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First Seen: Portraits of the World's Peoples 1840-1880

Anton Krueger

Click on book cover to buy your copy now!

First Seen: Portraits of the World's Peoples 1840-1880 from the Wilson Centre for Photography
Author: Kathleen Stewart Howe
ISBN: 1903942306
Publisher: Third Millennium Publishing
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 206
Price: R451.95
(Cover photograph: James Robertson, Street Peddlers, Constantinople, c.1853, salted paper print.)

After the almost simultaneous discovery of photographic processes in France and England in 1839, a wide range of curious Europeans – from scientists, to artists, to trust fund babies with far too much time on their hands – went out into the world to collect portraits of exotic peoples in distant lands. After having subjugated these peoples by means of the Bible and the Boot, Europe now set out to capture the images of all the strange peoples of the wide world. Accounts of this imperial drive to consume the very visages of the dispossessed has been indiscriminately collected by one Michael Wilson, from whose vast stores this selection of 161 plates has been made.

In Carla Williams’s introduction she takes time to remind her Western readers that most of the people in the world do not, in fact, look remotely like them. She writes that this book "gives us a glimpse of what the world's people looked like in the second half of the nineteenth century" (8), but what the book also shows is some of the ways in which Europeans were looking at them.

Everybody in these photographs appears to be in some sort of a costume. Every picture is extraordinary. Even the costumes of beggars, and of "fishing laddies", seem to embody types. And as the cliché goes, every picture tells a story, and all the mute subjects here react and respond to their subjection, to their framing. As Kathleen Stewart Howe reminds us, "before the photograph becomes an object, it is an event" (14), and these are records of "encounters and negotiations", taken against a backdrop of "privilege, patronage, colonialism, exoticism, scientific enquiry and commerce". All sorts of questions arise. Why were these pictures taken? What made the subjects pose? Were they paid, tricked, hired, forced, coerced, or were they willing and eager? Many of their expressions of emotion, though so foreign and so far away, are instantly recognisable – surprise, fear, pleasure, curiosity, anger, fortitude, suffering, joy, disdain. What do we recognise of ourselves in these eyes now dead so many years?

And what of the photographers themselves? Who were these people? Some saw themselves as scientists, some as artists. One stares, sometimes in horror, at their cold gaze and recognises, despite the perspective, the humanity of the subjects who have been objectified. There are photographers here, like William Willoughby Hooper, who calmly collected and grouped together victims of the great Indian famine by type – boys, girls, women, men, and did nothing to assuage their suffering. There are avaricious and ruthless purveyors of images as object.

Far from the drawing rooms of Europe, here all the continents are covered, and we encounter Mexicans, Koreans, Borneans, Chinese, Mozambicans, Andamanese, Native Americans, Russians, Tasmanians, Lepchas, Japanese, Italians, Tibetans, Pathans, Lapps, Persians, Patagonians, Malagasy, Singhalese, Algerians, Afghanis, Americans, Moroccans, Ethiopians, Zulus, and people from Guatemala. Carefully staged and displayed for posterity, the races and customs caught in these pages are no less fascinating today then they might have been to the people who first saw them a hundred and fifty years ago. Perhaps they are even more fascinating today, because now, for the most part, the customs and rituals of these people are lost forever. Then they were still alive, if inaccessible, but now, with the relentless flattening out of the world by means of the imperialism of the Euro-American signifiers, these so strange peoples and their habits, their costumes, and, sometimes, their languages, have been relegated to the dusty cabinet of history. And perhaps because it feels as though these pictures were taken so long ago, one doesn't feel guilty at one's moments of atavistic voyeurism.

But what is it about this early photography that is so thoroughly compelling; that draws one towards this obsessive act of cataloguing, classifying and describing the whole gamut of human variances? These are not only geographic journeys, but also voyages into different economic classes; into madness and, even, into death. They describe the ultimate exotic terrain on the edge of the rational Victorian mind.

Those deploring sex and violence in modern media, who claim to prefer the values of days gone by, may want to take a second look at these oldest of photographic images, wherein we find harem women, opium smokers, and the crucifixion of a baby in Japan. Yes, there is quite a bit of evidence here for the human fascination with both perpetrating and recording the macabre: an Andamanese woman with the skull of her dead husband permanently roped to her shoulder while her arm lies casually draped over the shoulders of her new husband; a (very) hairy family from Borneo.

Yes, there are quite a few sensational photographs in this collection, but there are also images of holy men of Asia, Europe, Africa and the Americas, and the cool gaze of princes, kings, and maharajas. One is reminded that in these times there was no such thing as instant photography, and each subject was very carefully selected and displayed. It would have taken an enormous amount of preparation to get each shot. Sensitising the plate and getting the exposure right was a lengthy process which might take up to half a day. Since these are very slow pictures, requiring patience and long passages of silence, they also remind us of a time when time may have seemed to pass more slowly.

This sometimes disturbing, but often beautiful, collection records the very beginnings of the very modern obsession with the image. This is where it all began. I've never seen such old photographs before, and this important book reveals something about the relentless contemporary mass reproduction of the gaze. And here one finds the first inkling of the power inherent in the ability to control and capture photographic images of strangers – to record, to demonstrate, to show, to boast; but also, to freeze, to numb, to lock and, perhaps, to immobilise and stultify.

LitNet: 20 December 2005

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