- Framing the Non-West:New approaches to the history of photography
In their introduction to Photography’s Orientalism: New essays on colonial representation the editors explain that their aim has been to neither privilege nor dismiss photography’s role as either a visual or material object, but to instead invigorate critical debates about photography’s relation to Orientalism, and to promote awareness of the variety and complexities of the interrelated histories of Orientalism and photography. They also make it clear that, as used in their book, the term “Orientalism” refers to a network of aesthetic, cultural, economic and political relationships that cross national and historical boundaries.
The essays contained in this volume are all by world-renowned historians of photography and without exception they offer a way of reading the photographic archive relating to the Middle East that is alternative to the oppositional approach that dominated the 1980s and 1990s. This makes them a valuable resource for students and scholars interested in revising not just the photographic archive itself, but also the methodologies though which it is being approached. Another of the book’s obvious strengths is its nuanced readings of prints from the Pierre de Gigard Collection of photographs of the Ottoman Empire and the Republic of Turkey, and the Ken and Jenny Jacobson Orientalist Photography Collection, both of which are housed within the Getty Research Institute. Incidentally, this same institute hosted the original symposium from which this book evolved, and the resulting essays powerfully demonstrate what an immensely valuable resource it is for photographic scholars of the Middle East.
The opening essay by the editors is indicative of the interrogative nature of the collection. Gartlan and Behdad question the heavy scholarly focus on Anglo-French Orientalism(s), noting that this has impeded art historians and cultural critics from exploring cross-cultural encounters and histories of photography from other regions, together with long-neglected photographers and archives. It has also, they argue, skewed the criteria for assessing the works of those well-known photographers who found favour in mid-twentieth-century surveys of the medium. The essays that follow are no less radical in their questioning of the widespread use of binary oppositions to characterize photographic representations of the Middle East and the application of what the editors call “the Manichean relation between Western and non-Western photographic representations of the Middle East” (4). They also question the widespread belief that photographs from Middle Eastern countries were derivative of their Western counterparts, and the obverse argument that all Middle Eastern productions and practices were oppositional. Instead, the essays demonstrate that just as Western productions were not all representations of power, so Indigenous or local practices were not all aimed at resisting colonialism and Orientalism.
Ali Behdad’s opening essay charts the reactionary response to the political modes of critique set in motion by Edward W. Said’s groundbreaking 1979 work Orientalism and other similarly politically informed readings, before embarking on a re-examination of canonical photographers of the Middle East such as Frith and Du Camp, that positions their work not just according to aesthetic developments, but also a whole range of barely touched on ideological denotations associated with European imperialism that figure it as a network of exotic signifiers.
Christopher Pinney also reinforces the importance of analysing Orientalist imagery in terms of its discursive and phantasmic operations of power, only his approach is to uncover the multiple ways in which photography, as practised in India, often revealed more than what its wielders intended because of the camera’s inherent capacity for disruption and disturbance. Darcy Grimaldo Grigsby, by contrast, examines the strangely distorted impressions of scale that resulted from viewing the Egyptian Pyramids through the device of the stereo-view. This was an optical device that was available mainly to the privileged class of travellers that...