Academic journal article The Comparatist

Photographic Appropriation, Ethnography, and the Surrealist Other

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Photographic Appropriation, Ethnography, and the Surrealist Other

Article excerpt

In September 1929, two photographs appeared on a page in Documents, a review associated with French surrealism and the avant-garde. At the top of the page, in the first photograph, a group of costumed, white women dance in front of a sequined curtain on a dark stage (Figure 1). There are three rows of women, and all arch their backs, stretching their arms up to form circles in the air. The women in the last two rows, about seven in each row, wear two-piece white satin outfits that look like bathing costumes, along with tap shoes and cap hats. The two blond women in the front row wear sparkly one-piece outfits that end in shorts, and white low-heeled dance shoes. Cascades of dark feathers fall from their helmet-like caps to the floor. Bessie Love, the actor playing the dancer who appears at the left of the front row, smiles coyly, tilts her head and casts a glance at her female dance partner. The caption reads: "Bessie Love dans le film parlant 'Broadway Melody' qui passera incessammant au Madeleine-Cinema" ("Bessie" 219) [Bessie Love in the talkie "Broadway Melody" that will play soon at the Madeleine Cinema]. (1)

Below the Hollywood film still, on the bottom half of the page, there is another photograph, equal in dimensions, that is much more somber in tone (Figure 1). The photograph pictures a group of young Melanesian boys who stand along the edge of a cliff. Their bodies form a line that, from left to right, decreases in height; they are arranged from tallest to smallest. They stand with their chins up, shoulders back, legs together and face the camera at equal distance from one another, their feet splayed in the same pose. Each boy holds what appears to be a wooden model of a rifle close to his left side. Their expressions are serious. A French soldier takes an identical stance (minus the rifle) at the end of the line, on the far right, next to the smallest boy. The sky in the top third of the photograph is bright in contrast to the darker foliage and mountains behind the children. The caption of this second photograph states: "Enfants de L'Ecole de Bacouya, Bourail. (Albums de photographies de E. Robin, 1869-1871.--Musee d'Ethnographie du Trocadero)" (Robin, "Enfants" 219) [Children at the Bacouya School, Bourail. (Photography Albums of E. Robin, 1869-1871.--Trocadero Ethnographic Museum)]. It is an ethnographic photograph taken by Ernest Robin who photographed the Kanak people of New Caledonia in the second quarter of the nineteenth century.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

There is a marked contrast between the flailing arms, twisted bodies and playful expressions of the adult female dancers and the rigid, ordered bodies and serious expressions of the schoolboys. At the same time, the photographs echo one another, for both present groups of relatively equal-sized bodies that stretch across the centre of the picture plane. In terms of color and contrast, the images reflect each other: light bodies against a dark background/dark bodies against a light background. These deliberate visual relationships, not at all subtle, create conceptual relationships between the two images. Why, then, did the editors of Documents construct this visual relationship between a Hollywood chorus line and a line up of Melanesian schoolchildren?

For James Clifford, the term "ethnography" in Documents denoted a "radical questioning of norms" (Clifford 129). He argues that both the subject of the photographs as well as the way they were organized in the review contributed to this questioning, which positioned the review as subversive. As the collecting of culture, Documents was "a kind of ethnographic display of images, texts, objects, labels, a playful museum that simultaneously collects and reclassifies its specimens" (Clifford 132). While I accept Clifford's notion of ethnographic surrealism, I want to expand it to explore one photograph in the collection, the photograph of the Melanesian schoolboys. Clifford is concerned with the relationship between the review, its contributors and the emerging field of twentieth-century ethnography in France. …

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