Photographs, fieldnotes, and subjectivity

Anthropologists, and ethnographers specifically, use photographs all the time.  Whether on the covers of ethnographies, or interspersed throughout the pages of texts, photographs are a pretty common element of many anthropological publications.  Like the ubiquitous locational maps and statistical figures, images of places or ethnographic participants are pretty standard fare.  What tends to be absent, however, are overt discussions of the actual use of photography as an anthropological/ethnographic method.  This isn’t the case with all ethnographies, mind you, since there are indeed some that engage with photography in a very direct manner (Righteous Dopefiend is one recent example that comes to mind).  But in many ethnographies that I see, photographs seem to just exist, floating in a sea of words.  While many ethnographers spend a decent amount of time writing and thinking how and why they employ key methods such as participant observation, interviews, and even writing fieldnotes, the use of photography gets the silent treatment.  Why?

Margaret Mead once said that anthropology is a “discipline of words” (Mead 2003), and I think in many ways this is still true today.  Sure, American Anthropologist now has a section devoted to visual anthropology, and there are other great journals like Visual Anthropology Review that focus specifically on the use of still photography and other visual methods.  However, when it comes to the main canon of ethnographic methods, discussions of photography are conspicuously absent.  The methods courses that I have taken, and the standard methodological textbooks and articles that I have been exposed to, generally do not mention much about photography or other visual methods*.  They talk about writing proposals, designing research plans, sampling strategies, interview methods, participant observation, and so on.  Rarely are cameras mentioned, yet, ironically, photographs continue to crop up in ethnography after ethnography.  Clearly, most anthropologists bring cameras of some sort to the field, but for some reason they don’t talk much about them.

So what’s with the silence?  In some cases, it might be because some anthropologists and ethnographers see photographs and other visual materials as less objective or scientific than, say, fieldnotes.  And this is a pretty old debate in anthropology, one that has gone through a series of concatenations.  These debates about truth and representation are pretty fascinating since when photography was invented it was–at least in some circles–seen as the ultimate technological arbiter or truth.  This battle between words and images continues today.  From my experience in anthropology, it seems pretty clear that words reign supreme for the most part, despite the long history of engagement that the discipline has with visual methods.  This is a curious and fascinating situation–especially for someone who is in the thick of writing grant proposals, which require plenty of tactical choices when it comes to methods.  Are words more reliable than images?  Are they less subjective?

Granted, the photographic process is highly selective.  In fact, that’s what photography is all about: making good, effective images is very much a matter of deciding what should be including in the frame and what should be left out.  Photography is, after all, grabbing fragments from oceans of chaotic information.  Probably one of the biggest mistakes that beginning photographers make is that they put far too much in the frame.  Lens choice, angle, lighting, timing, shutter speed, and f-stop selection are all part of this calculus of composition and exclusion.  Clearly, there are a lot of editorial choices that go into making photographs.  During the observation of a particular situation or event, a photographer is always selecting small bits and pieces of reality to focus on and capture.  Life moves, so you grab what you can with the camera as it passes by.  That’s just how things work–there is no way to completely capture an entire situation, ever.  Perspective, choice, timing, and the limits of photographic equipment always guarantee one thing: it’s only possible to capture fragmented, partial realities.  That shouldn’t be a shocking realization.  So is photography simply too subjective for use in anthropology?  Are words–and fieldnotes–more reliable, accurate, and stable?

Imagine you’re doing participant observation and you’re taking fieldnotes.  You’re in a public plaza filled with 50 people, and you have your notebook and pencil at the ready.  Your goal is to capture the situation.  There is a flurry of activity all around you, and you frantically jot down as many details as you can.  Participants are engaged in numerous conversations, but you can only hear bits and pieces of those that are close by.  Your perspective, which is anything but omniscient, is partial–you can’t see exactly what everyone is doing.  Later, you will take these rapid notes and expand them in more fully developed fieldnotes.  This is pretty standard practice for taking fieldnotes.  This is what “doing ethnography” is all about.  This is the ground floor of ethnographic data collection that results, eventually, in finished ethnographic texts.  I think it’s pretty safe to say that fieldnotes–and writing in general–take precedence in the production of ethnographic authority.  This is the methodological foundation of ethnography.

