settlements, and its re-publication by The Native Welfare Council as a pamphlet, Our Southern Half-caste Natives and Their Conditions, seems to have been partly designed to counter Neville's theories. Hasluck wrote that 'hopes' of inter-marriage settling an 'awkward problem' were being undermined by the squalor in which the people of Aboriginal descent live. 'We are pushing the half-caste back to the Aborigines' (5-6). Although well-intentioned, his documentation of both appalling living conditions and the destructive effects of official intrusion into the people's lives was compromised by the use of alarming headings: 'Camps Swarming with Children'. 'Rubbish Tips of Humanity'. The illustrations, added in 1939, are in the realist mode of the Aboriginal postcards of the earlier decades. In spite of their otherwise average appearance, a line-up of people in front of a makeshift shelter suggests Aboriginal inadequacy, which is reinforced by the caption: 'Rising Numbers - and Still they come'. Another photo of a humpy, 'unfit for human habitation', is accompanied by the text: 'It may or may not effect the question but it will probably interest readers to know that the girls of that family are quite white enough to walk down Hay Street and attract no particular attention'(10).

If these two examples of photographs used in the service of social engineering and amelioration suggest that the public debate on Aboriginal issues was considerable, an analysis of newspaper sources (Rowley vol. I 31) shows that public interest was sporadic until after 1937. Newspaper reports like Ernestine Hill's pieces on her travels in the far north, were characteristically derogatory. A picture, from the Kimberleys, of a smiling woman with missing teeth, captioned Miss Australia, is contextualised thus:

Beryl ... spindly legs beneath a gorgeous frock of perished yellow taffeta. Sinister rumour credits Beryl with having eaten her last two offspring, but the evidence is pretty circumstantial; and because she has such a merry smile we give her the benefit of the doubt.20

Throughout the decade the Aborigines remained invisible; only those with exemption permits were allowed within Perth city limits. At the same time, a hidden visual history was accumulating of snapshots taken by and for the Nyungar people themselves, some of which have been gathered together in Part II of Nyungar Traditions (Tilbrook 1983).21 Thus, today, both personal histories and a place in history have been restored to the Aboriginal people involved, which counters the negative picture from other sources. These Nyungar fragments of personal stories, demonstrate that there was a network of supportive relationships that survived separation, institutionalisation, and the transient life-style (Davis). Characteristic of the vernacular photograph, they depict smiling subjects and special occasions, and often include pets or valued possessions.

Poignant's photographs of Aboriginal people did not enter the visual discourse until the end of the decade. By then, there was a new feeling abroad in Perth of a modern city being shaped. The intellectual life centred on the university was lively; in the arts and in politics the prevailing mood was radical - change seemed possible (Bromfield). In early 1938 Poignant gave a series of adult education lectures, 'Film Today'; his rough notes for these promise a screening of Eisenstein's Ten Days that Shook the World. By contrast in 1939 he lectured on Applied Photography at the Institute of Advertising. His associations ranged from The Workers Art Guild to the Naturalists Club, but the link between all of them was his obsessive involvement with photography. Probably the most important of these associations was with Norman Hall, whose family ran a group of newspapers in the southwest. Hall turned to the local Aborigines for information about bush animals, and went on bush trips with them.

Therefore, one of the few opportunities for Poignant to meet Aboriginal people like Jack and his family (fig. 5: Jack and His Family 1) arose when he visited Hall in Pingelly. When one looks at other photographs in the same set - which have not been shown until recently - the occasion appears to be a chance meeting on the road (fig. 6: Jack and his Family 2).

There is a sense of ease with the photographer, an element of collusion, which recalls some of the Nyungar vernacular images. The directness and intimacy of the family portrait quite outweighs any element of social comment. I suggest that it is this affirmative quality shared with the Nyungar photos, that identifies these images as articulating a different attitude in the portrayal of Aborigines. With research it should also be possible to return them to personal histories.

