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Portraiture and Photography in Africa

Portraiture and Photography in Africa

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Portraiture and Photography in Africa

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689 pages
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Jul 24, 2013


Beautifully illustrated, Portrait Photography in Africa offers new interpretations of the cultural and historical roles of photography in Africa. Twelve leading scholars look at early photographs, important photographers' studios, the uses of portraiture in the 19th century, and the current passion for portraits in Africa. They review a variety of topics, including what defines a common culture of photography, the social and political implications of changing technologies for portraiture, and the lasting effects of culture on the idea of the person depicted in the photographic image.

Jul 24, 2013

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Portraiture and Photography in Africa - Raoul Birnbaum



The Study of Photographic

Portraiture in Africa


In 1894, the African American minister C. S. Smith toured the coastal towns of western Africa seeking modern compatriots, business opportunities, and peers. His published account of that journey is illustrated with photographs of local black elites of the region, mostly the work of local black photographers. By including their images in book form, Smith helped create a record of Africa’s early modern urbane elites for overseas viewers and for posterity. His book also preserves a few images that are known to have been made by the Lutterodt family, but whose original prints are now lost. Earlier, during the 1880s, Mpongwe women in the area of present-day Gabon posed for small photographs to give to acquaintances and lovers among the European men of the colonial town of Libreville. These women’s carte-de-visite-format images also acted as cultural intermediaries within the libidinal and visual economy then connecting coastal Africa to the wider Atlantic world. Moving forward in time, young men and women in the post-independence 1960s and 1970s in Kenya and Mali had themselves portrayed in novel ways, without the elaborate backdrops characteristic of colonial era studio portraits, foregrounding instead a newly dynamic sense of agency and individuality that was partly manifested through an adaptation of the clothing and poses of international pop stars. In our own time, a young woman posing for a researcher’s camera in rural Zambia asks to be surreptitiously photographed in her husband’s clothing. Photographers in The Gambia, frustrated by an official ban by the military government on the use of skin lightening cream, resort to color lab tricks to make their clients appear redder, and therefore brighter. And restless young men in Côte d’Ivoire carry iconic blurry images of revolutionary heroes, their contemporary role models, on their cell phones. In each of these cases there is a tension, a push-pull aspect, between socially determined expectations and private individual desires, caught up in the complex codes of meaning that surround the public representation of the self. The essays in this volume closely examine these and other critical examples from the long history of photographic portraiture in Africa. In this introduction I explore some of the broader questions that connect them.

What is photographic portraiture in Africa, or, rather, what has it been? The answer is not a simple one, because portrait photography has been entangled since its beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century with the global histories of technological, economic, and political innovation that were symptomatic of the early history of colonialism. In Africa these larger historical forces intersected with earlier local traditions surrounding the portrayal of personae, thus implicating (and sometimes altering) the very idea of the person in relation to depiction, as previously understood through indigenous concepts of materiality, the human, and the sacred.

This book has been written in response to new and urgent questions that have arisen over the past decade with regard to exactly how photographic portraiture has been produced and understood in specific cultural and historical situations in Africa. These questions have followed from the international proliferation of exhibitions and survey books of African photography since the 1990s, in which portraiture has often been a dominant but underexamined feature.¹ It has also become apparent that the legacy of earlier writing on photography in Africa has produced certain tenacious misconceptions. In reply we have not produced a book about contemporary African art as currently marketed overseas. Instead this anthology explores deeper and more pressing concerns about the social lives of images and the politics of representation in Africa and subjects them to systematic study. In our approach we have heeded the words of Christraud Geary, a leading scholar of photography in Africa, who has written that in order to understand the role of photography and photographs one needs to take into account the history of the medium, the symbolic meaning in particular cultural settings, and the specific function in each particular scenario.² The essays collected here address this need for closer attention to milieus of image making and reception in African portrait photography. They are based on case studies in West, Central, and East Africa. This is therefore not a comprehensive survey of the continent, although we do hope that the models proposed here, if appropriate, may be applied in future studies to material from North and Southern Africa.³ The case studies are arranged in three sections that are roughly chronological according to era of production of images and ideas: Exchange, Social Lives, and Traditions. These section titles, as I discuss below, are a loose framing device representing broader sets of concerns facing scholars today.