Yet, there literally endless editorial choices that go into taking fieldnotes, much like there are choices that go into taking pictures.  The decision to focus on one particular event or interaction is also very much about excluding other possibilities.  There are always choices involved in any observational process, whether it be note-taking, photographing, recording audio, or filming.  There is no way to capture the entirety of any human interaction, even if you have a multi-million dollar light, sound, and film crew at your disposal.  Not gonna happen.  Ok, you might be asking, so what does this all mean?

My point here is not to go down the rabbit hole of “truth” and attempt to argue that either photographs or words are somehow more truthful, accurate, or reliable.  That’s not where I am going, at all.  Each method has its positives, of course.  What I am saying is this: if ethnographers use cameras all the time (whether they are using iPhones or $5000 SLRs), it might be a good idea to rethink how and why they use them.  Simply avoiding the discussion doesn’t really cut it.  Now, rethinking the use of photography doesn’t mean that every ethnographer needs to become a master photographer overnight, and it doesn’t mean that using photography needs to be turned into some overcomplicated methodological nightmare.  It simply means paying attention to how and why photography is used as part of the larger ethnographic process, from preliminary note-taking to the production of finished articles and books.

From my perspective, it just makes sense to open up the discussion about the ways in which we use photography in anthropological fieldwork, rather than making uncritical assumptions and just putting pictures in books and articles.  Photography is another tool, and it might be beneficial to treat is as such.  This isn’t a discussion that only applies to visual anthropologists, since pretty much every anthropologist uses photography in some form or another.  The use of any medium for data collection, analysis, and presentation–whether paper and pencil, laptop, or camera–has its limitations and possibilities.

Photography, in the end, isn’t any more or less subjective than taking fieldnotes.  It has its own benefits and drawbacks, and to me it makes sense to add discussions about using cameras–as a primary component of anthropological research–to our general methodological conversations.  It would be even better to incorporate the use of different forms of media into our overall disciplinary training and teaching.   I know this is happening in certain cases, but I think there is considerable room for rethinking not only how we put photography to use, but other forms of media as well.  Anthropologists are producers of media, after all, and while we spend a lot of time exploring how and why we use words, for some reason we often overlook all of the images and photographs we happen to make along the way.

In an attempt to continue this conversation, my next post here will be about anonymity in ethnographic photography.  Should we keep identities hidden and anonymous at all costs?  Are there times when it’s best to show faces and reveal identities?  Who should make these decisions?  This is definitely a subject that covers some pretty tricky ethical territory, so I will be interested to see what some of you have to say.  Until then.

 

*Yes, there are several books that talk about visual methods.  For example, check out the work of Sara Pink, Paul Hockings, Fadwa El Guindi, and Gillian Rose, among others.

References

Mead, Margaret.  2003[1974].  Visual Anthropology in a Discipline of Words.  In Principles of Visual Anthropology, 3rd Edition.  Paul Hockings, ed.  Pp. 3-10.  New York: Mouton de Gruyter.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

27 thoughts on “Photographs, fieldnotes, and subjectivity

  1. Thanks Ryan. An interesting article which discusses these issues is: C. Pinney’s “The Parallel Histories of Anthropology and Photography” in E.Edwards (ed.) Anthropology and Photography 1860-1920, pp.74-95. Yale University Press, 1992.

  2. Great topic, Ryan. Sadly, he isn’t well known, but Paul Byers work with Margaret Mead is well worth looking into:

    1964 “Still Photography in the Systematic Recording and
    Analysis of Behavioral Data.” In Human
    Organization, Vol. 25, No. 1. Reprinted in
    Afterimage, (publication of the Visual Studies
    Workshop, Rochester, N.Y.), Vol. 4, No. 10, April
    1977.

