Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 21, 2014
Christopher Wright The Echo of Things: The Lives of Photographs in the Solomon Islands Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2013. 240 pp.; 85 ills. Paper $27.95 (9780822355106)

In The Echo of Things, Christopher Wright analyzes photographs of an island off New Georgia in the western Solomon Islands that were taken by European visitors at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. He also examines contemporary Solomon Islander attitudes toward old photographs and photography in general. This is an exciting approach, informed by Wright’s concern with history, ethnography, photography, and responses of the people of Roviana Island, a small but central site in the colonial histories of the British Solomon Islands Protectorate. A historian, anthropologist, archivist, and historian of photography, Wright visited Roviana in 1998 and 2000–1, carrying back to the community there a collection of old black-and-white photographs, and then engaging in dialogue with local people about these photographs and more recent ones stored on the island in albums, boxes, or pinned on house walls. The Echo of Things is a short book with four chapters and a brief epilogue, but it effectively presents archival and contemporary photographs now in the hands of Roviana Islanders, and then deconstructs these images to reveal layers of meaning and use.

Wright describes, in a very readable fashion, how each photograph takes on a life of its own, partly because of the subject matter but also, as he points out, because of the stories told around the image, about the image and, as he notes, “its life” (7). His is an approach to old and recent photographs that is historically and culturally situated around circulation and consumption rather than around the photographer and motives for taking, collecting, and publishing (11, 13).

Wright positions photography as a set of meanings generated by the present-day owners of old photographs and of photographs of themselves. Wright is concerned with photographic practice and its associated theoretical perspectives, but he reverses the gaze, seeing photographs from the Roviana perspective. This could easily have been a book on European photographers visiting Roviana and the uses to which they put those images back in Europe, America, or Australia. Indeed, my own studies have adopted this approach (see Max Quanchi, Photographing Papua: Representation and Colonial Encounters and Imaging in the Public Domain, Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007). Wright rejects this “forensic” angle of analysis or archival research, what he calls “the Euro-American expectation of the photograph” (167). He brilliantly reverses the focus, seeking meaning in a tattered photocopy of a photograph taken during the HMS Royalist’s British punitive visit that brought death and destruction to Roviana in 1891, and which is kept today by Faletau Leve on Roviana. Wright poses a question: “Do we understand Faletau’s photocopy any better for knowing this archival history, or do we find what we already knew?” (180) Wright does not deny there was a universal practice and phenomenon called photography, but he is also keen to uncover multiple understandings of photographs and photography, which he calls a “network of processes and relations” (63).

The real bonus of The Echo of Things is in its presentation of photography as it is understood in local, indigenous terms, on Roviana Island, a regular port of call for traders, missionaries, and British officials, and substantially photographed from the 1870s to World War I. While Wright acknowledges the seminal work of Liam Buckley on Gambia, Stephen Sprague on Yoruba, Christopher Pinney on India, and Judith Binney and Gillian Chaplin on early Maori photography, he has also written an important book on the history of photography in the Pacific, establishing an innovative research path for future scholars of photography (see Liam Buckley, “Self and Accessory in Gambian Studio Photography,” in Visual Anthropology Review 16, no. 2 [September 2000]: 71–91; Christopher Pinney, Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997 [click here for review]; Judith Binney and Gillian Chaplin, “Taking the Photographs Home: The Recovery of Maori History,” in Visual Anthropology 4, nos. 3–4 [January 1991]: 431–42; Stephen Sprague, “Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba See Themselves,” in Christopher Pinney and Nicolas Peterson, eds., Photography’s Other Histories, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003, 240–60).

There are little gems throughout the volume such as the fact that a trader named Norman Wheatley had a darkroom in his house as early as 1900, or that in portraits the whole body is important in Roviana and is much preferred to upper body and head shots. A whole chapter is devoted to analyzing Roviana meanings attributed to photographs taken during the HMS Royalist’s punitive expedition. Wright notes that Roviana people were familiar with photography and Euro-American visitors from an early stage, and this is clear from the images created by the visits of Charles Woodford in 1886, Henry B. Somerville in 1893, Governor John Bates Thurston in 1894, the artist Norman Hardy in 1897, Reverend George Brown in 1899, Reverend John Francis Goldie in ca. 1902–6, and Robert Ward Williamson in 1910. (Reproductions of their work are included in the book.)

