The Portrait Cabinet of Dr Bleek: Anthropometric Photographs by Early Cape Photographers

By Webster, Christopher | Critical Arts, January 2000 | Go to article overview

The Portrait Cabinet of Dr Bleek: Anthropometric Photographs by Early Cape Photographers


Webster, Christopher, Critical Arts


AS A FORM of representation of external reality the photograph in its colonial context played a powerful role in helping to establish concepts of order and interpretations of an alien environment. Importantly, as well as measuring potential resources (topographical, geological and human), it could provide the means to place an alien world in a comprehensible European context. As images were constructed subjectively they were (often it seems unwittingly) used to confirm what was already understood rather than as a cipher of new knowledge.

The apparent veracity of the photographic image in these contexts lent it an unprecedented (and often unquestioned) credibility. The camera's ability to accurately reproduce the world on a two-dimensional surface stood as proof that the manner in which a subject was recorded was definitive and unquestionable. Despite its shrunken, monotone and two-dimensional appearance, the photograph was held in a position of unparalleled importance as a piece of factual evidence.

As a device of moralising and comparison, the photograph was unsurpassed--for it was so closely linked to reality that belief inevitably followed. Colonial photographers constructed images of `civilisation' and juxtaposed them in albums besides photographs of the so-called `native' hut. One such collection of images from a late 19th Century Kimberley family album compares a newly built Wesleyan church with an image titled "Kaffir family group". (1) As in this example, these images were physically, page to page, as well as visually, image to image, set against their opposites in order, it would seem, to deliver a specific if somewhat unsubtle message.

In this essay, attention is focused on the carte-de-visite and cabinet portrait photographs from Cape Town, South Africa, taken by four photographers--Wilhelm Hermann (1841-1916), David McKenzie Selkirk (1829-1904) and his partner William Lawrence (1835-1905) and Samuel Baylis Barnard (1841-1916). (2) As will be seen, these photographers produced commercial portraits and also shared work for Dr Wilhelm Bleek, a Berlin-born, philologist and student of the indigenous southern African peoples, who commissioned anthropometric type images to be made of prisoners from the Breakwater gaol in Cape Town.

Bleek and the photographs

The carte de visite was introduced to the Cape colony via the Cape Monthly magazine of September 1860, which contained a carte portrait of Prince Alfred Duke of Edinburgh. (3) The first Cape cartes sold for the price of 1s.6d but such was their importance in relation to possession as social standing, that supply could barely match demand. The first locally produced cartes of the people of Cape Town were made in 1861 by the photographer Arthur Green (4). As with the European carte, the Cape images used painted backdrops of landscape or architectural scenes and even props such as logs and fountains. Gradually the association with the cartes original concept of the calling card disappeared and they became elaborate portrait photographs depicting an affluent and settled colonial class of people. This class aspired to, and achieved, the respectable image found in cartes of the European middle classes.

Originally the carte served to deliver a desirable likeness coded with a social message of position, wealth, sobriety, etc. These were the very reasons that it achieved such popularity in the Cape. Capetonians adopted the carte craze with as much enthusiasm as their European counterparts. In an environment so close to the perimeter of Western civilisation this might be perceived to have been especially important. In light of its original intended use it seems ironic that the carte should also have been utilised as an anthropometric tool. In the case of its use within the bounds of ethnology it worked outside of the control of the individual pictured and served as an identifier in a completely different manner to its use in the conventional sense. …

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