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Tassilo ADAM

Germany 1878 – United States of America 1955

Java album 3 c 1923 Place made: Yogyakarta, Java, Indonesia
Materials & Technique: photographs, gelatin silver photographs, typescript album

Dimensions: album 33.0 h x 48.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 2014
Accession No: NGA 2014.669

In 1899 21-year-old Tassilo Adam left Vienna, where he had completed his education, to work on a Dutch tobacco plantation in Deli, near Medan, on the island of Sumatra. Born in Munich, Adam came from a well-known German family of painters but was named Tassilo by his Italian mother. Whether Adam planned to become an artist is not clear. Family legend has it that his departure for the tropics came after he read a book on the Batak people in 1898. Perhaps he saw the magnificent photographs published by Danish photographer Kristen Feilberg from the 1870 expedition to the Batak lands of East Sumatra by Dutch explorer C de Haan. Or, like so many young people in Europe, he was simply inspired by expedition tales and the new illustrated geographic and travel magazines published in the late nineteenth century, for whom true adventure lay beyond their own hemisphere.

Adam’s work in Sumatra, then a booming region of foreign agricultural and mining company developments, was no doubt hard but he rose through management ranks, becoming the administrator for the Laut Tador rubber plantation in 1911. In 1912 Adam travelled to Vienna to recuperate from various tropical illnesses. On his return to Sumatra with new wife Johanna, Adam began taking photographs to document the Karo Batak people and those on Nias Island. He learned the Batak language and became an ethnographer through his field work. By 1914 Adam was exhibiting his photographs, some apparently in colour, and by the 1920s he was working with the French Lumière brothers’ Autochrome colour process. He mounted an exhibition of Batak objects and photographs in Medan in 1919, which were later sold to the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam.

Tropical fevers brought an end to his plantation career and with three children the Adam family moved to Java in 1921. Based in Jogjakarta, Adam acted as an ethnographer for the Dutch government and as a professional photographer. He was supported and assisted in his new studies of Javanese culture by both Dutch residents and the new sultan of Jogjakarta, Hamengkubuwono VIII. In particular Adam had special access to record the elaborate Wayang Wong performances presented by the Sultan for the Dutch Queen Wilhelmina’s Jubilee in 1923 and in 1926. These huge and costly performances were photographed and filmed, as were events at the other three principalities. Adam seems to have had a role as a favoured photographer at all four courts in Jogjakarta, and Surakarta in central Java. He also sold postcards and wrote articles for various international enthnographic and popular magazines.

Adam’s movements in these years are not exact; he lists his last photographs of Java as 1927 but the family spent time in Europe after 1926, where Adam lectured on his work, and were settled in New York by 1929 when Adam became curator of Asian Art at the Brooklyn Museum. The Depression seems to have been the cause of his leaving that role in 1933. The last decades of Adam’s life were busy with ethnographic and other projects. In the early 1950s he compiled elaborate albums of his photographs of the Javanese culture and landscape, some for his children, with precise typed captions in readiness, it would seem, for a major publication that did not eventuate.

Four of the albums preserved by Adam’s family were recently acquired by the Gallery. Two are included in the Garden of the East: photography in Indonesia 1850s–1940s exhibition, along with a small group of prints of his Java work already held by the Gallery. The large Wayang Wong performances were rare in the 1920s and have not been staged on such scale since. Adam’s albums include intense images of the dance performances, along with a number of panoramas of Javanese landscape and monuments, which show that the German artist’s son had brought the family’s artistic talents, as well as ethnographic passion and precise documentation, to his career as a photographer.

Gael Newton Senior Curator, Photography

in artonview, issue 78, Winter 2014