Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
June 21, 2012
Maria Golia Photography and Egypt London: Reaktion Books, 2010. 192 pp.; 77 color ills.; 44 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781861895431)
Erin Haney Photography and Africa London: Reaktion Books, 2010. 200 pp.; 102 color ills.; 76 b/w ills. Paper $29.95 (9781861893826)

The “Exposures” series published by Reaktion Books highlights the relationship of photography to realms national, disciplinary, material, and metaphysical. Thus far the series includes books on photography and Australia, Japan, Italy, Ireland, the United States, archaeology, anthropology, literature, science, cinema, flight, spirit, and death. Although the topics suggest a refreshingly global approach to the history of photography, the two books under review here, Photography and Africa by Erin Haney and Photography and Egypt by Maria Golia, illuminate the Western bias of the series.

The first title shoehorns all of Africa’s fifty-four plus nations (including Egypt) into one rather slim volume, contributing to the widespread view of Africa as a unified, undifferentiated land unworthy of regional or national histories. This is surprising, given that Africa is probably the most diverse continent—geographically, culturally, ethnically, linguistically, and economically—on the planet. Golia’s thoughtful stress on the singularity of Egypt’s photographic history appears to correct for this, but in doing so inadvertently reiterates the separation of Egypt from the African continent—a separation historically performed in academic departments, museum exhibitions, specialist journals, and conferences.

Thus Photography and Africa is forced to justify its own existence. Borrowing from philosopher Kwame Anthony Appiah, readers may wonder, “Why Africa? Why photography?” (Appiah, “Why Africa? Why Art?” in Africa: The Art of a Continent, Tom Phillips, ed., London: Royal Academy, 1995). It is of course important to acknowledge, as the “Exposures” series does, that African photography has been under-researched, if not ignored, by historians of the medium. Until very recently, that was true of most photography across the globe, outside of France, Britain, and the United States. But one must also ask what is meant by “African” and even what is meant by “photography” in conjunction with the former term. The “photographies” Haney considers are defined by technology, encompassing the standard range from daguerreotypes to digital photography. The author notes, “The term ‘Africa’ proves a much trickier question, problematic most of all for the way it is often substituted as a singular term to stand in for a multiplicity of cultural, political, social and artistic experiences” (7). The notion of an African identity (rather than, say, an Asante, Akan, or Ghanaian identity) is certainly a complex and much-debated one. As Appiah has shown, this notion constructed by Westerners, after a century of European colonization and postcolonial pan-African efforts, now means something to Africans and has thus become an African idea as well. But on what this notion of African identity might specifically mean for photography—or on why one volume should encompass a continent’s history—Haney hedges. While Haney acknowledges the complexity of “Africa” as an identity, she does not fully address the question of what might be “African” about African photography. She comments merely, “‘Africanness’ registers in relation to one’s residence, and to one’s momentum. The same seems to hold for African photographs” (8).

While its subject is problematic, Photography and Africa offers some new material and some that is usefully repackaged. Much of Haney’s book is a synthesis of published research in the field of African photography. As no surveys are currently in print, the book fills a gap as a survey text for courses on the history of photography in Africa, and will be useful for scholars unfamiliar with the topic who hope to incorporate African material into global photo history surveys.

Photography and Africa also includes previously unpublished material from Haney’s dissertation. She makes her most original contribution in her first chapter, “Towards a Wider History,” which focuses on early histories of photography on the continent. This chapter is usefully broken into four regional areas—North, South, East, and West, the last of which includes a short discussion of the Lutterodt photographers’ family dynasty in Ghana (then Gold Coast), Haney’s area of expertise. These histories are less known and less accessible because they rely on recent research, including Haney’s own unpublished work.

Another original contribution occurs in chapter 2, “Portraits in the World.” While prior research has focused largely on African portraiture, there is still much to be plumbed because of the lack of centralized archives on the continent. Haney introduces the genre of the “debut portrait”—a type of photograph found in some parts of West Africa that showcases a young woman, often posed with female friends or relatives, prior to or after a coming-of-age ceremony. This genre of photography died out in the early twentieth century, according to Haney, but was prevalent in Ghana and other countries.

