SA Government LogoState Library of South Australia logoCharles P Mountford, photographer and ethnographer

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Charles P Mountford, photographer and ethnographer


Commonwealth Board of Enquiry, 1935     
Nepabunna, 1937-39     
Search for Leichhardt remains, 1938     
Central Australia, 1940     
Arnhem Land, 1948 - The expedition     
Arnhem Land, 1948 - Groote Eylandt     
Arnhem Land, 1948 - Yirrkala     
Arnhem Land, 1948 - Oenpelli     

Charles P Mountford (1890-1976)
Charles Pearcy Mountford was born at Hallett in 1890. Leaving school at the age of 11, he moved to Adelaide with his family in 1907, where he studied as an electrical mechanic, and in 1912, gained a position as a telephone mechanic at the Adelaide Post Office. His work gave him entry to remote areas of South Australia and the Northern Territory, where he began to meet and observe Aboriginal Australians.

In 1925 he found rock carvings at Panaramitee, north of Peterborough, and with anthropologist Dr. Norman Tindale, wrote and presented a paper on them. This launched his career as an ethnographer - albeit one he could only pursue during periods of leave from his employment.

In 1935 he was appointed Secretary to a Commonwealth Board of Inquiry into the shooting of Aboriginal people near Uluru; the experience igniting a lifetime's fascination with the people and culture of the area.

He worked consistently through the late 1930s and early 1940s, winning acclaim for his published and cinematic works. This led to a cultural tour of the United States in 1944-1945, during which he screened his films and lectured on Aboriginal culture.

His success on the lecture circuit led to the formation of the Australian-American Expedition to Arnhem Land. This 1948 expedition, a joint venture between the Australian government, Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and the American National Geographic Society, was the first of its kind in Australia.

Other significant expeditions followed, including trips to Yuendumu in 1951, Uluru in 1952, the Tiwi Islands in 1954 and Port Hedland in 1963.

Mountford died in 1976, and his ashes were scattered near Uluru.

The Mountford-Sheard collection of the State Library of South Australia
During the late 1940s, friend Harold L Sheard (1890-1975) began assembling Mountford's private archive. The collection was donated to the State Library of South Australia in 1957, and added to in 1970.

The Mountford-Sheard collection holds the wealth of material gathered by Mountford during his career. Included are field notebooks and journals, photographic images, motion pictures, sound recordings, artworks, correspondence and published works, along with his extensive personal library.

The collection holds items of great cultural significance to many Aboriginal communities in Australia, most particularly those in Central Australia, the Flinders Ranges, Arnhem Land and the Tiwi Islands. A prolific note-taker, Mountford's journals also provide a valuable insight into the practices of twentieth century anthropology and ethnography.

Mountford showed a keen interest in and respect for Aboriginal culture, a fact that is evident in his archive. Although peppered with the vernacular and attitudes of the times, Mountford's writing, and more tellingly his photographs, are indicative of his belief that Aboriginal life was richer and more complex than most white Australians conceded.

His pre-eminent interest was in the ceremonial and religious aspects of Aboriginal culture. Expert advice and community consultation to date has demonstrated that the level of secret/sacred content within the collection is substantial. Because of this, many portions of the collection are culturally restricted.

See the Mountford-Sheard Collection fact sheet for further advice regarding access to the collection.
For a list of Mountford's published works click here.

Charles Mountford
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Charles Mountford filming on location
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'Neptunia' entertainment program: [program]
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Opening of the C. P. Mountford exhibition
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