New Challenges for African Studies and the History of Photography

This book is intended as a contribution not only to African studies, but also as a challenge to the way that the broad field of the history of photography has been defined. Until very recently, comprehensive histories of photography have been dominated by European and North American materials, driven by theoretical constructs rooted solely in those cultural matrices, and, even when displaying African images, bound to the concerns and market desires of predominantly European and North American visual cultures. Note, for instance, the misleadingly inclusive titles of Naomi Rosenblum’s classic textbook A World History of Photography, or Michel Frizot’s otherwise authoritative The New History of Photography.⁴ Even recent major re-evaluations of the field such as the volume edited by Robin Kelsey and Blake Stimson, The Meaning of Photography, only nod in a token fashion toward the challenges posed by non-Western photo practice to the canonical (i.e., Western-based) study of the history of photography, by leaving it up to the examples of either contemporary international art practice or non-Western photographers whose work is illustrated but followed by minimal discussion.⁵ In such highly influential accounts we are left to assume inaccurately that the historical experience of photography—the phenomenological basis for considering photographic meaning—is a cultural universal on European terms. But pictures are silent talkers, as Ghanaian photographer Philip Kwame Apagya reminds us.⁶ They contain time- and place-bound worlds of gestural and sartorial (and phenomenological) meaning that constitute a language, one that will be missed or misconstrued if not recognized by later viewers.

Where general works of scholarship consider photographic practices beyond the European and American spheres, most commonly those practices are perceived as pallid or exotic extensions of a monolithic modernity as understood in Western terms—or shunted into the categories of special issues and vernacular photography with all the familiar paternalistic connotations of Africa as a continent with (visual) folk dialects but no (visual) languages of its own. Perhaps we should invert, if not flatten, this hierarchical approach to photo history, by asking: whose photography, even in the West, is not touched and beheld by the vernacular? Some photography scholars have been urging just this sort of shift in perspective, asking what would happen if we consider more closely the cultural embeddedness, the particular histories of handling, making, and reception—that is, the popular uses of photographs—as integral aspects of the interpretation of their surface images.

Pleas to globalize the discourse will inevitably fall short if they do not take into account nuances of recognition and difference, such as when persons in other cultural and historical settings live within unfamiliar fields of visual experience, and at the same time within a modernity characterized everywhere by a diverse set of intermeshed (and familiar) global phenomena. Easy recourse to notions of alterity is not sufficient, because reception abroad of images and objects from Africa’s cultures involves complex problems of translation, chronology, and ethics beyond simplistic concepts of to each his own, difference, or cultural relativism. How, for instance, are we to account for the fact that while an enthusiastic public for studio portraiture began to flower in Europe during an age of nationalisms in the 1850s, in Africa, while we can trace its roots to the 1890s, the demand for studio images found its most diverse expression among the widest class spectrum beginning in the post-independence era of the 1960s—that is, during Africa’s own nationalist era? Or that the diverse looks of 1960s portraits in Africa are unlike the more formulaic (and formal) types seen in nineteenth century European cartes-de-visite?

It is also problematic that exhibition catalogues of contemporary photography from Africa, while recognizing the need for alternative historical approaches, still often tend to offer mostly universal humanist interpretations. This is perhaps in part, as Érika Nimis and Erin Haney have argued, because most of their authors and curators have not engaged in the kinds of substantial on-the-ground and archival research necessary for understanding either historically derived local cultural perspectives on the nature of images or the transcultural translations of meanings which cluster about images made there-then and viewed (and marketed) here-now.⁸ There have been notable exceptions to the general trend, including the foundational work of scholars such as Christraud Geary, Tobias Wendl, Heike Behrend, Jean-François Werner, and Stephen Sprague, books such as James Ryan’s (1997) Picturing Empire, Pinney and Peterson’s (2003) Photography’s Other Histories, and the Anthology of African and Indian Ocean Photography published by the Revue Noire group in 1999, as well as earlier essays written by or acknowledged by the contributors to the present volume. While recognizing the positive value of including Africa on equal terms within a global humanist perspective, this book is meant to further complicate the notion of universality by building upon these earlier scholarly initiatives, in an attempt to begin mapping a new set of approaches, specifically with regard to the problematics of portraiture. Portraiture is our focus in part because as a form of visual culture it has especially profound implications for the creation of identities in Africa as well as the dissemination of ideas of Africa abroad.

