Two Seattle photographers retrace the steps of a legendary artist in the South Pacific.
When Seattle-based photographers Michele Westmorland and Karen Huntt set foot in Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, they noticed something strange.
"This white dog ran past me, looking at first like he was covered in blood," says Huntt. "I was a bit alarmed and turned to walk after him when it dawned on me that the reason he had big red stains all over him was from people spitting betel-nut juice all over him. People weren't spitting at him on purpose — there's just so much spitting going on that the poor hound had crossed paths with a few too many chewers."
This first encounter with copious amounts of red spittle was just one of many odd customs that the two photographers got used to during their ambitious trek in the footsteps of an artistic and anthropological legend.
Armed with six cameras, an assortment of lenses, multiple laptop computers and more gadgets than you could count (in addition to a film crew), Huntt and Westmorland traveled to the remote South Pacific islands of Melanesia. Their purpose was to photograph and document the lives of the people of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands, located north of Australia. They were eager and determined to retrace the expedition of their idol, portrait artist Caroline Mytinger.
"Caroline was definitely a woman before her time," says Westmorland. "She had an adventurous and independent streak. One of the reasons we wanted to retrace her expedition is to revive Caroline's art and honor her incredible talent and bravery."
Caroline Mytinger was a successful portrait artist of her time. "In the 1920s, she made her living as a portrait painter and painted many prominent American families, such as the Pillsburys," says Huntt.
Mytinger, however, had developed a strong interest in the world's native cultures and was concerned that Western civilization was influencing and intruding on them. She wanted to preserve their ways of life.
In 1926, at age 29, she decided to do something about it. Together with her high school friend, Margaret Warner, she traveled to the Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, with little money (about $400) and no corporate sponsorship, in order to paint portraits of native Melanesians. Mytinger described the people at the time as "vanishing primitives."
"Caroline had a deep concern for the indigenous cultures of the world," says Westmorland. "She painted the people with beauty and dignity. It was Caroline's goal to create a permanent record and document the people, at least on canvas, and the culture before they disappeared."
It was almost unheard of for women in the 1920s to explore remote Melanesian islands on their own, especially former "Gibson Girl" models (Mytinger once posed for painter Charles Dana Gibson). Their daring, underfunded expedition had every reason to fail, but Mytinger and Warner were determined and resourceful.
Starting from San Francisco, the two women traveled to Melanesia by way of Hawai'i, New Zealand and Australia, making money along the way by painting white locals and getting free boat rides whenever they could. They stayed for two years in a region that, eight decades ago, was largely uncharted by Western visitors and rumored to be inhabited by headhunters and cannibals.
During their journey, Mytinger and Warner survived an earthquake, endured searing heat and torrential rains, and contracted malaria. At one point, Mytinger resorted to painting with boat paint after her art supplies fell in the ocean. In a remote corner of Papua New Guinea, they were even confronted by actual headhunters when they entered an area that was forbidden to outsiders.
By all accounts, however, the women reveled in the culture and the people. In turn, the islanders grew to trust the strange, blond foreigner in their midst and became willing subjects for Mytinger's portraits.
After she returned to the United States in 1930, her paintings were exhibited in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History and the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit traveled briefly, and Mytinger resumed her work as a portrait artist. She also authored two books about her experiences: "Headhunting in the Solomon Islands" and "New Guinea Headhunt."
These books provided the catalyst and inspiration for Westmorland and Huntt's modern-day voyage. "In retracing Caroline's expedition, we were going where 99 percent of the world would never see," says Westmorland. "One of our goals was to also document the Melanesian people and culture as they are today."
Michele Westmorland, a full-time, award-winning freelance photographer with expertise in underwater, wildlife, landscape and exotic locations, first became aware of Mytinger when a friend of her mother gave her a copy of "New Guinea Headhunt" in 1994. "She said, "I see a lot of you in her,'" Westmoreland recalls. "The minute I read the book, I knew that this was a story that had to be told."
Westmorland, who had already traveled numerous times to Papua New Guinea, began conceiving a project to retrace Mytinger's footsteps and spent years trying to locate her oil paintings. Finally, in 2002, she discovered that Mytinger's artwork had been stored in a warehouse in the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley.
