- Visions of the World
Photographic historians’ investigations into how power and control, as much as desire and agency, are encoded in visual projects have been central to the growing field of visual cultural studies. Interrogating the relationships between images and their social realities, scholars today reject assumptions about photography’s evidentiary power as they address the conflicts and tensions between claims of authenticity and processes of image-making. Moreover, visual studies scholars are increasingly concerned about how exhibitions, archives, and other visual projects speak dialogically in broader political and cultural contexts. 1 Within this field, a number of studies of American photographic practices have explored how the camera’s ability to capture and/or negotiate power inequalities participates in struggles for social and political hegemony. 2
Two recent books about major photographic events of the twentieth century develop further some of these theoretical and historical insights. In A World on Display, Eric Breitbart examines photographs of native peoples at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, while in Picturing an Exhibition, Eric Sandeen offers an in-depth analysis of arguably the most famous photography exhibition ever held, The Family of Man. As both authors demonstrate, [End Page 662] anthropological concepts about civilization and humanity shaped these two monumental projects in distinctive ways that visualized attitudes and conceits of their respective times. If the earlier event promised to display a world of progress through visualizing differences, the later event intended to show the shared humanity of the world through family portraits. Both authors explore how photographs mobilized these anthropological assumptions in specific historical moments when the United States confronted other peoples and other nations. These books, therefore, offer an opportunity to assess new directions in photographic history for they address the importance of visual culture to dialogues about national and international politics.
While both events presumed to display the world, assumptions presented about that world were vastly different. In 1904, at the St. Louis World’s Fair, photographers captured the differences that assured viewers of Western progress and superiority. Breitbart points out that what distinguishes St. Louis from the numerous other popular fairs of the time period was the “extensive display of native peoples in ‘authentic’ surroundings” (37). Visual culture was crucial to this project in a number of related ways. The ubiquity of photographs at the Fair got Americans accustomed to receiving information through visual means. In turn, this flood of visual information helped audiences adjust to both modern technology and changing global sociopolitical relations. As Breitbart observes,
[a] society based on the principles of an expanding American empire, industrialization, and consumerism was disorienting and threatening in many ways to people whose lives were quite different, and the St. Louis Fair offered a certain degree of reassurance about one’s place in the hierarchical structure of the universe.(13)
Breitbart explores how pictures of natives reinforced turn of the century anthropological assumptions about primitive and civilized cultures. Front and side close-ups, for instance, envision the transformation of an Igorot man from a savage to a “civilized member of the Philippine Constabulary” (25). Insightful visual critiques examine the ways in which both amateur fairgoers and professional photographers such as Jesse Tarbox Beals and Frances Benjamin Johnston used the camera to convey these ideals. Although sensitive to differences between photographers, and careful to avoid generalizations, Breitbart persuasively argues that the similarities between different photographers arose from “a certain unity of approach when faced with anthropological subjects” (11). [End Page 663]
Breitbart’s methodological approach, to connect visual analyses with historical contexts, incorporates current trends in photographic history. Recent studies of nineteenth century photographs of slaves, criminals, and the mentally insane explore how visual media structure and reinforce inequalities and social hierarchies. 3 Similarly, Breitbart examines Fair photographs as a form of symbolic control that expose the “complex relationship between anthropology and photography at the turn of the century...