WHEN photographer Jordan Wright traveled to Papua New Guinea on assignment for the Metropolitan Museum of Art, he almost came home with a new wife.
But he didn't have enough pigs to pay for her.
What he brought back instead were brilliantly colored photographs of the ceremonies of Highland tribespeople who a few decades ago saw their first white man, their first wheel. About 60 of these photographs are being exhibited, along with an array of shell necklaces and seed anklets, in "Music and Dance in Papua New Guinea" at the Natural History Museum.
Nothing artsy about them, these straightforward, dramatic photos are eminently suited to this museum. But, unfortunately, missing from the exhibit is a background tape of the tribal music, so it's a little like watching a silent movie.
Perhaps the most facile photo opportunity for the 27-year-old Wright was the Highland Show. It's an annual gathering of opposing tribes, a combination farm fair, peace talk and dance recital. The scene is a blur of bird-of- paradise feathers and bare breasts, faces whitened with paste or reddened with clay.
Seen among the painted faces and feathered headdresses is the growing evidence of civilization -- something Wright looks for with an anthropologist's eye.
Umbrellas and Christmas tinsel appear in a costume. Or one sees a pack of cigarettes, instead of a bamboo pipe, tucked into the belt of a woman's grass skirt. Or an Elvis appliqu,e on another skirt, worn by a woman who has never heard of the King. Or a dance pole fashioned from mackerel cans. Used in the Sepik River villagers' welcome dance, the pole a few years ago would have been carved from wood and painted with natural dyes.
Acculturation is an issue throughout Wright's work, and it was his job to try toapture on film the ceremonies that are dying out because of Western influence.
Meanwhile, Wright had what he calls "the best 41/2 months of my life. Crocodile hunting, five nights in a row in a dugout canoe, when the moon is down, using the stars for direction. And the men disappointed at the size of this big crocodile." His photos recreate the ceremony celebrating the crocodile hunt, the more meaningful when one understands that New Guineans believe when a man dies, he is reincarnated as a crocodile, and vice versa.
Wright photographed a men's initiation ceremony and a bride-price ceremony, where a man bought his second wife for 30 pigs and a knee-high stack of shell jewelry.
But the local missionaries and social workers are making it harder to stage such rituals, says Wright. The wedding he photographed, he says, "was the third attempt at scheduling the bride price." The first time, some missionaries prevented it from taking place because the bartered pigs would be slaughtered and eaten, and eating pork was against their religion.
"The second time," says Wright, "an Australian social worker had come with an entire staff and said that the ceremony was very demeaning to women. An outsider could see it that way."
And the same kinds of messages were sent to the Highlands initiation ritual: "It won't take place again that way in that area," Wright says.
He plans to go back someday to find out what happened to the men who were initiated, and to the 14-year-old bride he was offered.
"My mother's been bugging me lately about getting married," Wright says with a laugh. "If I'd had enough pigs at the time, I could've bought this woman and the issue would be closed."
He photographed her in a ceremonial dance, and we can tell who she is: "I'd say she's the cutest woman in the photographs."
MUSIC & DANCE IN PAPUA NEW GUINEA -- At the Natural History Museum, through March 9.