Then, as later, the frame in which this photograph was presented to the public was that of an exhibition, New Directions in Photography, which Poignant shared with Missingham at Newspaper House in 1941. None of the work he showed was from his commercial portfolio. The burden of the message, given in an anonymous piece, "Photography and the miniature camera", was that 'alongside technical advancement the camera user should develop his power of vision, and a keener selection in the choice of subject matter'. To which, in the foreword, Alec King, added a qualified reference to Art: 'The man behind the camera we can call an artist if we like, for he is continually aware of the beautiful or sordid or grotesque behaviour of things and people that is the root of all art' (Missingham and Poignant).

A mild enough statement, yet Missingham was later to write, with particular reference to the six discussions they set up: 'All heady stuff!' (Newton 4). Photographs like these were not likely to appear in The Western Mail, or other Perth newspapers (Murphy and Nile 21). Within this framework, the caption 'Dinkum Aussies' for the photograph of Jack and his family was meant to be read not ironically, but affirmatively.

It is evident that, by 1940, discussion about the New Photography was fuelled by the return from abroad of people such as the Missinghams and the Thompsons. I am doubtful, however, about how much direct influence can be attributed to the presence on bookshelves of particular photographic texts. More important was the availability of the popular picture magazines where pictures first appeared: Life, Picture Post, Lilliput and US Camera.

Fortunately people wrote letters, and although the following letter from Hall to Poignant is in the private language of friends who are wrapped in an ongoing conversation, it conveys something of the mood of the times. It also suggests that, for them, the use of the word "documentary" did not necessarily imply commitment to social purpose.

The more I think of this documentary idea, the more irritable I become. I am doing nothing about it and that's why I itch. I should be able to put a camera and a typewriter to better purpose than I am doing at present and I will just have to shake myself up in some way. The thing to do is to find something definite, be it ever so humble for a start. One just does not burst into documentary work a finished genius, and one would be a fool to try and model one's work on that of other snoozers, plodding around privies and wading in foetid drains. It is necessary to get one's own ideas and chase one's own subjects and work in one's own way. I am sure it is a thing that one can only teach oneself, and that you are right when you say it is a matter of learning to "see".... To hell with the grind of commercial picture-making. I scarcely touch it at all compared with the burden you have to carry, and I only do it for the money I badly need, and because it helps me to learn something about the craft which must be learned.... Well you Swede, enough. (July 19, 1941)

I have quoted at some length because I think the passage underlines the way in which the self-defined projects were central to the development of Poignant's core ideas, and pinpoints why they demand consideration separate from his commercial work. Some of his pre-occupations were crystallized into practice on his Canning Stock Route trip the following year. It was the first time he had been so far inland, and he has written that his experience of seeing the desert bloom after rain was akin to a spiritual one, in which he realised his identity as an Australian (Poignant, A. 8). When one looks at the photographs he produced, it is as if his passage through the interior exposed him to different perceptions of the landscape which he translated through the lens. There is the landscape taken from such a low angle that it appears to be a stage upon which the drama of white exploration is being played out by the heat-distorted figure of a man on a camel, entering from the left (Poignant, R. On the Canning Stock Route Pl.3). Then there is the way in which the photographer deliberately focussed on the "Outback" through the rugged face of a camel teamster. 22

Finally there is his instantaneous response (achieved in a single frame between two "snapshots" of other people) to the nurturing image of the young Aboriginal mother, who seems to embody the land itself (fig. 7: Young Mother and New-born Baby). Again, the strongest parallels to this last image are to be found in literature, where, according to I. Indyk, from the late twenties, and after a long silence, the Aborigines were "returned" as an insistent presence. Particularly in his discussion about Prichard's Coonadoo, he suggests that the Aborigines can be seen to represent a force, which is claiming the people - nationalising them - making them Aboriginal (Indyk). If this is so, then the portrait of the Aboriginal mother may be interpreted as giving visual expression to that force, which is seen to be an element in the shaping of a new national identity.