The year before, Westmorland had met fellow freelance shooter Karen Huntt, who had served as the managing photo editor at Corbis and managed the still-photography department at the National Geographic Society's TV division. In addition to her experience as a globetrotting photojournalist and photo consultant for such magazines as U.S. News and World Report and Vanity Fair, Huntt had also earned a bachelor's degree in cultural anthropology and paleontology.
Soon after Westmorland introduced Huntt to the artwork, Huntt was hooked on Mytinger's story. "When I read her books and heard Michele's idea, I was fascinated," she says.
The two spent the next three years researching and fundraising for their expedition. "Family and friends donated money, and we basically gave presentations to everyone and anyone who would listen," Huntt remembers.
Eventually they partnered with Wings World Quest, a nonprofit organization dedicated to women explorers, past and present. They also received in-kind contributions of services from Lowepro, Canon, Hitachi, Intel, the Monterey Museum of Art, the Hearst Museum of Anthropology and others. Huntt estimates that they raised about $70,000, and Westmorland donated some of her own money.
By the spring of 2005, Huntt and Westmorland had secured the financing and were ready to embark on a seven-week odyssey through the South Pacific archipelago.
Both photographers had concerns about how the people of the remote islands would react to them and their expanded circle, which included a camera crew, an anthropologist and a historian. As an icebreaker, they brought along reproductions of Mytinger's portraits, which they showed to the villagers. But they needn't have worried; they were welcomed with graciousness.
For Huntt, it was her first trip to Papua New Guinea. She says the villagers' reaction to them and the paintings were well worth the years spent planning the expedition. "Everywhere we went, the people were curious and interested that other people cared about them, their culture and the way they lived," she says.
One of the expedition's more emotional moments came after Westmorland and Huntt showed Mytinger's prints in the town of Patutiva. Some of the locals recognized a man in one of the original paintings as their deceased father. "We spent a wonderful evening talking with them," Huntt says. "Their recollections of their father's carving skills matched the description in Caroline's book."
Huntt and Westmorland found themselves intersecting with the experiences of Mytinger and Warner on many levels. "We €¦ looked out over the same scenery," Huntt says. "We experienced the rough weather and waves of the Southeast coast "raining doorknobs,' as [Mytinger] put it. Fire ants on Mailu Island crawled up Michele's legs the same way they did on Margaret Warner's."
They retraced Mytinger's steps as closely as they could. From Port Moresby, they flew to Rabaul on New Britain Island, where they boarded the M/V Febrina, a 72-foot diveboat that would act as their headquarters and chief means of transport during their journey. After a 44-hour crossing of the Solomon Sea, they anchored in the western Solomon Islands and then made their way southeast, stopping on some of the other remote islands, before curving back west toward Papua New Guinea.
"We had this outline presented to us by Caroline and her paintings," says Westmorland, "but it was still very much our journey."
Melanesian culture, of course, has changed over the last 80 years or so just like our own culture. "Women in this country don't wear whalebone corsets anymore," notes Huntt.
Few Melanesian women wear grass skirts now; those who do are older women. The making of traditional headdresses had been discouraged or outlawed because it was used to denote killings through headhunting.
Another tradition seldom practiced today is that of fully tattooing a woman of marriageable age. In Papua New Guinea, the photographers met 85-year-old Noevca Salagomgom, one of the few living examples of this dying art. Another fully tattooed woman they met, Bo'o Sebi, on Mailu Island, talked at length to Westmorland and Huntt and to the children in the village about her people's heritage.
Such interest from the younger generation was not always apparent. "What we found was that, in a lot of cases, their pride in their cultural practices had been wiped out," says Westmorland, who had been to the islands 14 times before making the trip with Huntt.
The expedition also met one of the last men to experience "head binding." Also known as "head elongation," the custom involves binding and shaping children's heads at birth to achieve an elongated conical or pyramidal look, which denotes tribal affiliation. "When he had left his village to go to school, he was made fun of, which really stripped him of pride in his heritage," says Westmorland.