The Echo of Things also suggests some fascinating further research. For example, Wright includes two photographs of Roviana men holding a spear and shield and decorated with shells and fiber ornaments (30, 120) taken by Williamson in 1910 and by Reverend Reginald Nicholson circa 1920. When the photographer Thomas McMahon photographed on Roviana in 1917, he took a related portrait of a Roviana man with extended earlobes, holding a shield and spear and adorned with a similar circular shell talisman. McMahon noted “the war-shield is now seldom seen,” yet Nicholson photographed one sometime around or after 1920. This suggests that among other challenging readings, old photographs can be used to date the usage or disappearance of cultural artifacts, weapons, and adornments.

Wright also records how a coastal scene photographed by Thurston in 1894 was in 2001 turned into a painting on the arrival of the missions, using the same shipping scene but exchanging for the British naval vessel HMS Royalist the SS Titus carrying the first Methodist missionaries to Roviana in 1902. Wright notes that photographs on Roviana often replace former memory practices by taking on an efficacy and a “plenitude of memories and histories” (188). Wright uses these and other case studies to show how the “mimetic powers of photographs are appropriated into local schemes of representations” (145).

The idea of taking photographs back to their historical sources was the initial motivation for Wright’s first visit to the Solomon Islands; it then became a framework for The Echo of Things. This approach had previously been adopted by Joshua A. Bell, now at the Smithsonian, who took old photographs back to villages in the Purari Delta in Papua New Guinea (Joshua A. Bell, “Looking to See: Reflections on Visual Repatriation in the Purari Delta, Gulf Province, Papua New Guinea,” in Alison K. Brown and Laura Peers, eds., Museums and Source Communities: A Routledge Reader, New York: Routledge, 111–21), and more recently by Jan Hasselberg, who returned black-and-white images to Tufi, also in Papua New Guinea (Jan Hasselberg, Beautiful Tufi: Between the Past and the Future, Central Milton Keynes: Author House, 2013). These exercises in repatriation, including Wright’s experience on Roviana, generated a variety of local responses. In comparison, in the 1990s, I returned to Nauru several enlargements of pictures taken in 1919 by McMahon; but without my active engagement or time devoted to local storytelling, they disappeared, and I have not been able to locate these images.

Wright’s book contains a few errors that an informed reader will notice. Peter Larmour is misspelled; the date of establishment of the British Protectorate is 1893, not 1896; and the civil war lasted through to 2003. Extensive citation (31, 37, 118, 141, and 177) from The Savage South Seas mistakenly attributes the text to Ernest Way Elkington, who merely wrote up Hardy’s stories, acting as ghostwriter for the actual observer, Hardy (the aforementioned newspaper artist and book illustrator from the Sydney Morning Herald). Elkington had not visited the islands himself. This is an unfortunate error because Hardy published several watercolors of “Rubiana,” including Old Ingova’s War Canoe House, Rubiana Lagoon, New Georgia, Solomon Islands, which is the focus of a long discussion by Wright. Watercolors by Hardy in The Savage South Seas include Ingova’s Head-Hunters, British Solomon Islands; A Rubiana Native, Solomon Islands; A Stormy Day in Rubiana Lagoon, Solomon Islands, and others, among the twenty-one watercolors of the Solomon Islands. Although Roviana people today probably have never seen these Hardy images, it would have been a comparative and experimental diversion for Wright to display Hardy’s watercolors along with photographs from the same decade.

The ten-year delay between fieldwork and publication also means that Wright missed the growing literature on the history of photography in the Pacific over the last decade, a gap revealed in his bibliography, which stops around 2003. There have been recent books on the photographers John Layard, Michael Rockefeller, Frank Hurley, and the missionary George Brown as well as a growing body of literature on the history of photography in the Pacific—see, for example, special issues of Pacific Studies (20, no. 2 [June 1997]) and Journal of Pacific History (41, no. 2 [September 2006]).

Yet scholars have not undertaken the book-length analysis of a single island or a specific historical period that Wright attempts. This makes The Echo of Things an important contribution to the field of the history of photography in the Pacific. It is a carefully argued and compelling read, and hopefully a benchmark study to be replicated by future researchers as well as curators and archivists in the islands.

Max Quanchi
Senior Lecturer, School of Social Sciences, University of the South Pacific