The exploits of one of the most intriguing couples of the 20th Century have inspired a new book co-written by two Griffith University academics.
Across the World with the Johnsons: Visual Culture and American Empire in the Twentieth Century traces the lives of adventure-seeking Kansas husband and wife Martin and Osa Johnson who, in the era between the world wars, epitomised American modernity in the world.
They became renowned for films, photographs and popular writing that introduced Americans to what were considered the last remaining wild and most exotic locations, peoples and animals around the globe.
Before television and today’s mass tourism, the Johnsons were major celebrities who made expert use of a new mass medium of expression – motion pictures – to create their own version, and vision, of America’s imperial drama.
Associate Professor Fiona Paisley, from Griffith’s School of Humanities, and Griffith Queensland College of Art’s Dr Prue Ahrens have teamed with Professor Lamont Lindstrom, from the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma, to produce Across the World with the Johnsons. The book is part of the innovative Empires and the Making of the Modern World 1650-2000 series, published by Ashgate.
“Martin and Osa Johnson were perfectly matched in their desire for excitement and adventure,” Associate Professor Paisley said. “Neither of them wanted an anonymous life and the aim of their years together was to find adventure abroad and become celebrities at home.
“Usually Martin would do the filming and, when necessary, Osa would defend them both with her shotgun.
“They travelled across the Asia-Pacific, including Martin’s trip to the South Seas with the writer Jack London, and on one of their many expeditions to Africa they met the future King George VI and the Queen Mother while the royal couple was on safari.
Before Martin’s death in a plane crash in 1937, the Johnsons produced several films from their journeys, including Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Seas, Trailing Wild African Animals and Simba: King of the Beasts. They also published 20 books and more than 100 articles.
Osa continued to flourish after Martin’s death. Her best-selling book I Married Adventure was made into a movie. She also launched the successful Osa and Martin clothing label and was hailed as one of the best-dressed women in America not long before her death in 1953.
“Osa captivated American audiences with her masterly mix of loving wife, jungle baby ‘mama’, glamorous fashionista and crack shot,” Dr Ahrens said.
By combining research in gender and empire, historical anthropology, photography and visual studies, Across the World with the Johnsons is a scholarly analysis of how “the Johnsons restaged the story of the American pioneering spirit in wild places among the expanded horizons of America’s new century”.
And yet it also uncovers less salutary elements to the Johnsons’ story, including a colonial outlook that was often overtly exploitative.
“The Johnsons’ contribution to the popularity and influence of expedition cinema in America and elsewhere in the world was significant because their films were able to capture the blurred space between fantasy and reality,” Associate Professor Paisley said.
“As well as feeding the desire for the heroic story, their films, photographs and publications helped to educate Americans about their apparent role in the world. Meanwhile, their fascination with the wilds contributed to the way American empire was promoted as though a progressive force in world affairs.”
Professor Lindstrom added: “Despite filming bizarre and exotic peoples to display on cinema screens across the world, their photographs remain an important ethnographic archive from the early 20th Century.”
The highly successful Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum in Chanute, Kansas, is an ongoing tribute to their shared life of adventure and discovery.
To order Across the World with the Johnsons: Visual Culture and American Empire in the Twentieth Century, go to: http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409423294