Photographic Anthropological Portraits
in British Scientific Journals, 1860-1930

- Valérie Morisson

pages 1 2 3 4 5

      In the case of two photographs published in 1905 [87], the people identified and named in the caption (“The Late Chief Matzebandela with Nduna” and “A Bawenda Family”) are portrayed as individuals with a given role in their communities rather than as types. As they are not mentioned or named in the text, one may hypothesize that the author had selected pre-existing images to illustrate his text. The success of exotic imagery and ethnographic photographs spurred photographers to specialize. Their portfolios were distributed to the learned scientific societies that did not systematically commission the photographs with a precise aim in mind [88]. Many photographers bequeathed their images to scientific societies. The photograph of the Bawenda Family is reminiscent of Roland Bonaparte’s portraits of Hottentot families at the Jardin Zoologique d’Acclimatation in Paris in 1888, which was taken in the reconstituted village of the ethnographic exhibition. The inauthenticity of the background did not hamper the scientific recycling of such images. In his review of an “Exhibition of Natives of Queensland,” R.A. Cunningham reports that after three natives had been brought with difficulty from Australia and scientifically examined by several Anthropological Societies, “excellent portraits of the two adults” were made and presented to the Institute by Prince Roland Bonaparte.” [89] It is very difficult to identify the image-makers behind the photographs printed in the Review for only a handful of authors refer to the images in a precise way. Prints and negatives were exchanged freely among photographers, there was no copyright law, and the photographic studios could be sold with the previous photographer’s negatives. Authorship was not valued [90], which constitutes a major methodological hurdle for contemporary researchers [91].
      While anthropometric and anthropological portraits and group portraits had long been shot against neutral backgrounds, a more narrative photographic practice gradually develops. The narrative dimension and density of photograph documenting scenes and rituals seemingly grants more autonomy to the image. H.R. Palmer’s article, “Kano Chronicle,” [92] is complemented by the portrait of a Baura player photographed in costume in front of a traditional dwelling (fig. 11). In a 1932 article on “Witchdoctors in the Zande Corporation of Witchdoctors,” by E.E. Evans-Pritchard (vol. 62, 1932), the sociology of tribes, and the division of labour are explored. The photographs show on the one hand a witchdoctor who does not adopt a frontal position and who is standing in the village, and groups of people attending the ceremony. The costume and props are therefore studied in the perspective of cultural and social anthropology. The framing and the organization of the series of images testify to this methodological shift in the discipline.
      For practical reasons, there are few group portraits in the late 19th century issues of the Journal. Yet, in the 1880s, technical progress enabled shorter posing times so that it became increasing possible to have instantaneous and lively images of groups of people in action. The new techniques increased the specificity of photography as a medium and heightened its supposed truthfulness [93]. For all that, photography remained an ambiguous medium, wavering between icon and trace, allegory and veracity. The three modes which, according to Rochelle Kolodny, structure the making of images, namely the romantic, the documentary, and realism overlap in group portraits [94].
      As social anthropology developed, group portraits documented the existence of rituals or ceremonies in a new way. Before photographs were used to this purpose, drawings could convey “apparently truthful” depictions of rituals [95]. The photograph accompanying a 1906 article on the Asaba people [96] was shot by the author to document the ritual and the costumes described in the text. Contrary to a drawing depicting a gorilla dance and composed as a genre scene, the photograph doesn’t include any white men but plunges the viewer into a ritual which is not spectacularized. In the drawing, the gorilla dance is presented as something to be watched, with women on the right gazing at the male dancers. The photographic process providing a trace of what unfolded in front of the lens, guaranteed the truthfulness of the scene. In the other photographs of ceremonies printed in the Journal, not all the sitters face the photographer, which reinforces the impression of direct recording. This type of photograph confirms that in some cases photographs “are very literally raw histories” because of “their unprocessed quality, their randomness, their minute indexicality.” [97] However, although the constructedness of photographs may be masked by their realism, the presentation of a handful of photographs documenting one small part of the real life of the indigenes contributes to isolating the image from the flow of life and concentrates the meaning of the scene depicted: “the central act of photography is the act of choosing and eliminating.” [98] It is undeniable that

In the creation of an image, photographic technology frames the world. (…) The photograph isolates a single incident in history. It can make the invisible visible, the unnoticed noticed, the complex apparently simple and indeed vice versa. Photography aided the reification process as creations of the mind became concrete, observed realities, recorded in the mechanical eye of the camera. (…) The inevitable detail created by the photographer becomes a symbol for the whole and tempts the viewer to allow the specific to stand for generalities, becoming a symbol of wider truths, at the risk of stereotyping and misrepresentation [99].

Though photographs create fragments of reality, those printed in the review could be part of larger sets or albums of images. Misconceptions and misrepresentations are not to be blamed on photography as a medium. Anthropological films equally transcribe rather than merely record or archive facts.

      Owing to the significant differences between the usages of photography in the articles, drawing general conclusions about the role of photography in anthropology is not possible. The analysis of this restricted corpus testifies to the complexity of this tool used in the porous field of scientific culture. The issues of undetermined authorship and scientific recycling of photographs are important methodological obstacles. Besides, no consistent chronological evolution in terms of visual choices can be sketched even though the shift from physical to cultural anthropology accounts for the increasing presence of unposed group portraits which paved the way for cinematic recordings.


[87] E. Gottschling, “The Bawenda: A Sketch of Their History and Customs”, vol. 35, 1905, pl. 27, pp. 365-386.
[88] Barthe, Op. cit., p. 167.
[89] “Miscellaneous Business of the Meeting on April 26th”, 1887, JAIGBI, vol. 17, 1888, p. 83.
[90] Scherer, Op. cit., p. 203.
[91] L. Devereaux, R. Hillman (ed.), Fields of Vision, Essays in Film Studies, Visual Anthropology and Photography,  Berkeley, University of California Press, 1995, p. 1.
[92] H. R. Palmer, “The Kano Chronicle“, JAIGBI, vol. 38, 1908.
[93] Sylvain Maresca, Les apparences de la vérité ou les rêves d’objectivité du portrait photographique, original pagination : pp. 83-94.
[94] Edwards, 1994, pp. 8-9.
[95] In February 1864, a review of Winwood Reade’s Savage Africa was published together with a drawing depicting the Gorilla Dance (vol II,  n° IV, pp. 123, second edition Elder & Co). The author notices: “Chapter XVIII contains an admirable description of the gorilla dance, together with an apparently truthfully executed drawing of the same, which has so many points of interest to the anthropologist that we are glad to be able to insert it” (p. 125).
[96] John Parkinson, “Notes on the Asaba People (Ibos) of the Niger”, Vol. 36, 1906, p. 315.
[97] Edwards, 2001, Op. cit., p. 5.
[98] John Szarkowski, quoted in Edwards, 2001, Op. cit., p. 18.
[99] Edwards, 1994, Op. cit., p. 7.