Chapter 3, “‘Observers are worried . . .’” considers activist photography and reportage, with a strong focus on South Africa under apartheid, while the fourth chapter, “Painting, Printing and Photography,” examines photography’s intersections with other artistic and creative media via the portrait, drawing on several sources including Haney’s own material. The fifth and last chapter, “Intimate Views,” provides a somewhat idiosyncratic and personal take on the relatively new and ever-expanding art photography movement. Photography and Africa is amply illustrated and is rich in citing published work, although the writing style can be at times frustratingly vague. For example, as nudity came to be viewed negatively in Africa due to European contact, some Africans removed old photographs from family collections because those depicted wore ceremonial dress and were not optimally clothed according to the newer values. Of this phenomenon Haney writes, “The nature of editing one’s photographic history resonates strongly, but the precise interpretations of such editing are idiosyncratic and rarely discussed” (63). One wondered with whom this practice resonates, and what interpretations of this editing the author would suggest.

Haney’s fourth chapter is notable for providing an approach to photography that implies its continuum with, rather than its differentiation from, other media. It is here that the idea of an “African” approach can be discerned. Haney notes, “Verisimilitude is widely considered central to a photograph, yet what is considered to be truthful in a representation turns out to be a rather circumscribed thing” (126). This sentence alludes to claims made by Olu Oguibe in his famous essay, “Photography and the Substance of the Image,” in which Oguibe argues that precisely the qualities emphasized by the West—photography’s singular relation to the “indexical,” its “truth-telling” capacities, and thus its differentiation from other forms of visual or artistic media, and its focus on the photograph produced, and not the processes of production—are not actually of great importance in Africa. For example, he notes the Yoruban practice of photographing a living twin both as herself and as her deceased sibling for an ibeji portrait. Oguibe argues that photography was incorporated easily into Yoruban traditions because of its fluidity, its manipulability, and its ability to produce illusions. Admittedly, Oguibe must generalize from Yorubaland to Nigeria to all of Africa to make his point; but his generalizations acknowledge an arguably “African” attitude toward understanding photography (Olu Oguibe, “Photography and the Substance of the Image,” in In/sight: African Photographers, 1940 to the Present, Clare Bell, Okwui Enwezor, Danielle Tilkin, and Octavio Zaya, eds., New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1996: 231–50). Haney’s discussion of the ways in which photography has been incorporated into other forms of visual culture across the continent, such as in Senegalese glass painting and the printing of photo portraits on textiles, supports Oguibe’s assertion.

While Haney hints at an African approach to photography in chapter 4, she does not always incorporate pertinent research on local approaches to the medium. Candace Keller, for example, has examined studio photography’s relationship to the social mores of a populous ethnic group called the Mande, who are dominant in Mali but also live in other West African countries. Mande society is structured by the concepts of fadenya and badenya, translated respectively from Bamana as “father childness,” or a competitive relationship between half-siblings of different co-wives, and “mother childness,” a cooperative relationship between full siblings. Keller argued in her dissertation, “Visual Griots: Social, Political, and Cultural Histories in Mali through the Photographer’s Lens” (Indiana University, 2008, 205–48), that these polygamous concepts which permeate Mande culture essentially define Malian studio photography, as fadenya and badenya are visibly illustrated in portraits through clients’ poses and choices of props, and are also relevant to photographers’ ambitions and how they perceive their roles in the social order. Keller’s thesis is one of the few instances of research that incorporates an indigenous and widespread aesthetic concept, and therefore its omission from Photography and Africa is significant.

