Anthropological photographs are boxes within boxes. Most
tribal cultures are dependent on the control of knowledge,
the presence of secrets that are known only to initiates or to a
priestly caste. (Our “seeing is believing” is their “not seeing is believing.”)
Essay, “Photography and Anthropology (A Contact Sheet),” by Eliot Weinberger
Photographs by Michael Rockefeller, Robert Gardner, Kevin Bubriski, Adelaide De Menil, Christopher James, Jane Tuckerman, Susan Meiselas, and Alex Webb
Peabody Museum Press, Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2009
$50.00/£37.95/€45.00; ISBN 13: 978-0-87365-857-79; ISBN 10: 0-87365-857-4
Robert Gardner was honored this fall by Bard College, which organized a weekend of films and symposia and awarded him an honorary doctor of fine arts degree. His films are available for purchase or rental through Reframe (Tribeca Film Institute), as well as through Documentary Educational Resources.
This handsome, modestly (and conveniently!) -sized, impeccably edited, and important book was put together with a light, subtle hand—artists’ hands—and the reader will be immediately seduced by the striking photographic work which is its primary raison d’être, but Human Documents: Eight Photographers was founded on a precise argument, which Robert Gardner makes quite clear with his spare, patrician prose in the introductory essay. Eliot Weinberger introduces variations on it (as well as further points of view of his own) in his supplementary essay, “Photography and Anthropology (a Contact Sheet).” The book is intended to bear witness to the connections between photography and anthropology, and both Gardner and Weinberger discuss the historical background to this inevitable, but not always easy relationship. What’s more, Mr. Gardner considers the question from the point of view of a filmmaker and anthropologist, who has used still photography primarily as adjunct to his primary medium, especially when circumstances were too difficult for cinematography and sound recording. The essay is rich in cinematic references as well.
In his essay, “Giving Visual Witnesses,” Gardner states the premise of the book:
The images in this book achieve the status of what I am calling “human documents”: visual evidence submitted by its makers in the belief that it can testify to our shared humanity[…] giv[ing] credence to the notion that photography has an important role to play in a fuller understanding of human nature [,…] that [photographs] can connect people through an unspoken but universal visual language.
This book’s content and concerns originate in the work of the Film Study Center, which was established close to fifty years ago, at first as part of Harvard’s Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology. One of the center’s highest hopes was to bring both film and photography more deeply into the practice of anthropology. The prospects offered by these remarkable means of graphic representation were irresistible: a largely faithful way to render the world not only visible but also transformed by a language capable of more than visual authority and largely free of doctrinal and other academic influences.
A. C. Haddon’s 1898 work in the Torres Straits and Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson’s work in Bali in the 1930’s are early examples specifically related to anthropology, but even earlier photographers like Francis Frith and Alexander Gardner had already paved the way, and in moving pictures the Lumière brothers and Thomas Edison had already set out in directions more fully and purposefully explored by Robert Flaherty (Nanook of the North, etc.). Robert Gardner also found inspiration in highly original works like Luis Buñuel’s Tierra Sin Pan (1932), Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice (1930), and Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934). His work at Harvard, beginning in the 1950’s, put him in a position where he had to assemble teams of scientists, writers, photographers, and film people for various anthropological and ethnographic projects. This serendipitous combining of talents is distilled in the person of Michael Rockefeller, who, as sound man for the expedition which led to Dead Birds, always had cameras by him and was able to make visual records of an especially lively sort. Significantly, especially for the photographic work published in Human Documents, Rockefeller gave Gardner a copy of Henri Cartier Bresson’s Decisive Moment, just as they were setting out for New Guinea, and this is the key to Human Documents.
It is no accident that two of the photographers included in the book are members of Magnum. All of them are workers in an art which combines photojournalism of the highest quality with the best traditions of ethnographic photography, ruling out the strictures of M. V. Portman mentioned by Eliot Weinberger: that “for ethnology, accuracy is required.” This means that the natives “should be stark naked, a full face and profile view should be taken of each, and the subject should touch a background painted in black and white chequers, each exactly two inches square. All abnormalities, or deformations, whether natural or intentional, should be photographed.” This clinical attitude speaks volumes about the attitudes of Euro-American ethonographers towards their subjects and may seem offensive today, but it is typical of nineteenth century attitudes towards photography as an applied science which realized and justified itself most fully in the service of its sister sciences. In stark contrast, this late twentieth century work lies very much in the realm of fine art photojournalism in its subjectivity and seeming spontaneity. In this way they are the visual equivalents of the great nineteenth and early twentieth century travel writers, from Charles M. Doughty to T. E. Lawrence and Norman Douglas, who centered their impressions entirely within the confines of their own individual consciousnesses. If photography is a synergy of external observation and inner awareness, the images of all eight photographers are in perfect equilibrium.
