Speaking with Country

an interview with Judith Nagala Crispin

Australian photographer and poet JUDITH CRISPIN talks to James Burnett about the complexity of her unique photographic process and the creative – often spiritual – exploration of her aboriginal ancestry.

Above: Lily returns to Altair, the brightest of Aquila’s stars, wearing the body of a crow. Lumachrome glass print, cliche-verre. Roadkill crow, ochres & dandelion seeds on fibre paper. Exposed 32 hours in autumn light under brushed perspex.

Since 2011 JUDITH CRISPIN has spent part of each year in northern Australia’s Tanami desert, living andworking with the indigenous Warlpiri people. Her work focuses on ideas around displacement, identity loss and the connection with raw landscape, which is called “Country”. She makes unique photographic responses to this landscape – using light, earth and flesh – and a range of techniques including lumen prints, chemigrams, lumachrome glass prints and cliché verre. These are often immensely complex to produce physically and layered with intellectual and spiritual meaning. Lumen printing involves exposing photographic emulsion to sunlight for many hours, typically 24 to 36 hours for her images, often utilizing chemicals to create texture and colour to the image. She uses layering techniques with sheets of glass marked with wax, fluids, earth, minerals, drawing and scratches, alongside multiple exposures. The flesh element is provided using dead animals, often road-kill. The long exposure times, layering and changing physical conditions require her intervention throughout the process and so the images are in an active relationship with the environment to which she is responding. Her images tell, and are made from, stories: of her family roots, the lives and culture of the Warlpiri people, and of the living things that are part of her physical process.

Judith Crispin with Henry Jackamarra Cook, a 109 year old Warlpiri painter
Kitty Napangardi

JB: First, a question about your lumachrome images: have you always worked with traditional techniques such as lumen prints and chemigrams, or did you develop your methods in response to your interaction with the Warlpiri community?

JC: I actually began working with these techniques as a direct response to ideas Warlpiri women painters raised with me. They speak about something called kurruwarri, patterns in the land. They say Country is trying to speak to us all the time through patterns. For people raised in culture, those patterns can manifest as songlines or maps. For others, like me, who have no inherited songlines, Country can be harder to understand. When Warlpiri women paint their bodies for ceremony, it is kurruwarri. I started working with my hands, using analogue photographic techniques, so I could make work in very remote places– mostly women’s sites, deep in the desert, where there’s no electricity. But I really responded to this idea of kurruwarri and wanted to know what it could mean for me– for a person of mixed ancestry, someone who is not Warlpiri but who has fallen in love with Warlpiri Country. I developed this unique method of combined cameraless practices (chemigram, cliche-verre, lumen printing) to try to give Country a voice in my practice.

JB: Do you see a relationship between your poetry and photography? Do you work on both in parallel or does one inspire the other?

JC: Poems and images, for me, are just different expressions of the same thing. I can’t do one without the other. The images try to say something, then the poems give that something dimensions and life. There’s a long tradition in poetry of ekphrasis – that is, poems that respond directly to images. 

2 thoughts on “Speaking with Country

  1. Beautiful haunting interview that reveals the secret river of the history of indigenous peoples of Australia through the sensibility of the photographer and the sensitivity of Jim Burnett. Repays attention. Opens up felt understanding. This realises what an imaginarium conjures up.


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