Reviews of Poignant and Thomson



'Encounter at Nagalarramba and Thomson TimeAxel Poignant' Australian Book Review May (1997)

Roslyn Poignant with Axel Poignant

Encounter at Nagalarramba

National Library of Australia

0 642 10665 7


Judith Proctor Wiseman

Thomson Time. Arnhem Land in the 1930s: photographic essay

Museum of Victoria

0 7306 25009 5

Away from home, the camera can be an unusually gregarious companion. In Tristes Tropiques, Lévi-Strauss writes of an incident that occurred while recording tattooes worn by Caduveo of the Amazon. At first, he used bribes to overcome their fear of photography. With time, however, this exchange grew in popularity to the point where the anthropologist was forced to shoot without film, simply to acknowledge the handsome appearances made up for his camera’s benefit.

Two recent Australian publications reveal similar business. Books from the National Library (Encounter at Nagalarramba) and Museum of Victoria (Thomson Time) remind us that the camera has two apertures—the anthropological gaze behind and the subjects’ performance in front. Neither is without theatre.

Encounter at Nagalarramba contains photographs taken by Axel Poignant to document his 1952 trip to a camp at the Liverpool River in Arnhem Land. The book details the conditions that make his visit possible, particularly the supply of goods necessary to justify his stay among the Aboriginal inhabitants. Poignant’s story is of growing trust, fed by tobacco, medical assistance and time. He seems touched and a little overawed to be farewelled by a Rom ceremony that is specially constructed in his honour.

This romance of the white adventurer is perhaps a little rich for post-colonial palettes. Fortunately, annotations by Axel’s widow, Roslyn Poignant, thin this mixture. Indeed, it is the way she frames his ‘photographer’s own story’ which makes Encounter at Nagalarramba such an absorbing book.

Early in the publication, Roslyn evokes the scene in her Mosman darkroom, where she developed the images Axel had captured during the course of his trip. These provided the isolated photographer with proofs to check his settings. Now she helps the reader, resolving Axel’s work into the more reciprocal ethics of cultural exchange.

Initially, her prints would have been particularly useful in adjusting his equipment to Aboriginal pigmentation.

I took shots of them and then followed up a few minutes after arrival in the camp with a gift of bargy and some more pictures. Nearly all these are strobe shots. I feel it is the only way. The alternative is to ask them to sit in the sun, long exposure, overexposed background. Most of their bodeis are a blackish grey colour… which I am sure soaks up the light like a sponge. This way I get them as they are, where they have sat. [p. 95]

Anticipating Derrida’s critique of heliocentrism, Poignant presents light as the major obstacle to assimilating Aboriginal life into the camera. To photograph nocturnal ceremonies requires a lighting rig, or worse, flashbulbs. The resulting images produce expressions that look absorbed in something otherworldly. By such obstrusive methods, and a generally frontal approach to his subjects, the images in Encounter at Nagalarramba do not pretend to speak outside the scene of photography.

Poignant the photographer is working at a time when it seemed possible to take seriously the purely technical problems of accommodating Aboriginal life to the camera. Poignant the critic creates the space by which we—in our enlightened present—might pick out the shadows in this missionary science. And she avoids smugness, just.

Roslyn identifies Axel’s aim to pitch photography at ordinary life as part of his `unfocused core’. By contrast, her commentary on Axel is sharply etched. At one point, she uses the phrase, `I argue…’, to introduce an analysis of the internal value placed on Axel’s photography by the Kunibidji. It’s difficult to believe that Axel would ever argue.

Thomson Time has uncanny similarities to Encounter at Nagalarramba. Donald Thomson photographed country just to the west of Poignant’s. The book of his photographs has also been put together by a surviving woman—his research assistant, Judith Proctor Weisman. This relationship sets up a Voss-like correspondence across both time and the Australian bush. Ray Marginson commends Weisman’s ability to decipher Thomson’s journal—`written at night with a blunt pencil under the light of a kerosene lamp’.

Both volumes are handsomely designed, printed in landscape format with terracotta as the feature colour.

Don’t confuse one with the other. Like two ends of a vice coming together, these similarities serve only to flush out the differences. Encounter at Nagalarramba is a fraught, difficult and self-conscious account of a whitefella’s trip to the top end. Thomson Time, by contrast, is a seamless, informative and catalogued museum publication. It feels more like an exhibition than a book. Assuming a transparent ethnographic purpose, the photographs are divided into categories like ‘children’, ‘ceremony’ and ‘travel’. Even the wide margins and inverted colours give pages the look of extended labels.

Thomson’s photographs come without strings. It’s not only their age, but also their composition that lends them a dreamy fascination. The picture of bare-breasted girls in a lilly pond was a particularly stereotyped choice for the inside cover. This erotic undercurrent is reflected in the many figures posed with their backs to the camera.

I found myself clutching for more biographical material about the photographer himself. The strength of Thomson’s own personal engagement with the Yolngu people is indicated clearly at the beginning of the book. He is quoted after his second 17-month trip: ‘I realised that I did not want to go back… that I knew and loved the Arnhem Land people and that I had more in common with them than with my own kind.’ This theme of personal encounter, including his fabled attempts to set up a darkroom, is missing from the remaining contents.

According to the research officer at the Maningrida Arts Centre, Encounter at Nagalarramba is a hot-seller. Relatives and surviving subjects of his camera are coming to buy ‘the book with the photographs’. A little deeper into time, the phrase ‘Thomson time’ is used by some Yolngu to speak of the past before many traditions had been lost. The business of ‘repatriating’ his photographs is taken quite seriously.

It’s unlikely that such fuss will be made of today’s white visitors. The technology they bring— recording studios, video equipment and digital cameras—is for use by the people themselves. ‘Thomson Time’ has its meaning for whites as well as blacks. With time and the increasing weightlessness of electronic publications, the darkroom gains in aura as a shadowy wet space of transformation.

This is how it seems to work for Gordon Machbirrbirr, whose response to Axel Poignant’s images opens Encounter at Nagalarramba

When people died, our ancestors died (the people who lived a long time ago), when they become ashes and become dust and returned to their dreamings and our spirits, but now the photos of their faces lived because (of) that way we called Baman. Baman is the life of history of the history of life.

Not discounting the enigmatic status of this statement to both speaker and reader, it reminds us of the promise in contact between Yolngu and white culture. They are custodians of more than their particular dreaming secrets. They may well have some of our own too.