    1968 The Small Conference: An Innovation in
    Communication. (with Margaret Mead) Mouton: The
    Hague.

  3. I am a bit puzzled. For several years, I was a subscriber to Visual Anthropology, in which these sorts of issues were frequently discussed. I also seem to recall that Kerim is a graduate of Temple University, where visual anthropology was a major departmental focus. Is the problem here that, as with, for example, mathematical and computational anthropology, visual anthropology has remained peripheral to the discipline as a whole? Is this likely to change now, with the rapid spread of digital photography/videography and on-line publishing in which the inclusion of photographs is much simpler and cheaper to organize?

  4. In case people are interested there is actually an extensive literature about fieldwork and photography and methods in anthropology. There is an even more extensive literature on the relationships between anthropology and photography but that’s less relevant to the posting, although some of the books below cross over. Just some starter refs on methodology (not completely formatting, as I’m typing quickly, but enough for anyone interested to be able to find them…)…Obviously this is a very dynamic field within anthropology but Ryan is correct, it seems many people don’t look outside of their subfield…..

    Bateson and Mead, [1942] 1985. Balinese Character: a photographic ANalysis. New York Academy of Science

    Mead and Bateson, 2002. On the Use of the CAmera in Anthropology. In Askew and Wilk, The Anthropology of Media. Blackwell.

    Edwards, E. 2001. Raw Histories: photographs, Anthropology, Museums. Berg.

    Grimshaw and Ravetz, Visualizing Anthropology: experimenting with Image Based Ethnography. University of Chicago

    Young, M.1998. Malinowski’s Kiriwina: Fieldwork photography 1915 – 1918. Chicago

    Banks and Morphy, 1997, Rethinking Visual Anthropology. Yale

    Faris, R. Navajo and Photography: a critical history of the representation of an American people. Utah University Press

    Poole, D. 1997. Vision, Race and modernity: a visual economy of the Andean Image World. Princeton

    Kratz, Corrine. 2002. The ones that are wanted: communication and the politics of representation in a photographic exhibition. University of California Press.

    Pinney, C and Peterson, N. 2003. Photographies Other histories. Duke.

    DAvid Macdougall, 2006. The Corporeal Image. Princeton

    In addition, as well as Temple there are vibrant visual anthropology programs at Oxford University, University College London, Goldsmiths College, Harvard, New York University, University of Southern California and elsewhere, see this blog posting (and indeed many other entries in Karen Nakamura’s blog Photoethnography…

    http://www.photoethnography.com/blog/archives/2009/10/careers-program-2.html

  5. @Kerim: Thanks for the recommendation. I have that book by Edwards, and I read Pinney’s article last night. Good call. I have another edited volume by Chris Pinney and Nicolas Peterson (Photography’s Other Histories) that is on my reading list for this summer. Elizabeth Edwards, by the way, does some great work.

    @Michael S: I will definitely check into Byers–thanks for the citations. More good stuff to add to the ever growing reading list!

    @John: Ya, I think you’re right that visual anth is somewhat peripheral to the discipline as a whole. But that’s just my perspective. There are great resources out there, and there are places where these discussions are taking places, but from my perspective these aren’t issues that get a lot of consideration from the discipline as a whole. There are definitely focused places (like Temple) where this conversation is more prevalent. I guess I am wondering when the rest of the discipline is going to get on board. It’d be great to see more of an emphasis–or at least a mention–of photography and other visual methods in some of the general methods courses, textbooks, and articles.

    As for your question about whether this interest in visual methods is going to change with digital technologies and online publishing–it seems that this could help but I don’t know if it will. What do you think? I wonder if the lack of attention or interest in visual methods has to do with difficult technologies or simply a bias against images, etc? I really do not know, and it would be interesting to ask why people chose particular methods over others. I am also interested in finding out how common/uncommon it is for grad programs to teach about media and visual anthro as part of their methodological training.

    Thanks for the comment John.

