After almost four decades gathering dust in the attic, David Bailey’s unseen portraits of Papua New Guinea tribesmen go on display at the Daniel Blau Gallery in Hoxton Square.
In 1974, David Bailey travelled to the beautiful Oceanic island of Papua New Guinea. While there he lived amongst the cannibals and bow-and-arrow-carrying tribes people for two weeks. Immersing himself in their world he set about snapping extraordinary Polaroids of the natives – young children smiling through rainbow bright headdresses decorated with the feathers of jungle birds of paradise, wigmen staring out from under extravagant wigs, and mudmen in bright white body-paint and monstrous masks. “They treated me ok, but they didn’t make me feel relaxed,” Bailey recalls of the once in a lifetime experience. “I managed to escape unscathed though, I’m pretty good at that.” On his return to 70s London, Bailey stored the tropical Polaroids away in his attic, not to be seen again until a studio visit by his art dealer some thirty years later. Next month the Papua Polaroids will finally see the light of day, and will be exhibited at the Daniel Blau Gallery in Hoxton Square. To celebrate, Terry Jones caught up with Bailey over a cup of tea and to recount his experiences.
Did you travel to New Guinea to meet this one specific tribe? It was one of the reasons, yeah. I was out that way because I was going to shoot a story for Vogue in Australia. So I said to the rest of the team, ‘I’ll meet you all in Australia’ and I went to New Guinea by myself. This was 1974, and they hadn’t seen that many white people there before…
What did the tribesmen think of you? They couldn’t understand why my hair wasn’t curly. They kept pulling it to see if I was wearing a wig, because they have wigmen out there. There’s a wigman in one of the pictures. The funny thing about the Polaroids is all these are real people; the only touristy ones are the mudmen, but all the others I found… They thought the Polaroids I took of them were mirrors.
In what way? They’d never seen anything like it before. They’d see a picture of themselves, then go like that [turns the photo around and around] and wonder why it didn’t change. They’d never seen a piece of film come out of a camera before.
Were they worried about seeing themselves in that way? No, no, they weren’t worried. They just thought it was useless. But I like the idea that they thought it was a broken mirror. [Laughs]
Did you give the tribesmen any of the Polaroids to keep? I did, but I’m not sure they were very impressed. They’d rather I gave them a little mirror. If you think about it a Polaroid picture is totally useless to them.
Well, they could show their family… They weren’t in touch with their feminine side out there, Terry.
Where were the women? They’re there in the photographs… They used to breastfeed the pigs. That’s the only thing they didn’t want me to photograph, the tribeswomen breastfeeding pigs.
How long were you there? Not that long, about two weeks, more or less.
What did they eat? They eat people. They have Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease there [a form of brain damage that leads to a rapid decrease of mental function and movement], named after the doctor who discovered it, because of eating the sweetmeats of humans. The women used to get it, because the women had all the cheap parts. While the men ate the prime bits of meat from the bodies. I mean this is years ago, this is the 70s…
Do you think they’re still living out there? Yeah, in the mountains probably.
How come the Polaroids didn’t fade over time? They didn’t fade because they’ve been boxed for 30 years. I didn’t really want to sell them, but I thought, ‘They’re just going to sit in the box, and somebody might want them.’
I like the photograph of the man with the bone through his nose. Did that mean anything? I don’t know… I’ve met a couple of politicians who had bones through their noses.
Is it a status symbol? I guess so. I don’t really know to be honest.
I remember once seeing a picture of someone with a yellow HP pencil through their nose – that was such a brilliant piece of styling! The art director’s yellow pencil… The wigmen were the funniest, they had great big wigs! In the pictures it looks like they’re wearing hats but they’re actually wigs.
Papua Polaroids is open at the Daniel Blau Gallery in Hoxton Square from 5th October to 3rd November. More info here.