Monday, June 10, 2013

Photographs do have a point of view.

'Images from the Likeness House.' Dan Savard.

In our Ganges library I found a fascinating book about early photographs that now reside in the Royal BC Museum and were taken of First Nations peoples along this coast from the 1850's to the early years of the last century. Perhaps it is my background of studies in Anthropology, my childhood carvings of totem poles and early friendships with native children in a small coastal community, but this material draws me in big time.

The photographs provide so much information about how things were; the portraits, the communities, the little details about canoes and carvings, how the boards were laid on house sides and roofs. One’s eyes are such great gleaners of information and the camera has recorded all this for me in detail; but not without the filters of the mind of the photographer and the social conventions of the time.

That is always the hard concept to get across; that photographs, like written accounts, drawings and paintings, have a point of view and are not simply the 'unvarnished truth'. That the photographs we may take today 'in living colour' are also just as tightly constrained and project a cultural bias that others can read. The images we take while travelling abroad are, like these images made by early photographers, reflective of a certain suite of attitudes. Some local people squat around a fire and we do not think to ask permission to take their image, not thinking that they may be uncomfortable about this thoughtless capture of their likeness. We look down and shoot ' local colour' from above, as part of our safari, rather than squat down in their sides and, with permission, make a likeness.

These unconscious prejudices come through in these old photographs. Indians are so often shot for their 'quaintness' their interesting savagery and the commercial value of their images. We see the romantic photographs of Curtis, the American photographer, eager to re-enact images of 'the noble savage' using models who, having neglected to die off as expected, obligingly doff their European clothes and pose in feathers, buckskin and bark clothing. Another photographer in Victoria poses an old couple on the linoleum floor of his studio and exposes his own attitudes at the same time as he trips the shutter.

But then there are also photos taken by survey parties in the interior of BC, at the same time as Curtis was making his re-enactments on the coast, that show local men and women in their normal working dress, at the blending frontier that is closer to another truth of the times.

An action photo taken by an Indian crew member of a whaling canoe in Juan de Fuca Strait is to modern eyes a masterful image, so close to the action that, despite the scratchy print, we are in the midst of the hunt!

The images in this book tell a lot about the relationship between the 'ghosts' with their cameras and the real people. The white ghosts got to write the histories and make the visual record but still, hidden in photographs like those in this book, one can read another bigger story stitched between the lines.

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