Photography and Egypt/Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java

By Batchen, Geoffrey | The Art Bulletin, December 2011 | Go to article overview

Photography and Egypt/Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java


Batchen, Geoffrey, The Art Bulletin


MARIA GOLIA Photography and Egypt London: Reaktion Books, 2010. 194 pp.; 77 color ills., 44 b/w. $29.95

KAREN STRASSLER Refracted Visions: Popular Photography and National Modernity in Java Durham, N. C.: Duke University Press, 2010. 400 pp.; 32 color ills., 95 b/w. $24.95

The appearance of books about the photography produced in Egypt and Indonesia - following the recent publication of histories of the photography of Japan, Denmark, New Zealand, the Netherlands, Norway, Great Britain, Australia, India, China, Italy, and die United Stales, to name only a few - suggests that the History of photography is in the process of being transformed beyond recognition.1 Certainly the parameters of this field are now, at last, being stretched to include the entire globe (or so it seems). Soon, very soon, it will be impossible to know the history of photography in its entirety, in the sense that the generation brought up on Beaumont Newhall imagined it was knowable - the history dial could be told in a thousand canonical pictures.2 The question is whether die nature of the field itself - its ambitions, methods of analysis, narrative structures, and objects of interest - is also undergoing radical change. An examination of these two new books invites a meditation on precisely this issue.

If nothing else, the recent wave of national histories of photography might well be regarded as a discursive sign of the tectonic shifts occurring in the world at large. In our post-Cold War era, it seems dial no nation-state can any longer be truly self-respecting until it has its own history of photography. This is surely a strange and contradictory phenomenon: at the very moment when global capitalism, mass migrations, modern transportation systems, and electronic communications have combined to make a nation-state's boundaries entirely permeable, these histories are tenaciously reiterating the notion that a national essence can be identified and described. In this context we can understand such narratives as operating in two, perhaps complementary, ways - as nostalgic for a wholeness that never was and/or as strategically resistant io the threat of global homogenization.

That threat is real enough. National histories of photography inevitably measure themselves against the perceived inadequacies of the existing "world" surveys of the mediimi. Written by American, German, or French scholars, these survey texts have never bothered to address themselves with any rigor to photographic practices outside tlie world's centers. The best of them - the 1994 volume edited by Michel Frizot, which appeared in English translation in 1998 as A .Vi-W History

It is certainly not the only challenge they face. As the first accounts in English of the medium's impact on Egypt and Indonesia, the two books under review musi provide· a situated history of the photography of each country without ignoring the rhyzomatic flow of bodies, images, aud ideas dial constitutes die modernity within which this history has occurred. In addition, they must overcome the usual art liistorical prejudice that regards the art of the provinces as HuIc more than a belated, secondhand version of what has already happened in the metropolitan centers. In the words of Joel Smith: "Just as conventions of format make even a remarkable family's photo album look much like ihe Jones's riexl door, the nation-based history lends to tell a generic narrative with strangely familiar landmarks,"'1 The task, again, is to persuade readers from the metropolis uiat photographs ihat look the same to them - that appear to be mere copies of genres already familiar in the M'est - may perhaps mean differetil things, might actually hf different ohjerts, in other places.

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