These little known details of Australia’s history deserve to be better known.
Philip Jones is an ethnographer and historian working in the SA Museum. He is an accomplished author with his previous book, Ochre and Rust,winning the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for Non-Fiction. This latest book describes and displays the work of seven amateur photographers who documented the land and the people of early Central Australia.
Reading this book and looking at these powerful images from the past, we can see how tough life was for the settlers in the outback and how the ever-greater reach of white Australia was overwhelming the oldest known civilisation on the planet. Jones writes with empathy and understanding for both sides covering the period 1890 to the 1940s and these little known details of Australia’s history deserve to be better known.
The first chapter is on Francis Gillen who worked on the Overland Telegraph and had ambitions to become famous and ‘make his mark’, which he did but not quite as he expected. He became well known for his images of a vanishing time and people. Gillen had a good rapport with the Arrernte people and treated them with respect such that they allowed the extensive set up time and long exposures Gillen needed for his images. At times especially interesting events or ceremonies were restaged so he could photograph them.
Of particular interest is the work of Dr William Walker on his inland tour of 1928-29. Before this time, most collections of photographs numbered in the hundreds but Walker’s was more than 10,000. His was a driven personality, an only child who lost his parents at age 8 and spent school holidays on bush properties, developing a taste for the outback.
He and his wife, Molly, travelled in a Model T for 18 months, taking over 3,000 photographs and both wrote journals detailing their trip. Here is where I began to get really irritated with the author’s casual overlooking and/or dismissal of the contributions the wives of these men must have made to enable them to become the terrific photographers and recorders of epic journeys. Apparently, ‘the couple’ were involved in the planning but it was Walker, seemingly alone, who ‘did not stint on preparations’ (page 117). Then we read that Molly’s journal was ‘conventional enough…with perceptive observations on the landscape and the lives of the station people’. In contrast, William’s was ‘more like a journalist’s notebook…gathering minute data for a full exposé of the inland’ and yet the quote which follows is about the life of the station people (page 118). So much for minute data!
In the chapter on George Aiston, a police trooper on the Birdsville Track, I was appalled by the author’s assumption that ‘for George at least, perhaps his absorbing interests in collecting and gathering ethnographic data and objects provided adequate compensation’ for the couple having no children (page 50). How does Jones know that they even wanted to have children? Again we see the casual dismal of the vital role women played in the life and work of these early photographers.
In spite of my reservations on the lack of detail concerning the roles of the wives of these men, without whom they wouldn’t have been able to spend as much time as they did being amateur photographers, the book is still worth reading. The images are beautifully reproduced on glossy paper and Wakefield Press have again produced a fascinating history book in a quality package.
Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw
Distributed by: Wakefield Press
Released: July 2018