Sun, Jul 20, 2003 - Page 18 News List

Seeing ourselves in photos of others

An anthology of 12 essays takes an anthropological look at our understanding of photography

By Geoffrey Batchen  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

In fact, this book is primarily about anthropology's history rather than photography's. In that context, many of its contributors do offer trenchant critiques of the ways the West has chosen to represent the victims of its colonial ambitions.

Roslyn Poignant, for example, provides a heartrending account of the portrayal of a group of nine Aborigines kidnapped from their homes and toured as sideshow attractions throughout the US and Europe in the 1880s. Poignant's nuanced "excavation" of their story continues right up to the present, leading her to condemn The Sunday Times of London for a 1998 report about the Aboriginal community of Palm Island, in which a 19th-century image was manipulated to make its subject look more "savage."

This type of violation is less likely to occur in Australia itself, where, as Peterson's essay documents, there is an increasing awareness of Aboriginal taboos about images, an awareness that has sometimes been reinforced by Aboriginal litigation.

One of this book's strongest elements is its investigation of what Pinney calls "vernacular modernism." A number of essays detail the complex ways that regional cultures have negotiated the European world view embodied in the photographic apparatus, adopting their own poses, subjects, camera angles, studio settings and ritual contexts to suit local demands and needs.

Poole's essay, for example, surveys the career of the Peruvian photographer Figueroa Aznar during the first decades of the 20th century. She argues that his allegiance to the indigenista movement in the city of Cusco resulted in photographs that were intended to reflect native Peruvian culture rather than the European influences of the capital, Lima, or the European avant-garde, which was seen as foreign and therefore

irrelevant.

The possibility of other modernisms and other attitudes toward the photograph is reinforced by the inclusion in this volume of the voices of both American Indian and Aboriginal authors, who all have a very personal stake in the meanings and potential uses of photographic archives.

Despite its flaws, then, this book serves as a timely reminder that there is a need for many histories of photography, just as there are still many photographies for which histories have yet to be written.

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