Welcome to the monthly book review! Each month I review a book on South Asian photography. There are a mix of books from artist monographs to history’s to theory.
The photographs in this article are not the images from the book. The India photographs seen here are similar to those used in the book but are not portraits from Nagda, India. They are photographs from my personal collection. The Seydou Keita photographs are the same images reproduced in the book, but I got them from the internet.
After finishing my bachelor’s degree in photography in 2006 I continued taking college courses, primarily in art history. I took a number of classes in Non-Western art history which sparked my interest in the history of Non-Western photography. During this period I read many books and articles on photography from around the globe. However, I did not focus in on India and South Asia until I started graduate school.
One of the books I read during the intermediate period in my education was Photography’s Other Histories, edited by Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson published by Duke Press in 2003. The book is a collection of chapters which come from the conference Looking through Photographs: Indigenous Histories, Presences, and Representations, which was held at the Queensland Museum, Australia on the 8th and 9th of November 1997. Thus this collection of texts focuses on a variety of regions from across different geographical regions. The twelve essays are divided into three categories, Personal Archive, Visual Economies, and Self-Fashioning and Vernacular Modernism.
When I first encounter this book I read all of the essays. However there was one that I would return to in graduate school, “Notes from the Surface of the Image: Photography, Post-Colonialism, and Vernacular Modernism” by Christopher Pinney. Pinney would become an invaluable resource as I delved deeper into the photography of India as he is a Visual Culture Anthropologist who focuses on photography from India.
“Notes from the Surface of the Image: Photography, Post-Colonialism, and Vernacular Modernism,” looks at photographs from both India and Africa, with a focus on the use of backdrops in studio portraits. The thesis of the essay is, “the manner in which local photographic traditions creatively deform the geometrical spatializations of colonial worlds” (p. 202). So what does that mean? Pinney is examining how these studio portraits disrupt the colonial outlook on the colonized population.
Pinney argues that the surface of the image was a site of dominance for the colonizer and a site of repression for the colonized. Pinney sites Walter Benjamin’s essay “Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” to show that in the modern period photographs were used to get a hold of an object, to poses it. Pinney suggests that this is particularly true in the post-colonial context of the studio portrait.
Pinney has done extensive research in Nagda, a town in central India which is where the Indian examples in this essay are from. In India, as well as globally, painted backdrops of actual and fictional places have been used in portraiture. In South Asia, popular backdrops seem to be the Taj Mahal, Dal Lake in Kashmir, and backgrounds of cityscapes with a prop of a motorcycle. Pinney argues, that in India the use of these portraits was not “intended to ‘fix’ bodies in a particular time and place; rather it is concerned with the bodies as a surface that is completely mutable and mobile, capable of being sustained in any time and place” (p. 211). Thus meaning these portraits were not meant to depict a true reality instead they were meant to explore the world beyond the town’s limits, to position the sitter globally.
Pinney also discusses the people of Nagda’s desires to look better in these portraits than they do in real life. To support this the studios had costumes and props from different regions. There were also prescribed sitting or standing positions for the subject, which would project them as a specific “type”. These types included the poet or the film star. These objects and ideas along with the sitters use of personal objects to show them at their best elevated the in the photograph to another place and time.
Seydou Keita, Untitled, 1958
Pinney concludes the essay by discussing the work of African photographer Seydou Keita’s portraits. Keita would use printed fabrics as backgrounds for his sitters. At times the backdrops are in harmony with the sitters cloths and at other times the fabrics clash. Pinney argues that through the use of these backdrops there is a “desire to consolidate the intimate space between the viewer and the image” (p. 216). He explains that this works as vernacular modernism because it creates a desire to unify the view and sitter instead of separate them, like colonial photographs were meant to do. I think this is achieved through the use of the fabric backgrounds. It gives the viewer the opportunity to really explore the sitter without putting the in the context of their local surroundings. Taking away the suggestive clues of time and place are what destroys the barriers between the sitter and viewer.
Seydou Keita, Untitled, 1956-57
In conclusion, Pinney says that both these Indian and African use of backdrops is meant to increase the visibility of the sitter. These images create a different message for the viewer, one of hope and belonging. This essay is great especially if the reader is interested in theory. However, it also gives a good introduction to studio portraiture in India and Africa. When I first read this chapter and book in 2008, much of the information went over my head, however, it was a good introduction for graduate school. I also like this essay because it gives you a new perspective on these portraits. It gives a more in depth discussion of the motives behind the photographers and the sitters beyond pure fantasy.