The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer

Linda Allen, Philip Batty + John Morton (editors)

The Miegunyah Press 2007
A book review by Danny Yee © 2009
The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer contains over a hundred photographs by Baldwin Spencer (and in some cases Frank Gillen), mostly of Aborigines from the Northern Territory. These are mostly full- or half-page and are accompanied by captions, short extracts from Spencer's diaries presented through a mix of direct quotation and paraphrase, and commentary by the editors. They are supplemented with an introduction and seven short essays.

Eighteen photos come from expeditions to Central Australia in the period 1894-1898, starting with the Horn Expedition of 1894, and mostly depict Arrernte people from around Alice Springs. One essay here provides a short biography of Spencer, focusing on his work as an anthropologist. (He started as a professor of biology at Melbourne University, but moved into anthropology and was also a leading administrator.) A second discusses the respective roles of Spencer and Gillen, the operator of the telegraph station at Alice Springs with whom Spencer travelled and collaborated.

The core of the volume, some seventy photographs, is devoted to the 1901-1902 expedition in which Spencer and Gillen crossed from Oodnadatta in the south to Borroloola on the Gulf of Carpentaria. The photos here depict Arrernte, Kaytetye, Warumungu, Jingili, and Yanyuwa people. A roughly chronological ordering gives some sense of progression. Two essays evaluate Spencer and Gillen's contributions to ethnographic method, in photography and in fieldwork more generally.

In 1911 and 1912 Spencer was employed by the Federal government to investigate the Northern Territory and as "protector" of Aborigines. Based in Darwin, he travelled around the "top end", and around fifty of the photos depict Larrakia, Mangarayi, Wardaman, Gaagudju, Mengerrdji, and Tiwi people from Darwin, the Roper River, the East Alligator River, and Melville and Bathurst Islands. A few photos come from later travels down to 1923. One essay here considers the influence of Spencer's photographic imagery and its reuse by artists and designers. One discusses the importance of his photographs as a unique record of Aboriginal Australia, especially for the descendants of those photographed. And one covers Spencer's use of panoramic cameras, replacing the plate cameras used in early expeditions, and his move towards landscape photography.

An attractively laid out volume, with striking photographs set in an informative context, The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer should have a broad appeal, as well as being an essential source for anyone studying the history of Aboriginal central and northern Australia or the history of ethnographic photography.

March 2009

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%T The Photographs of Baldwin Spencer
%E Allen, Linda
%E Batty, Philip
%E Morton, John
%I The Miegunyah Press
%D 2007
%O paperback, photographs, index
%G ISBN 052285401X
%P 240pp