  6. Haidy,

    Thanks for posting all these references! There is a ton of literature about visual anthropology out there, and people just have to go look for it. Some of my questions are geared toward trying to figure out why visual anthropology is a sub-field in the first place, and why it’s not a standard part of all anthro. It’s strange, considering the long relationship anthropology has with film and photography, etc. Thanks for your comment!

  7. Why is visual anthropology a peripheral subfield? The answer, I suggest, lies in the way in which the relationship between fieldwork and “writing up” has been conceived, with priority given to the written word in the output from research. The new technologies I mentioned in a previous message create opportunities for changing this paradigm; but major change is not likely to occur until older generations of scholars more comfortable writing, editing and critiquing text than shooting, editing and critiquing visual images moves on and makes space for people with new approaches.

    If you look at where old fogies like me are coming from, it’s important to remember that our education was, with few exceptions, word and number-oriented. It is also important to remember that when we were in graduate school and doing our fieldwork, photography was expensive; not quite as expensive as computer time, but cameras, film and developing were not small items in a research budget. And at least in Taiwan in 1969-71, we could get film developed and printed at photography shops in the town where Ruth and I did our research. Friends who went off to study, say, Dayaks up river in Sabah either had to cart along their own darkroom equipment or wait weeks or months to see what they had captured on film. With no particular incentive for shooting more than a few “See, I was there” illustrations, you had to be a pioneer with a peculiar obsession to make photography or film a major thrust in your work.

    Now I can see all sorts of new possibilities. Why not, for example, replace journal articles with TED-talk style videos, in which illustrations, video and the spoken word deliver the points you want to make more quickly and persuasively than the usual academic prose?

  8. Maybe a generation of cultural anthropologists uncritically absorbed On photography and passed their take on as received truth via publications and teaching? I’m not suggesting Susan Sontag is to blame for cultural anthropology’s verbocentricity. But I am suggesting that politically engaged scholars who don’t understand the difference between an assertion and a theory might have something to do with the current state of things.

  9. @MTBradley:

    I read Sontag’s book a long time ago–when I was a photographer not an anthropology grad student. Might be a good time to check it out again and see what I think the second time around…

    @John:

    You know, I think the cost issue is a good point. The more I think about it, ya, definitely–especially in terms of doing fieldwork. When I started photography I used film, and it was certainly a lot more expensive and time-consuming. I had my own film processing equipment and darkroom, and that saved me lots of $$$, but doing photography out “in the field” was a lot more of a hassle. Digital photography (and video) has certainly made things more manageable for anthropological fieldwork. For one thing, you don’t lose money every time you fire the shutter, like in the days of film. I don’t really lament the days of buying 35mm and sheet film for photographic trips–the costs definitely add up, especially when you make bad decisions or just plain blow it on certain images! But then, good digital equipment isn’t exactly cheap either…

  10. MT, with all due respect to Susan Sontag’s role in the history of photography, the connection seems very weak. Why not an alternative hypothesis? The written word has been the exemplary form of scholarly learning since the invention of writing. For all of recorded history, the scribe, cleric, brahmin or mandarin’s literacy was a mark of social distinction and a form of knowing denied to the illiterate. Thus, among other things, the sacralization of the word in, for example, John 1, “In the beginning was the Word…,” the names of G_d in the Jewish tradition, or the esoteric characters deployed in Hindu, Buddhist and Daoist ritual, knowledge of which is held to constitute a kind of super-literacy denied to even the conventionally literate. During the scientific revolution of the 17th century, the invention of analytic geometry and the calculus made numbers a formidable challenger to text as the embodiments of esoteric knowledge of things that, like the Christian God, are invisible but powerful controllers of reality. Thus, for most if not all of the history of which anthropologists are a very minor part, when people talked about knowledge of “things seen and unseen,” it was perfectly clear which counted as the extraordinary knowledge that scholars claim for themselves. The seen is open to everyone; what goes on behind the seen [pun intended] is where power and authority lie.

    Surely, in this context, the slow adoption of visual media by anthropologists has better explanations than the purported influence of one, albeit famous, author.