But when he saw the paintings of his ancestors proudly posing with their elongated heads, Westmorland says, she was touched by the pride in his face.
The photographers report that some traditions have endured. People still cook on hot rocks and carry things on their heads. Many children and adults also practice the ancient musical tradition known as "sing-sing," which is now part of all kinds of celebrations. The tradition has continued and expanded, despite the rumor that it was once used only to celebrate headhunting rituals.
Although two-thirds of the inhabitants of Papua New Guinea today are Christians, the islanders still honor the heritage. The Kaluabu skull caves are preserved as a reminder of the headhunting past. Skulls of both chiefs and victims are stored in the cave system.
In the Solomons, the expedition observed men building a war canoe, a type of boat formerly used in headhunting raids. The men had no firsthand knowledge about the nearly forgotten art of canoe carving, so they were using information they had found in a library.
"One of the many things we learned is that there is an interesting blend of religious beliefs and old traditional ways," Westmorland says. "Although early influence by missionaries ended many of the practices, today there is a reaching back into their past and a rekindling of many of the dances and ceremonies."
Huntt says that organization was essential in keeping up with the photographic and video demands during the expedition. Once aboard the Febrina, they used the boat's salon area as a command center. They would shoot all day, usually leaving the boat at 7:30 or 8:00 every morning and traveling by skiff to the remote islands.
"It was great shooting in digital because it gave us the luxury to view and process our images each night," Huntt says. "We knew right away what we had."
Despite the primitive conditions around them, the two photographers had plenty of modern technology at hand. Included in their 17 cases of equipment were four Canon camera bodies — including a G5, two 1D Mark IIs and a 1Ds — three laptops, about eight lenses, three external hard drives, two tripods and a litany of strobes, remotes, cables and filters.
"We didn't have to sweat over rolls of film not knowing what we had shot," says Huntt. "We each shot over 5,000 frames over the two months, and videotaped over 90 hours." Westmorland added that, by shooting in digital, they were able to share the photographs with the villagers on the spot.
Because the Melanesian weather could range from drenching rains to sweltering heat, protecting the equipment against the constant humidity was sometimes a demanding task.
"It was a challenge taking it all in and out of the boat, which was cooler than the outside," says Huntt. The equipment would fog up, and they often had to wait for the temperature to equalize.
"When it rained, we jury-rigged plastic bags around the cameras and lenses, and both of us had equipment bags with rain covers," she adds.
Dust was also a major problem, "especially in Rabaul, which has a lot of pumice ash in the air," Huntt says. They had to keep the equipment covered, and they used blower brushes or cloths constantly to clean it.
Now that they have returned to Seattle, Huntt and Westmorland plan to produce a film and an exhibit under the title "Headhunt Revisited: Charting Cultural Change in Melanesia," along with a book that juxtaposes their present-day photographs with Mytinger's paintings. The women are now working on a documentary of the expedition and of Mytinger's life using video shot by the film crew that was part of the expedition. Model and actress Lauren Hutton has agreed to narrate the film. (For more information, visit http://www.headhuntrevisited.org/.)
Until this expedition, Caroline Mytinger's life and work had fallen into obscurity. She died in 1980, at the age of 83, at her home in Monterey, Calif. Huntt and Westmorland want to revive her art by organizing a traveling exhibit of her paintings. According to Westmorland, Mytinger's paintings were last exhibited at the Seattle Art Museum in 1935. They hope to release all of their projects in 2009.
"We also wanted to give back something tangible to the people of the islands," says Westmorland. "One of the things we feel we have given back is seeing the villages getting together and studying the paintings and photographs — discussing their heritage. In a sense, it is instilling pride again."
They are donating prints of Mytinger's artwork to the National Museum of Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. A portion of the book's proceeds will go to help young women in Papua New Guinea further their studies in art or anthropology.
Huntt says that the project has changed her in many ways, not the least of which is the growth she has experienced as a person and a professional. "All of the research, planning, dealing with local customs and even the challenging weather made me realize that having a dream and really working hard to make it happen just reinforce that anything is possible," she says.