Two pioneering documentary filmmakers came from Kansas

The Johnsons in Africa
The Johnsons in Africa. Photos courtesy the Safari Museum, Chanute, Kansas

This story begins in Chanute, Kansas. But before it ends, Kansans Martin and Osa Johnson have traveled from Borneo to Kenya to produce an epic series of documentary films.

Think of the Johnsons as the original Jacques Cousteau or Steve Irwin. Starting in 1917, they were among the first to mount camera safaris.

Largely avoiding white communities, the Osas lived in tents alongside the Maasai, Samburu, Rendille, Borana and Turkana, shared the intimacy of everyday life in the bush and photographed in the natural environments of wild animals and indigenous peoples. They took to the air, piloting two Sikorsky amphibian aircrafts across East Africa. The couple’s nine world expeditions produced twenty-one motion pictures, eighteen books, hundreds of magazine articles and thousands of still images. Their names topped theater marquees from New York to Los Angeles in the 1920s. 

Unlike other expedition filmmakers of the day, such as their rival Frank Buck, the Johnsons had little interest in big game hunting. They documented what they feared were vanishing native cultures and diminishing herds of animals. Sadly, their work was prescient, as the elephants they photographed from the air are now being hunted to near-extinction and the tribes they lived with — like the Mbuti of the Ituri Forest — have nearly disappeared because of ongoing civil wars. 

Now, decades later, after Martin’s death in a plane crash in 1937 and Osa’s fatal heart attack in 1953, the Johnson story has come full circle in small-town Chanute, Kansas, home to the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum.

Recently cited by the History Channel as “One of the Top Ten Historic Sites to Visit,” the Martin and Osa Johnson Safari Museum, established in 1961, is located in Chanute’s Santa Fe train depot.

Curator Jacquelyn Borgeson Zimmer says Osa spent her last years actively fundraising to open a film institute in New York. Her death curtailed those plans.

“The couple had been unable to have children and had been denied adoption opportunities due to the perceived danger of their chosen careers,” Zimmer says. “All their films and photographs were inherited by Osa’s mother, Belle Leighty, who still lived in Chanute. It was Belle who became a driving force to open a museum here.”

That museum is a must-visit for any Kansan — and sure to impress any traveler.

“I came from grad school in Ohio,” Zimmer says. “My interview here was the furthest west I’d ever been. I wasn’t sure about relocating here until I saw the museum, and then I knew I had to ace the interview. You don’t understand until you see the breadth of our collections; you don’t understand how and why a safari museum could exist in rural Kansas. But once visitors come — and they’ve come from all over the world — they absolutely get it.”

Martin grew up in Independence, Kansas. Osa grew up in nearby Chanute. In 1906, twenty-two-year-old Martin, armed with some experience as an itinerant photographer, traveled the South Seas with Jack London in the voyage of The Snark.

“I want to see things and places other people don’t,” wrote young Martin to London, seeking a position on the voyage.

Upon his return to Independence, Martin presented a travelogue of his adventures to theaters in southeast Kansas, which attracted the admiration of the equally adventurous sixteen-year-old Osa, a tomboy who harbored dreams of show business. She joined Martin’s act and sang songs during his lectures. They eloped in 1910 and spent six months visiting the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, retracing Martin’s voyage with London while filming and photographing along the route.

The next two decades saw them setting up camp in some of the most remote areas of the world and scoring a succession of firsts.

Together, they produced the first sound movie ever filmed entirely in Africa; they were first to photograph Mt. Kilimanjaro and Mt. Kenya from the air; and they were the first to put camera equipment into the hands of their subjects and allow them to view and comment on the movies in which they appeared — a current practice of ethnographic filmmakers. They documented their trips in theatrical documentaries like Among the Cannibal Isles of the South Pacific (1918), Simba (1928) and Congorilla (1932).

Contemporary reappraisals both praise their “splendid portrayals of a vanishing wilderness” and criticize their alleged media manipulation, crass hucksterism and white colonialist arrogance. Admittedly, the Johnsons were not above embroidering their pictures with dubious claims for the sake of commercial appeal.

“Hollywood wanted more animal attacks and prettier locals,” Zimmer says.

For example, the “cannibal feast” depicted in Jungle Adventure (1921) was probably a banquet of a different order entirely. On-camera presence with natives sometimes suggested colonialist arrogance. 

Critic Elliott Stein, writing in The Village Voice, pronounced Martin “the best cameraman of the African explorers” and compared the Johnsons’ Congorilla with contemporary rival Buck, whose Bring ‘Em Back Alive was also released in 1932. Stein charges that Buck, unlike the Johnsons, sneered at his subjects with “yahoo wisecracks” that “express contempt for the people and beasts of Africa.” Congorilla, by contrast, was “emotionally miles apart” and remains “an engaging document.”

Martin himself was critical of Buck in his book Camera Trails in Africa, discussing “pictures often ‘staged’ for the camera” that are “no better than if they were taken in Hollywood.”

“I want to take a picture of Africa that will be different,” Martin wrote. “It will be the whole story of a country, its people and its animals, slowly unrolling against a background of magnificent scenery. . .  It will show the animals, not hunted and afraid, but natural and unaware, untroubled by man.”

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