Also surprisingly absent are references to numerous studies connecting photography to traditional religious practices. Such articles have explored the phenomenon of doubling in West African studio photographs (C. Angelo Micheli, “Doubles and Twins: A New Approach to Contemporary Studio Photography in West Africa,” African Arts 41, no.1 (2008): 66–85), the Yoruban use of photographs to replace sculptures as ibeji (or stand-ins for a deceased twin) (Marilyn Houlberg, “Ibeji Images of the Yoruba,” African Arts 7, no. 1 (1973): 20–27, 91–92), the Nigerian practice of broadcasting still portrait photographs for several minutes on local television as obituaries or memorials (Houlberg, “Feed Your Eyes: Nigerian and Haitian Studio Photography,” Photographic Insight 1, nos. 2–3 (1988): 3–8), and photographs used in ritual practices in East Africa (Heike Behrend, “Photo Magic: Photographs in Practices of Healing and Harming in East Africa,” Journal of Religion in Africa 33, no. 2 (2003): 129–45). These approaches would show readers why some “African photography” might be considered ontologically different from photography’s uses or meanings in the West. They, like Keller’s study, and Oguibe’s argument, suggest why “African photography” might be a useful term to consider.

Haney justifies her book’s singularity by implying that her text provides an alternative to earlier books. “Giving these photographs their due,” she writes, “requires moving beyond the fiery narratives that perhaps drew us to them initially: African/European photographers; imported technologies/African adaptations; sophisticated photographers/naïve subjects; colonial/post-colonial subjecthood. Things seem subtler now, more complex” (9). While it is not clear what “things” are now subtler and more complex, Haney’s dichotomies did not resonate for this reader, as the literature on African photography, coming of age in the early nineties and born of postcolonial studies and Western philosophy’s recognition of “otherness,” has been intelligent, thoughtful, and interested from the beginning in nuances, complexities, and subtleties. Moreover, the variety of voices and methodologies has made the field consistently exciting. The dichotomy Haney makes between colonial and postcolonial subjecthood is particularly confusing, as postcoloniality constitutes not just a temporal demarcation (after colonialism) but also a critique of colonialism and its lived effects which permeate contemporary African governments, national languages, education systems, and cultures. For Haney’s narrative to “move beyond” that duality seems, in a word, ahistorical.

In contrast to Haney’s book, Photography and Egypt begins with a clearly articulated raison d’être. “Egypt has been photographed literally inside out,” writes Golia. “From the first daguerreotypes and calotypes, to aerial and underwater photography, sonar, infra-red, laser and satellite imagery, every available technique has been pressed into service to feed public and scholarly appetites for Egyptian antiquities” (7). In her first two sentences, Golia establishes that a book about photography and Egypt is different from other national histories of photography, and she goes on to explain why readers should care: “No country has exerted such a sustained and universal attraction, nor has a nation’s past so nearly supplanted its present in the collective mind’s eye” (7). The seventeen new pyramids recently discovered by infrared satellite photographs immediately come to mind, connecting Golia’s history to what has always distinguished Egypt, notwithstanding the recent revolution’s prominence in the Western press. While her book offers much more than a history of photography’s documentation of ancient treasures, themes of time, heritage, and royal traditions permeate the work. Throughout her careful study, which encompasses tourist photography, archaeological studies, studio portraitists, press photography, advertisements, art, celebrity shots, and even portraits of former President Gamal Abdel Nasser “reproduced on matchboxes, bric-a-brac and even prayer carpets” (121), Golia implies that photography preserves modern society in Egypt much as the great statues of its ancient civilization were meant to last for eternity.

“Seeing Time,” the first chapter, opens with an informative and engaging discussion of the relationship between perceptions of time and photography. Because photography is usually considered a Western invention, few survey texts in the history of photography mention that it was an Egyptian polymath, Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen), serving the Fatimid caliph, who invented the camera obscura in eleventh-century Cairo. Golia also corrects misperceptions about the reasons why foreigners and Armenians rather than Egyptian natives became the first photographers. It was not so much a matter of religion (the Islamic ban on naturalistic images), she claims, but of economics: “Not only were foreigners unanswerable to local law, being tried instead in their own consular courts,” Golia explains, “but their businesses were tax-exempt, and they paid lower import duties on commodities than Egyptians” (40).

