The Old Couple
Photography and Anthropology - Christopher Pinney
Book Review by Martha Langford
Published by: Reaktion Books
ISBN: 978 1 86189 804 3
Photography and anthropology are like an old couple; outsiders are scarcely conscious of the sparks and divisions between them. Christopher Pinney sees into this relationship; he pries its functions and effects apart, revealing the substrata of imbrication without destroying the pattern or his reader’s trust through hyperactive hindsight. He achieves this, in part, through selective attention: "There are many anthropologies," he writes. The version that has stared critically at its own reflection in the mirror and thought hard about the power structures both imbedded in and constructed by visual representation is the anthropology that interests Pinney. He turns it on itself – in the spirit of Foucault’s ‘counterscience’ – to ask "what an anthropological destabilization of the relationship between anthropology and photography might look like". History, historiography, and theory intermingle in this text. In schoolyard parlance, one might say that Pinney picks on people his own size. Such rules of engagement don’t always make for transparent style, but the structure is compensatory. Pinney conducts his investigation of photography and anthropology from three complementary points of view. He establishes a history of shared mentalities, then teases out the pluses and minuses of photographic representation from the anthropological perspective, finally reversing that attack, in part through recourse to postcolonial critical practice. A prologue and an epilogue bracket these studies, and the book is generously illustrated at a level that we have grown to expect from Pinney who has what used to be called ‘a very good eye’.
Experienced readers will know to flick through the book, looking at the pictures, before plunging into the text. The argument is prefigured and reflexive by design. In the first chapter, Pinney traces a "double history" that shifts from simple photographic captures of "representative" human subjects and their objects, through the staging for the camera of their labours and rituals, to images constructed to convey something of anthropologic experience – the surreal "being there" of fieldwork. In the mid-nineteenth century, two systems of inquiry were coming into existence, photography allowing what anthropology desired: single-point perspectives on the human body, and better yet, a silent body, incapable of distracting backchat or wilful deception. Objectification of the Other meant translation of this figure into an "object lesson"– sound pedagogy, because built on the student’s knowledge of Western figure studies. Physical differences thereby became visible and, with the help of a Lamprey grid (the Renaissance drawing machine reborn as a backdrop), measurable. Once photography was admitted to the field, like Toad of Toad Hall, it swelled in importance. In 1888-9, during Alfred Cort Haddon’s second Torres Straits expedition, photographs were used as "pivots of interaction" and not just in the taking, but in the viewing: they were "vehicles of conviviality" with the natives.
This performative turn was noted, though not in so many words, by Haddon, who also acknowledged instances of manipulation when photographing objects. The world was opening up to staged authenticity, but slowly, ever so slowly, as the scientist, turning participant-observer systematically enlarged his role. The chapter ends with readings from Bronislaw Malinowski’s Argonauts of the Western Pacific (1922), which Pinney reviews through the writing of George Stocking, Michael Young, Walter Benjamin, and Michael Taussig. These landscape, as opposed to portrait views are, according to Young, records of "setting, situation, social context," but also, by Benjamin’s psychoanalytic lamp, flashpoints for the optical unconscious. Drawing on David Tomas’s correlations of photography and fieldwork, as well as the documented relationship between Malinowski and modernist photographer Stanislaw Witkiewicz, Pinney casts the scientist’s performances of the self in photographic figures: as a passage from exposure, through negation, to a transformed positive – the photographs are infused with the liminality of fieldwork: reflexivity, of a sort, predicted.
Photography as both process and metaphor becomes the theme of the next chapter. Here certain anthropologists’ attraction to spiritualism and its imagery is developed in a persuasive parallel between James G. Frazer’s explication of magic ("homeopathic and contagious"’) and C.S. Pierce’s semiotics (iconic and indexical). This discussion sets the course for a survey of photography as sometimes very bad magic for its subjects – not at all convivial in certain circumstances – because it sets off panic and breaks taboos, but also because its stress on the visible effectively negates anything that it cannot capture in its equally "troublesome"’ indiscriminate way. Photography’s conflation of real and sacred time – carefully choreographed moments and "sparks of contingency" – and composite human subjects are examples of its excess. Interference, to control the excess of information, is exemplified by Edward Curtis, who never confessed, and Charles Gabriel Seligman, who did. In Pinney’s laboratory, photography oscillates between inadequacy and surfeit, representing perfectly the ambivalence of its users who cannot help but capture signs of witchcraft, even when the witches fail to appear on the plate. The chapter ends immersed in the mid-century postphotographic blues of Claude Lévy-Strauss and his contemporaries, bored of their own systems, and looking for new ways to engage.
The book then makes something of a leap. "The Problem with Anthropology" is its enchantment by a form of representation that is not universal, but codified in a language that speaks authoritatively to some and babbles to others. Distrust of the photograph begins early, as Pinney shows, but develops muscle in the 1980s, as photographic theory wakes up to the deconstruction taking place all around it. This history would have benefited from some digression into the history and theory of ethnographic film, as well as the catalytic political movements on both sides of the colonial divide. Formal solutions to thick description and multiple temporalities were sought and theorized by filmmakers, whose possibly flawed responses nevertheless predated the emergence of "indigenous media" as facilitated by "low format, inexpensive" video recorders. Pinney sticks to photography, finding ruptures in local uses of photography, especially Indian and African studio and everyday practices. He cites Stephen Sprague’s recognition of photography’s seepage into preexisting Yoruba practice: before photography, the death of a twin would be marked by the commissioning of a carving used ritually; in the advent of photography, a picture of the survivor printed twice on the same sheet would represent both twins, fulfilling the same ritual function. Wonderful instances of ordinary people bending the photographic studio to their imaginative wills are supplemented by examples of contemporary critical practice – re-enactments and appropriations of the colonial archive – by artists such Leah KingSmith; Gordon Bennett; David Lewis; and Pushpamala N. and Clare Arni. Artist’s references to the Lamprey grid help close Pinney’s circle.
I have saved my comments on the prologue for the last. It is a dazzling sortie, springing from the drawing by an unknown Nicobarese artist of E.H. Man going about his photographic business in the 1880s. Composed in three registers, the drawing takes the shape of apotropaic shield, the lower two fields depicting aquatic life forms and a ship symbolizing the islanders’ history of contact with the outside world. This snapshot that is not one echoes polyphonically throughout Pinney’s book. Where the reader ends up is also in the world of magic – the still image having lost much of its power, but nevertheless capable of rebounding in ways that social scientists cannot predict, but may in their use of new photographic technologies both shape and observe.