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Basedow's photographs

By Will Owen - posted Wednesday, 28 January 2009

About six months ago the National Museum of Australia opened an exhibition entitled A Different Time: the expedition photographs of Herbert Basedow 1903-1928, which was enthusiastically reviewed by Nicolas Rothwell in The Australian ("An observer and preserver", August 7, 2008). I was intrigued, especially as Basedow's major monograph, The Australian Aboriginal (Adelaide, F. W. Preece and Sons, 1925) is one of those books that shows up on every list of early anthropological studies, and yet is relatively hard to find on the secondary market unless you are willing to part with a couple hundred dollars. But there are about 200 copies scattered among world libraries, and so I solicited a copy via inter-library loan while waiting for the exhibition's monograph to arrive from Canberra.

The National Museum has also done a bang up job on their website in presenting many of the photographs from the show and the catalogue. Like the Museum’s earlier production for Papunya Painting: out of the desert, this online documentation for the exhibition continues to place the efforts of Australian museums' outreach programs in the top tier worldwide, for my money. (MAGNT's documentation for recent NATSIAA awards and the programmatic efforts of the National Gallery are other outstanding examples that I wish American institutions would take a hint from.)

So now, having read through David Kaus's series of essays on Basedow's career, examined the photographs, and browsed through The Australian Aboriginal's heft (400+ pages and 5kg), I've come to the unenviable conclusion (if you can call it that) that Basedow is a puzzle. In his travels, his training, and his interests, Basedow was literally "all over the map" and coming to grips with the man and his motivations has proven to be a challenge.


In A Different Time Kaus provides ample biographical material and investigates Basedow's contributions to a variety of scientific and commercial endeavours, most particularly the exploration of the Australian interior for mineral wealth. In the course of these activities he had sustained contact with the Aboriginal people there, and was moved to pursuits humanitarian as well as scientific. Following on this extended introduction to the Basedow's career and work, Kaus provides a brief introduction to each of the several expeditions that Basedow undertook between 1903 and 1928 and then allows the photographs to speak for themselves. They document not just the lives of the native inhabitants, but also, along the way, the introduction of the motor car to the central deserts, bush architecture, and the topography of a largely unsullied Outback.

Basedow is widely known as an early Chief Protector of Aborigines in the Northern Territory, yet it turns out that he held this post for a mere four months. Much of A Different Time is devoted to photographs that Basedow took during a series of medical relief expeditions, and he was a registered medical practitioner - although his medical training seems to have been comprised largely of craniometric measurements conducted on the skulls of Tasmanian Aborigines held in German institutions. (Basedow conducted this work after completing a PhD in Geology. Kaus notes that Basedow's resume listed training at five European centres in three and a half years). This European education in turn was undertaken after Basedow threw over a short-lived career in botany and zoology in South Australia for lack of advancement. Polymath or dilettante? It seems hard to tell.

What does seem clear is that Basedow was a man of enormous ambition, and equally enormous curiosity, and that the melding of the two resulted in a series of accomplishments that belied his short career. Basedow was only 51-years-old when he died in 1933 during his second stint as a Member of Parliament in South Australia. Whatever his motivations, he was a man of enormous accomplishments.

The Australian Aboriginal begins with a physiological overview of its subjects that is extraordinary even by Victorian standards. Beginning with a general chapter on "Racial Characteristics", he goes on to examine the physical characteristics in astonishing detail, devoting an entire chapter to "The Mouth" and another to "The Hair". The rest of the volume is organised along social themes: camp life, warfare, religion, art, language.

Kaus notes in A Different Time that Basedow's research was often conducted solo, and that he was often limited to mere observation, lacking as his did knowledge of the local language or intimates within the society who could assist him. This in itself is not surprising, again given the scope of Basedow's investigations, which took him from the Lake Eyre Region to the Tiwi Islands and the shores of Port Hedland.

This combination of breadth of endeavour and limited resources tends to make Basedow's observations a grab bag, a miscellany without direction. His final chapter, for instance, on Aboriginal language, bounces all over the continent, covers sign language and counting as well as elementary verb formations. The chapter ends with a pair of unfortunate paragraphs' speculation of the comparison of Aboriginal vocalisation with those of apes. There is no conclusion, no summation, just a stream of observations that peters out like a river in the desert sands.


In the end, it is hard to read The Australian Aboriginal or to browse through the photographs presented by the National Museum without thinking of other great exploratory scientific expeditions that a man of Basedow's ambition must have had ever present in his mind: those of Spencer and Gillen.

As I browsed through first The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer (Miegunyah Press, 2005) and then a second time through A Different Time I was struck first of all by the difference in quality: time has not been as kind to Basedow's materials, and the National Museum deserves credit for rescuing these images and presenting them to us before further deterioration in the images meant they would be lost forever. But secondly, I was struck by the difference in the people who appear in them.

I know that much of what Spencer and Gillen photographed was staged, and that the Arrernte, in particular, were skilled negotiators who traded value for their performances. Basedow's photographs look much more like the work of a casual interloper, and thus, even though some of them are quite clearly staged, posed, and as artificial as many of Spencer's works, they seem somehow more candid. Moreover, they record a people who look poorer, in every sense, than those that Spencer caught on film. There is less spark in the faces of Basedow's subjects, a weariness that is absent (edited out, perhaps) of the earlier photographs. But the comparison suggests that the two decades that separated Spencer and Basedow in their Central Australian odysseys had not been kind to the Indigenous inhabitants, and the documenting of that change may be one of the great contributions of A Different Time.

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First published in Aboriginal Art & Culture: an American eye on January 4, 2009. This article has been judged as one of the Best Blogs 2008 run in collaboration with Club Troppo.

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About the Author

Will Owen works as a librarian at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA, where he is in charge of the University Library’s computing and internet services. He had an abiding interest in contemporary American art before seeing the Dreamings exhibition at the Asia Society in New York City in 1988. He has since travelled regularly to Australia, building a collection of art from communities and cities across the continent and studying Aboriginal culture. Since 2005 he has published Aboriginal Art and Culture: An American eye – a weblog that attracts international readership. He was among the contributors to Beyond Sacred: recent paintings from Australia's remote Aboriginal communities, edited by Colin and Elizabeth Laverty (Hardie Grant Books, 2008).

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