In search of the native
Photographs by Max Dupain and Eduardo Masferré and their contemporaries

detail: Eduardo Masferr� 'Woman with her pipe, Butbut, Tinglayan, Kalinga' 1954 gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
detail: Eduardo Masferré 'Woman with her pipe, Butbut, Tinglayan, Kalinga' 1954 gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

In Search of the Native focuses on two important acquisitions made by the National Gallery in 2000. The first is a unique portfolio of photographs taken in New Guinea by Australian photographer Max Dupain (1911–1992) during his war service. The portfolio of 27 prints was originally acquired by William H. Quasha, a Captain in the US Army, while based in Australia during the Second World War and was in the collection of the Quasha family. The New Guinea portfolio enriches the National Gallery’s extensive holdings of 280 prints by Dupain and was a major purchase in the inaugural year of National Gallery’s Photography Fund.  The New Guinea series is the only known group of exhibition prints in a portfolio made by Dupain. The series was included in the 1946 exhibition New Photographers at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.1 

The second acquisition featured in this exhibition is an equally rare group of 33 vintage exhibition prints (some hand-coloured) from 1935 and 1954 by Philippine photographer Eduardo Masferré (1909–1995).2 Masferré devoted most of his photographic career to the self-elected project of recording and honouring the way of life of the indigenous peoples of the Gran Cordillera Central -– the rugged mountains in central Luzon, the largest of the Philippine Islands. The Cordillera people were among the few cultural groups to evade and resist Spanish influence and control.

The acquisition of prints by Masferrés reflects the National Gallery’s policy, introduced in 1998, to expand the representation of Asian photographers and photographs of Asia; this is the first acquisition of a large group of works by a senior 20th-century photographer from South-East Asia.

Masferré’s father, a soldier in the Spanish colonial army, remained in the Philippines after the ceding of the islands by the Spanish to the United States in 1898. He settled in Sagada, in the Gran Cordillera and he married a Kakana-ey woman. Masferré was educated in Spain, and also in St Mary the Virgin mission school at Sagada. Masferré also later became a teacher and administrator at the mission. In 1934 Masferré ordered a camera and developing kit by mail from Manila. He was originally inspired by the photographs of Gran Cordillera people in National Geographic magazine taken by Dean C. Worcester and in American picture magazines such as Picture Post. Masferré taught himself the art of photography through imported photography magazines and books.

After his mother’s death in 1935, Masferré became concerned about the decline of traditional ways of the Philippine mountain peoples as modernisation spread from the metropolitan centres in the lowlands. One of the earliest pictures by Masferré in the exhibition is of a woman transplanting rice brought by foreign visitors to the mission.

detail: Eduardo Masferr� 'At the Papatayan (sacred grove). Malegokong, Bontok, Mountain Province' 1949 gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
detail: Eduardo Masferré 'At the Papatayan (sacred grove). Malegokong, Bontok, Mountain Province' 1949 gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

Masferré hoped to make pictures ‘beautiful enough to hang on the wall’ and also to make portraits which showed the indigenous people as ‘noble and dignified’. In 1934 he set up a studio in the provincial capital, Bontok. Masferré made a living through portraiture, photographed the people who came into Bontok from more remote regions, and continued with field trips in the Sagada region. In 1951 Masferré married Nena Bansiong Ogues, whose parents were of the Ibaloi and Kakana-ey people. His studio made only a modest income, so in 1956, in order to support a growing family, Masferré stopped work as a full-time photographer and turned to farming oranges. The studio in Bontok continued under his son Jaime.

Many photographers worked in the Asia-Pacific region through the late 19th and 20th centuries, catering to the western market’s desire for images of exotic ‘natives’ as well  as anthropological and ethnographic representations. Masferré’s aim was not anthropological, he wanted both to record ethnographic information and to convey the dignity and humanity of the original Philippine island peoples.

Masferré operated under isolated and difficult conditions with simple equipment. Recognition came late in life through a nationalist effort in the 1980s to rediscover the pre-Hispanic cultures and recognise their legacy. In an interview in 1988 for the first monograph on his work, Masferré commented that when he began in the 1950s, many Filipinos thought his pictures should not be exhibited because the subjects were seen as primitive: ‘Now, I hope they will look at my pictures and say “this should be kept”’.3 In 1988, President Corazon C. Aquino’s declared a Decade of Philippine Nationalism, culminating in the centenary of the 1898 independent Philippine Constitution.4 The first peoples of the Philippines were seen in a new light and Masferré’s work was revalued as a national treasure.

