Is a photograph only as relevant as the narration that accompanies it to stipulate and invite the desired reaction or aesthetic response? Can an image, regardless of its context and/or political/anthropological connotation, simply be visually enjoyed for its aesthetic quality? Or will there ever remain an intractable ‘punctum’ that reaches out and makes a viewer question its purpose?
What is the significance of photographs? For me, the answer to this question makes it easier to grasp the concept of how ‘primitivism’ was brought into ethnographic framing. When photography started to develop, scientists had one primary use for it; documentation for categorization and classification. It was only after artists gave their hands to the technology of photography that true aesthetic features were becoming consistent with photographs. In Alfred Martin Duggan-Cronin’s case, we see definite hindering towards the conscious setting-up or staging of various scenes to enhance the photographs’ aesthetic appeal.
Deducing then that historical, original purposes of photographs fall away – and art, rather than anthropological/political discourse becomes the means through which these images are understood. And this becomes problematic. Because then, as my former question posed, the significance of these photographs and the subjects’ exposure in them become a double sided coin, as I will explain following.
On the one side of this coin we have the subjects; those being represented, or to some extent, even exposed. Their side of the coin is minted for them; I argue that even the response from the viewer is carefully constructed to have the photographer’s desired outcome – especially in the case of A.M Duggan-Cronin; he proves as a solidifier in my proposed theory. Which makes the other side of the coin those very viewers; those who visually get to inspect the images. But the minter of this coin, the one who picks the brass metal and hones the mint into its shape: is the photographer. He chooses the desired outcome. In the paragraphs to follow I will go into how I suggest it is done, and how all these three above mentioned parties play a role in creating an aesthetic response to the images. I will use photographic examples and relevant quotes to substantiate my views.
My view, and core motivation for this essay is that these historical photographs have an ethos to reveal, but that it is inevitable for the viewer to escape an aesthetic response. I want to start my suggestions by introducing the term ‘adversarial discursion’, which can be defined as a simultaneous digression from a norm, and an embracement of a controversial and purposefully provocative view. It can even be said that some photographs have developed an adversarial aesthetic. Geary’s statement that we were put forward to critically reflect on clearly pertains to this notion that these photographs hold a view over us, even if its original purpose was to just be the documentation and creation of classification and categorization for anthropological and political reasons. As with most visual aspects, an aesthetic response is inevitable. But because race and ethnography is involved, the aesthetic becomes adversarial to its original purpose.
“The very ambiguities which characterize the photographic medium are in tune with the crisis of representational confidence which has assailed anthropology itself” (Edwards, 1995). This above statement is an example of the adversarial concerns that arise through photographs taken in an anthropological aspect. To explore this statement, and relate it to my own views on the discussion at hand, I will make use of a select few of A.M Duggan-Cronin’s photographs. My own observations will be included, but responses will remain academic.
In The Bavenda, Duggan-Cronin’s Venda water-carriers at Sibasa, 1923 (Fig. 1) is the first example to be explored. My first glance at this image and I am met with an electrifying aesthetic attraction. It is indeed a beautiful photograph. The composition, the softness of focus in contrast to the landscape background, the two subjects in their respective poses…
This is the thing with viewing: we will only see what we want to see, and the image (constructed by its taker) will make us see what he wants us to see – and the only way they do so is through the use of an image caption. We reach this fork in the road when viewing ethnographically framed photograph’s, we are faced with a caption telling us the historical and anthropological aspects to it, while at the same time we just view it for its aesthetic appeal. Geary’s statement seems ambiguous then. Is the significance of an image based on what is portrayed, or by what its response to the portrayal is?
I suggest then, that it is only by being put into context that the ethos of the photographs can be revealed, otherwise they are just pictures of some women in grasslands, carrying baskets. The caption provides us the needed historical background to understanding the setting and needed approach to take upon viewing. It far too much seems, in most readings I have come across, that the issues behind these photographs are the way the subjects are being portrayed, and how the historical and political relations might be jeopardized or inaccurately portrayed. “Anthropology’s contribution to the contemplation of photography in theoretical terms has been precisely to collapse those very boundaries and ways of looking at people and places to which it has contributed so forcefully” (Edwards, 1995). There are worries that romanticized notions are created to develop a myth about these subjects. As in this very photograph we see the staging of a seemingly every day, mundane chore that the women in these tribes do – here portrayed as this idealized caption of native beauty and customs.
Also in The Bavenda, Duggan-Cronin’s Venda hut at Mbilwe, date (Fig. 2) 1923, is another strikingly beautiful photograph to me. The composition within the frame and use of constructed poses create a perfect image. Just upon viewing, the context falls away, and the aesthetic evocation reaches out to you. Until, of course, the caption is read. And we are forced to consider this picture in an anthropologically set-up manner. Because the caption consists of prospects about Venda Hut construction, and its relation to other tribes’ huts.
A completely different feeling is felt after reading the caption, and the more one looks, and the more one reads in context, the more it becomes clear that the photograph’s historical context in relation to it just being an image, exceeds the limit of its own context. There is no way that these photographs’ by Duggan-Cronin were not carefully constructed to create an aesthetic response. “Cronin’s contemporaries appear to have seen no contradiction between the artistic and scientific aspects of his project and therefore they had no sense that the beauty of the photographs has been in any way constructed” (Godby, 2010). But, as laid out in the previous paragraph, I detested the latter comment. And this construction by Duggan-Cronin is what makes the image become meaningful in another way, and makes it move away from its original purpose.
Photographs learn, they teach and they question. Ethnography methods are ways of observing and as a result give us quality data in return. Ethnographic framing has itself had a very adversarial reputation.
Reflecting then on the nature of what I have discussed throughout this essay, there is enough evidence for me to comprehend such criticism against ethnographic framing. A.M Duggan-Cronin is the front-runner in being criticized for his photographs. His critics seem to think his approach is biased, and images staged. And as I have explored with two of his examples, this has seen to be the case.
In an anthropological sense it is problematic to an extent, because if the reason for ethnographic studies is data collection for historical classification, the images should be taken as happened, they should be captions captured while the situation represented is actually taking place in order to assure correct and unbiased documentation. The reason I mention all of this is significant. Because let’s for a moment consider why Duggan-Cronin chose to stage or enhance some features in his photo’s? If his adventure took him to these tribes and he was to document exactly the scenarios he had encountered, and he was to replicate, almost in an impressionistic way the day-to-day activities and customs of these tribes, these images would most certainly not have strong aesthetic responses. So this creation of idealized or romanticized scenes is to assure an aesthetic response, and evoke a hold over its viewers. As a result, the images do exceed the limit of their context, and become, as Geary states, “meaningful in another way”.
I think this is the beauty that is ethnographic framing, and why it is relevant to a discourse in art. Because as all art does, it wants to stimulate more question not provide answers. These photographs by A.M Duggan-Cronin are catalysts in making us question our own opinions and our own reference to humanity. The discourse of art has helped ethnographically-related images to be considered again, looked at again and have had them taken out of their own context to exceed the very context of what they wanted to portray. And then as a bonus, they make beautiful displays of rich and intricate cultures to grace the walls of places where they can evoke aesthetic responses, and maybe even a few more questions…
Punctum is ‘the rare detail that attracts you to an image, Barthes says ‘its mere presence changes my reading,that I am looking at a new photograph, marked in my eyes with a higher value’ (George Powell Photography, 2008)