108496 Osa Johnson with Bessie the Orangutan, North Borneo 1920
Without returning home from their trip to the South Seas in 1919, Martin + Osa Johnson traveled to North Borneo in February of 1920 to film wild animals. Landing in April, and spending a few weeks in the town of Sandakan planning and getting permissions, the Johnson’s first “wildlife movie” expedition was finally being realized. With few roads they traveled up river in gobangs (canoes) to reach the island’s interior. At the headwaters of North Borneo’s largest river, the Kinabatangan, they visited the Tenggara people, filming and photographing their centuries old customs. Martin + Osa traveled 420 miles up river before turning back for Sandakan.
This portrait of Osa is one of many that Martin took of her with their myriad "wild pets." Bessie returned to the US with the Johnsons and attened the opening of their expedition feature film and she herself was featured in a short reel travelogue film entitled "Bessie the Adventuress."
The constant rain and thick jungle canopy was a difficult challenge for Martin and Osa, who had never attempted wildlife photography before. Along the coastal lowlands around the city of Sandakan they were able to film elephants, buffalo and other animals. The result of their efforts was the movie “Jungle Adventures,” which premiered in September 1921 to glowing reviews. The quality and commercial success of this film is what first drew the attention of Carl Akeley and the American Museum of Natural History to their work, and a budding partnership was in the works that changed the trajectory of their career and set them on their path to the African continent that would be their only real “home” for the next 15 years.
Leaving Sandakan in July, they voyaged to Singapore, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and southern India, then continued west circumnavigating the globe. The Johnsons finally arrived home to Kansas nearly two years after they had left.
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