Framing Experiences: Early Photographs of the Papuan Gulf Framing Experiences: Early Photographs of the Papuan Gulf (Originally published in Red Eye of the Sun: Art from the Papuan Gulf, 2009) By Virginia-Lee Webb Photographs depicting the traditional arts and cultures of the Papuan Gulf provide a window through which we can understand the meaning, context, style, age and provenance of the tangible art now in museums, galleries and private collections. Early photographic images made by explorers, missionaries and adventurers present us with an unadulterated look into the communities of the Papuan Gulf and provide a foundation and a timeline upon which we can construct biographies for the artworks.1 The corpus of photographs is essentially reciprocal—informative about the subjects of the images as well as the photographers, their objectives, biases and the itineraries of their visits. Early photographs of the Papuan Gulf provide a visual starting point for the recording of information about changed traditional practice, contexts of works of art and sculptural forms no longer made. For contemporary communities, the historical images can assist with current issues and revive or help recall traditions that have been altered long ago through contact with outsiders. The number of images of the Gulf is relatively large, especially given the fact that exploration was usually limited to specific geographic regions. Non-local residents such as missionaries and colonial government officers usually traveled in prescribed routes, or circuits, after bases and stations were established. What makes the pictures of the Papuan Gulf different from those of the other regions in Papua New Guinea, the Sepik River area, for example, is that they are finite case studies often geographically restricted to smaller areas. They compartmentalize and define a timeframe for the photographers and subjects. It is also true that the pictures from the 1870s onward reveal arts and cultural practices in communities until then relatively untouched by outside influence. Roland Barthes discussed the power and characteristics of photographs; he described the unique quality as its “having-been-there.”2 That experience, the “having-been-there,” is the indelible moment that is indexed on glass, film, metal or paper and composed via the perspective of the person behind the lens. The viewer of the photograph sees what the photographer witnessed. In order to substantiate the subject, we know that context must be rigorously questioned, that scenes and situations were recreated and staged at the request of the photographer. In the Papuan Gulf the most extreme examples were the images by Frank Hurley. But it is also true that longhouses, spirit boards, bioma, agiba, marupai, people, places and quotidian activities were photographed by Hurley (and others) at specific irreplaceable moments with little or no manipulation of the scene. Some traditional art forms, agibas, for example, are no longer made due to colonial interruptions and regulations which ceased rituals and halted the production of traditional carvings associated with them. Yet through photographs we know how they looked or were used. Agibas are often seen in pairs surrounded with trophies of past warfare. Agiba and skulls in a men’s house, 1930, Paul Wirz. Copyright Dadi Wirz & Museum der Kuluren Basel. In longhouses we see an abundance of spirit boards variously called hohao, kwoi, gope or titi ebiha stored in clan and family-owned cubicles. These scenes, indexed at identifiable moments, provide irreplaceable information and form a timeline of the objects’ history. Shrine in cult house, 1930. Paul Wirz Copyright Dadi Wirz & Museum der Kuluren Basel. Interior view of men’s house by John W. Vandercook 1933. Courtesy The Metrolopolitan Museum of Art, New York. As in many regions of the Pacific, the extant images of the Papuan Gulf show a full range of subjects and sculptures. The earliest photographs to illustrate works of art from there were made by preachers such as Rev. William G. Lawes, who arrived at Port Moresby in 1874 for the London Missionary Society and whose pictures are some of the most well known of Elema sculpture. His often-published “Young Men with Mavia Shields” shows the rigorous symmetry of three carved shields being held for the camera by local unnamed men. This photograph set a precedent for documenting carvings from the area.3 Another image, “Masks from Motumotu,” made at the same time shows rare types of barkcloth masks, few of which still exist. His lesser-known photographs display artfully arranged objects, such as shields, drums and clubs that he and his colleagues collected.4 Shields, Drums & Etc. Photorgraph by William G.Lawes 1874-1889. Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum, London. Stone Clubs & Etc. by William G.Lawes 1874-1889 Copyright The Trustees of the British Museum, London. Shields By William G.Lawes. 1874-1889 After Lawes, religious proselytizing continued as did the demise of traditional culture. His mission colleagues E. Baxter Riley, J.H. Holmes and H.M. Dauncey used the camera as well. Dauncey, who was based southeast of the Gulf in Delena, made portraits of residents, sometimes recording their names.5 Interior of a club house Purari Delta by Ernest Sterne Usher circa 1914-16. South Australian Museum Archives, Adelaide. Voyages to locate exploitable natural resources and commercial opportunities were also an agenda of explorers such as Ernest S. Usher and Theodore Bevan.6 Colonial officers such as Sir William MacGregor and Sir Hubert Murray made collections with the intention that they would be preserved in Papua New Guinea but there are few photographs.7 Scientists and anthropologists were numerous visitors during the early twentieth century. During the first three decades, A.B. Lewis, William Patten, Kathleen Haddon Rishbeth and her father A.C. Haddon, Gunnar Landtman, Paul B. de Rautenfeld, Paul Wirz, John W. Vandercook and others photographed the objects they collected including those in context that remained. Government anthropologists such as Francis E. Williams and E.W.P. Chinnery spent considerable time studying cultural practices and making photographs. The former was an astute observer of art and ceremony and an accomplished photographer who recorded the names of the people he lived with and pictured. During the years he lived in the Gulf, he saw entire ceremonial cycles and published key monographs. Ethnologists pictured clan shrines with a proliferation of spirit boards inside longhouse interiors and the images are stylistically different. A.B. Lewis (1912), Kathleen Haddon Rishbeth (1914) and Ernest S. Usher (1914) used various approaches and cameras with different formats. A.B. Lewis’ pictures provide the earliest unmodified views showing the context of spirit boards with marupai hanging from them. Interior of longhouse with spirit boards, hohao. Photograph by A.B.Lewis, 1912. Orokolo, Elema people Copyright The Field Museum, Chicago #CSA37311 The architecture and space that they occupied were pictorially defined.8 Rishbeth used a small Kodak camera with film negatives and a larger format view camera that used glass plates.9 She was able to use both formats, especially the latter, to document with extreme clarity the interior of Purari longhouses or ravi with family shrines that displayed multiple spirit boards. Interior of a long house, Purari. Photograph by Kathleen Haddon Rishbet 1914. Courtesy of the Cambridge University Museum of Archeology and Anthropology Usher used a camera with a significantly elongated rectangular format that enabled him to record the tall partitioned spaces with spirit boards stacked high above each other. His pictures, made in the Purari not long before Rishbeth and Haddon arrived, reveal the prolific number of kwoi on display with diverse motifs and styles. Together, all of these images provide moments abundant with now unobtainable contextual information. All of the late nineteenth- and twentieth-century photographers who visited the Gulf region left a legacy of pictures that clarify their itineraries and what they saw. Those moments are marked in time, dated and preserved in their photographs that now enable viewers to experience their “having been there” and to learn about the traditional art of the Papuan Gulf. Notes 1. Arjun Appadurai, editor. The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective. Cambridge: University Press, 1986. 2. Roland Barthes. “Rhetoric of the Image.” Image-Music-Text, translated by Stephen Heath. New York: The Noonday Press, 1977: 44. 3. For details about Lawes’ work in the Papuan Gulf, see Virginia-Lee Webb, “In Situ: Photographs of Art in the Papuan Gulf.” Coaxing the Spirits to Dance: Art and Society in the Papuan Gulf of New Guinea. Robert L. Welsch, Virginia-Lee Webb and Sebastian Haraha. Hanover: Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, 2006: 53–56. 4. Webb 2006: 53–56, and Welsch “Ex Situ: A Brief History of Collecting in the Papuan Gulf” in Welsch, Webb and Haraha 2006: 80–81. 5. H.M. Dauncey. Papuan Pictures. London: London Missionary Society, 1913. 6. Barry Craig has written extensively about the photography and history of these collections. See Barry Craig, “The Papuan Photographs of Ernest Sterne Usher.” Pacific Arts 19/20, 1999: 27–37, and “The Pacific Cultures Gallery in the South Australian Museum from 1895–2007.” Pacific Arts NS 8, 2009: 18–31. 7. See Welsch 2006: 80–95 for an important outline of collectors and their specific objectives. 8. For a complete list of Lewis’ photographs, see Welsch 1998: 197–254. 9. Webb 2006: 61–65.