Remembering How to Wonder with the Poignant Collection

11 minute read

Looking at the Poignant Collection, I found wonder. My own wonder, that of the photographer’s, and that of those in front of the camera. I found wonder in the way these individuals stared at Axel, at me, the way they would stare at something beyond the frame, outside of the image, something not there now. One finds oneself wondering, like a child watching TV, what happened when the people in the image, walked out of its edge.  

I found wonder in the way these people would look up at light through the trees, at a match they just struck, watching the flame roar up then dissipate, and in the way they would watch a dance, perform a pose for the camera, and wonder about themselves: How did they look? Who were they? Who would see these photographic publications of their selves? How far would these ‘selves’ travel in books and publications, and what would they become in archives and museums? When returned to their communities generations later, how would these ‘selves’ be received? What the Poignants began with the communities with whom they lived and worked was an unravelling encounter.  

The Poignant Collection was bequeathed to MAA by Roslyn. It spans an impressive 17,500 photographs, in the form of negatives, prints, and transparencies made by both Roslyn and her husband, Axel. They worked closely with communities in Australia, Aotearoa in New Zealand, Fiji, Tahiti, Raiatea, Papua New Guinea, and Sicily.  My job as a summer intern was to assist in the digitisation, cataloguing, and processing of these photographs, to help make them accessible both to the Museum’s visitors, and more significantly to the communities which made these photographs with the Poignants.  

Axel was ever concerned about translating experiences into photographs, and gaining the consent of those with whom he made them. In 1952, he spent six weeks in  Nagalarramba on the Liverpool River, in Arnhem Land. He’d send his field notes back with rolls of film to Sydney where Roslyn developed and edited them. She later reviewed these notes and photographs for a publication, Encounter at Nagalarramba, in 1996. On one occasion, Axel wrote: 

‘Big Nangulumin looked so magnificent, standing there praying with his head high and arms around his baby son, I am afraid the shot will not do any justice to the scene, just a black body against a lot more black bodies’ (Poignant and Poignant, 1996: 48). 

Fundamentally, Axel was concerned with making these ‘bodies’ into persons in his photographs. He was anxious not just to convey their physical presence, but also their personal: to find their questions, their anxieties, their wonder, their hope, and their being. He sought to capture their ‘ordinary duties, and lingering loves’ (Wolfe, 2022).  

In this capacity, he often found that the communities with whom he worked understood him to be some sort of witness to and keeper of their cultural preservation. This anxiety to transport entire worlds and people through photographs – one thinks of Jean Mohr’s quip, ‘did you come by photograph or train?’ – caused Axel to reflect in his field notes: 

‘Regarding the work, naturally, when I see so much, I feel I have failed in what I set out to do. But I think I have something’ (Poignant and Poignant, 1996: 158).

This ‘something’ leaps and bounds across the Poignant collection, between the portraits, through the landscapes beyond them, and into the exhibitions or archives where people now encounter them.  

Through collaboration with different communities, Axel found an exploration of self and culture which was curious about itself, and curious about a new medium used to translate it. This common wondering between the Poignants and the communities in which their collections were made follows Amira Mittermaier’s concern for an anthropological turn towards ethnographic projects which gesture ‘beyond the human horizon’, and foreground human awe and wonder, rather than seeking to structure and categorise experience and people (Mittermaier, 2021: 28). 

A collage of two images. In the image on the left, two boys wearing shorts are standing in a grassy field. The boy on the left is pointing his bow and arrow at something ahead of him, ready to shoot. the boy on the right is crouching with hands on his knees. He is carrying something on his head. In the image on the right, two boys and a girl are paddling in shallow waters amongst grass. Behind them is a mountain.

For such reasons, I find Axel’s humble confession that he had ‘something’ at the end of thousands of pictures indicative of the fact that his photographic work is by no means a failure of communication. It represents rather, a dawning of wonder, of playing, of experimenting, of finding images which wander from their original meanings or purposes, knowledge which is changing and leaving its boxes. In a discipline which seeks always to find a certain meaning, to curate some narrative, to foreground some hypothesis, the Poignant collection has a marvellous and crucial humility.  

The images in this photo essay are simply those which in a Barthesian sense, ‘pricked’ or ‘bruised me. They are amongst those which arrested my attention and led me to wonder with them and about then. Most of the images that I have chosen were made for a series of children’s books that Axel and Rosyln published. The main one here is Kaleku (1975), which details the daily life of Martin Kaleku and Erita, two siblings living in Gumine, in the New Guinea highlands. The other book is Children of Oropio (1976), a fictional story of three children, Eti, Sylvaine, and Timi, who take a canoe out and get lost in Raiatea, in the Society Islands of Polynesia.  

I have divided the essay into seven separate sections, one section per photograph, and titled each section with that photograph’s ‘IdNo’ or its identification number, the number that it is given once it enters the collections at MAA. My aim in doing so is to highlight the tension between the redundant nature of this number on the one hand, and the more humane interpretations that the many people who engage with photographs in such collections bring to them.

