Exercise: Tribal Portraits

Brief

Browse the catalogue Tribal Portraits: Vintage and Contemporary Photographs from the African Continent, Bernard J Shapero Rare Books.

Write a brief reflective commentary in your learning log.

Response

Though the subject matter is broadly similar, a close look at the range of images in this catalogue reveals several different approaches to the subjects, and provoke accordingly different reactions.

The ‘best’ images to me – and by that I mean most interesting and informative – were those by George Rodger and Mirella Ricciardi (more on her later). Rodger combined unusual subject matter such as tribal rituals with an excellent photographer’s eye. The ‘keyhole’ image chosen for the cover is perhaps the most striking image in the whole collection. The keyhole also works as a visual metaphor for looking in on another society.

Rodger Keyhole.jpg
The Nubas of Kordofan, Southern Sudan, 1949 by George Rodger

There’s inevitably a sense of ‘othering’ going on, as there is with all colonial photography to a degree, but Rodger’s images are of legitimate historical interest and largely respectful of the subjects.

The other photographer whose work caught my eye was Mirella Ricciardi. Her work is in the same curious-but-respectful space as Rodgers but with even more of an obvious eye for a striking composition.

All shot in the late 1960s, Ricciardi’s images seem to seek to portray the subjects as both more human (ordinary) and more beautiful (extraordinary) than the other – male – photographers in the catalogue. I came away from this wanting to know more about Ricciardi and her work.

A few others stood out as treating their subjects (visually at least) with a certain amount of respect mixed in with the curiosity. Georg Haekel and Mervyn Cowie stood out in this regard, though their compositions are less engaging than Rodger’s or Ricciardi’s.

Stephane Graff was an interesting one: a contemporary artist, his work included here is a handful of portraits with the subject’s faces obscured, and one nude (again with face obscured) that shifts his style towards generic erotica. Indeed, looking at his other work online, he does take a reasonable amount of erotic photography and the Africa work seems tangental to his regular style.

The other contemporary photographer in the catalogue, Antoine Schneck, is more respectful and creative.

A few of the photographers here, such as C. Vincenti, Pascal Sebah, Seydou Keita and a number of anonymous photographers, worked in studios rather than out in the lived environment, which I found a little odd. If the intent was to observe the people, to do so in their own environment would seem most natural; moving subjects to a studio implies more of a typological than anthropological interest.

There was a subset of these images, thankfully small, that struck me as thinly-disguised fetish material, soft porn for the colonial era. Lehnert & Landrock’s work in particular fell into this category. There is no legitimate justification for the studio nudes in such poses, it’s simply satisfying prurient curiosity. To some extent, all of the photographers here may have exploited their subjects, but it is in these lascivious images that this exploitation is so overt and unsettling.

In summary, this catalogue demonstrates that there’s a huge range of approaches in which photographers have captured African tribes since the 19th century, from romantic/nostalgic anthropology, through respectful curiosity, to the simply voyeuristic. None gives the ‘full story’, of course, but merely points to the multiple ways there are to approach any subject matter.

So what was the attraction? Not so much in taking these pictures – as there does seem to have been a legitimate anthropological interest underpinning most (not all) of the work on show here – but in the viewing of them by the public? A large part will no doubt have been the novelty of the unclothed body in the generally prudish first world. But beyond the potential sexual interest, is there something inherently attractive in primitive living? Does such a bare, simple lifestyle appeal to human nature on a subliminal level?

Sources

TribalPortraits https://www.oca-student.com/sites/default/files/oca-content/key-resources/res-files/tribalportraits.pdf (accessed 11/10/2016)

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