Definition of Terms: Portraiture, Photography, and Place in Africa

According to Richard Brilliant, we speak of portraiture when the image in question is meant to stand for a person depicted:

Portraits, whatever their source in history and culture, are here defined as artworks made to represent living or once-living human beings by means of particularized, identifiable images. It is presumed that artists have intentionally made these works as portraits. . . . It is also assumed that the images created . . . bear some specific relationship to the person portrayed, sufficient to invoke that person by name and no other, although the name may now be lost to ignorant observers from another time and place.

dún elaborate upon further in this volume.¹⁰

Portraiture that is photographic includes other implications for the pas de deux between concepts of the individual and the social. In portrait photography, as Graham Clarke explains, the photograph displaces, rather than represents, the individual. It codifies the person in relation to other frames of reference and other hierarchies of significance.¹¹ Portrait photographs more than other photographs, he continues, achieve meaning through the cultural codes embedded in the context in which they are seen. Haney, Cameron, and Förster discuss in their essays how this context changes over time, and how it is comprised of realms of visual experience and social conventions for presenting the self that are locally determined in each instance. These are familiar concerns for Africanists who work with objects that have been displaced from traditional settings to modern conditions of viewing such as the museum. Similar problems of interpretation apply to photography, even if the illusion of semantic neutrality attributed to photographic images tends to cause the cultural setting of any later viewing encounter to be overlooked.

In many respects photographic portraiture shares the traits of portraiture in other media, but it also has unique aspects resulting from the illusion of iconicity, or the likeness-effect inherent to the medium itself, a medium that creates an image with a compelling but ultimately phantasmic resemblance to things in the world. While what exactly this implies will be influenced by location, since the earliest history of photography (even in Western contexts) portraiture has often meant a dressing-up and a social definition of the person, through making-up or accessorizing of the subject via the use of staged backgrounds, clothing, and props. This is already in evidence in the well-known earliest portraits by photographic pioneer W. H. Fox Talbot of workers on his English estate in the 1840s, in Hill and Adamson’s images of New Haven fishermen (1840s), and in Francis Frith’s self-portraits in Turkish attire from the 1850s. It is most strikingly apparent in what is likely the first self-consciously faked photograph: Hyppolite Bayard’s Le Noyé (self-portrait as a drowned man) of 1840. The trend is notable in innumerable examples throughout the subsequent history of photographic portraiture. This theater of the self has been used to embrace another identity and thus enhance one’s own, or to reveal the essence of portrayal through constructed depiction, though in either case the phenomenon is an inherently social one.

Interestingly, any survey of the more prominent literature on the subject quickly reveals that much of the writing to date on African photography has in fact been concerned with practices of portraiture. This observation is perhaps not surprising since the general image of Africa abroad has been bound so intimately, and complicatedly, to the representation of the people, of the personae of Africa. This is especially the case when the focus has been Africa’s earliest indigenous photographers. While the first local photographers during the nineteenth century produced a variety of subjects, most often their images conformed to a limited set of genres depicting public works and public personae, examples of modern industrial development, anthropological ethnic types, and exotic scenes of villages, landscapes, architecture, and daily life. And yet, as both Erin Haney and Christraud Geary note in this volume, it is portraiture that comprises the most enduring—if not the most prevalent—photographs in the many private and civic collections they have surveyed.

It is worth recalling here the critique by Annie Coombes and Steve Edwards of Malek Alloula’s book The Colonial Harem, in which they questioned the rationale for the first wave of studies of non-Western studio photography as symptomatic of a (Western? scholarly? even activist?) fetish for illustration of a highly controlling and unquestioned power attributable to a colonial gaze.¹² Scholarly obsession with studio work, they claimed, too often neglects to expose the very conditions of fantasy creation and mutual negotiations of subjectivity between sitter, photographer, and future audience that the supposedly controlled environment of the studio appears at first to negate, and it simultaneously characterizes regimes of colonial surveillance through new visual technologies like photography as monolithic, monological, and ultimately one-sided. While the present anthology returns the focus in large measure to studio practices, it does so by basing its methodological and theoretical propositions on intensive primary research and in this way takes up the very questions raised by Coombes and Edwards.

