Sunday, 17 May 2015

Tribal Portraits: Vintage and Contemporary Photographs from the African Continent, Bernard J Shapero Rare Books

This is a collection of prints taken between the late 1800s and around 1960. They are almost all of various African peoples, with a good proportion taken in the fairly familiar “noble savage”manner – best ceremonial clothing, rigid portraiture – or the “happy innocent” manner – mainly female semi-clad or naked, posed in mock classical poses.

It is difficult to know what to say about them – especially as we are clearly expected to fill in the “reflects a primitivism we have lost” tick box. But trying to set my growing cynicism aside I offer the following:

  • The early photographers may have had a genuine excuse for the fairly unimaginative manner in which the images were styled given the likely limitations of their cameras. The same is not true for the later photographers who seem content to stick to the trusted formulas.
  • I can’t help the feeling that the photographers would be less than keen on their own daughters engaging in full frontal nudity for the camera, irrespective of how comfortable they might have felt as individuals. There seems to be a measure of exploitation in many of these photos – the photographer and the subject are not equal participants and it seems unlikely that many of the subjects fully appreciated what would happen to the images.
  • I’m not convinced about “nostalgia” – I don’t really see it in these images. Instead I see finger pointing and making objects of subjects.
  • Many of the body decorations in particular are sufficiently unusual that it is difficult not to descend into seeing the people as types, rather than individuals.
  • I’m a little unclear how these images really differ from a lot of the portrait photography we still see in places like the Taylor-Wessing prize. I’m also unsure how you might take a neutral anthropological record shot without being accused of colonialism or the Curtis syndrome – maybe the answer is the neutrality is not actually possible.
  • I’d be interested to see how many of these peoples would choose to photograph themselves and their ceremonies – assuming they actually wanted them recorded, which is by no means certain.

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