  11. Surely, in this context, the slow adoption of visual media by anthropologists has better explanations than the purported influence of one, albeit famous, author.

    I know the Bureau of American Ethnology oeuvre far too well to buy a monolineal model of slowly increasing use of visual media in anthropological publications. And my claim isn’t that Sontag’s book is the unicausual factor in the downturn of photographic evidence in the world of anthropology. But the book in question has been used to build an “evidentiary” (I typically frown on scare quotes but they are appropriate here) basis for the notion that all photographs are lies. That’s just an excuse to turn your brain off, as far as I am concerned. The notion that photographs are lies that tell the truth at least forces the photographer, author, and audience member to engage and adopt a stance.

    BTW, the use of ‘Word’ to gloss logos is a historically bad bit of translation. There is more to logos than words, just as there is to the human condition. And since the human condition is the focus of anthropology I think it is vitally important that anthropologists not content themselves with words alone over the course of their work.

  12. MT, I agree. Both with your comment about logos and your conclusion that anthropologists not content themselves with words alone. I wonder if you missed the end of a previous comment,

    Now I can see all sorts of new possibilities. Why not, for example, replace journal articles with TED-talk style videos, in which illustrations, video and the spoken word deliver the points you want to make more quickly and persuasively than the usual academic prose?

    I don’t, however, buy the argument that people reading Susan Sontag is a good explanation for why anthropologists haven’t, with a few notable exceptions, done as much as we could have with visual images. It seems to me that the text-orientation/bias of conventional scholarship, of which anthropology is only one segment, has far deeper and more pervasive roots than the opinions of a critic whose writing I have never seen assigned anywhere outside the visual anthropology ghetto.

    Am I wrong about this?

  13. P.S. “never seen assigned anywhere outside the visual anthropology ghetto”[sic] Add “in an anthropology syllabus” after “assigned.” Yes, I do know there is a big world of film and media studies our there.

  14. I don’t, however, buy the argument that people reading Susan Sontag is a good explanation for why anthropologists haven’t, with a few notable exceptions, done as much as we could have with visual images. It seems to me that the text-orientation/bias of conventional scholarship, of which anthropology is only one segment, has far deeper and more pervasive roots than the opinions of a critic whose writing I have never seen assigned anywhere outside the visual anthropology ghetto.

    I don’t disagree that there are deeper and more pervasive roots. And Sontag’s book may be a distillation of a zeitgeist rather than the source of a certain take on photography and its uses. But in either case I do think that mainline cultural anthropology has bought what On photography selling. As to why it is rarely taught, I buy what Michael Starenko asserts in his 1998 essay “Sontag’s reception.

  15. MT, thanks for the link to the Starenko piece. Very interesting. But returning to your original remark, could you say a bit more about the connection between scholars who don’t distinguish between assertion and theory and Ryan’s original question abrout the place of photography in anthropology?

  16. One example is Sontag’s statement that ”[p]hotographing is essentially an act of non-intervention.” This logic to me is completely in line with a certain kind of activist anthropology that wants to stop documenting and start doing something that matters. Those old white male anthropologists documented the suffering of the people whose lives they intruded on and then feathered their own nests with the earning, I’m not going to be those guys! In fact, I’m going to use not taking pictures as a way to prove to you that I am not those guys.

    If you treat Sontag’s quote as axiomatic then you have another brick for the mea culpa house of anthropology you are helping construct. But if you subject the quote to the most elementary of analyses you see that it creates a false dichotomy. Can’t documenting be part of an intervention at a different scale? Can we really hope to intervene in every individual problem we witness? &tc.

    Am I making any sense or am I just ranting?

  17. MT, I won’t disagree that Sontag’s statement could be interpreted in the way you suggest. You just did. QED. But as someone who knows why advertising agencies have media planning as well as creative divisions, I’d still have to ask (1) how many anthropologists are aware of this statement? (2) how many interpreted it as you do? And (3) if a large enough number shared your interpretation to affect the conventions that govern the write-up and publishing of anthropological research?