The research shared in this volume reveals how the studio was not as all-controlling a space as previously assumed. There is a locally creative, positive, subaltern imagination, as Appadurai would say it—that is, there is much human agency actively at work in many of the images.¹³ By considering the shifts in local viewpoints, it becomes possible to see how historical photographic portraiture in Africa has not stood still as simple memorial illustration of historic persons, but has repeatedly and continually (into the present) been a site for performative interventions, reinscriptions of meaning, and the layering of other, nonphotographic media. The authors in this book also explore how portrait photography encompasses not only discrete images of individuals but also the wider range of circumstances and environmental factors leading to their production, that is, the social interactions and the larger cultural legacies that surround, inform, and are transformed by such images.

Photographic images are highly reproducible and easily exchanged and transported, and photography may be understood as a mobile site of intersection, a place for ongoing (performances of) negotiation of representation between the photographer, the subject, the future viewers, and even the long history of images that precedes the moment of the shutter snap. Each of these facets informs the look of what is understood to be a proper or intelligible image in the first place. In all of these ways at once photography, especially portraiture, initiates a novel social relationship in the instant of its making and in every subsequent instance of regard. This perspective on the historic dispersion of photographic pictures and their changing meanings suggests a diaspora of images that may be coupled with the knowledge that photographers themselves were quite mobile.¹⁴ Commercial studios were where most late nineteenth- to mid-twentieth-century portraiture was made in Africa, yet there are still too few authoritative studies of specific historical studio operations. This volume seeks to redress this lacuna through the example of recent case studies by Schneider, Haney, Brielmaier, and Keller.

Even the term commercial studio is itself slightly misleading, since the early studio images were often made by itinerant entrepreneurs in multiple locales, sometimes but not always with a permanent home base. The word studio is also misleading since at least the earliest interior shots were likely made out-of-doors (with fake interior settings) for purposes of adequate lighting. Early outdoor portraits may also have been created outside, but with manufactured outdoors-like props and backdrops. Thus, even though the term studio seems to imply a singular idea of place, it could also be understood to stand for a tension between mobility and emplacement, in a dual sense: photographers often moved from place to place and identities were actively created via images. Seeing African portrait photography in this way leads to a perspective on the production and reception of images whose site is difficult to pin down according to fixed ideas of ethnic, national, or geographic location. By starting from this wider view we hope to expand the usual discussion of an African aesthetics, precisely by further complicating definitions of significant indigenous expression and reception within global entanglements of cultures and images.¹⁵

Today it is generally accepted by scholars that it is conceptually limiting as well as ahistorical to presume to locate Africa according to its cartographically and colonially defined geographic boundaries. There is also no historically finite social entity called Africa, but rather many historically situated cultures and social conditions, most of which have been closely enmeshed with other histories of contact and cultural exchange with Eastern and Western civilizations for millenia. In this book, by Africa what we collectively mean is the set of specific conditions in fact defined anew by each research study, if not by the very subject of photographic imaging and its reception. Ultimately an Africa is defined and redefined through the creation and interpretation of its images, and so each of the authors in this book has, as a current running behind their writing, kept in mind the question of how photographers, subjects, and audiences have placed themselves into the streams of space, time, and culture in the modern era through the very process of making and viewing images of themselves and others.

What, then, might be considered indigenous, locally situated, or otherwise particular to African portrait photography? It is perhaps best to say that the indigenous is to be sought at each of the multiple historical and geographic and cultural sites of production and reception for photographic images. Here we are well beyond the older concerns for ethnographic presents and tribal styles fashionable among an earlier generation of scholarship, but still we hold on to the premise that a cultural matrix for image interpretation and use is a necessary object for critical research. A crucial difference is that we view visual objects, and especially photographic ones, as productive of cultural matrices more than as merely reflective or illustrative of culture. Culture itself is a historical construct in flux in a field of otherness, and it is sedimented in its images.