Golia writes that the “interplay between photography, archaeology and tourism, co-emerging phenomena in the mid-nineteenth century, helped establish an enduring visual vocabulary that the name of Egypt immediately calls to mind” (12). She thus interweaves the early history of photography with France’s relationship to Egypt and empire; think of Arago’s lament that Napoleon did not have photography available to him when he undertook the 1798 military expedition to record millions of hieroglyphs, melting bullets to use in their pencils when the lead ran out. Such anecdotes pepper Golia’s prose, entertaining the reader and giving historical depth to the text.

Golia’s history is as much about photography as it is about Egypt. She ties in photography’s intimate and confounding relationship to time with Egypt’s own sense of ancientness. The narrative shifts between key events in early photography’s history and how those events, such as the development of the calotype, were used in the specific context of this unique nation. Golia praises the “evocative nature” of early calotypes of Egypt, which “rendered the texture of weathered stone and sand-engulfed ruins with a hint of tactile veracity, an effect that enhanced the atmospheric quality of the images. Viewed as calotypes, Egypt’s temples bespoke time’s long breath, and the as yet unexamined breadth of the human enterprise” (18).

Chapter 2, “The Window of Appearance” covers court photography and the early prototypes for photo-journalism, while the third chapter, “Studio Venus,” centers mostly on surviving archives of well-known portraitists from the Armenian community such as Van Leo, Armand, and Alban; but she also includes studios focused simply on the business of making portraits. In her fifth chapter, “The Show of Shows,” Golia details the gradual rise of artistic interest in photography with an exhibition history beginning in 1923 and ending with 2008 PhotoCairo, the fourth iteration of its kind.

One of the most striking chapters is the fourth, “‘Kings Never Die,’” which opens with the remark that, “The Revolution of 1952 was less the result of a clear, shared vision of Egypt’s future than a consensual desire to break with a weighty past” (117). Such a statement could be applied equally to the 2011 revolution. Finished and published shortly before last year’s “Arab Spring,” Golia’s book discusses the difficulties with censorship and photojournalism, explaining how state censorship negatively affected the quality of photography and made the Egyptian population distrust the press. She even refers to satellite technologies and digital photography’s ability in the age of cellphones to spread like wildfire, noting presciently: “Ordinary citizens with mobile phone cameras have captured harrowing images of police brutality, circulating them by phone and blog at dire personal risk. In the hands of individuals who reject agendas aimed at illustrating an edited, idealized Egypt, photography may once more serve as a mirror for society and prove its transformative strength” (137).

Presented as a mise en valeur, or project to document and protect a national heritage, Golia’s book, like Haney’s, nonetheless resists comprehensiveness and acknowledges the necessarily fragmented nature of her history. Golia chose images from local sources whenever possible, many of which have never been published before, in order to encourage scholars to make more use of rich private and institutional archives. Interviews with living photographers and artists are cited. She also offers a feminist angle, noting the first woman studioist (Chaké Kelian, apprentice and eventually wife to Alban) and the first female photojournalist (Randa Shaath), as well as commenting on the likelihood that only female photographers were allowed inside the royal harem to make portraits of the khedive’s wives.

The “Exposures” series from Reaktion Books is valuable in introducing new and underrepresented cultural contexts into the historiography of photography. The use of “and,” rather than “in,” in titles in the series acknowledges the messy internationalism of all “national” histories of photography. But the series could dispense with a bias that treats only the continent of Africa, while according equal-sized volumes to single countries whose histories are deemed worthy from a Western viewpoint. Ultimately, of course, all boundaries can be contested, even as they help to define our lived experiences and thought. Why some are adhered to and others are not: this is the question that books like Photography and Africa and Photography and Egypt may address.

Allison Moore
Assistant Professor, School of Art and Art History, University of South Florida