    I would also have to get around the fact that On Photography was published in 1977 and that photographs were rarely used in the books and journal articles I read as a graduate student at Cornell, 1966-1969. This makes it seem unlikely to me that Sontag’s influence was a major factor in the marginalization of photographs in standard ethnographic monographs.

    Returning, however, to your allusion to the Bureau of American Ethnology. When I turn to Wikipedia, I find that the Bureau was founded by an act of Congress in 1879 and read that, “The BAE had three subunits: the Mounds Survey (1882–1895); the Institute of Social Anthropology (1943–1952), and the River Basin Surveys (1946–1969).” Since you are the expert here, I would like to ask if the use of photography to document North American cultures is distributed equally over these three periods, with a notable decline beginning in the 1970s, or, alternatively, where the mode of the distribution is located.

  18. When I turn to Wikipedia, I find that the Bureau was founded by an act of Congress in 1879 and read that, “The BAE had three subunits: the Mounds Survey (1882–1895); the Institute of Social Anthropology (1943–1952), and the River Basin Surveys (1946–1969).” Since you are the expert here, I would like to ask if the use of photography to document North American cultures is distributed equally over these three periods, with a notable decline beginning in the 1970s, or, alternatively, where the mode of the distribution is located.

    I can’t answer your question because the Wikipedia description is bad. For example, the River Basin Surveys are probably better characterized as an administrative unit embedded within but not subordinate to the BAE that got shuffled elsewhere after the BAE ceased to exist.

    You can get some idea of emphasis over time on photography and visual images more broadly by browsing the SIRIS Image Gallery. The fact that SIRIS includes a lot of archival material that has never been made available in (non-electronically) published form might be a good reminder of something that I feel was implicit in ryan’s original post. There are multiple reasons for making pictures while doing ethnographic fieldwork. Off the top of my head—the resulting photos may the central form of data for the researcher’s project, they may later be used in conference and teaching presentations, they may become part of a technical report or academic publication, or/and they may become part of an archival collection. I would assume the relative importance attached to these sorts of individual motivation must vary across time, and not only at the level of the discipline. I think of the recently returned from a year’s dissertation fieldwork graduate student now running his/her own class for the first time who at some point a few weeks into the semester asks himself/herself the rhetorical question, “Why didn’t I think to take more photos to use for PowerPoints?!?” Followed of course by the declaration that he/she won’t be so absent-minded the next time he/she is there.

  19. MT, I’m sorry. I thought we were having a discussion about a perceived decrease in the use of photography in presenting anthropological research. Your pointing to Susan Sontag suggested that the decline began no earlier than 1973, the year in which Sontag began publishing the essays that went into On Photography. I have offered some evidence, the relatively sparse use of photographs in the stuff I was reading at Cornell in the late 1960s, that suggests that if there was a period in which photography was more central to the field, it had to be earlier than that. Your reference to the BAE raised the possibility for me that there was a period earlier still, perhaps in the 1880s-1890s, when photography was more central to, at least American anthropology. If so, that raises the question why, if photography were once more central, did it cease to be?

    It isn’t hard to come up with hypotheses. If photography’s role in anthropology shrank in the 1970s-1980s, it might be blamed on the interpretive turn and a shift of focus to text. If it occurred earlier, it might be blamed on the influence of figures like Radcliffe-Brown and Edmund Leach, whose notion of constructing a science of society explicitly downgraded the importance of ethnographic detail (Leach called it ‘butterfly collecting’) in favor of abstract models (a shift paralleled in sociology by the post-WWII rise of the quants and subsequent decline of 1930s Chicago-school urban ethnography).

    There are also the cost and portability of photographic equipment to be considered. It is easy (probably too easy) for me to imagine the 1880s-1890s as filled with Matthew Brady wannabes loading up their wagons and heading for reservations which were, in any case, not too far from trading posts or towns where supplies could be replenished. Add picturesque subject matter, fascination with then Wild West, excitement about photography as the high-tech hobby of the day….