Parallels exist between the affirmation of indigenous and European–Australian heritage stimulated by the Australian Bicentenary in 1988 and the rediscovery of Masferré's work. In Australia this process saw the emergence of a generation of young indigenous photographers and also the re-evaluation of the status of the Max Dupain’s archive.5

Masferré and Dupain were contemporaries but they were unaware of each other’s existence. Dupain worked in Sydney as a commercial photographer from 1934 in a broad range of fashion, advertising, social portraiture and personal documentary work. He also pursued a career as an exhibiting artist–photographer. Neither man spent a significant time outside of their homelands. They did make use of books and magazines from abroad for technical and aesthetic guidance and were part of broad trends in modern photography from the 1930s to the 1950s. Masferré and Dupain are revered as key figures in the history of photography in their own countries yet remain virtually unknown internationally.

Max Dupain 'Native boys - Trobriand Islands' 1944 from the New Guinea series, gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Max Dupain 'Native boys - Trobriand Islands' 1944 from the New Guinea series, gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

Dupain is seen as predominantly within a European modernist tradition of art photography with an emphasis on personal interpretation and formalism even in his documentary work. Masferré rarely exhibited in an art photography context and his work is largely seen in an anthropological tradition, although it is also recognised to have extended this tradition. His vision was to convey a sense of universal brotherhood and a sense of vitality as well as recording customs and costume.

When the works were brought together in the process of acquisition in 2000, conjunctions in approach could be seen in Masferré’s and Dupain’s basic concern for making portraits of indigenous people in which the subjects appear relaxed and normal. They also had in common the large matte surfaced and warm tone exhibition prints of the 1940s and the 1950s. Stylistic features common to modernist photography of the 1920s to the 1950s can also be seen in both photographers mix of spontaneity and formal design in their compositions, in their use of close-ups and views of figures seen from below or silhouetted against the sky. The point at which their work converges is a shared interest in the documentary photography and photojournalism celebrated in Edward Steichen’s Family of Man exhibition in 1955. Throughout the mid to late 20th century lay a quest for an original and basic humanity which critics of modern civilisation felt was lacking in industrialised societies.

In 1942 Max Dupain volunteered to join the newly formed Camouflage Unit that was part of the Department of Home Security established after considerable lobbying by Professor William Dakin, a marine biologist at Sydney University. A number of Australian artists also joined the Camouflage Unit including William Dobell, Robert Emerson Curtis and Clem Seale. After training in Sydney, Dupain was sent by Dakin to Darwin via Alice Springs in 1943, and then to New Guinea for four months. Dupain was not an official war photographer like his close friend Damien Parer who was killed in action in Peleliu in September 1944.

The Camouflage Unit headquarters was on Goodenough Island.  Dupain also worked at  Tami Island and Finschafen as well as Port Moresby with the Royal Australian Airforce and the American forces. In 1945 Dupain transferred to the Department of Information which was already preparing for a postwar immigration drive. In 1946 he travelled across Australia documenting the country for  promotional purposes. He returned full time to his Sydney studio in 1947 and over the next decade developed a specialisation in architectural and industrial photography.

Max Dupain 'Native mother and children - Nadzah' 1944 from the New Guinea series, gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
Max Dupain 'Native mother and children - Nadzah' 1944 from the New Guinea series, gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

Dupain’s New Guinea images were made for personal reasons, perhaps as a consequence of finding himself away from his homeland for the first time. The subjects are chiefly Papuans in their villages but Dupain’s purpose was not anthropological and the subjects usually look relaxed in front of the camera. Included in the portfolio are some atmospheric landscapes and several scenes of Australian soldiers and military camps. The mood is quiet, even sombre, and any evidence of the war sits lightly in the midst of an idyllic isolated locale. His subjects are not spied upon or exhibited as sensational and exotic. Dupain’s New Guinea is about the daily rhythm of village life, in contrast to the images of earlier expeditions by anthropological photographers. Dupain’s older contemporary and fellow Australian, Frank Hurley, undertook a trip through northern Queensland to film and photograph the land and the Aboriginal people in 1914. Hurley also travelled to New Guinea in 1920 and 1923. In contrast to Dupain, however,
he saw his subjects as savages and played upon public interest in their practices as cannibals. 

