I love those 19th century photos of indigenous populations, contacted for the first time by some royal expedition. While the snapshots represent the moments of these pure cultures' decay and evisceration by the western world, they are something to behold. The images capture an unhomogenized world of populations who have had thousands of years to steep in their own unique culture. The dress, the rituals, hunting and warring practices, the architecture, both physical and social, are all significant and special, free of branding or exploitation.
I thought these cultures had all but disappeared, save a few enclaves in the Amazon and Papuan Highlands. In his book describing a 1961 Harvard expedition to study the Kerelu tribe of Papua New Guinea, Peter Mattheissen wrote, “[T]he Kurelu offered a unique chance, perhaps the last, to describe a lost culture in the terrible beauty of its pure estate. The armed patrols and missionaries invaded their land on the heels of the expedition, and by the time this account of them is published, the proud and warlike Kurelu will be no more than another backward people, crouched in the long shadow of the white man.”
While pure Stone Age civilizations may not still exist, indigenous cultures still do. There are still places where people don’t wear Nike and drink Coca-Cola and they are gripping their rich cultures as globalization bleeds in. Photographer Jimmy Nelson traveled the world from 2010-2013 meeting these cultures, documenting them “Before they Pass Away”. His book is spellbinding and the crisp photographs look like magical renderings of those old yellowed slides from long ago. It is a remarkable piece of work and worth having. We may be among the last generation able to publish such a project. //$150, here.