    This, however, is all speculation. If I were familiar with the SIRIS Image Gallery (thanks for the link), I could, I suppose, see if it were possible, by counting the number of images taken in, for example, a series of five-year periods, to see if there are, in fact, modes in the series. But that’s a lot of time and effort to invest when I have other projects on my mind.

    So I ask an expert, is this approach plausible? Do you already know the answer? No need to reinvent the wheel if a wheel already exists.

    How about it, can you lend us a hand here?

  20. What I am trying to say is that there Sontag’s take on the photography and the photographic image bear a striking resemblance to a not at all uncommon politicized take on the same by many a cultural anthropologist. Somewhere in the thread I acknowledged that Sontag’s book may be a distillation of the spirit of the age and thus that in fact the commonalities may bear the relationship of siblings rather than one of parent to child. The evidence I can offer is the commonalities.

    I mention the multiple whys of ethnography photography because I think the conversation was beginning to take publications as the sine qua non of judgement of relative importance of photography to ethnographers. But as Ira Jacknis says of one of my anthropological heroes, “[F]or Mooney [the image] was only one part of a total ethnographic corpus.” Any quantitative diachronic study pretending at validity needs to take this into account, along with any number of constraints, some of which you have mentioned. It would at minimum require someone who knows research design, disciplinary and institutional histories, and archival methods. That is as much of a hand as I am willing and able to lend. Given that an entirely satisfactory published history of the BAE is yet to appear I am not holding my breath for any study that requires a solid grasp of the institution’s history as a point of departure.

    What is within most of our grasps is a trip to a large university or municipal library holding a collection of the BAE Reports. The plates, figures, and maps are invariably apropos and beautiful produced. If you don’t have a reason to dislike POD already you will after a day with the BAE Reports.

  21. What I am trying to say is that there Sontag’s take on the photography and the photographic image bear a striking resemblance to a not at all uncommon politicized take on the same by many a cultural anthropologist.

    And what does that get you—oh, I get it—intellectual influence works like sympathetic magic. Critical attention to context, historical background, demonstration that the purported effect isn’t, in fact, a spurious one—Let’s just forget about all that. Sound scholarship, who needs it.

  22. This thread has continued on Anthro-L (those interested in everything said can find it in the Anthro-L archives). The following comments are reproduced with the permission of Tom Kavanagh, whose Comanche Political History: An Ethnohistorical Perspective 1706-1875 is about as authoritative a source on a Native American people as one can hope for. Kavanagh writes,

    ——

    John McC wrote:

    “where the issue is why so few photographs appear in reports of ethnographical research. This particular sub-thread got started when MT Bradley suggested that anthropologists had been put off photography by reading Susan Sontag’s On Photography. I countered with the observation that the equation of scholarly learning with text goes back at least to the invention of writing. MT replied by mentioning the photographs taken by researchers employed by the Bureau of American Ethnology. I am curious if they did, in fact, take more photographs than later researchers or researchers working under conditions that limited use of photography.” [tk: my emphasis]

    There are also the cost and portability of photographic equipment to be considered. It is easy (probably too easy) for me to imagine the 1880s-1890s as filled with Matthew Brady wannabes loading up their wagons and heading for reservations which were, in any case, not too far from trading posts or towns where supplies could be replenished. Add picturesque subject matter, fascination with then Wild West, excitement about photography as the high-tech hobby of the day….

    Just to add some actual historical and technological background:

    To add to her many accomplishments, Matilda Coxe Stevenson (Tilly) was the first BAE “collaborator” to use a camera in the field, in the late 1880s. And no, it was not one of the technologically superceded Brady-esque wet glass plate camera, it was one of the then new-fangled George Eastman film-based Kodaks, pre-loaded with a roll of 50 round images. When fully exposed, the whole thing was sent to the Eastman factory in Rochester, where it was processed into paper prints with negatives, re-loaded and sent back. [“You push the button, we do the rest”]. I don’t know how many images she took.