In the case of the photograph, Head Stockman (fig. 8), an examination of consecutive frames in the strip of film (Bromfield Pl.14) shows that, although the figure has been endowed with heroic stature, to attribute the power of the image solely to the formal elements of its construction is to ignore the way in which the more subtle enabling role of the photographer encouraged an element of self-presentation, an assertion of natural dignity. This quality is also evident when one considers the more awkwardly framed portrait of the stockwoman (Bromfield Pl.19), in which the photographer's determination to hold the head and the hands within the frame emphasises the fragility of the photographic moment. Her quiet demeanour reflects her self-assured competence. These photographs are witness not only to the positive social role of the Aborigines as pastoral workers but also to moments in personal lives.

In these portraits Axel Poignant has made the Aboriginal people visible. Although their vitalist edge aligns them more closely to contemporary literary expressions of primitivism, such as are evident in the novels of Prichard and Drake-Brockman, considered together with the work of painters such as Arthur Murch, who was making his sensitive portraits at Hermannsburg, and Yosl Bergner, who painted Aborigines in Fitzroy in 1941, these Canning Stock Route portraits can be seen to fall within the broad spectrum of social realism, and as such they situate Poignant's practice within a minority formation - a radical one.

After the war a very different social milieu prevailed, and there was a five year time-lag before these portraits were featured in Australian Photography 1947. Perhaps a clue as to their selection can be found within the same volume in Geoff Powell's photograph, captioned 'Delegates at Political Conference', which shows two wallposters, Unity has Liberated Europe and The Future Belongs to the People.23 Although these were slogans of the left, immediately after the war there was a broad consensus in society which believed the social inequalities of the pre-war era must not be allowed recur, and these sentiments were extended to include the most deprived section of the community, the Aborigines. Evidence from press files indicates that Aboriginal issues, particularly the "half-caste problem", received more attention and were discussed in terms of the Aborigines' rights to 'the four freedoms' (Rowley vol. II 36-40).24 This suggests it was the moment when it was possible for an image of the Aborigine to symbolize a 'new but unmistakeable vision of our country' - at least for a minority. As other commentators have noted, the end of the forties was a time of redefinition, and this choice could be seen as another indicator of that shift towards pluralism.

It is difficult to recover how much these generalised political sentiments were matched by a sense - even diffused - of the Aboriginality of Australian identity. Certainly this is a current in the aesthetic movement which was heralded in 1930 by Margaret Preston's call to readers of Art in Australia (3rd series no.31 March 1931) to: 'Be Aboriginal'. It also underlay Bensen's and Ebert's use of Aboriginal motifs in the Gledden building, Perth, in 1938 (Bromfield 11). By 1941, when the Exhibition of Australian Aboriginal Art and its Application was held at D.J.'s department store in Sydney, the movement was well established (De Lorenzo 4-11), but it was characterised by the processes of appropriation and transposition by which Aboriginal themes and art motifs were being deployed along an applied art - thus it mirrored the assimilation policy as it was then being formulated. Implicit in the idea of assimilation in this decade was the assumption that black would be bred out and that the nation would remain white.

Moreover, by 1947 there were a number of different elements both reflecting and shaping attitudes to Aboriginality. For instance, the popular response to Albert Namatjira's painting also denoted a change in public perceptions of Aboriginal people.25 Thus the presentation of the Canning Stock Route portraits in the Annual was only one of the strands in the imaging of Aborigines in the immediate post war years, and one of the most elusive elements for the interpretation of their contemporary reception is the lack of information about viewers' responses.26

These portraits are embedded in the historical processes that constituted the cultural movements of the period; they do not illustrate, but they can be summoned as witness in the sense that they are open to question like any other document. The photographer's ambivalences of practice are locked into their structure and are part of the message which requires decoding. But from the moment photographs pass into circulation, no matter how limited, and particularly once they pass through the editorial screen, they escape their originators' intentions. Like any other piece of historical evidence they require verification, and situating within several fields of their production and reception. They are not only open to interpretation, but also reinterpretation.


