- The Snark in SamoaPhotography, Privacy, and the Colonial Gaze
Looking through the many extraordinary works in the Jack London Collection at the Huntington Library, one set of photographs in particular stands out. The series, showing two young Samoan women, nude or mostly nude, was produced in May 1908 on the island of Savai'i while the Londons were traveling across the Pacific on the Snark. The women pose inside the bedroom of a Western-style house. At times they are sitting up; in other images, they recline on the floor on a woven mat. One of the young women is referred to as Ufi by Charmian London in both her personal journal and her published accounts and is described as a taupou, or sacred virgin.1 The other young woman is unnamed in Charmian's writings.
The nudes stand out within the Huntington collection largely because they depart entirely from London's usual photographic style. Drawing on tropes of the snapshot aesthetic and early documentary photography, including clear focus and unposed images, in much of his work London attempted to capture contemporary Pacific life in a supposedly unmediated way. While photographs of these same young women exist that demonstrate adherence to these standards, the nude photographs are blurred, theatrically posed, and stylized. London did occasionally include nude subjects in his images, sometimes with controversial outcomes.2 Yet the Samoan nudes move away from this larger project of recording "culture" and through pose and setting recall contemporary works from the Pacific (particularly Samoa) specifically produced as erotica. Further, in spite of London's investment in crafting his public image as a writer-adventurer, carefully observing modern life and documenting his adventures through photographs that were meant to be published alongside his writing, these images appear to have been made entirely for personal use.3
Given the dearth of information on these photographs, my discussion [End Page 171] of them is somewhat speculative, including their attribution to Jack London. Charmian notes in her private diary entry for May 19, 1908, that "we . . . [took] some nudes of Ufi and the other young taupo," but in her published memoir The Log of the Snark she leaves out any discussion of the production of these particular photographs.4 London scholar Jeanne Reesman mentions this suite of nude photographs in her scholarship on Jack's photography but describes them as a "notable exception" to his output (Reesman et al. 150). Similarly, curator Phillip Prodger describes them as an anomaly in London's larger photographic output: "an experiment; an attempt to explore Polynesian sexuality by using the camera in a different way." Finally, Amy Tucker attributes the photographs to Charmian, making a very intriguing and compelling argument for the photographs as an "acknowledgment, by Charmian as well as her subjects, of female desire and desirability," an expression of unconventional female sexuality (383).
Drawing on Charmian's diary quote above, I suggest yet another possibility: that the photographs were a collaborative effort between Jack and Charmian, with one of the pair serving as "photographer" in the literal sense, the other as stage director. Ultimately, however, I am less concerned with specific authorship than with their unusual relationship to other images produced during the Snark voyage. As all of the scholars above note, whether produced by Jack, by Charmian, or by a combination of the two, the photographs are typical of neither Jack's nor Charmian's photographic output. Given the lack of mention of these photographs in published accounts of the journey, they certainly were not intended to be circulated publicly. Yet the outliers of a collection—the objects that seem to not logically fit with the others—can nevertheless reveal rich and unusual insights into the very nature of the collection itself. In this vein, I argue that, in contrast to the larger body of photographs produced and collected during the Snark voyage, these works can be seen as a form of self-produced, private erotica, a record of one or both of the Londons' sexualized encounters with two young Samoan women, forming a counternarrative to their more public personas. As private records produced by individuals with strong public identities, these photographs demonstrate...