It turns out that Africans have long used photography to place their own images into the wider global dispersion of images that has constituted modernity. Especially during the nineteenth century, persons from distant locations within Africa and abroad likewise used photography as an opportunity to see each other, to find a common visual ground for collective identification.¹⁶ Therefore, while we retain a focus here on issues of indigeneity, some of the photographic practices explored cannot be wholly divorced from the colonial experience out of which they developed, nor should their interpretation neglect their contemporaneous or later circulation abroad in the hands of other communities. As both Jean Borgatti and Z. S. Strother show in this volume, a consideration of the differences between local intentions and foreign misinterpretations can tell us a great deal about the relations between peoples in Africa and between Africa and the rest of the world from the colonial era to the present.


The first group of essays, Exchange, is concerned with histories of makers and consumers of portrait photographs—objects that have circulated widely over space and time in Africa, in archival collections and in other media, and as markers of intimate relations between people. Here photographs are examined as objects-that-connect persons and communities. This section also brings together studies concerned in one way or another with an economic model for the construction of meaning. We move to the heart of the matter with studies of the earliest indigenous uses of photography in the coastal areas of West Africa, and the origins and spread of studios during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

These studies demonstrate that while in historically specific settings the meanings and uses of the photographic played out in particular ways, there was also a roughly shared, modernizing culture of photography that crossed ethnic lines during the critical phase of restructuring of social relations that took place during the colonial period on either side of 1900. The authors explain how historical portrait photographs were not merely taken in Africa. They were also manipulated or performed in order to suit them to and adapt them to local concepts of commemoration, based equally on notions of earlier traditions (often in other media, such as sculpture) as well as on the need to visually formulate modern African subjectivities.

dún later), quite early on the presence of the new image-making technology was negotiated by African sitters and studio entrepreneurs to meet their own changing needs and desires. That is to say that the experience of photography in Africa has been a historical, thereby changing, one. By the end of the nineteenth century there emerged a shared hybrid or creolized visualscape,¹⁷ a new cosmopolitan culture of photography spread among people of diverse ethnic backgrounds, especially in coastal West and Central Africa and with a particular set of connections within the wider Atlantic world. A similar phenomenon occurred along the Swahili Coast, with its own unique connections to Muslim, Indian Ocean, and Persian Gulf worlds (as Brielmaier explores later in this volume). My own current research has found that in South Africa the aesthetics for photographic portraiture were more European and South Asian than West African in initial orientation. Visual commerce among the geographic zones was also not uncommon, and overall it appears that portrait images became a kind of new cultural currency, a form of exchange shared among Africans and others.

Schneider’s essay begins with a historiography of studio portrait photography during the nineteenth century in terms of what he calls a transnational Atlantic visualscape in which the process of circulation, production, and consumption of photographs did not run unilaterally. African elites who used photographs as media for representation and self-portrayal let their images purposefully circulate. One result is that today’s scholars may find these images scattered across collections on several continents, which speaks to the resourcefulness required for the serious study of this history. Schneider then proceeds to an analysis of the work of itinerant Creole portraitist Francis Joaque, who photographed Africans and Europeans in Sierra Leone, Gabon, and Fernando Po at the end of the nineteenth century. His sitters included the native Mpongwe people of Libreville, as well as West African migrant workers, white traders, missionaries, and other foreign visitors. It is intriguing that one of the company logos used on the verso of Joaque’s cartes-de-visite is of a bare-chested and barefoot (Creole?) gentleman in striped pants and kerchief setting up a camera on a tripod in front of an elephant. This image presents a possible avenue for future inquiry: did Joaque, who also entertained with the harmonium, intend to jokingly smooth over the concept of a native photographer plying his trade among European and settler clients by ingratiating himself via a self-lampooning gesture?