Readers should use the images in this essay as primary referents. By this I mean that the images stand alone in their own right. My thoughts below them function as expanded, interpretive, and imaginative captions, which elucidate one experience of the photographs: my own, an impression of wonder. I acknowledge that the format of this piece – a blog post on a digital platform through which users will scroll – imposes a certain chronological order. But it is not necessary to view the images or read the captions in that order. Printing this post and beginning with the images that make the reader wonder might be a different and perhaps even a better approach!

N.162109.RPT

A girl is smiling and looking away from the camera. She is wearing a feather headdress, several necklaces, and has a scarf tied around her neck. She also has two pieces of fabric tied on her arms.

Have you heard? There’s going to be a sing-sing at Sina Sina in a few weeks’ time. 

Erita is dressed for the sing-sing at Sina Sina. Upon her head is a bed of cockatoo feathers and bird-of-paradise plumes delicately spread in a fan. Around her neck hang many twisted thick-beaded necklaces which compound into a soothing weight upon her chest. At her navel hangs a bright white ring, and at her elbows, thick cotton handkerchiefs are knotted, crinkled where they are tied. In a subtle vein, her garments gently explode outwards and downwards about her. Long trumpeted flowers cascade behind her, spreading themselves to the floor with their weighted heads.  She has her chest out, shoulders back, and head held high. A beam stretches across her face, and you can tell she feels beautiful, proud, finding her ease with an audience, and an adoring camera. Easing back into her presentation for the camera, her childish confidence gleams. A translucent neckerchief frames it all, bound at the neck it is opaque and blossoming upon her body, it is lucid and light, imprinted with embroidered flowers and a swirling hem. 

T.151556.RPT 

A young boy is looking away from the camera. His head is tilted and is holding one of his hands up. He is wearing a straw hat with red flowers in it, and several blue and red necklaces. Behind him seems to be a thatched building.

Martin puts flowers in his headdress. 

Before the sing-sing, Axel makes a photograph with Martin, Erita’s brother. He carries a different pride, more contemplative, self-made, and concentrated. He is focussed on making an image of himself, quietly, aside from the excitement of the group. His necklaces gather haphazardly about his neck and chest, pointing every which way. His image has a sense of being carefully chosen and placed by him; there is an acute ownership about his appearance. Entirely immersed in the placement of his flowers, looking to his side with his head tilted, mouth slightly held open in the effort of curation, and hand blurred in motion; it is as if he is looking at his reflection. Meanwhile, the brilliance of the reds, oranges, and blues make the necklaces distinct from one another. The delicate, flat quivering petals protrude from his headdress with a brilliance. One cannot help but wonder, given the tremendous motion of the dance ahead of him, how these pearls will remain there by the end of the day.  

N.162083.RPT 

A large group of people including men, women, and children are gathered together. Some are looking towards the camera, and some at each other. Some are wearing feather headdresses. An European woman wearing a shirt and a skirt is standing amongst them.

The first thing that struck me in this image was the infinity of it. The number of flowers dipping their heads down, the number of people standing up, and the number of eyes flitting everywhere; a symphony of thoughts, feelings, objects, and people, all presenting themselves to the camera.  Angel’s trumpets or Brugmansia sweep around the ensemble, like strokes of white paint dashed in the background, becoming pointed and defined in the fore. Delicate though you imagine these trumpets to be, they seem, with the wide-angle lens, larger than the children who stand with arms crossed or wrapped around them on the bottom right of the image.  

Tall pointed black feathers stand huddled at the back. Wearing headdresses of cassowary and birds-of-paradise feathers, jutting out in every direction, the group of men are charged with the excitement and pride about the dance and wedding celebrations ahead of them. The rest of the children peer on, holding bundles of sticks, looking up at the adults around them, and varying in the confidence with which they face the moment of their portrait being made.  

Roslyn stands amidst them all, with a funny smile, and a large floppy hat imitating the form of the Brugmansia. As out of place as one would imagine her to be, and despite curious children straining to see her, she stares straight through the crowd at Axel. Perhaps most curious of all is one of the men in the back. Dressed finely for the occasion, he seems completely unaffected by the moment of the photograph and pose. He turns a newspaper in his hands. 

N.162075.RPT

A young boy, wearing a feather headdress and several necklaces is looking towards the camera, though not directly at it. Beside him is a young girl, wearing several necklaces. She is looking at a group of people dancing in a circle. They are also wearing feather headdresses as well as necklaces and skirts. Behind this group is a crowd of men and women watching the dance.

At the sing-sing, the swishing of the dance is framed by an onlooking Martin and Erita. Contrary to the first image of the group, everyone is now separated into their various roles: the performers, the audience, the curious children standing in formation.  

In Kaleku, Axel and Roslyn talk of clicking shells, stamping feet, and one imagines a sweep of motion across the land descending as a distant rumble or chorus into the valleys below.  

