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Behind the scenes

Behind the scenes

Warning: This exhibition and website contain some images of nudity and people in distressing circumstances. Visitors should also be aware that the exhibition and website include names and images of deceased people that may cause sadness or distress to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.


Selecting images for exhibition

by senior curator David Kaus

Given that the collection comprises more than 2000 images, selecting the photographs for the exhibition was a challenge. Of course, the selection needed to be representative of Basedow's expedition activities, the people and places he encountered, and his academic interests.

National Museum of Australia curator David Kaus showing Museum Victoria curator Lindy Allen photocopies of Basedow's photographs. They stand some distance along a corridor in one of the National Museum of Australia's storage buildings. The photocopies are mounted on both sides of the corridor. David and Lindy face the right side wall. Lindy is closest to the camera. The other wall of the corridor is made by the external wall of a demountable building located inside the large storage building. There is no ceiling to the corridor; the high ceiling of the storage building is just visible in the background of the image. Storage shelves and with crates in them can be seen on the right hand side, rising above the corridor wall on that side.
David Kaus showing Museum Victoria curator, Lindy Allen, photocopies of Basedow's photographs. Photo: Louise Hamby.

Some were obvious choices, like the portrait of Kai Kai, a Western Arrernte man, that captures the dignity of the old man so well. Another, which shows the buggy from the 1920 expedition being hauled by four camels up a sandhill provides a powerful insight into the difficulties of travelling over trackless country. A set of four photographs of stock work on Innamincka station are full of action and danger. An image taken at a glacial site is representative of Basedow's geological activities. Given that Aboriginal cultures were Basedow's main academic interest, there is a strong Aboriginal presence. But they are not all ethnographic images; many are portraits reflecting the individuality of the subjects.

An elderly Aboriginal man, Henbury station, Northern Territory. He sits on his haunches on the bare, fine soiled ground, facing the low sun beyond the right of the image. He wears a close fitting cap made from emu feathers and human hair string. A customary wooden shield as at his left side while a digging stick lies at his right side. The out of focus background has some scattered boulders leading to the horizon which slopes from right to left.
Kai Kai, a Western Arrernte man, Henbury station, Northern Territory 1920. Photo: Herbert Basedow. Reproduced from glass plate negative. National Museum of Australia.

In some cases one image told a particular story better than others, and sometimes a special image won out. One of my personal favourites shows a group of about 24 Aboriginal people seated on the ground, men and boys in front and women behind, in a place north-west of Uluru. Taken in 1926, it is not, technically speaking, one of Basedow's best photographs. It is marred by sun flares and is a bit washed out but, at the same time, it reflects the dignity of people living their way in their own country.

Together with Museum volunteer Edwin Ride, whose expertise in working with historical photographs has been invaluable, I have been able to further document Basedow's photographs whilst also selecting images for exhibition.

This is an edited extract of the 'Introduction',
A Different Time: The Expedition Photographs of Herbert Basedow, 1903–1928.

pdf Read the full Introduction (PDF 1.1mb)

Digitising the collection

To ensure the highest quality reproductions for the exhibition, the Museum's photography section has produced high resolution digital copies of the selected images. Negatives provide a higher quality image, so slides were only selected if the Museum does not hold the negative.

One of the Museum's photographers digitising the Basedow collection. The photographer sits at the right of the image facing to the left. He is in a darkened corner of the Museum's photography facility. The table at which he sits has a keyboard, computer mouse and two computer flat screens on it. To the left of the image is a digital camera mounted vertically above a flat surface. The camera is projecting a negative image of an Aboriginal man onto the surface. Digital negative and positive images of the man can be seen on the computer screens in front of the photographer, who looks at the negative image on the flat surface. The photographer appears to be making adjustments to the digital images via keyboard and mouse commands.
One of the Museum's photographers, Lannon Harley, digitising the Basedow collection. Photo: George Serras.

The process of digitising the images in the exhibition took several months. Through a digital photographic capture process utilising state of the art equipment, the Museum's photographers matched the density and colour of each individual glass plate, negative and lantern slide to the original. The need for accuracy and the care in handling the fragile plates and negatives meant that the digitisation of each original took roughly forty-five minutes.

As Basedow's expeditions covered a period of great technological development in photography, the reprographic process needed to cater for an extensive range of photographic formats and variations in the condition of the originals. This required a flexible approach to the digitisation process, ensuring that the individual features of each photographic image, as well as the idiosyncrasies of the object itself, could be reproduced accurately. The resulting images are a scientific reproduction of the photographic original as an object.

In producing the 'positive' images a decision was made to move away from a purely scientific interpretation of the original and focus on creating a photographic print that, while not faithful to the printing process of the period, would reflect the drama, aesthetics and themes that Basedow endeavoured to portray in his travels.

Glass plate negative of two men. The negative is to the left. A positive print of the image is to the right. In the positive image it is clear that one man is Aboriginal and the other non-Aboriginal. They stand next to each other on open ground; the Aboriginal man is to the left in the image. He wears shoes, trousers, a shirt and a hat. The other man wears shoes, trousers, a shirt and a pith helmet. Both stand in stiff, formal poses with their hands by their sides. The positive image is in black and white while the negative image has a brown or sepia-toned appearance.
Left: This image is matched to the original negative in colour and density. Right: This image is an interpretation of the original in positive form. Photo: Lannon Harley