Thinking about African photography necessarily means rethinking assumptions about photography, its materiality, its uses, and its life cycles. Of course, this could be true for new kinds of studies of historic photography from anywhere, as Elizabeth Edwards and Janice Hart have argued.¹⁸ But this is an approach with particular resonance for Africa-based researchers, precisely because historians and anthropologists are still finding out how photography has been received and perceived, used and adapted, and even refused. Researching photography in Africa, especially early photography, entails a broadening of the concept of archive to encompass synchronic and diachronic performative aspects of photographic experience. How have the images been handled, manipulated, ideologically constructed, related to other forms and materials for representation, and, ultimately, handed down over generations by families or civic institutions? Haney’s essay, while focusing on the uses of nineteenth-century portrait photographs in Accra and Cape Coast, establishes that Africa’s historic experiences of photography were never of a medium that stands alone. What was called a photo was not entirely the same material thing in Africa as it was in Europe, especially circa 1900 but also later.

In Africa, photography has interpenetrated with ritual, with political and familial performances of status, with the establishment of modern civic institutions, with establishment of and resistance to metropolitan control over local affairs, with longstanding perceptions of the image of the body based in custom, and with other art media. The histories of powerful families were validated through the staged display of portraits of ancestors. Haney argues that if we hope to understand how photographs fit into history but also helped create a modern history in Africa, then we should look carefully at drawn images made to look like actual photographs or graphic images based on lost photographic originals, or even at actual photographs that have been enhanced through overdrawing (that is, photographs turned back into drawings). The discourse of the copy and the original, already a crucial concern for the history of photography, is broadened through consideration of these African contexts of intermediality.

There are many practical difficulties in locating archives for research on early African photography. For instance, Haney’s research has uncovered significant information on one family of mixed-race studio photographers in particular, the Lutterodts, whose Germanic name, in the past, misled scholars into thinking they were only Europeans. And she has found that certain types of images (for instance debut photos) were once highly desirable but are no longer considered proper in African societies—and are therefore discarded. So it seems that earlier histories of photography in Africa may pass unnoticed when researchers are only looking into more recent perspectives, but also that there are local forms of censorship that help keep Africa’s past hidden today and that pose ongoing ethical dilemmas even for the most conscientious researchers.

Thanks to studies like those by Schneider and Haney, it is now possible to understand how some of the aspects otherwise associated with a Yoruba traditional aesthetics in the classic 1978 essay by Stephen Sprague on Yoruba Photography were also shared more widely across diverse cultural areas of coastal West Africa during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.¹⁹ This knowledge is in turn complicated by the fact that many studios in coastal West Africa at the turn of the last century were run by Creoles, many of whom were culturally related to the present-day Yoruba of Nigeria since in large part their ancestors were taken from the area of Nigeria as slaves, then freed and returned to other locations such as Freetown, Sierra Leone. Later, as shown by the pioneering research of Érika Nimis, there was a further wave of itinerant photographic entrepreneurs who spread across West Africa from the Yoruba heartland in Nigeria during the 1960s and 1970s.²⁰ This later Nigerian diaspora, according to Nimis, was instrumental in setting up many of the studios and influencing the aesthetics for miseen-scène elsewhere in West Africa during the golden age of studio photography (1960s–1980s).

While before and just after 1900 it was elites in coastal towns who were the more likely studio patrons, during the first exuberant post-1960s independence decades in Africa people of all classes embraced self-representation through photography as never before. Nimis claims, further, that the later diaspora of studio operators from Nigeria helped democratize the profession by forming trade associations and by training local technicians who would go on to open their own studios. For this volume we have translated a revised version of Nimis’s writing on this subject, previously only available in French. Her essay here includes further speculation on the spread of particular aesthetic ideas from Yoruba areas to elsewhere in West Africa, including photomontage double-exposure portraits (related to Yoruba Ibeji, or twin, images), and gray-colored fantasy skylines.²¹

