Photographic Anthropological Portraits
in British Scientific Journals, 1860-1930

- Valérie Morisson

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      « Photography (…), as an abstract ideological practice "chameleon-like", adopts the ideological perspective of the institutions that employ it », Elizabeth Edwards claims in a seminal volume on anthropological photography [1]. Even when used in a given context, photography remains multi-faceted. To further the understanding of its role as anthropological illustration, we purport to scrutinize photographs printed in the Anthropological Review (which, in 1872, became the Journal of the Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, and in 1907 the Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland) [2], a publication which straddles the fields of ethnology, anthropometry, anthropology, and archaeology.
      The colonial discourse surfacing in anthropological photography has been widely studied [3]. Notwithstanding its alleged directness, photography was a cultural as well as a visual tool that contributed to constructing otherness in a colonial or imperial context, “transposing and transforming realities observed through a cultural grid of interpretation.” [4] It has been hailed as “the final culmination of a Western quest for visibility and scrutiny. It stands at the technological, semiotic, and perceptual apex of ‘vision,' which itself serves as the emulative metaphor for all other ways of knowing.” [5] Within such a theoretical framework, photographs are threatening penetrations [6] and the camera may be construed as a predatory weapon. Susan Sontag famously argued that “to photograph people is to violate them.” [7] If the colonial underpinnings of anthropological photographic enterprises cannot be denied, given the diversity of images circulating during the second half of the 19th century, generalizations prove unsatisfactory. As Edwards contends, “the rubric of the colonial gaze has tended to obscure differentiated intention, production and consumption of images, homogenized under the notion of ‘anthropological.'” [8] The examination of a limited corpus of anthropological photographic portraits can provide a clearer understanding of the uses of photography even though the circumstances in which the images were shot often remain obscure.
      In the late 19th century, though anthropometric portraits were the norm, different types of photographic portraits were printed in the Anthropological Review at a time when photography had no proper identity as a medium yet. Many photographic studios were set up in the colonies by Westerners or local photographers. From the 1860s onwards, as cheaper reproduction techniques facilitated the printing of illustrations, targeting an ever-expanding readership, spates of images of the exotic other circulated [9], whether it be commercial illustrations and posters of fairs or shows, exotic cartes-de-visites, illustrated travelogues, magazines, or newspapers. As human specimens were rare, the same photographic portraits, at times shot on the occasion of colonial fairs [10], could be used in scientific and popular contexts [11]. In the same way, ethnographical photographs were widely disseminated in non-scientific contexts and influenced the production of popular photographic portraits of non-European peoples: “images circulated in colonial and anthropological places of observation, libraries, salons and albums held by the European and American bourgeoisie, laboratories and scientific museums, cross-fertilizing, overlapping and legitimating each other.” [12] Ethnologists and anthropologists collected wide arrays of photographs which they used as “‘isolated' anthropological facts.” [13] These overlapping uses of popular and scientific photographs of foreigners must be borne in mind when analysing the portraits printed in scientific journals.
      Photographers did travel to distant lands but came back with few images. Though the photographic process in anthropology was promoted, the camera was still a cumbersome tool [14], daguerreotypes proved arduous to make, and photographing in distant places remained strenuous. Despite such difficulties, photographs were used in ethnology and anthropology long before they were printed in journals. Museum collections were reproduced thanks to the daguerreotype process. Owing to the paucity of human material available for scientific measurements and classification, photographs constituted substitute materials [15]. Photographs, which became instrumental in taxonomic anthropology or salvage ethnography, were shown at the meetings of the Ethnological Society [16]. Photography was then equated by some scientists –though not by all of them– with non-interventionist objectivity [17]. However, from 1863 to 1880, only a handful of illustrations and diagrams were printed in The Anthropological Review. Engravings and lithographs, which could be reproduced from photographs, remained the easiest conveyors of scientific knowledge [18]. The first photograph to be published in the journal, illustrating an 1877 article by W. Wyatt Gill (“On the Origin of the South Sea Islanders”) but not referred to in the text, is a group portrait of islanders in front of their huts [19]. Featuring a white man in colonial costume, it gives an insight into power-relations. In-the-field photography developed only in the 1880s once photographic technology had become simpler.
      A brief perusing of the Review is sufficient to show that photography was neither rapidly nor unreservedly adopted as an objective means of representation in scientific contexts; nor was it used consistently as our analysis of anthropometric type portraits, full-length anthropological or ethnological portraits, and group portraits will demonstrate.


