- Daniel Francis (Author)
Copying People: Photographing British Columbia First Nations 1860-1940. Fifth House Publishers (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Liz Heron (Author) and Val Williams (Author)
Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present. Duke University Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Maureen Milburn
Reading Copying People is akin to visiting a 19th century picture gallery—compelling because of its photographic content but not, unfortunately, for its insight into the thought-provoking issues it raises or photographic processes it professes to address. By promoting the Euro-American perspective, Daniel Francis continues the convention of overlooking the interactive nature of the photographic dialogue—one in which Native American peoples participated or were instrumental in manipulating.
Francis’ compilation of historic photographs opens with the following statement: "In many ways, the Indian is a figment of the white imagination." Thus Francis re-inscribes the "Imaginary Indian" on a collection of disparate images culled from British Columbia archives. The popularity of this concept centers in its ability to serve as an overarching public excuse for yet another round of image/imagining on the part of writers and scholars. This facile perspective glosses over issues of Native American self-representation or the complexity and ambiguities of individual Native American lives.
According to Francis the photographs are documents taken at a certain point in history (1860-1940) to serve Euro-American ends. In some cases the photographer’s agenda is clearly evident. This is most especially true of those photographs taken for ethnographic purposes. But what of the multitude of ambiguities associated with commercial photographs or the reconstruction theater of the well-known photographer Edward Curtis? We know that Native American peoples commissioned images from commercial photographers and in some cases they were used for purposes such as family record-keeping and status validation. Yet Francis pays little attention to the nature of this exchange embodied in commercial carte de visites or studio shots. Bill Holm and George Irving Quimby, in Edward Curtis in the Land of the War Canoes, 1980, document Kwakwaka’wakw efforts to replicate images from a previous era, including the social ramifications of community participation in the event. Francis offers no discussion on the subject.
What of the political ramifications of many photographs? For example, in light of the anti-potlatch laws what of government agent William Halliday’s "Family Group at Alert Bay, n.d." or the group photograph of Kwakwaka’wakw men displaying masks ca. 1926? Francis provides no illumination. Similarly, Francis fails to deal with the ironic nature of self-representation in much of the work. Instead the author’s stated purpose is to present us with "images from the work of every important Euro-American photographer who chose to photograph Ð’Ð¡ aboriginal people prior to World War Two." Within these parameters Francis’ criteria for inclusion are twofold: that photographs be clear and well-composed in order to show the photographer’s art to the best advantage and that each of the First Nations tribal groups be represented. The scope of the publication is thus sweeping in both its attempt at overview and its multiple taxonomic/aesthetic agenda. A brief text allows for a cursory and fast-paced summary of contact-period ethnographic information and events. Format and organization are confusing, with geographical references to tribal groups interspersed with ethnographic information and short biographies of photographers. Some captions give brief details of Aboriginal clothing or political circumstances but such information is inconsistent and fails to distinguish between captions provided by the photographer and those added by the author.
In final analysis the author largely abdicates responsibility for the historical context of the images he chooses to reproduce, stating: "Viewers must ask themselves to what degree these photographs mirror reality and to what degree they create it." The result is a publication that reproduces turn-of-the-century "scientific" ideals which favoured recording or were biased towards observation over representation and interaction.
In contrast, Illuminations: Women Writing on Photography from the 1850s to the Present is rich with thoughtful discussion, commentary, and history but contains almost no photographs. As the title explains, text selection is limited to women historians, social commentators, and photographers engaged in the production or discussion of the photographic medium. The purpose of initiating this gender-specific text was, according to its editors, to offset the "self-perpetuating dominance" of men within the discipline. At the risk of appearing gender-biased, unlike Copying People, this text takes as its starting point the views of the marginalized group—it creates for the reader a multi-faceted review of the role of women in photographic processes/discussions. The editors have chosen texts which provide a fascinating immediacy, thus transcending an exclusively academic format. For example, the descriptions of American photographers Dorothea Lange (1895-1965) or Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) provide insight into the assignments of women photojournalists who documented the economic and social circumstances of American life at a particular point in history. Their recollections offer comment on the dual marginality and interaction between women photographers and their subjects in what was at that time a very male profession. The editors have done a skillful job of contrasting the photographer’s reflections with historically contextualized discussions and debate over the seemingly contradictory uses of photography as art or photojournalism. Discussion ranges from Rosalind Krauss’s piece on the alchemical nature of the photographic process, through Gen Doy on the limits of photography’s democratization in the period of the Second Empire in France, to Abigail Solomon-Godeau on art photography and postmodernism. Articles on the photographic relationships of Tina Moratti and Edward Weston, Nancy Newhall and Ansel Adams or Lee Miller and Man Ray explore the intricacies of shared passions and historical insights, while critical reviews of the work of American and British photographers investigate concepts of identity, creativity, sexuality, marginalization, and the supercession of gender boundaries at certain periods in history. The excerpts from Lucy Lippard’s Partial Recall, in which she explores questions surrounding Native American portraiture; Coco Fusco on photographs of Mexican women; Anne-Marie Wills on constructions of national identity in Australia and Jewelle Gomez on images of Afro-American women together raise questions pertaining to difference, self-representation and decolonization of the image. The writings in this publication engage the enigma of the photographic image in its multiple and irresistible visual engagements and entanglements in a way that will delight and enlighten the reader’s exploration into this compelling artform.
- French Canadian Lives by Jeanne Perrault
Books reviewed: Talon by Paulette Dubé
- A Young Woman Hungers by Jan Lermitte
Books reviewed: Hunger Journeys by Maggie de Vries
- Stories of Loss by Lynn (J.R.) Wytenbroek
Books reviewed: Remarkable Women Writers by Heather Ball, Asthmatica by Jon Paul Fiorentino, A Small Dog Barking by Robert Strandquist, and Dark Times by Ann Walsh
- Missed Opportunities by Malcolm Page
Books reviewed: From Fire to Flood: A History of Theatre in Manitoba by Kevin Longfield and 7 Cannons by Martin Bragg, Per Brask, and Roy Surette
- In Touch with the Land by Bryan N. S. Gooch
Books reviewed: Tom Thomson's Shack by Harold Rhenisch, Summer Gone by David Macfarlane, and The Clouded Leopard: Travels to Landscapes of Spirit and Desire by Wade Davis
MLA: Milburn, Maureen. Peripheral Visions. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 18 May 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #158 (Autumn 1998), New Directions. (pg. 141 - 143)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.