Down(under) home: Looking through insiders' eyes

Dennis Morgan Tjupurrula, 2004, courtesy of Watiyawanu Artists of Amunturrngu  and Peta Appleyard Gallery, Alice Springs.
Dennis Morgan Tjupurrula, 2004, courtesy of Watiyawanu Artists of Amunturrngu  and Peta Appleyard Gallery, Alice Springs.

Surprising fact: the descendants of the Depression-era families celebrated in author James Agee and photographer Walker Evans' classic, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, hate the book. According to an article by Christina Davidson in The Atlantic, they believe the author and the photographer duped their poor-but-proud relatives and made them look pitiful.

Maybe journalistic objectivity isn't everything after all. Consider the 16 photographs currently hanging at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection in the exhibition, "Mount Liebig Photography Project 2004."  In an effort to divert youth from sniffing petrol in the Amunturrngu Community in Australia's Northern Territory, photographer Simon Davidson gave basic guidance on lighting and composition and then sent 19 young people off with 35 mm disposable cameras to document their lives.

Culled from 111 shots, the photographs at Kluge-Ruhe provide insights into the hardscrabble lives of this Aboriginal community, but with a familiarity and affection only insiders could offer. Because the photographers are community members, there is a palpable trust and openness on the part of their subjects.

For instance, in an untitled image by Dianne Reid Nakamarra, a child with sun-bleached hair looks up at the camera while standing in front of a sink in a dirty, bare-bones kitchen. The photograph exquisitely contrasts a blue-green wall with scattered elements of yellow-the child's hair, a sugar package on a shelf, a crumpled plastic bag on the floor, a plastic bowl, and a bottle of dish soap turned on its side-but front and center are the loving eyes and trusting smile of the little girl or boy.

This photo illustrates what is remarkable about the overall collection: every image gives a glimpse of the landscape, people, and/or culture in a way that's visually compelling. The young photographers soaked up Davidson's lessons and ran with them, producing wonders of color and composition.

In a photo by Patrick Collins Tjapaltjarri, orange flames from a nighttime fire rise against an ink-black background and frame a smiling hunter, who proudly displays a half-dressed bird, while a companion to his left leans toward the camera, holding up a hairless joey he's removed from a kangaroo carcass lying on the ground behind them. The formal aspects of this picture are as stunning and dynamic as the subject matter.

Although viewers may squirm at having to confront this community's hard way of life, the Mt. Liebig photographers offer a nonjudgmental intimacy that would elude outsiders.

The "Mount Liebig Photography Project 2004" is on view through August 15 at the Kluge-Ruhe Aboriginal Art Collection. 400 Worrell Dr. 244-0234.

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