African cultures, while locally distinct, were also already historically connected through trade, war, and migration before the period of European colonial occupation. These kinds of cultural and material connections, especially in coastal areas, increased dramatically at the turn of the last century. Throughout this history, itinerant African photographers became double agents of cultural change, as disseminators of both modernity and tradition. They helped spread the mechanical means of representation and its ability to create images of, at first, a new African elite, a modern middle class, and later a cosmopolitan population at large. But they also helped transport and combine formerly distinctive aesthetic ideas based in older local sensibilities. For these reasons, on-the-ground research into the history of portrait photography in Africa is so necessary, because it always complicates any narrow ethnic or national dichotomization between, for instance Yoruba and Mande, or even European and African. It is not paradoxical to say that it is within this mixed context that African portrait photographers were creators and recorders of an unique indigenous history. In this regard, too, we recall James Clifford’s insight that the discursive overemphasis of localism/cosmopolitanism as dichotomous is at best a false construct. At worst it is an ideological symptom of a world system favoring the middle classes (and modernity) and coding them, inaccurately, as only or inevitably European.²²

Turning to the more intimate local scale, in her essay Elisabeth Cameron examines a series of occasions where she was either shown photographs or asked to take snapshots of friends and associates in rural Zambia. She describes photography-as-relationship by examining her own fieldwork context as well. She describes how photographs taken by her become tokens of exchange that are further circulated within the community in ways that continue to re-create normative social roles and relationships. Against this background Cameron analyzes local histories and perceptions of the uses and value of photography in the intimate everyday lives of people in Kabompo District, Zambia. Simultaneously she is also thinking self-consciously about her own role as mediator when she herself was positioned as a portrait photographer by those she encountered and took pictures of. This leads to a discussion of the broader issues of masquerade, agency, desire, representational conventions for depicting nsonyi (modesty in public), and ultimately the creation of the social self as they relate to the photographic and the photographer. In the end, is it not the self-consciously constructed (and modest) portraits they have helped make up for themselves that are more indicative of how Africans wish to be seen abroad? More so than those candid shots taken by foreign researchers without regard for local desires for control of their own image?

Cameron notes a profound difference between those photographs she was taking for her own research (mostly unposed, often with subjects unaware of the camera) and those more highly choreographed images she was asked to make for her friends in the field. More than mere illustration of what they looked like, the very act of making (and posing for) these portraits on request, as she describes them, created and reinforced social relationships between her and her subjects and also among her subjects themselves. These photographs thus became indices of relationships outside the frames of the images: between the American scholar and the Zambian villager, and between the local experiences of cosmopolitanism and their validation via the camera of the American visitor.

Social Lives

The Social Lives section focuses even more closely on the social and political constructs that surround and are influenced by portrait images, as well as on the changing biographies of image-objects themselves over time. It begins by placing in question some longstanding assumptions, misapprehensions, and phantasmagorical projections about local epistemologies of the image in Africa that are familiar tropes in much of the literature on photography and portraiture, such as the ideas that a photographic likeness steals the soul or that portraiture itself must necessarily be understood as only or necessarily mimetically indexical in relation to the body or face of the sitter. These are the legacies tackled directly in Strother’s essay.

The resemblance aspect of portrait images is iconic, making it appropriate for contexts of commemoration and social identity construction. And yet, as Strother points out, repeated statements in the popular literature on African photography assume erroneously that these images are understood locally as indexical and are thus readily available for use in sorcery. Here I refer to the classic tripartite classification of visual signs as the icon (or likeness), the index (or pointing reference such as a weathervane as indicator of wind), and the symbol (abstract image or word operating within a system of meaning with other symbols). In fact, the standard definition of these terms, as derived from Peirce’s philosophy of signs, is now being debated by photography theorists, as well as being reconfigured by those, like the contributors here, who have researched in non-Western contexts. For instance, François Brunet claims that despite common usage by later scholars, the photograph for Peirce was an index of reality only in so much as it was understood to be one, and that this leaves categorization of what is indexical or iconic open to culturally specific interpretation.²³