Anthropometric Type Portraits


      Very much like drawings or engravings, photographs served a purpose, a vision, sometimes an ideology. Gliddon and Nott, in their 1850 Types of Mankind, used illustrated tables to back up their polygenist arguments. As Roslyn Poignant notes:


by the 1860s an essentially Prichardian ethnology, which had attempted to establish a typology of the diverse races of mankind, was being gradually transformed by the Darwinian revolution in scientific thought into an anthropology that applied systematic methods of classification to produce developmental models of social evolution that were in essence hierarchical [20].


Produced in this context, type portraits did partake of a taxonomic and racialist project.



[1] E. Edwards, Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology, and Museums, Oxford and New York, Berg, 2001, p. 11.
[2] The London Ethnological Society, which was founded in 1843, and its rival, the Anthropological Society, created in 1863, merged in 1871 to become the Royal Anthropological Institute.
[3] E. M. Hight and G. D. Sampson (ed.), in Colonialist Photography, Imag(in)ing Race and Place, New York, Routledge, 2002, connect photography to Western imperialism, emphasizing “the pervasiveness of the symbolic and scientific uses of photography for the verification and justification of colonial rule”, p. 2.
[4] N. Bancel, P. Blanchard, G. Boëtsch et al., Zoos humains, au temps des exhibitions humaines, Paris, La Découverte Poche, 2004, p. 324.
[5] C. Pinney, “The Parallel Histories of Anthropology and Photography”, in E. Edwards, Anthropology and Photography, 1860-1920, Yale UP – The Royal Anthropological Institue, London, 1994, p. 74.
[6] See P. Virilio’s War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, London, Verso, 1989.
[7] S. Sontag, On Photography, Farrar, Strauss, & Giroux, New York, 1977, p. 14.
[8] Edwards, 2001, Op. cit., p. 148.
[9] See B. Street, “British popular Anthropology: Exhibiting and Photographing the Other”, in Edwards, 1994, Op. cit., pp. 122-131.
[10] The success of colonial exhibitions and ethnic shows provided opportunities for scientists to photograph exotic specimens. See Barthe, “Ethnographic Stage, Backdrop and Props”, in P. Blanchard, G. Boëtsch and N. Jacomijn Snoep (ed.) Human Zoos, The Invention of the Savage, Paris, Actes Sud – Musée du Quai Branly, 2012, p. 160, and Bancel, Op. cit., p. 307.
[11] Bancel, Op. cit., p.12.
[12] Edwards in Bancel, Op. cit., p. 323.
[13] R. Poignant “Surveying the Field of View: The Making of the RAI Photographic Collection”, in Edwards, 1994, Op. cit., pp. 42-73, p. 44.
[14] See Franck Spencer, “Some Notes on the Attempt to Apply Photography to Anthropometry during the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century”, in Edwards, 1994, Op. cit., pp. 99-107.
[15] C. Barthe, Op. cit., p. 154.
[16] Poignant, Op. cit., p. 49.
[17] Edwards, 2001, Op. cit., p. 133.
[18] S. Maresca, “Spécimens ou individus ? Les usages incertains du portrait photographique”,  L’Homme, n°198-199, 2011/2-3, p. 69.
[19] In 1878, only one photograph and very few engravings were printed in the Journal. If the author of an 1879 article on the mode of preserving the dead in Darnley Island in South Australia (vol. VIII) was able to include two photographs of mummies, it was because the bodies had been acquired by the museum of the Royal College of Surgeons.
[20] In Edwards, 1994, Op. cit., p. 45.