Still fresh back from seeing the wonderful exhibition curated by Gael Newton at the National Gallery of Australia – Garden of the East: Photography in Indonesia 19850s-1940s – I spent my morning in one of the Cornell libraries looking at some photographs made by a prolific Japanese photography in Indonesia in the early 1930s, K.T. Satake.
A real workman photographer, Satake photographed extensively across Sumatra, Java, and Bali, and in 1935 released the book Camera-Beelden van Sumatra, Java, and Bali (Camera Pictures from Sumatra, Java, and Bali). Printed in 1935, jointly published between Surabaya and London, and bilingually produced in Dutch and English, the book offers about 800-900 views made across the three islands.
Most of the photographs are black and white, though there are a few autochromes scattered about the book (with the exception of the picture above, the autochromes are still life photographs of fruits found around the islands). Printed in halftone, the black and white reproductions aspire for a more painterly palette – something more akin to photogravure or collotype – and are printed in colored inks, pages of photographs alternating between a sepia brown and an olive green.
The book prints have a flat, matte finish, with very compressed tones. Often, the printing works for the photographs, and successfully emulate a more lavish printing process.
In some ways, the pictures have a simple ethographic quality to them, but if only for the sheer volume, the book does offer a bit more. Satake did have a great love for Indonesia, even if a romantic vision.
His pictures are at their best when he is looking at deep space, across epic and layered landscapes. There was also a stretch in the middle of the chapter on Java in which environmental portraits are paired against small grids featuring details from Borobudur, or some of the other major monuments in Central Java, an interesting photographic dialog.
The picture captions or titles often fail the pictures (A Type of Balinese Woman), and sometimes the pictures lapse into a sentimental, pictorialist vision (the soft focus doesn’t translate well into the halftone printing technique used for the book).
Regardless, it is a thorough study of many iconic regions across the three islands. The photographs do get a bit redundant as you go through the book, and I did appreciate his dramatic vision of the larger, more mythic landscapes.