Disconnected colonial landscapes in a pre-photographic era

Before the invention of photography and film, we got to know the world beyond our personal experience through the oral, drawn, painted and written descriptions of the explorers that went forth, and came back.  The communication between what was experienced via the explorer’s senses, and what was subsequently represented to the people, did not always match up.

See below the (bad quality) photograph I took at a British stately home, of a 17th Century colonial ink etching.

It looks as if the etching was produced informed by an oral or drawn description.  Modern viewers of this 17th Century image understand the intention of what was represented, though are able to see how the memory of a palm tree and perspectives in the landscape does not quite relate to the actual.    It shows the slight disconnection between the representation and the real; the sign and the signified – creating a visual poetry rather than textual essay.  The broken link between the lived experience and the reproduction has rendered inaccuracies, inconsistencies, myths, assumptions, and an imagined ideal.  A (literally) captured land presented as an imaginary captured landscape.  The viewer thinks they know what type of land this is and approximately where it might  be, but if they went looking for it themselves they will never find it.  Not exactly.

The advent of photography added a seemingly comforting layer of visual truth, which satisfied the viewer as it spoke directly to the senses.  Arguably it comforted our most trusted sense; our eyes. 

Photography brought with it a perceived visual truth which made etchings (and other such crafts representation approaches) largely redundant as a source of news and events.    Photography brought a different type of myth into the world; an assumed instant (visual) knowledge that had to be proven false rather than proven true – thus images were accepted as true as a default, largely remaining unquestioned.  

Photography created myths that were easily accepted as ready packaged nuggets of truth.  Images presented alongside a single caption – a statement of ‘fact’ that tried to summarize and represent an entire anthropological monograph.

Image + caption = TRUTH

“The experts say it is so, so of course it is true.  Why question it?”

What photography gained in visual recognition it lost in textual nuance.  It gained scientific respectability but lost the creative poetry (of an etching) – lost only because viewers were not looking for it or even expected it.  When faced with a bold fact, there is little motivation to look for anything else, least of all visual poetry.  One has become instantly satisfied.  Comforted with a perceived stable knowledge.  The viewer thinks they know what is meant by ‘ancestor worship’ and approximately what it might entail, but if they went looking for it themselves they will never find it exactly.  Not what they imagined. 

Life is more complex and layered than a single photograph and a supporting caption.  The viewer of an etching knows that it is a mere representation of a real phenomena, thus trusts the gap between what is assumed, and what further needs to be known (by education and experience).  The viewer of early photography (and arguably even now) collapses the disconnection between representation and reality.  We can see it with our own eyes, the caption providing the common sense clue.  The photograph + caption acts as an extension of our memory – we were never there yet still we have seen it with our own eyes.  

We trust it in a way we would never trust an etching.  The irony is that the etching is more truthful, as it pretends to be nothing other than a mere representation.  The photograph presented as fact denies its true nature – that of a captured scene – a voiceless glimpse, full of poetry.


3 thoughts on “Disconnected colonial landscapes in a pre-photographic era

  1. I’ve got to totally disagree with you here. In the mid to late nineteenth century in the USA, photographs were most frequently used as sources for engravings (considered “truer” to the facts). They had no more weight than the drawings in sketchbooks of explorers, and were generally discarded after the engravings were made.

    Far from treasured, photographs were largely discarded as one would discard the mold for a sculpture– they were a husk, not an eternal truth.

  2. Hi Jeff, fair point about the use of photographs for engraving. Also how photos were also used as the guide for paintings and then discarded afterwards. Otherwise I actually think we are in agreement, not in opposition. ?

    The point I was making was about the role of photography in anthropology, science, news journalism and the impact on the general audiences (not how they were used by artists), and actually the advent of visual journalism as we know it today. I’m saying photographs did not (and does not) contain an ‘eternal truth’, but rather photographs also contain myths, no different from that engraving I showed. Far from saying photographs contain an eternal truth, I am saying they are just as constructed as an engraving – constructed in a different way – but constructed none the less. I ended by saying that the etchings are more ‘truthful’ as they don’t pretend to be anything other than what they are – representations and visual poetry. That is why, as you say, the photographs were discarded as ‘husk’, because they served their purpose of providing the facts (of the landscape for example), and then the engraver took those facts and produced the visual magic. When photographs are looked at as representations and constructions, in the same way we accept engravings and paintings, etc, that is when photography starts to become really interesting.

    The pursuit of photographic truth (whatever that actually means) is problematic as is it never achieved for everyone in a single subjective image.


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