State Library of South Australia logoCharles P Mountford, photographer and ethnographer
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Central Australia, 1940

In 1940 Mountford travelled to Central Australia under the auspises of the Board of Anthropology of the University of Adelaide, to carry out more anthropological research. Mountford's plan for this trip was to collect information about Aboriginal art and legends, to carry out scientific research, and to study and record the lifestyles and customs of the Aboriginal people of the western desert of Central Australia.

Mountford saw this research as urgent, and was genuinely concerned that the knowledge and traditions of these people was either already lost or quickly disappearing. This presumption was to confront him close to the end of his life when the Pitjantjatjara people sought court action against him for breach of tribal confidence in his published work.

Mountford was accompanied on this trip by his wife, Bessie Mountford, and 18 year old Lauri Sheard, the son of his friend Harold Sheard. The small party left Adelaide on 13 June 1940 and travelled by train as far as possible on the legendary 'Ghan' then transferred to the narrow-gauge railway at Port Augusta, stopping at Marree and Oodnadatta en route to Central Australia.

From Oodnadatta the party were then transported by truck to the Musgrave Ranges 'across gibber plains, open flats, and dry creek beds', camping out in the freezing desert winter along the way (Brown Men and Red Sand, p. 23). On 16 June they arrived at Ernabella Mission Station, which Mountford was to use as base for his outward trips to the north and west to the Musgrave and Mann Ranges, then later to Mount Connor (Atila), Ayers Rock (Uluru) and Mount Olga (Kata Tjuta).

The Ernabella pastoral settlement had only recently been established as a Presbyterian mission in 1938. The Reverend Ron Trudinger, the school's first teacher, had begun his work at the school earlier in 1940. The Mission and school had a policy of dual language and respect for the people's culture and traditions. Mountford had relied heavily on his communications with Trudinger in his preparations for the trip.

After a month working at Ernabella, Mountford and Sheard travelled by camel, with local Aboriginal people as guides, firstly to the Musgrave and Mann Ranges and secondly Mount Conner, Ayers Rock and Mount Olga, covering the territory of the Pitjantjatjara and Yankunytjatjara people.

Bessie left Ernabella on 15 July 1940, to return to Adelaide, prior to Mountford making the first outward trips (see her diary PRG 487/1/6). During the expedition, Sheard assisted Mountford and kept an extensive daily diary, published as An Australian youth among desert Aborigines. He also took hundreds of photographs.

Much of the local travelling was done by camel as Mountford found them eminently more reliable than a motor vehicle and more suited to the terrain than horses, but even this method caused difficulties as some of the waterholes en route had dried up, and the camel strings, populated by poor quality animals, were menaced to fleeing by rogue camels.

Mountford's work included making extensive journal notes, taking comprehensive surveys of the art of the region, viewing and photographing rock paintings and mythological sites, collecting crayon drawings from the Aboriginal people, plus recording songs and taking film.

Mountford produced his first documentary film Brown Men and Red Sand (Walkabout) during this expedition and later published a book of the same title. The screening of the films he made in Central Australia was the eventual catalyst for a Lecture tour to America in 1945 from which the kernel of an idea for the celebrated 1948 Arnhem Land Expedition grew (see Arnhem Land - The Expedition). 

Mountford spent five months in the field and returned to Adelaide on 10 October 1940. In 1942 he led another University of Adelaide expedition to Central Australia, which included the areas of Jay Creek, Haasts Bluff and Hermannsburg Mission.

Diana Young writes that 'the unique contribution of Mountford's research is that he was the first westerner to consider the art of the Pitjantjatjara and the Yankunytjatjara as art rather than just ethnographic artefact. He elevated their art in terms of the universal design elements of line, shape, direction, size, texture, colour and tone.' (Painting the Song, p. 30)


James, Diana. Painting the song : Kaltjiti artists of the sand dune country, Fitzroy, Vic, McCulloch & McCulloch Australian Art Books, 2009

Landmarks in Australian intellectual property law, edited Andrew T. Kenyon, Megan Richardson, Sam Ricketson, Port Melbourne, Vic. Cambridge University Press, 2009 [Chapter 7 Foster v Mountford: cultural confidentiality in a changing Australia / Christoph Antons]

Lamshed, Max. 'Monty' : the biography of C.P. Mountford, [Adelaide] : Rigby, 1972

Mountford, Bessie Ilma. Manuscript diary, Ernabella, dated June 13 - July 14, 1940, PRG 487/1/6

Mountford, Charles, P. Brown men and red sand : journeyings in wild Australia, London ; Sydney : Angus & Robertson, 1981, c1948

Sheard, Lauri E. An Australian youth among desert Aborigines : journal of an expedition among the Aborigines of central Australia ; with an introduction by Charles P. Mountford, Adelaide : Libraries Board of South Australia, 1964

Walkabout [motion picture] : a journey with the Aboriginals, Lindfield, N.S.W, Film Australia, 1974


Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park

Formation of rocks near Ayers Rock
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Lauri Sheard talking with an Aboriginal man
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Spinifex ring
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