Dupain did not take any particular interest in the situation of Australian Aboriginal people. Masferré’s work can be compared to that of the Anglo–Swedish photographer Axel Poignant (1906–1986) who immigrated to Australia in 1926 and remained until 1956 when he returned to England to work as a photojournalist. Poignant was interested in Aboriginal culture and in the late 1930s and in 1952 documented the way of life in the Liverpool River region of the Northern Territory before a planned government station brought change to the traditional way of life. Poignant was influenced by the documentary movement in film and still photography and had a deep sense of respect for the preservation of the fragile Australian environment.

Also included in the Exhibition are several photographs by German-born Hedda Morrison (1908–1991), who immigrated to Australia in the 1950s Morrison spent many years in China and South-East Asia documenting the people.

In 1999 the National Gallery acquired a group of prints of Asian subjects from French photojournalist, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Displayed in the exhibition is a photograph of dancers in Bali taken in 1949. He began his career influenced both by left-wing political beliefs and Surrealism, but became fascinated with the culture of the East. His first wife
was Balinese. Cartier-Bresson’s reportage seeks out the universal rhythm of life, and the revelations of chance encounters.

Notions of ‘dying races’ informed the work of anthropological and commercial photographers throughout the 19th century. Later 20th-century photographers also owe a debt to the romantic, documentary style of Edward Curtis (1868–1952), who published a vast multi-volume report on the North American Indians. The Pictorialists, as the art photographers were known, favoured highly composed images, often with dramatic but soft lighting effects, and presented indigenous peoples in a narrow set of sentimental tableaux.

detail: Max Dupain 'Mt. Mgaramemo - Markham Valley' 1944 gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia
detail: Max Dupain 'Mt. Mgaramemo - Markham Valley' 1944 gelatin sliver photograph Collection of the National Gallery of Australia click to enlarge

The rise of Communism made rural labourers and peasants, as well as the urban workers, popular subjects in the arts. There was a particular fascination with the colourful and elaborate art and lifestyle of Mexico.  During the revolutionary years of the 1920s a nationalist renaissance focussed on the pre-Hispanic cultures as the source of the bedrock of national identity. Included in the exhibition is a small group of photographs of the indigenous people of Mexico by Mexican photographer, Manual Alvarez Bravo, Henri Cartier Bresson, whose career started in Mexico in the mid 1930s, American modernist art photographer Edward Weston and his Italian-born partner, activist, Tina Modotti, as well the Australian-born commercial photographer from New York, Anton Bruehl.

In concert with their contemporaries, who sought the authentic in the pre-industrial world of indigenous peoples, Dupain and Masferré emerge as part of a wide trend across the world to which each added individual and regional perspectives.

Gael Newton and Anne O’Hehir

1The portfolio was first offered to the National Gallery and other Australian collections in 1992 by Mrs Phyllis Quasha via her daughter Jill, a New York photography dealer. The quality and rarity of the single set of matched exhibition quality prints and funding from Dr Peter Farrell ensured the portfolio’s return to Australia. Dupain’s prints in the New Guinea series portfolio were each signed, titled and dated ‘44’ in pencil and included an edition no. 1/12. The National Gallery holds a further 5 of Dupain’s New Guinea images, 3 of which duplicate images in the portfolio. The prints are dated ’44 but Dupain appears to have only been in New Guinea in early to mid-1943. Dupain’s practise was to date prints by the production year. The New Guinea series were carefully made on warm toned matt paper, each titled, signed and pasted into an individual cream paper folder. The black portfolio slip case has an address label of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. Dupain made a portrait of Quasha in 1942, a print of which is in the National Gallery photography collection, he also sat for portraits in 1944 and presumably acquired the New Guinea portfolio at that time. Dupain later dated his New Guinea works as 1943 in Max Dupain’s Australia (1986).
2Acquired by south east Asian art dealer, Thomas Murray, California, from Masferré in the Philippines in the 1980s. A large collection of prints and negatives are held by the Smithsonian Institute, Washington.
3Quoted in Jill Gale de Villa, Maria Teresa Garcia Farr and Galdys Montgomery Jones, Eduardo Masferré, People of the Philippine Cordillera Photographs 1934–1956, Devcon I P Inc, 1988, supported by Mobil. A parallel retrospective exhibition curated by Marian Roces, of the Museo ng Kalinangang Philipino of the Cultural Center of the Philippines, Manila,was mounted and toured other venues in the country.
4Independence from American rule came in 1945.
5The National Gallery actively collects and exhibits the work of indigenous photographers. See Re-Take: Contemporary Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Photographers in 1998.