Captain Barton’s Motu Girl

(Last Updated On: December 29, 2015)

Captain Francis Rickman Barton (1865–1947) was an officer in the British Army and an amateur photographer who was stationed in New Guinea from 1899 to 1908. In 1904 he began assisting anthopologist Charles Seligman, who was preparing the book Melanesians of British New Guinea (1910). The book features some of Captain Barton’s photos. Sixteen photographs taken there by Barton are now in the British Museum and more than 1,500 of his photos are in the collection at the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. According to the British Museum, nearly all of the photos are of females. The photo below, from the Royal Anthropological Institute, is his most famous.

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F. R. Barton – Motu Girl, Fairfax Harbour, Port Moresby (c1907)

According to Photographing Papua: Representation, Colonial Encounters and Imaging in the Public Domain (2007) by Max Quanchi, the girl in the photo was a regular model for Barton. There is another nude photo of this model that was probably taken the same day. The tatoos on the girl’s abdomen were retouched with lampblack, and she was taken to a secluded area of mangroves away from the port to provide a suitable background.

The book South Sea maidens : Western fantasy and sexual politics in the South Pacific (2002) by Michael Sturma, and Supple Bodies: The Papua New Guinea Photographs of Captain Francis R. Barton (2003) by Christopher Wright, also note that the anthropological photographs of Barton are usually young females carefully posed to produce a photo of artistic as well as anthropological merit.

The photo has inspired other works of art. A drawing by Megaera Lorenz of the girl as an ancient Egyptian is here. Chuck Bowden’s version, drawn in pencil, pen, and colored markers is here. A realistic sculpture by Lisa Lichtenfels is below.  The tattoos on the girl and the mangroves have been deleted, and a few other changes were made.

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Lisa Lichtenfels – Motu Girl (date unknown)

Some Barton photos from the British Museum collection are available on the internet, but they lack the degree of artistry shown in the Motu Girl, Fairfax Harbour, Port Moresby photo. These photos, examples of which are here and here, are more stiffly posed and appear to be produced only for an anthropological study of tatoo patterns. I was not able to find any Of Barton’s photographs from the Royal Anthropological Institute collection. I wonder what artistic treasures may be there.

4 thoughts on “Captain Barton’s Motu Girl

  1. It is also worth noting that those books seem to be virtually unobtainable now.
    I wonder if they have been the victim of some kind of censorship.
    The book by Wright seems especially desirable to have. I tried various
    out-of-print book websites, including those that have literally millions of books listed, and it is not listed there.

  2. There are certainly artistic treasures in Barton’s collection at the RAI, some of which I have had the privilege to see. Barton took many photos of girls and young women, but they certainly do not represent a majority of his images as you have assumed here. Barton took a wide range of photographs in New Guinea, of people, places and activities. Some of his images are of great historical importance since they were the first, and sometimes the only ones taken at villages and government stations in the early colonial days.
    His photography also stands out in both technical and compositional quality. The ‘Motu girl’ is a good example of this, when one sees past his voyeuristic choice of subject: the lines, the focus, the light – he has had great control of the composition. This is in fact true also with his photos of a more snapshot character.
    It’s easy to bracket Barton as a photographer of pretty ‘belles’, but in all fairness he should most of all be remembered for the many truly important and exceptional photographs that is he left for us.

    • Thank you for your thoughtful feedback and you point is well taken. Please bear in mind that the focus on young girls is ours, not necessarily the artist’s. I try to encourage writers of this blog to be clear about whether the artist focused on little girls, females in general, children in general, nudes in general, just a part of the artist’s normal range of subject matter or one incidental and exceptional piece. Naturally, the photos in this case were meant to be anthropological with perhaps some bias due to what the photographer judges as interesting. -Ron

    • Thanks for the comment. As Ron stated, this particular photo was chosen because it is appropriate for this blog. Captain Barton took photographs of subjects that are not the focus of this blog, and some of them are available on line. I did not include any of those photos in this post because I wanted to keep it on topic. In the post, I stated that “According to the British Museum, nearly all of the photos are of females.” This was from an online British Museum site. Since the British Museum has only 16 out or over 1,500 photos that Captain Barton took, it is very likely that the 16 in the British Museum are not a representative sample of Captain Barton’s work. The opinions of Michael Sturma and Christopher Wright are from the books cited in the post.

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