photographic history: C.P. Mountford

Given my lack of knowledge it was a surprise to me when I came across the black and white photography of Charles Mountford in the  Mountford-Sheard Collection at the State Library of South Australia, when I was doing research for, and working on, this post for my Long Road to the North project.

C. P. Mountford, Mt Chambers Gorge, 1937

At the time of Mountford made these photos the general understanding in Australia was that the primitive Aboriginal race was doomed to extinction, and so photographers sought to record what was believed to be a disappearing way of life. The Australian authorities policy was  ‘breed out’ Aboriginal people of mixed descent during the interwar period, in the name of achieving a white Australia.

The  joint Harvard-Adelaide Universities’ Anthropological Expedition of 1938-39 by the physical anthropologists Tindale and Birdsell. This physical anthropology was concerned to investigate and document the physiological differences between human cultures.  Together Tindale and Birdsell undertook anthropological surveys in 1938–39 and again in 1952–54 on Aboriginal missions across Australia. Their substantial mission collections were made within a framework of racial classification, and they collected anatomical measurements and took standardized photographs as records of the physical form of the Aboriginal residents.  It resulted in an extensive settler/scientific photographic archive.  

C.P. Mountford, abandoned Artimore Station, near Blinman, 1944

This physical anthropology also studied Aboriginal ‘hybrids’ –those people born of unions between Aboriginal people and Europeans who defined as degraded and problematic. It was generally held that Aboriginal people of mixed descent constituted the ‘half-caste’ problem; which could be solved by the half castes merging with the whites though being institutionalised in missions with substandard housing, lack of employment and poor education. Tindale and Birdsell’s anthropological work resulted in a shift in government policy from segregation to assimilation.

In the late 1940s Mountford exhibited his photographs of the northern Flinders Ranges, Ayers Rock , the Olgas and the MacDonnell Ranges. These photos,  his book, Brown Men and Red Sand (Melbourne, 1948), and his prize-winning film of the same name became springboards for his later career as a photographer, film maker and writer. As an anthropologist and photographer he led the 1948 American–Australian Scientific Expedition to Arnhem Land, whose collaborating experts and its alliance between scientific and media organizations, were focused on increasing their knowledge of what Mountford called natural history and the Aborigines of Arnhem Land. Despite the existence of Christian missions Mountford understood this to be an expedition into an exotic stone age land that the 20th century had bypassed.

C.P. Mountford, Cliffs, Red Lilly Lagoon, Arnhem Land, 1948

Mountford became an expert on Aboriginal rock painting and his promotion of Aboriginal art would help to stimulate an unprecedented renaissance in its production, in both Arnhem Land and Central Australia.