I wish to thank Professor Jim Walter, Head of Centre, SRMCAS, for encouraging me to present my ideas within the Centre's seminar programme, and Dr. Richard Nile for the stimulus to produce this paper. I am grateful to Joanna Sassoon, of the Battye Library, for encouraging me to persist in spite of limited access to sources. Particular thanks are also due to Elizabeth Edwards, Curator of Photographs, Pitt Rivers Museum, and Dr Kate Darian-Smith of SRMCAS, for their generosity with their time; their close reading of this text, and their perceptive comments, saved me some follies. I do not for the moment imagine I can disentangle myself from the subjectivism of my shared experiences with the photographer, thus I acknowledge the hazards of this undertaking.


1. For some of the methodological issues involved in photo analysis see Willis for her critique - within an Australian context - of the biographical and art-aesthetic modes, and the need to set these within a broader socio-cultural canvas. My own approach has developed from a consideration of the relationship between anthropology and photography, particularly in the 19th century. See the volume edited by Edwards, which includes Scherer's essay about photographs as primary data in anthropology.

2. The Impact of Popular Imagery and Technology on Australian Modern Art, 1920-1945, Nancy Underhill. The discussion switched from painting to photography.

3.It is not possible to illustrate all the photographs discussed. See Bromfield (Pl. 13) which illustrates the contact strip. See Newton (Pl. 6) which shows the minimal cropping used.

4. In 1942 Katherine gave an inscribed copy of her play, Brumby Innes, to Axel and Ruth, his second wife, who, like Katherine, was a member of the Communist Party.

5. For instance, Fisher and King.

6. This task is made difficult because much of his commercial work is scattered and original negatives and prints are lost, therefore it difficult to reconstruct from the archives. Some of the film footage is in the National Film and Sound Archives.

7. The stage shot was achieved with the collusion of the cast who held their positions for a moment or two at the end of the performance. The slightly soft focus of this and the portrait is usually attributed to a retrogressive pictorialism. In fact, in both cases, the use of the 35mm camera enabled a bold but perhaps foolhardy reliance on available light.

8. It is this resonance of nature within modern life that was the special territory of Swedish modern artists at the turn of the century, whose work by the 1920s was in the newly established art galleries. I am only intimating an ambience of the city itself - and am not aware of any direct influence.

9. See Harpley's perceptive analysis (43). I would only differ with her in one respect. The fellers are not heroicized; they appear full-length in almost every shot. They are dwarfed both by the forest and by the logging gear, and the prevailing mood is of melancholy. With the exception of two images, with the passage of time the main interest in this extensive set of pictures is their record value.

10. Cazneaux's Bridge Patterns of 1934 (100), join company with Dupain's modern panorama Sydney by Night (88). Those referring to war include George Silk's Man of Crete (40), and Russell Roberts' Finishing Touches (130).

11. Max's Sunbaker of 1937 also springs to mind, but it was not included in the selection. It apparently did not enter image-currency until the early seventies - the era of The Lucky Country. In 1989 it was paired with the Aboriginal behind bars on the cover of John Pilger's book, A Secret Country. By this recontextualisation it was used to make quite a different point.

12. For instance, it does not include the work of a photographer like Thomas Dick who photographed on the Hastings river in the early part of the century. Although like Curtis, a photographer of N. American Indians, he was 'concerned to create a pre-contact image', he restored the Aborigine to the landscape and his work was remarkable for the accuracy of its ethnographic detail. However, unlike Curtis, his work only reached a limited public, and he does not seem part of a mainstream image-formation, except that it was a romantic view of the 'inevitable passing' (McBryde 137). Nor does it include constructed visual narratives of the frontier encounter; see Peterson.

13. Carefully identified by Dr. Isobel McBryde.

14. The visual corollary to these images of displacement is the contemporary view or landscape in which Aborigines are rarely given a meaningful place - they are rendered invisible. This is also true of early settler landscape paintings (B. Smith et al.) - and can be parallelled on other frontiers.