This balance of the documentary and the poetic is about the only thing the eight photographers have in common, other than their common anthropological program, and the twelve selections from Alex Webb’s Dislocations (1981-1993) are anthropological only in the sense that all photography is an exercise in anthropology. This exception completes the definition, however, since Robert Gardner’s anthropology would not be complete without the urban environment—one we can recognize as our own, even if we have never been to Coney Island, Munich, or Caimanera, Cuba. (That generic street corner in Dallas could be from almost any American city.) The variety of sensibilities and technique among the photographers is boundless. In fact it creates a feeling of openness in the reader, the openness of the almost infinite possibilities within the reach of photography, as well as the openness of Robert Gardner’s long career of exploration and record-making—or preservation, if we follow the indication of his earlier book, The Impluse to Preserve. To take one of Mr. Gardner’s remarks out of context: “‘Going back’ is what photography seems to do better than anything else. Photographs can register only what is passing into oblivion.” Indeed the aesthetic of this collection—through Kevin Bubriski’s eye and Gardner’s principles, which are founded on the telling moment, in which both the content (I won’t say meaning.) of the photograph and its stylistic qualities come together. An anecdote about his collaboration with Jane Tuckerman and Christopher James expresses the double-edged nature of the “decisive moment.”
I can remember Christopher saying more than once at the end of a hot day that he was sure he had gotten the “quintessential” shot. I thought I knew what he meant, but as I reflect on it now, I am not sure. Did he mean that what he got was so telling, so encompassing of what had drawn his eye to it in the first place, that there was nothing more to say or shoot? I think not. Though photographs can be quintessential, they are never beyond compare, not even Robert Capa’s image of the falling Spanish soldier. That image and a number like it are subject not only to being judged anew but also to being outdone. Life never stands still and is always going to be there to be seen in new and different ways when arrested by photography.
He returns to this in his conclusion:
[Photographs] register not only an infinite variety of surface attributes but also something more subtle that is not unlike immanence. Looking at certain photographs, possibly most photographs, we can hardly escape drawing inferences about what lies beneath their surface and beyond their strictly defined borders. Both faculties, the ability to register the actual and an affinity for the possible, are equally cogent to enlarging the human chronicle.
In other words, photographs have the ability to capture a truth about a time and place, a society and an individual, but neither the truth nor the artistic quality of the image are absolute. As in Gardner’s anecdote, another eye with a different sensibility and a different set of premises can capture an equally valid truth with an equally compelling visualization. The captured moment has its own absoluteness, but the resulting photograph is as ambiguous and relative as experience itself.
The eight photographers bear witness to this. Bubriski and Gardner, by deciding to focus on a single project by each photographer, have wisely counterbalanced the centrifugal effect of their variety.
Michael Rockefeller, whose 1961 photographs taken among the Dani of Papua New Guinea, is the first of the photographers. He was young (23) and regarded himself as a neophyte. Robert Gardner had engaged him as sound man on his expedition. Meanwhile Rockefeller was avidly photographing with two cameras around his neck and keeping a voluminous diary, in which, as a photographer, he noted his decision to follow his own “inexperienced instincts.” The results show a lively, sympathetic engagement with his subjects, as if he were physically participating in the action from a slight distance. He is as keenly observant of individual gestures and facial expressions as he is of movement and composition. In these photographs of groups of young boys, Rockefeller communicates the process of acculturation they are undergoing, as much as all the fun of it.
Of Gardner’s own work, there is a series of color and black and white photographs he made of Afar camel herders gathering salt in the Dallol plain in northeastern Ethiopia, the hottest and lowest place on earth. The midday heat had to be avoided at all costs in this brutal task. Gardner’s elegant compositions invite the viewer to explore the details of the strange, hostile environment and gestures of the men who work in it. Ranging from extremely distant to medium shots, the series is recognizably cinematic in character. From these visits in 1967 and 1968, the film has never been edited. “There was just not enough strength in the filmmaking,” said Gardner in his introduction, but he dreams of returning to the material some day.