    James Mooney used the Kodak (hers, or BAE issued) on his 1891 Southern Arapaho Ghost Dance research. Mooney had used a dry-plate camera in his Cherokee researches, and, at least for his Arapaho researches, hired William J. Lenny of Percell, IT, to accompany him on a dry plate box camera. [Many of his GD images show the shadows of both men, literally following Eastman’s instructions: “stand with your back to the sun.”] He would also use the dry plate camera as well as other film cameras on his later field trips. Mooney took a over 2,200 dry-plate and Kodak images of Cherokee, Arapaho, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Comanche, Wichita, Hopi, Navajo, Lakota, Pamunkey, Chickahominy and others; under the auspices of the James Smithson society, I did a catalog of them in 1991.

    The illustrations in Mooney’s Ghost Dance monograph are almost all paintings based on his photographs and which show significant manipulation (see Kavanagh http://php.indiana.edu/~tkavanag/visual5.html). It is not clear why this approach was taken, as photographs had been previously used in BAE publications. His Hopi images, at least, were the basis of manikin and life groups for both the Chicago Columbian Exposition and for the Smithsonian (see Kavanagh, A brief illustrated history of the manikins, statues, lay-figures, and life-groups illustrating American Ethnology in the National Museum of Natural History June 16, 1990; mss, National Anthropological Archives.)

    Later, in a response to a comment by SM contributor Dustin Was, Kavanagh replies,

    ——-

    Dustin wrote:

    “… the American Indian photos taken by Curtis took a long time to set up and to produce, and were generally highly constructed — candid slices of life just weren’t possible…”

    Er, um … yes and no.

    Yes: the photos by Curtis (taken 1899 or so -> 1920s) did take a long to set up, because they were just that, set up and constructed. They were posed. Curtis even provided wigs when he thought necessary.

    No: candid slices of life *were* possible. George Eastman’s Kodak had been around since the 1880s. Some of Mooney’s photos do show candid moments: people hurrying to the dance, action shots of Cherokee ball games, etc. I can’t speak of other areas, but there were photographers, some professionals, some amateurs, in and around Comanche-Kiowa country from the 1890s, and their images do provide slices of daily life. Their works are often available at regional historical societies and archives.

    And remember, of Curtis’ work, all we have are his published images, the ones he thought worth showing; how many more he actually took, we don’t know. Of his contemporary, and sometimes plagiarist, Joseph K. Dixon (1908-1913), we have not only his 100 or so published images, but also over 5,000 other images; some are out-takes of his posed images, others are indeed more candid shots (see my “Reading Photographs: The Wanamaker Collection, especially part 4, at http://www.indiana.edu/~mathers/collections/photos/reading4.html for some few examples).

    As another data point: the 1933 Santa Fe Field Party in ethnographic methods apparently had only two cameras along, one used by Waldo Wedel, an archeologist, the other by Ed Hoebel. In six weeks, the two took about two dozen photos. Of these, ten are posed portraits of the consultants in more or less daily dress; four of Hoebel’s are of Teneverka “dressed up.” Another 10 or so are of a dance at Walters in August 1933. Only two of Wedel’s are of artifacts. The dozen we chose to use in Comanche Ethnography (Kavanagh 2008) are, we thought, technically, and informatively, the best of the lot.

    ——–

    At this point it seems to me that the evidence for an early florescence of photography in the anthropology of Native American peoples suggests, instead, a situation not too different from the way we see today. Photography is used extensively by a handful of enthusiasts, but plays a minor role in the fieldwork and publication of most anthropologists. Why this should be so remains a fascinating question.

  23. Critical attention to context, historical background, demonstration that the purported effect isn’t, in fact, a spurious one—Let’s just forget about all that. Sound scholarship, who needs it.

    Is someone who thinks his memories of what he read on the shores of Cayuga Lake during the Vietnam Era count as evidence really trying to set me straight? Whatever, John, the corned beef at your favorite deli is better, there, I said it. The discussion is at an end as far as I am concerned.

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