Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums

Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums

Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums

Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums

Synopsis

Photographs have had an integral and complex role in many anthropological contexts, from fieldwork to museum exhibitions. This book explores how approaching anthropological photographs as 'history' can offer both theoretical and empirical insights into these roles. Photographs are thought to make problematic history because of their ambiguity and 'rawness'. In short, they have too many meanings. The author refutes this prejudice by exploring, through a series of case studies, precisely the potential of this raw quality to open up new perspectives.Taking the nature of photography as her starting point, the author argues that photographs are not merely pictures of things but are part of a dynamic and fluid historical dialogue, which is active not only in the creation of the photograph but in its subsequent social biography in archive and museum spaces, past and present. In this context, the book challenges any uniform view of anthropological photography and its resulting archives. Drawing on a variety of examples, largely from the Pacific, the book demonstrates how close readings of photographs reveal not only western agendas, but also many layers of differing historical and cross-cultural experiences. That is, photographs can 'spring leaks' to show an alternative viewpoint. These themes are developed further by examining the dynamics of photographs and issues around them as used by contemporary artists and curators and presented to an increasingly varied public.This book convincingly demonstrates photographs' potential to articulate histories other than those of their immediate appearances, a potential that can no longer be neglected by scholars and institutions.

Excerpt

Perhaps the first thing that reached me about photography was the punctum, the inexplicable point of incisive clarity, although in those days I had not yet put a name to it. in my case it was the carefully tied knots in the lashings on a bamboo palisade erected around the canoe house at Makira in the Solomon Islands. the photograph was taken by one George Smith, for C. F. Wood on his yachting cruise of the Pacific in 1873. There was a sense of presence - of fingers that had tied those knots in other times - that filled the whole image and gave it meaning. This first recognition was a strangely prescient metaphor for the threads wrapped around, entangling photographs and making histories.

Over the years many theorists and writers on photography, such as Siegfried Kracauer, Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, John Tagg, and John Berger, and historians such as Greg Dening, Carlo Ginzburg, and Hayden White, to name but a few, have left an indelible mark. However, my primary interests have also come from another direction, from many years working as a curator of photographs within an anthropological museum and teaching critical history and theory of still photography within visual anthropology to students in anthropology, history, art history, contemporary arts practice and museum studies. During the hours, days and months spent in many places, working with photographs, looking at photographs, talking about photographs, thinking about photographs and thinking about their relationship with history, I have talked to people looking for ‘history’. This history has been both the actuality of evidential inscription, and their own particular ‘realities’. They are looking for their own history or someone else's history, for the history of their discipline, or confronting the nature of their colonial past, both the colonised and the colonisers . . .

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