Adelaide de Menil was part of a group who in 1975 accompanied Frits Staal and other scholars to the south Indian state of Kerala in order to observe and record the Vedic ritual of the Agnicayana, thought to be the oldest surviving ritual on earth. Lasting twelve days, it is only performed at rare intervals, even to the point of being in danger of extinction. As she observed in her brief memoir introducing the photographs, “I never gave thought to what or how I was to photograph, except to respect the religious strictures concerning sacred areas forbidden to foreigners, to women. […] In retrospect, I learned the importance of flexibility—and how to recognize, to record the unexpected, to catch the moment.”
Kevin Bubriski, who also edited the photographs in the book, spent two years in an impoverished region of Nepal in the 1970’s. Nine years later he returned with a view camera. His technically immaculate posed photographs observe the people and their harsh circumstances with an unfliching eye, but at the same time they recall the nineteenth century ethnographic photography in their stillness and long tonal scale. These are among the most beautiful and most disturbing photographs in the volume.
Christopher James is a painter as well as a photographer, and this is especially apparent in his color photographs. His approach to form is especially free, as blurred figures combine with sharply defined forms, sometimes partly obscured in shadow. His photographs come from a visit to Benares in the winter of 1984-85 as part of a team which included the anthropologist and fimmaker Ákos Östör, Robert Gardner and Jane Tuckerman, who is also represented in the volume. At the time James combined this almost expressionaistic color style with brooding black and white work in medium format, in which he shows an especially sensitive eye for the dynamics of groups of people at prayer, funerals, or in other rituals.
The surreal glow of Jane Tuckerman’s photographs from the same trip come from her use of infrared film in her 35mm camera. She and Christopher James were in many of the same locations, where she observed ritualistic and casual behavior, animals as well as people, intertwined on the crowded banks of the Ganges. Her work is not about her medium but about what she saw, which makes these photographs pretty much the most compelling infrared work I have seen.
The two Magnum photojournalists conclude the volume. Susan Meiselas has photographed a vast range of subjects from strippers in New England carnivals, the insurrection in Nicaragua, the Pinochet regime in Chile, the New York S&M scene, as well as the Dani people of Papua New Guinea, visiting the Baliem Valley, where Robert Gardner filmed Dead Birds in 1989 and 1996, which brings her within the primary scope of Human Documents. On this occasions she concentrated on the interaction of the Dani with contemporary life, either through their contact with Indonesians or foreign tourists. She shows us their culture in the commodified form in which their present it to outsiders for money. In a few of these her subjects appear to be on their own, without contact with be outside world, but in most they are surrounded by machines, tourists, or towns, in which they coexist with the other peoples of Indonesia, donning makeshift clothing to fit in. In the photograph of a solitary woman daubed in mud for mourning, the woman looks back at the photographer with the curious, defensive gaze reserved for alien folk. (See top.) In this Meiselas photographed herself, the western intruder, in the woman’s shadow-covered eyes. Eliot Weinberger says that self-consciousness is “apparently the only acceptable response to…postcolonial and poststructuralist critique,” and that is most likely a part of what is happening in this powerfully ambiguous image.
Alex Webb, as I have mentioned, leads us away from those parts of the world where local tradition survives in its tenuous way into the cities of Spain, Mexico, Cuba, and the US, where a familiar civilization reveals itself in the desperate anonymity of that Dallas street corner or the less alienated, but still fragmented and contradictory spaces of Seville, Barcelona, or Mexico City. One scene speaks to many of the others in the book: in it a young woman, well-camouflaged behind sunglasses and standardized western fashions, walks unaware by a church, while a man and two girls converse seriously by a gate and one of the girls, equally unconsciously most likely, hangs from the grill in imitation of the most universal of Christian iamges.
As Weinberger pointed out in his essay:
More recently, the reigning academic dogmas of identity politics and deconstruction have intersected to assert the ineluctable Otherness of the Other and our doomed incomprehensibility in the tangle of differences. Turgenev’s famous line that “the heart of another is a dark forest” now applies to the people of the dark forest.
This morning we bought a Christmas tree at a farm in Vermont. Cars stood parked neatly beside one another in the mud created by yesterday’s snowfall. Families walked among the orderly rows of the symbolic conifers, pondering their selection. Beefy young men waited to help the customers, while a woman collected payment. A motley crowd of buyers milled listlessly among the sellers, trying to take as little notice of each other as possible, as they sought out the genus, shape, and size most likely to prove efficacious in their domestic environment. There was no haggling, as far as I could see. What a curious ritual! It cried out for a photographer.