Art History Photography Term Paper

Pages: 11 (3638 words)  ·  Bibliography Sources: ≈ 32  ·  File: .docx  ·  Level: College Senior  ·  Topic: Anthropology

Western perceptions of the "other"

In her work Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums, Margaret Edwards outlines the most cogent and problematic issue surrounding the use of photography as a means of understanding cultural and social phenomena

photographs cannot simply be reduced to signifiers of social forces and relations ... Or to models of spectacle within a socio-political matrix .... The mechanisms of photographs are too complex. They are more ambiguously dynamic as they function in the real world, and within daily experience, not merely in some imagined or reified theoretical world.

(Edwards 3)

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This quotation refers to the fact that there is a complex relationship between photography and the way society and cultures are presented or re-presented. In other words, photography is an art form which is constituted by culture and society. At the same time photography is also an important element in shaping cultural realities. Early photographic images in the United States and Australia were not merely straightforward depictions or representations of events and people, but were culturally and ideologically influenced in both their execution and in their interpretation. As Edwards suggests, these are images which cannot be reduced to simple signifiers of culture and society. It is this complex interrelationship between the photographic image and cultural motivation that forms the basic subject of this essay. The relationship between photography and culture will be outlined with reference mainly to American nation buildings and imagery around the turn of the century. Furthermore, the essay will discuss the ways in which western forms of nation building interacted with the problem and perception of the "other" and the way images of the" other" are mediated though photographic images of the period.

1.2. Understanding anthropological photography

The view that photographic images are objective replicas of reality has been questioned from numerous theoretical standpoints.

Term Paper on Art History Photography Assignment

... this commonsense view of the trustworthiness of photography is problematic at best. For one thing, photography, like the notion of nature itself, is a cultural entity which is comprehensible and meaningful because it has long been ascribed uses within social systems such as journalism, law, art, and science, all of which are arbitrary configurations of persuasion and argumentation.

(Gibson 75)

Gibson also illustrates the early perceptions and conception of photography as a truly objective modes of representation, which was seen to be unsullied by subjective and cultural preconceptions. The introduction of photography to America was viewed as a "scientific means of rendering the visible world quantifiable" More importantly it was believed that "... A representation of lived experience could now be created with virtually no subjective intervention on the part of an artist. "(Gibson 119) Therefore photography was believed to be a blueprint that could encapsulate the reality of the world and society. Gibson simplifies this early view of the meaning and significance of anthropological photography as it relates to cultural and societal norms.

The evolution of the nineteenth-century allegory photo exemplifies this drift in "visual rhetoric" from fictional speculation through the agency of hand-produced pictures to "truthful" confirmation through the evidence of the photograph. (Gibson 119)

However, the move in modern theory from assumptions of cultural dominance to cultural relativity has changed this view. Many modern theorists critique anthropological photography as being far from innocent. In their view photography is a product of a certain culture and, as such, contains hidden ideologies, categorizations and stereotypes. For example French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan's theory of the gaze can be applied to the analysis of these photographs. The gaze implies a separation and a sense of domination and power that relates to various aspects, including alienation and 'otherness" This also refers to the "patriarchal" gaze: and the gaze from the standpoint of colonial culture. "The majority of anthropological photographs consists of non-Westerners looking away from the photographer, who were mostly white, upper class males, or posed to be in action as to appear candid and natural. " (Tanjuakio J. 2003) This view leads to various other aspects of post-colonial and postmodern theory; such as the assertion that photography is means of "capturing" the non-westerner in terms of control and power. ( Foucault and the institutional gaze) These aspects are strictly outside the parameters and limits of this essay. However they should be noted as examples of the radical complexity involved in the subject of anthropological photography.

Understanding the significance and meaning of photography in terms of ethnography and culture is, as has already been suggested, not achievable in any simplistic sense. For example, in describing the significance of early photography, Edwards claims that still images in an anthropological context "contain too many meanings" and cannot be simplistically interpreted. (Edwards 5) She also points to the "unknowable" quality of photographic images which are open to interpretation from various perspectives and social mores and conventions.

One of the essential aspects of the modern interpretation of especially ethnographic photography is that theorists state that it displaces or ' fractures' conventional views and notions that might be held as true or valid within a given culture. In effect this means that photographic images can impact the culture and change its views of reality. "Through the photograph's points of fracture, the rawness, we can begin to register the possibility of a history that is no longer founded on traditional models of experience and reference."(Edwards 6)

This is an important point which will be explored in the following examples.

Dealing with photography from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, we approach these images from a different and altered cultural perspective. It is relatively easy to deconstruct and view these images as products of the possibly flawed cultural perception of the time. Yet it is equally important not to allow the modern perspective to overshadow the intentions and motivations that created and structured these particular images. Guimond emphasizes this aspect.

The deconstructive stresses of post-modern analysis have served to defamiliarise the past and the photograph through revealing its political, psychological and thus representational discursive practices and instrumental procedures. While such analyses concentrated on exposing the inadequacies (from myopia to fantasy) of colonial representations, they did not engage, on the whole, with how photographs might have operated within ideas of historically specific legitimation.

(Guimond 17)

2. The cultural role of early photography in America and nation building

An example of the way that photography is used a means of promoting nation building through cultural ideologies and views, as well as perceptions of reality, is the depiction of the "American dream" at the turn of the century. The perception of America in the early days of industrialization and economic growth was of the 'Greatest Nation on Earth."

Publications like the Ladies Home Journal, one of the countries first mass circulation magazines, were filled with,

... facts and statistics describing the extent of country's immense natural resources, how well its industries were exploiting these resources, and how superior America's position was in comparison to Great Britain, which was considered the world's leading economic and military power at the turn of century.

(Guimond 3)

The idea and the image of the American dream was one of immense prosperity, coupled with images of a fair and just society which was an object to envy in the civilized world. For example, the newspaper USA Today proclaimed in retrospect that "..the great American dream is alive and well, because most of us feel we can still go from rags to riches. "(Guimond 5) This enthusiasm and sense of optimism was later to be overturned by artists and image makers. Documentary images and film were to question these earlier assumptions of success ands achievement; for example in the recent works of Michael Moore and others.

Part of the modern criticism of the images and presentation of the American dream is that there were many problematic areas and issues which were not revealed in some of these earlier images. This relates to the question of the "other" and to racial and ethnic questions which were prevalent at the time. Many modern critics points to problems such as the " Negro," the Indian reservations and immigration and contend that many earlier image makers tended to hide or reinvent their images in at attempt at promoting a positive view of the country.

One of central areas that were problematic in terms of the depiction of American at the turn of the century is the problem of the "other." Differently stated, how did the "other', or the other ethnic and racial, groups, fit into the coherent image of the American dream? This was a cultural problem that was reflected in the attempts at nation building and culture and which is depicted in the photography of the time.

This other side of the American dream relates to a central facet of photography -- its ability to misrepresent and to gloss over the truth. Instead of being a true and unblemished representation of reality, when analyzed photography can also be shown in many instances to be more artifice than art and to hide and disguise, as well as reveal reality.… [END OF PREVIEW] . . . READ MORE

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