09 November 2008

19th Century And Victorian "Ethnographic" "Types" A Sort Of Photo-Racism

Peabody Museum, Harvard.edu

Peabody Number: 2003.1.2223.396
Display Title: Japanese samurai in colorful armor
Descriptive Terms: Photograph
Date: ca. 1870
Provenience: Asia; Japan
Dimensions: 24.8 cm x 18.6 cm
Materials: Albumen print with applied color

I mentioned cultural "Types" in 19th century and early 20th century photography in passing recently, so here I am going to try to flesh out the general idea using someone else's words, given that they do it better than I ever could. It bears mentioning though, that most of this stuff has been sitting in archives and museum collections for decades, and until recently considered as legitimate "ethnographic" and cultural studies of "exotic" peoples. Asian, Native American, African and other nationalities were all photographed by European photographers in studios as tourist material showing each native "type" and their own special features. There is one particular researcher that I cannot find in my files, that basically blew the lid off of this sort of "Ethnographic Study". I'll try to find him.

"The title "Meiji." which means enlightened peace, was given to the new Emperor and his reign--a period which lasted forty-five years until his death in 1912.

The photographers idealized old Japan and ignored its transformation from an insular, medieval country to a modern land. This one -sided photographic view gave outsiders the misleading impression that Japan was a quaint, archaic nation well into the twentieth century."
Standford University Albumen Gallery

"By the late 1860s and early 1870s, the production of these photo albums became a prosperous and competitive commercial enterprise, primarily pioneered by the European photographer and entrepreneur Felice Beato, who would leave an indelible impact on subsequent photographers in the country, both western and Japanese. However, western photographers such as Beato did not always portray the reality of Japanese life but rather presented to the tourist a constructed first impression of Japan, one which was antiquated, exotic, charming, or even violent."
Julia Fischer. Her paper is here: The Knowledge Bank, (Ohio State University).
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John M. said...

I've always had trouble with the term "ethnography", lately in terms of how I label posts.

I've settled on a rule that if the people in question are still around, I label it as "people", if they are no longer around, "anthropology".

I'd say that it's a form of institutional racism couched in old conventions, rather than a conscious bias, although I suppose these conventions could use some conscious modification.

Hillbilly said...

I'd have to agree, but I also feel the need to pin some conscious effort on the European's who dreamt up this stereotypical style of portraying other people.

What I find really odd, is that it took 100 years for some chap to point out that these collections and museum archives had no real intellectual value- They were collected and curated as though they had some relevance in the study of other cultures and people.

I don't know how that came to be, considering that museum folks are supposed to have some common sense.

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