15. The same image was used as a cover on an earlier edition c.1939.

16. The three ideological frames were proposed by another scholar, Rochelle Kolodny, in relation to anthropological photographs made by professional photographers. He substituted 'romantic' for her label of 'primitive'. One of his conclusions was that 80% of the card fell within the realistic model. In English postcard collections of the anthropological subject the romantic appear to predominate (personal communication: E. Edwards).

17. The protesters included: The Aboriginal people such as Harris family, who could not pursue their demands after 1928 because of worsening conditions. The ameliorators formed a society and were led by Hasluck and Chinnery. The humanist Mrs Bennett was alos important; her book, The Australian Aborigine as a Human Being, appeared in 1930 and roused overseas protest groups and enlisted the support of modern anthropologists. She was supported by the Perth women's movement, one of whose prime movers was Muriel Chase. (Though I am not suggesting that this is any indication of the latter's attitude to Aborigines which is unresearched by me.) Bennett who argued eloquently that 'Aboriginal civilization was founded on the ownership of land', was written off as 'emotional' - and 'a pest'.

18. This was adopted as a resolution at the Canberra conference, 1937, Aboriginal Welfare - Initial Conference of Commonwealth Authorities. Cited in Neville (27) and discussed in Jacobs (255).

19. Unfortunately, the production of these photos cannot be dated from their use in Neville's book, Australia's Coloured Minority, which was not published until after W.W.II. Internal evidence suggests they were made over a long period of time, but I cannot verify this without further research. I have not seen the originals which, according to Jacobs, are housed by the University of Western Australia.

20. Undated newspaper cutting from A.P.'s cuttings file. Other cuttings included the Moseley Report of 1934, Hasluck's reports, and articles by Donald Thomson.

21. Nyungar Tradition by Lois Tilbrook provides an example of an assemblage of an archive. It is the outcome of a piece of anthropological research - the South West Aboriginal Studies project (SWAS) - in which photographs have been assembled, not only from mission and government sources but also, more particularly in Part ll, from the families. Though some of these are studio shots, many are amateur snapshots and others may have been taken by street photographers. The main purpose of the project was to correlate them with genealogical trees, so that there is information about the photographs that one would have liked to have known in order to use them as visual documents which is not in the published work. But it does indicate a resource.

22. See his discussion of the portrait as expression of landscape in "Camera Class".

23. Powell, a socialist realist (as distinct from a social realist), wrote on the social relevance of documentary. See, for instance, "Photography a Social Weapon".

24. It was focussed on the issue of return to the north of children of mixed descent who had been evacuated south during the war.

25. The previous year Poignant had been the cameraman on the government sponsored film of the Aboriginal painter's life, which stirred controversy, mainly within art circles. There his contribution was part of a shared process, and mediated by the official framework.

26. Perhaps it is worth noting that at a time when the application of Aboriginal motifs to arts and crafts was taking place, photographs of living Aborigines had little public circulation. The showing of the two Aboriginal portraits in the Newcastle exhibition was an exception; it did not lead to them being used elsewhere. At about the same time, Poignant was photographing Aborigines on the cattle stations of the far north, in a more sombre mood (The Ration - at Vesty's Wave Hill station. Paddy, King of Ord River - taken against the background of his own country). But there was a long way to go in the formation of concerned attitudes towards the Aborigines. His photographs of cheerful youngster of mixed descent were published in one feature article, but there was neither a public nor a market for the harsher images until after 1967, when both were used in exhibitions in support of Land Rights.

Works Cited

Barrett, C. Blackfellows. Sydney: Cassell & Co., 1939.

Bennett, M. M. The Australian Aborigine as a Human Being. London: Austin Rivers, 1930.

Berger J. and Mohr J. Another Way of Telling. Cambridge: Granta, 1982.

Bromfield, D., Ed. Aspects of Perth Modernism 1929-1942. Perth: Centre for Fine Arts U.W.A., 1986.

