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Postcolonialist theory revisits and reframes European expectations of knowledge, authority, and visibility in representations of the colonial encounter. Photography played an important role in the formation of these expectations, one discussed in modern histories of the medium. While differing in their objectives and academic disciplines, James Ryan and Christopher Pinney both use postcolonial theory to rewrite narratives of Euro-American photographic history. Pinney’s book, in particular, makes a compelling case for the questions the present poses for the study of photographs of the colonialist past.
James Ryan’s Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire is a survey focusing on photography as one of the cultural practices that sustained British colonial expansion and economic imperialism. Examining the period between the invention of the medium and the first decades of the twentieth century, Ryan studies photography’s place amidst the variety of cultural texts that constructed the British Empire in the Victorian imagination. He evaluates photographic discourse as intertextual, i.e., seen and read in interplay with linguistic messages and other symbolic codes. Ryan specifically examines the role of photography as a form of geographical discourse, implicated in the contemporary development of a geographical science, “which took as its raison d’etre the exploration and conquest of space” (p. 22). The chapters in Picturing Empire follow a chronological order: the book begins with David Livingstone’s 1858–64 Zambesi Expedition in Africa and concludes with the early twentieth-century activities of the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee, which taught the children of the British Empire the values of imperial unity and citizenship using lanterns slides and illustrated textbooks.
The material Ryan studies in these and other chapters ranges over popular literature, photography periodicals, and professional journals to photographs, maps, and illustrations in the archives of governmental offices, learned societies, and specialist museums. A chapter on mid-Victorian commercial landscape examines, among others, the well-known projects of Samuel Bourne in India and John Thomson in China, evaluating landscape photographs in relation to discourses of science and art and as powerful mirrors of imperialist organization of territories and resources. Specific applications of photography as document and evidence are well delineated in a chapter examining images produced by the Corps of Royal Engineers, scientists, and journalists for the Abyssinian Campaign of 1867–68, one of the most famous of the Victorian “small wars.” Chapter Four, “Hunting with a Camera,” ranges widely and interestingly over a familiar topic and includes discussion of photography’s links with exploration, natural history, sporting tours, and taxidermy. In the chapter, “Photographing the Natives,” Ryan joins the urban slums of London to the spaces of Chinese cities to compare “types” of the poor with “Oriental types” in John Thomson’s books on London and China.
Ryan emphasizes photography’s “fractured status as a technical and historical practice” (p. 219) and the need to consider the changing reception of photographs over time as part of their historical significance. Yet the overall impact of the book is lessened, because its ambitions as a survey (the book is published outside the United States in a series called “Picturing History”) tend to soften the edges of such fractures. In addition, the quality and quantity of the illustrations do little justice to Ryan’s narrative. His ongoing thesis that much Victorian colonial photography is about geography is more stated than debated. (How would “much” be measured in this context? Impact on policies? quantity of production?) Nonetheless, Ryan’s interdisciplinary methodology, range of research, and provocative ideas make his book an excellent resource for further study of both familiar and little known photographic images.
Christopher Pinney’s book title Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs alludes to the title Camera Lucida of the English-language translation of Roland Barthes’s La Chambre Claire. Pinney’s reference to Barthes both acknowledges a debt and gestures a departure. Barthes’s search in Camera Lucida for a “just image” of his mother presupposes that a relationship between internal character and external appearance is visible in a portrait photograph. Yet, this relationship is not at work in the commercial photographic portraits produced in the central Indian towns where Pinney did ethnographic fieldwork in the 1980s and 1990s. Instead, these contemporary Indian portraits feature multiple exposures of the same sitter within a single image, make elaborate use of applied color and montage, and disrupt unities of time and place. The portraits presuppose relations of interior character to external appearance different from those desired by Barthes. Pinney’s objective is to study photography by studying the social practices in which it is embedded; he uses European photographic theory and history, but, as his homage to Barthes suggests, the results take a different direction. Pinney locates these contemporary Indian portraits as the last of three “moments” in the public representation of the face and body in India, the first consisting of British images of the colonized and the second including photographic portraits produced by the Indian colonial elite.
The title of Camera Indica‘s first chapter is " ’Stern Fidelity and ’Penetrating Certainty.’ " These quotations refer to different ways of representing the body of the colonized in India: “Stern Fidelity” was attributed to photography in an 1857 address to the Photographic Society of Bengal; “Penetrating Certainty” to fingerprinting in a 1916 English history of its use as evidence. The British sought authoritative representations of the colonized, because, as British anthropologists and administrators complained, in India nothing was as it seemed. Pinney uses C. S. Pierce’s category of the indexical sign to evaluate the level of certainty British colonialists wanted in their accounts of Indian culture. Pinney’s use of indexicality to analyze colonialist ambitions for images of Indian faces and bodies that include, but are not limited to, photographs produces an important reading of colonialist photography in India from the mid- to late-nineteenth century. Pinney traces the changing course of what he describes as a dialogic photographic “portrait event” in which “the intimacy of the event created some additional force capable of collapsing colonial distance,” yielding a likeness of an individual rather than a social type. By the end of the century the possibilities of this portrait event were past. Instead, official photographers were interested in “bodies that could testify to abstracted and generalized social identities.” The indexical technique of fingerprinting better served British colonial requirements for identification, as “the face had proved an insufficiently stable and quantifiable object” for photography to serve this end. (p. 70)
In the second chapter, “Indian Eyes,” Pinney examines different instances of photographic portraiture produced and exhibited by the Indian colonial elite in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. While acknowledging the considerable similarities between European and Indian studio photographic portraiture, Pinney also evaluates Indian formulations of visual identity specific to the modernizing culture of the period. For example, he examines the elaborate overpainting of Indian studio photographic portraiture—introduced to Euro-American audiences by Judith Mara Gutman’s Through Indian Eyes (New York: Oxford University Press with International Center of Photography, 19820—as an instance of a historical conjunction of different media also at work in such other visual forms as film. He also recounts the history of the Nara Ratna Mandir, a portrait gallery founded by the theosophist G. S. Arundale in Indore in 1923. A combination of the National Portrait Gallery and Indian culture, the enterprise failed, because it neglected the differences between internal character and external signs of the face in a portrait and didn’t take into account Indian protocols of looking and being seen in the presence of representational images of the divine.
Both of these issues are pertinent to Pinney’s third and longest chapter on contemporary photographic portraiture in the central Indian towns where Pinney did his field work. This richly illustrated chapter is an extended discussion of Pinney’s observation that “[m]uch photography, like the popular film to which it often refers, is concerned with the creation of worlds, rather than their duplication” (pp. 191–92). His analysis of contemporary photographic portraiture encompasses a myriad of photographic styles and presentation formats, including wedding videos, overpainted photographic images based on portraits of the dead, studio portraits, and snapshots. Pinney’s discussion of the production and reception of these images and their intersections with tradition and popular culture is nuanced and fascinating.
While the three “moments” in the representation of the face and body follow a chronological order, the narrative does not establish a causal relationship between identity in the colonialist past and postcolonialist present. Among its accomplishments, Pinney’s inquiry in Camera Indica is also a meditation on Indian identity as different from—and more than a survival of—British colonialism.
Associate Professor of Art History, Critical Studies Department, Massachusetts College of Art