Erita looks into the action, clutching her shoulder, a thoughtful thumb on her cheek. Martin instead directs his gaze behind him, over his shoulder, back to Axel, back to us. It is a photograph which looks both ways; a tentative invitation into the private show. Martin and Erita seem to be the proud guards of what they have created amongst themselves there in Guimine, standing as a permissive barrier to the man with whom they make the photograph.  

N.162025.RPT; N.162026.RPT

A collage of two images. In the image on the left, a man is looking towards the camera but above it. He is holding a flute to his lips. Behind him is a board with some drawings. In the image on the right, the same man is looking at the camera.

On the same strip of negatives which cover the excitement of the sing-sing, are two exposures of a man sitting across from Axel. He is playing a bamboo mouth harp pinched to the corner of his mouth, between his thumb and his forefinger. He does not make an appearance in the final narrative that the Poignant’s chose to tell of the children and the sing-sing. But he evokes the sense of wonder I found in the collection. His gaze flits from above him to opposite him. One imagines the sound drifting between himself and Axel, stopping and starting amidst shutter clicks, or continuing in one sonorous exhale.  A moth in his hair as if a flower, and chalk drawings blurred behind him. They bounce up and around, bending into the feet of a bird or curving into the outline of a hand, ending in a zigzag or crashing into a scribble at the corner of the board.  

Between the two portraits we move from watching to looking, as the man himself confronts our eyes with his own, compressing the space and time stretched between us and the song he played that day. When an image returns our glance with its own, says Walter Benjamin, we are drawn initially into the distance, its glance is dreaming, it draws us after its dream. 

T.149611.RPT

A man in a blue and white shirt is sitting on a table, with newspaper in hand. He has placed a white flower over one of his ears, and is looking ahead. Another man, also with a white flower over his ear, wearing a red shirt with black flowers is looking towards the camera from behind a window.

The police are going to send a message to Uturoa. When it is broadcast over the radio, everybody along the coast will watch out for the children 

In Raiatea, an unnamed radio presenter sits in a broadcasting studio, paper in hand. He looks over the top of it, straight ahead. He is broadcasting the three missing children reported by Ro’o and Enriette, who went out in a borrowed canoe and did not return. A pulsing red infuses the image, as if there is an ‘on air’ sign flooding the room.  The actual source of the red hue, however, is from the deterioration of the transparency. As it has aged, the letters on the wall, the floral shirt behind the glass window, and the policeman’s complexion have acquired an anxious red glow. Yet amidst the nervousness of the moment, the two men pictured seem suspended in still calm, their gazes forming a triangle between Axel and themselves. The accidental double exposure repeats the image of the policeman above him, his desk, arms, and shirt floating above him in a lighter glow. The repeated image feels as if it is an elapsing of time; a moment caught on a loop on a buffering live-stream. Each of them stands waiting, a soft white flower tucked behind their ears. The metal parts of the clunky bits of technology catch Axel’s flash and throw it back at him, gleaming through the glass. 

T.149289.RPT 

A family is gathered on a table for some food. The man, dressed in a blue shirt with white flowers, is holding a piece of bread and trying to serve one of the children on his right. The woman, wearing a red wrap-around dress with white flowers, is standing beside him also serving one of the children. Four children are seated on the table – two on either side.

I shall finish with a family, as this is what it seems to have been about amidst the wonder; the people we make it among, share it with, the parents who teach it, and the children who find it and make it their own. At the end of the Poignants’ Children of Oporio, the children are returned home to Ro’o and Enriette. They are pictured here eating breakfast in the fold of their home, at the table. Reminiscent of Carrie Mae Weems’ series, Kitchen Table (1990), they gather, sharing bread, pouring hot coffee, and rubbing their tired faces. They resume and rest back into another day together. You can see in Eti’s posture, hands on the table, shoulders shrugging all the way down into the seat. He is sleepy, he is with the people who care for him; vulnerable. A plastic faux wooden tablecloth wrinkles under colourful bowls, a half-opened tin, children’s elbows, and the flower-patterned clothes on the parents. Leaving the camera behind they address themselves and retreat into the private.   

To learn more…

…about the processes of digitising the Poignant Collection, check out former Collections Assistant on the project, Kirsty Kernohan’s posts on the UCM blog and on the Digital Lab, and her online exhibition on the coronation of a Māori queen, which the Poignants photographed.   

Several others have also researched different aspects of the Poignant Collection. See for example, Alejandro Porcel Arraut’s blog post on the Poignants’ photographs of Mexico City. 

References

Mittermaier, A. (2021). ‘Beyond the human horizon’, Religion and Society, 12(1), pp. 21–38.  

Poignant, A. and Poignant, R. (1976). Children of Oropio. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.  

Poignant, R. and Poignant, A. (1996). Encounter at Nagalarramba. Canberra: National Library of Australia. 

Poignant, A. and Poignant, R. (1972). Kaleku. Sydney: Angus & Robertson.  

Wolfe, J. (2022). ‘Playing at Selfhood’, The Hulsean Lectures. The Hulsean Lectures, Cambridge: Runcie Room, Faculty of Divinity.  

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