As earlier studies by Kerstin Pinther and Tobias Wendl have established for West Africa, the index of a person is more likely their clothing, which has served as wrapper of the actual body of the person: Photographs resemble persons but are not identical to them. Textiles . . . do not resemble persons, but—by absorbing their bodily traces they are, at least partly, identical with them.²⁴ In a related vein, Strother offers a closely argued revisionist account of the tenacious, paternalistic, and ultimately questionable notion that Africans have historically feared photography. She notes that while articles of clothing, grave goods, or bits of discarded hair or nails may be used in sorcery, unembellished photographs usually have not been.²⁵ The image record shows quite clearly that, already in the nineteenth century, whenever the opportunity arose African people embraced photography as a means to create images of themselves, sometimes as cosmopolitan subjects, sometimes as traditional leaders, sometimes as a means to adapt older roles to modern media. Strother concludes that the more reasonable fear has been about how images of African sitters would be used to misrepresent those subjects, especially abroad. And with good cause, especially when one considers how during the colonial era local portraits were often recycled as postcards and ethnographic illustrations for the consumption overseas of exotic or unflattering ethnic types.²⁶ Even here, as Haney, Schneider, and Geary each note, during the colonial era it was often considered desirable by private sitters in Africa that their images might become postcards sent and collected abroad. This public redistribution of private images placed them into the wider world of images changing hands. It enabled them to be seen, and to see each other, to validate their presence within modernity and in a modern way.

Christraud Geary’s essay relates the historical and current uses of photography in the Bamum kingdom of Cameroon to a long local tradition of royal portraiture. Where Haney and Schneider addressed the mobility and performance aspects of portraiture in nineteenth century West African photography, Geary looks at the twentieth century histories of reuse for photography in Bamum, an area on the periphery of the same cosmopolitan photographic ecumene. Photographic images are highly mobile, and the same pictures may pass over time through several different registers of consumption and medium: in books, in the hand, in postcards, as personal mementos and as items of intimate exchange, in family albums, as ethnographic illustrations, as display items in museums abroad or in local museums of local history, and as transformed into drawings and paintings. They thus have social lives (Kopytoff, Edwards) and biographies that may be traced by historians interested in the details of the interaction and transformation of societies. Geary considers these contexts of mobility and translation in her close study of images of King Ibrahim Njoya of Bamum, who ruled from 1887 to 1924, and of how these continue to change into the present. Njoya was a photographer himself, and posed often for missionaries and other colonials, in part as a means to legitimate his territorial claims in the context of German colonial occupation. In order to address the place of these images in Bamum (then and now), especially those made by Europeans, Geary shifts the notion of author from simply the operator of the camera to the more complicated interplay of negotiation of subjectivity between sitter and shooter (and later to creative consumers), starting with Njoya’s own self-conscious control over the image and its contents through careful manipulation of aspects of display and performance. Bamum subjects, she argues, are equally authors of images originally taken for Europeans when they are used as an important part of the royal project of articulating and inscribing history and maintaining rule.

One of the more crucial moves made in Geary’s essay is that, while tracing the history of royal representation, power, and intermediality between photography, painting, and installation in the local context, it is equally mindful of the impact of the author’s own research archive and publications on the current uses of royal portraiture in Bamum. She notes that her book with Adamou Ndam Njoya, Mandou Yenou (1985), included a number of images from the colonial period, including official portraits of King Njoya, making these much more accessible than before. The book was widely seen, and Xerox copies were made for further local distribution, thus democratizing the interpretation of royal images formerly held privately in the hands of particular families. Years later, the images from this book have been used as models for new forms of historical painting, further modifying and adapting them to current politics of representation in Cameroon, including contested claims for power and historical importance among rival elites.

Isolde Brielmaier’s research is on the mid-twentieth-century history of South Asian–run studios in Mombassa, Kenya. Her essay shows how the studio culture of Mombassa was a site of an urban-centered culture of self-invention and reinvention for various subjectivities. Urban Swahili, South Asian African, and other urban black African clients used the studio to portray their connection to the city and its international culture. In the process, Mombasa’s photographers and their clients together drew upon a locally particular, and ethnically rooted, range of global image types linked to the imagination of the social self, including Hindu and Islamic traditions of male and female comportment, the fantasy world of American and Bombay cinema, European fashion magazines, South Africa’s Drum magazine (whose photojournalism centered on Africa’s own leaders and culture-makers), and Hollywood glamour photographs.

Brielmaier notes that initially women in photographs were rarely seen unless as a part of a family or as part of a couple, but that conservative attitudes toward gender roles began to be relaxed by the 1970s and women began using portraiture

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