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Heritage Snippets of Sarawak
by Alex Teoh
IT WAS a pleasant surprise to see original gelatin silver prints of Sarawak prominently displayed at the latest exhibition of South East Asian photography at the National Gallery Singapore. This exhibition, Living Pictures, captures the journey of photography over 150 years since its arrival, the colonial archives, local portraits, landscape, industries, and development to present day photographic art.
The caption for these photographs lists the photographer as Hedda Morrison. A search on the Internet revealed Hedda Morrison to be the wife of a Sarawak colonial official, Alastair Morrison. Alastair Morrison was the Resident Officer at various divisions in Sarawak from 1947 to 1966. His wife Hedda was an accomplished photographer.
Hedda (Hammer) Morrison was born in Germany in 1908. At a young age, she suffered a polio epidemic that left her with a leg shorter than the other and a slight limp. In her teenage years, she received a Box Brownie camera that sparked her interest in photography. She went on to pursue her interest at Munich Photo School in 1929, even against her parents’ wishes.
Upon graduation and after a short working stint with distinguished but demanding photographer Adolf Lazi, young Hedda was anxious to venture out and work overseas. The opportunity arose when she was successful in her application to an advertisement for a qualified woman photographer with French and English language skills to be based in Peking (Beijing), China.
Moving to Peking in 1933, she initially worked for German photography firm Hartungs Photo Studio. Hedda then moved on to undertake various photography assignments. During her 13 years in China, Hedda was able to see and photograph a great deal of Peking and travelled the northern and central part of China. Her emphasis was documentary photography with an interest in recording the everyday lives of people and communities.
In 1946, Hedda left China for Hong Kong after she married Alastair Morrison. Her husband, Alastair, born in China and employed in the British Embassy, was then appointed as Adjutant of the Hong Kong Volunteer Force Corps during the period of reconstruction following WWII. Shortly after that, Alastair took up an appointment with the Colonial Administrative Service in Sarawak.
Relocating to Sarawak, Alastair was the Resident Officer at various upriver locations including Sarikei, Binatang (Bintangor), Lawas, Kanowit and Baram area. He travelled extensively to carry out his duties among the ethnic groups and their longhouses.
Hedda likewise travelled, accompanying her husband on duty and sometimes on independent photographic trips. She also joined the official tours of the Sarawak Governor, Sir Anthony Abell to various longhouses and ceremonies. Through these travels, Hedda pursued her interest in photographing the people and their lives. To enable photo development of film negatives, Hedda set up a little makeshift darkroom at her own quarters.
Through her travels and keen photography, Hedda accumulated a collection to share with the world. She contributed photo images to Sarawak Annual Report and Calendar of Sarawak, which were published by Sarawak Government Printers. In Malaya and Singapore, her photos were featured in various magazines including the Straits Times Annual and Chinese weekly.
In 1954 and 1955, a collection of 80 photos was selected and exhibited in London, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Penang. Titled ‘Sarawak Today’, it showcased the people and their lives to the overseas audience.
At the opening of the Singapore exhibition on 23 February 1955, the then vice chairman of the Singapore Camera Club, Loke Wan Tho, who was the Cathy cinema magnate and ornithologist, acknowledged Hedda’s devotion to photography. He recalled seeing Hedda, handicapped by a partly crippled leg, struggling along jungle paths while travelling the tributaries of Tinjar River in Upper Baram, Fourth Division Sarawak.
He noted, “Photography in Sarawak is full of difficulty”, referring to restricted access to clean water and electricity necessary in developing negatives to prints. He added: “Hedda Morrison has gone about the country and recorded all of them with a seeing eye and a feeling heart, and I can think of no better pictorial introduction to the country and its people than the one we have before us.”
Further to photography, Hedda shared about her experiences in Borneo through a series of publications. An excellent descriptive account of her travels was published by National Geographic Magazine in May 1956. Titled “Jungle Journeys in Sarawak”, she recorded the different people groups and their lives along the Rajang, Baram and coastal area, with 25 photographic illustrations and a map of Sarawak.
Hedda is also popularly known for her photographic books such as Sarawak (1957) and Life in a Longhouse (1962)—both titles with multiple reprints. She also co-authored the title Vanishing World—The Ibans of Borneo (1972) with the reputable Sarawak photographer, KF Wong and researcher Leigh Wright. From her time in China, she published A Photographer in Old Peking (1985) containing images of China. More recently, her Hong Kong photos were published by independent photographer and writer Edward Stokes in Hedda Morrison’s Hong Kong, Photographs & Impressions 1946–47.
Hedda’s contribution through photography was recognised by the Sarawak Government. She was accorded the Pegawai Bintang Sarawak medal in 1965.
Leaving Sarawak after her husband’s retirement, Mr and Mrs Morrison settled in Australia. Hedda passed away in 1991. But her works and photos survive as they are deposited and bequeathed to various libraries and museums in Australia and USA.
The collection of Hedda’s Sarawak negatives, prints and diaries are now held in Cornell University Library in New York, Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, and the National Gallery of Australia.
For us locally, thanks to the Living Pictures exhibition (https://web.nationalgallery.sg/#/detail?id=120447&type=product) which runs til 20 August 2023, visitors like me can admire and appreciate Hedda’s extraordinary photographic passion and her journey to capture Sarawak some seventy years ago.
Information obtained from:
- A Photographer in Old Peking, Hedda Morrison (1985)
- Fair Land Sarawak – Some Recollection of an Expatriate Official, Alastair Morrison (1993)
Hedda Morrison’s Hong Kong, Photographs & Impressions 1946–47, Edward Stokes (2005)
- Jungle Journeys in Sarawak, Hedda Morrison, National Geographic Magazine (May 1956)
- Life in a Longhouse, Hedda Morrison, Borneo Literature Bureau, Hedda Morrison (1962)
- Sarawak Annual Report 1953, Government Printing Office, Kuching, Vanishing World—The Ibans of Borneo, Leigh Wright, Hedda Morrison, K.F. Wong (1972)
Alex Teoh, a friend of FOSM, is a paper and book conservator of rare manuscripts, collectible prints, antique maps and antiquarian books. His focus is on the local material culture of the written text in Southeast Asia. His interest is also in the material culture and documentary heritage of Borneo.
“Heritage Snippets of Sarawak” is a fortnightly column.