Davis, J. Kullark / The dreamers. Sydney: Currency Press, 1982.

De Lorenzo, C. and Dysart, D. A. A Changing Relationship. Sydney: S. H. Ervin Gallery, National Trust of Australia, 1988.

Edwards, E., ed. Anthropology and Photography 1860-1920. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1992.

Fisher, L. and King, I. The Web of Friendship among some Creative Artists in Perth 1930-1950. Unpublished manuscript 1991.

Green, N. "Aborigines of the Albany Region 1821-1898". The Biographical Dictionary of Western Australia. Vol.VI, 1988.

Harpley, M. "Axel Poignant". Aspects of Perth Modernism 1929-1942. Ed. D. Bromfield. Perth: Centre for Fine Arts U.W.A., 1986. 42-5.

Hasluck, P. Our Southern Half-Caste Natives & Their Conditions. Perth: Native Welfare Council.WA, 1939.

----------. Mucking About: An Autobiography. Melbourne: Melbourne UP, 1977.

Indyk, I. "Pastoral and Priority: the Aboriginal in Australian Pastoral". Working Papers in Australian Studies. London: SRMCAS, in print.

Jacobs, P. Mister Neville. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press, 1990.

Lowenthal, D. "Australian Images: The Unique Present, The Mythical Past". Ed. P. Quartermaine. Readings in Australian Arts: Papers from the 1976 Exeter Symposium. Exeter & London: University of Exeter, 1978. 84-91.

Malmsheimer, L. M. "'Imitation White Man': Images of Transformation at the Carlisle Indian School". Studies in Visual Communication 11, 4 (1985): 54-75.

McBryde, I. "Thomas Dick's Photographic Vision". Seeing the First Australians. Eds. I. Donaldson and T. Donaldson. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1985. 137-163.

Missingham, H. and Poignant, A. New Directions in Photography: Catalogue of an Exhibition. Perth: Newspaper House W.A., 1941.

Murphy, F. and Nile, R. The Gate of Dreams, The Western Mail Annuals 1897-1955. Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press. 1990.

Neville, A.O. Australia's Coloured Minority. Sydney: Currawong Pub. Co., 1947.

Newton, G. Axel Poignant: Photographs 1922-1980. Sydney: A.G.NSW, 1982.

Peterson, N. "The Popular Image". Seeing the First Australians. Eds. I. Donaldson and T. Donaldson. Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1985. 164-180.

----------. "A Colonial Image: The Penetrating Reality of the Image". Australian Aboriginal Studies. 2 (1989): 59-62.

Poignant, A. "Camera Class", A.M. Magazine, May 1952.

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Poignant, R. On the Canning Stock Route 1942: Axel Poignant. Sydney: Hogarth Galleries, 1991.

Powell, G. "Photography a Social Weapon", Contemporary Photography, 1, 1 (1946).

----------. "The Swagman's After Image". Photofile 35, 2 (1992): 6-11.

Rowley, C.D. The Destruction of Aboriginal Society. Vol 1 of Aborigines in Australian Society. Canberra: ANUP, 1970.

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Scherer, J.C. "The Photographic Document: Photographs as Primary Data in Anthropological Enquiry". Anthropology and Photography 1860-1920. Ed. E. Edwards. New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1992. 32-41.

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---------- Newspaper Cuttings Book 1930s & 1940s WA Collected, Poignant, A.

Photograph Credits

Jack and His Family 1 and 2, Axel Poignant, courtesy of Axel Poignant Archive, 115 Bedford Court Mansions, London.

Untitled, J.W. Lindt, Courtesy Axel Poignant Archive,

Young Mother and New-born Baby, Axel Poignant, courtesy of Axel Poignant Archive.

Head Stockman, Axel Poignant, Courtesy of Hogarth Gallery, Sydney.

Three Generations, Australia's Coloured Minority, A.O. Neville, Currawong Publishing Co. 1947. Originals courtesy of University of Western Australia.

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