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1 Introduction: The Study of Photographic Portraiture in Africa J O H N P E F F E R In 1894, the African American minister C. S. Smith toured the coastal towns of western Africa seeking modern compatriots, business opportunities, and peers. His publishedaccountofthatjourneyisillustratedwithphotographsoflocalblack elites of the region, mostly the work of local black photographers. By including their images in book form, Smith helped create a record of Africa’s early modern urbane elites for overseas viewers and for posterity. His book also preserves a few images that are known to have been made by the Lutterodt family, but whose original prints are now lost. Earlier, during the 1880s, Mpongwe women in the area of present-dayGabonposedforsmallphotographstogivetoacquaintancesandlovers among the European men of the colonial town of Libreville. These women’s cartede -visite-format images also acted as cultural intermediaries within the libidinal and visual economy then connecting coastal Africa to the wider Atlantic world. Moving forward in time, young men and women in the post-independence 1960s and 1970s in Kenya and Mali had themselves portrayed in novel ways, without the elaborate backdrops characteristic of colonial era studio portraits, foregrounding instead a newly dynamic sense of agency and individuality that was partly manifested through an adaptation of the clothing and poses of international pop stars. In our own time, a young woman posing for a researcher’s camera in rural Zambia asks to be surreptitiously photographed in her husband’s clothing. Photographers in The Gambia, frustrated by an official ban by the military government on the use John Peffer 2 of skin lightening cream, resort to color lab tricks to make their clients appear redder, and therefore “brighter.” And restless young men in Côte d’Ivoire carry iconic blurry images of revolutionary heroes, their contemporary role models, on their cell phones. In each of these cases there is a tension, a push-pull aspect, between socially determined expectations and private individual desires, caught up in the complex codes of meaning that surround the public representation of the self. The essays in this volume closely examine these and other critical examples from the long history of photographic portraiture in Africa. In this introduction I explore some of the broader questions that connect them. What is photographic portraiture in Africa, or, rather, what has it been? The answer is not a simple one, because portrait photography has been entangled since its beginnings in the middle of the nineteenth century with the global histories of technological, economic, and political innovation that were symptomatic of the early history of colonialism. In Africa these larger historical forces intersected with earlier local traditions surrounding the portrayal of personae, thus implicating (and sometimes altering) the very idea of the person in relation to depiction, as previously understood through indigenous concepts of materiality, the human, and the sacred. This book has been written in response to new and urgent questions that have arisen over the past decade with regard to exactly how photographic portraiture has been produced and understood in specific cultural and historical situations in Africa. These questions have followed from the international proliferation of exhibitions and survey books of African photography since the 1990s, in which portraiture has often been a dominant but underexamined feature.1 It has also become apparent that the legacy of earlier writing on photography in Africa has produced certain tenacious misconceptions. In reply we have not produced a book about contemporary African art as currently marketed overseas. Instead this anthology explores deeper and more pressing concerns about the social lives of images and the politics of representation in Africa and subjects them to systematic study. In our approach we have heeded the words of Christraud Geary, a leading scholar of photography in Africa, who has written that “in order to understand the role of photography and photographs one needs to take into account the history of the medium, the symbolic meaning in particular cultural settings, and the specific function in each particular scenario.”2 The essays collected here address Introduction 3 this need for closer attention to milieus of image making and reception in African portrait photography. They are based on case studies in West, Central, and East Africa. This is therefore not a comprehensive survey of the continent, although we do hope that the models proposed here, if appropriate, may be applied in future studies to material from North and Southern Africa.3 The case studies are arranged in three sections that are roughly chronological according to era of...


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