Hulu Wigmen

Enjoying the moment

mickyates Asia, Family, film, FilmIsNotDead, Nikon, Papua New Guinea, Photography, Travel 0 Comments

I have been gradually going through my library of 35mm slides, a collection over 20,000 strong, and going back to the 60s. Whilst a little daunting and very time consuming, I must admit to really enjoying the process. My latest series is from a Papua New Guinea visit in 1994, with Ingrid and our 6 children. Dan, our youngest, was only a year old. As Ingrid just told me – typical Mick, writing a blog post 22 years too late!

We were in the Southern Highlands, and started in Tari. We first met Pajia the Witchdoctor. Scary looking but ultimately rather a nice man it seemed. What is photographically interesting, though, is looking at these images with a 21st century eye. I used the superb Nikon F4s, with a 35-205mm Nikkor zoom, and loaded with Ektachrome 100. This camera is still one of my workhorses today.

Pajia the Witchdoctor

The strong light and heavy shadows under the trees meant that I opted to use daylight flash. Oddly, I hardly ever think of doing that today, probably because of the much higher ISOs available on digital cameras. Looking back, I find the results filmic and pleasing. It’s of course helpful to be able to use modern Lightroom processing to deal with excessive contrast from the flash.


Nearby was the home of the famous Huli Wigmen, where young men have a short profession growing their hair (apparently lying around chilling for the months they do it :-)). And there were lots of characters to be seen.

Hulu Wigmen

Another thing  to note is that, whilst I have hundreds of slides from Papua, generally speaking in those days like many people I took only one shot of each subject – and maybe a second closer or at a slightly different angle. I certainly didn’t take a “digital series”. With no chimping possible, I had no idea what result I would be getting until a couple of weeks later, returning home and having the slides processed.


Whilst digital clearly increases the chance of success, does it mean better photographs? I think the care we have to take with a “shot at a time” is a great discipline, whatever medium we employ. I was particularly delighted to re-discover this portrait of a young boy from Wabia Village.


Zooming in with the loupe shows more grain than a comparable digital file (although maybe that is my scanning technique, not sure). But I just love the overall result here, flash included.

Lum Village

In Wabia, we enjoyed a performance of the Spirit Dance. That said, catching the individuals getting ready for the dance was very instructive. The care taken with the makeup was clear, and whilst it was a dance clearly set up for visitors, there was much local pride in the event.


So, what do I conclude? I can see how my current fascination with candid portrait and documentary has been with me for a long time. Daylight flash I need to experiment with. And I can also see that more discipline in “shooting one at a time ” is something that is very valid today.

Of course, film never dies, and clearly gets great results. Both digital and film have their place, I believe.

But most of all, I am just having a blast re-working my old images.

Here’s a last shot from Lumu Village.

Lulu Village

Dorothea Lange – Inspiration

mickyates B&W, Photography, Social development, USA 0 Comments

I have been asked to make a short presentation to the PhotoBath group on an image that has always inspired me. It actually didn’t take long to decide that it was Dorothea Lange‘s photograph taken during the Great Depression, in California (Nipomo), in 1936. It is generally known as “Migrant Mother“.

Dorothea was commissioned by the Farm Security Administration to document the impact of federal programs in improving rural conditions. It was a picture that literally changed history. That day, Dorothea took only six images, using her Graflex series D 4×5 camera. Note, only six images … how many would most of us take today? Also, at that time, she did not talk to her subjects.

Lange later said: “I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was 32. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it.”

To quote eyewitnesshistory: “After returning home, Lange alerted the editor of a San Francisco newspaper to the plight of the workers at the camp, presenting him with two of her photos. The editor informed federal authorities and published an article that included Lange’s images. As a result, the government rushed a shipment of 20,000 lbs. of food to the camp. The mother and her family had moved on by the time the food arrived. The photo’s wider impact included influencing John Steinbeck in the writing of his novel The Grapes of Wrath.”

As she was funded by the federal government, the image was in the public domain and Dorothea never directly received any royalties. The image was issued as a 32 cent U.S. stamp in 1998.

The mother’s name was only discovered in the 1970s. She was Florence Owens Thompson, mother at that time of seven children, and there is some evidence that she hadn’t expected the picture to be published. She never made a penny from the photograph, although she went on to build a much better life, and she died in 1980. Dorothea Lange had died in 1965.

From a photographer’s perspective, there are a couple of very interesting points to note. First, the original image had a thumb showing in the bottom left, as shown by the original record held by the Farm Security Administration. This was retouched out, and that version became the picture that we all know.

Once you know this, you will for ever see the thumb, even in the modified image. Not an issue at all for me, but Photoshop ethics, anyone … ?

Dorothea Lange

Secondly, the other 5  frames taken by Dorothea had the children facing towards the photographer. She then asked the children to turn away, and the iconic image was born. Purists argued that the result wasn’t really “documentary”. Here are the other frames:

5 Frames

However, I would disagree with those purists. The essence of the massive problems faced by Florence and others really shone through because of this intervention by Dorothea. Isn’t that what documentary is all about?

To complete the historical perspective, there was an image taken of Dorothea with her camera, by Rondale Partridge, son of Imogen Cunningham. Dorothea is holding her Graflex 4×5 single lens reflex camera. This camera took single sheet film, and the photographer looks down at the glass through the rectangular opening at the top of the camera, viewing an image that is flipped upside-down and backward. When the photographer trips the lever, the lens stops down, the mirror goes up against the ground glass, the fabric shutter in front of the film slides up and allows the light to expose the film. The photographer then changes the film to the next sheet and sets up the next image. From

Dorothea Lange

Adding a personal twist to the story, in 2000 Ingrid and I were starting our Cambodian school building program, and we visited the Khmer Rouge Reconciliation Areas (with Save the Children, see yatesweb). These areas of the country had remained under Khmer Rouge control since 1979, with extremely limited schooling and very poor, subsistence living conditions.

Now, I do not want to claim to have any of the skills or vision of Ms. Lange, but I took this image. It was one of the families at Trapeang Prasat, and was shot with a Nikon D1.

In retrospect, I should have tried to eliminate the people standing behind.

The image was not “posed”, though I have always thought that a little of the mournfulness in the picture is in some way reflective of my long standing inspiration from Dorothea’s work.

Trapeang Prasat Family 2000 -1

There is an excellent monograph on Dorothea Lange published in the Aperture Masters of Photography series.

Very well worth reading and studying.

 Aperture Monograph