Lutz & Collins (1993). A World Brightly Different: Photographic Conventions 1950-1986. (Reading National Geographic)

Lutz, C., & Collins, J. L. (1993). A World Brightly Different: Photographic Conventions 1950-1986. In Reading National Geographic (pp. 87–117). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

“We ask how people in other lands have been depicted, what they have been photographed doing, and how the photo has been composed. The goals of this exploration are to describe the genre, to glean some clues as to the models of difference held by the producers of the magazine, and to relate both of these aspects to historical sociocultural processes and changes of the post-war period.” (p 87)

“In reading the photographs in this way, we have drawn on the insights of the social historians and theoreticians of images, including especially Benjamin (1985), Gaines (1988) Geary (1988), Graham-Brown (1988), Modleski (1988), Sekula (1981)’, Shapiro (1988), Sontag (1977), Tagg (1988), Traube (1989), and Williamson (1978).l These scholars have drawn our attention to the many ways in which photographs signify—through formal elements such as color, composition, and vantage point; through narrative structure, including what is internal to the shot and what results from setting photographs in a sequence; through specific items in photo and caption that relate directly to cultural ideas and phenomena outside the picture; through their position in a cultural hierarchy that includes art, television, and consumer goods; and through their ability to assume or ignore, to evoke or discount, their readers’ social experience and values.” (p 88)

“An important set of themes runs through all _National Geographic_ renderings of the non-Euramerican world. The people of the third and fourth worlds are portrayed as _exotic_; they are _idealized_; they are _naturalized_ and taken out of all but a single historical narrative; and they are _sexualized_.” (p 89)

[“An Exotic World” …]

“[The camera] … draws attention, at least implicitly, to things that define ‘us’ in our unmarked and usual state of humanness, that is, as people who dress and act in ‘standard’ ways. … One of the effects of the emphasis on spectacle is to discredit the significance of the foreign, even to create a sense of its fictitiousness.” (p 90)

[“A World of Ritual” …]

“The non-Westerner comes to be portrayed as a ritual performer, embedded (perhaps some would read encrusted) in tradition and living in a sacred (some would say superstitious) world.” (p 90)

“In other instances, this focus on non-Western ritual can be consistent with a view of the them as superstitious or irrational and might be responsible for contempt for the native mind (Drinnon 1980:442).” (p 91)

“The magazine tends to downplay a ritual’s contemporary actuality and the historical changes that preceded its current form, although religious syncretism is often highlighted as a special kind of contrast narrative. … Two primary features of exoticism—living close to the sacred or supernatural and living with the past—are actually combined in many of these pictures. By presenting the ritual as a feature of custom or tradition, these pictures can also have, for many readers, the unintended effect of flattening the emotional life of the people depicted. This is because the ritual procession can be seen as a routine that people follow rather than as an expression of individual and group faith. The funeral becomes a moment of cultural display (of special paraphernalia or dress, as well as custom more generally) rather than a moment of grief (Rosaldo 1989).” (p 91)

[“Indexical Dress” …]

“The man in Western dress can be understood as desiring social change, material progress, and Westernization in other spheres. Exotic dress can stand for a premodern attitude, Western dress for a forward-looking Western orientation.” (p 93)

“Difference becomes assimilable to the idea of taste, and, like that concept, allows the renaming of poverty as ‘bad taste’ and unlike values as matters of consumer choice.” (p 93)

[“The Role of Color Photography” …]

“Through these practices, color has become the language of consumption and plenty, black and white the conduit of facts, often spare or oppressive.” (p 94)

“A significant number of these [black-and-white] pictures show the Western narrator of the article, often explorer or anthropologist. It is almost as though the black-and-white photo says, ‘This is a person of a distinct type, standing to his `colored` brethren as the factual black and white does to the fantasy, multicolor shot.’ Here, more clearly than elsewhere, the Western observer or explorer is portrayed as scientist, whose presence needs to be reported but whose appearance need not be examined in detail. … Declining use can also mean that a black-and-white photo is likely to be interpreted as an old photo by contemporary readers.” (p 94)

[“Idealizations: From Noble Savage to a Middle-Class World” …]

“The idealization of the non-Westerner, like the idealization of nature, has its roots in the magazine’s explicit editorial policy. More broadly, we can see this beautification of the world’s people as linked to a number of themes in American cultural history.” (p 95)

“Another factor in idealizing is an anxiety about threats of chaos or decay. An ideal world, free of suffering, does not require work to bring about change. Connectedness and responsibility are downplayed, as the world’s peoples become aesthetic objects to appreciate.” (p 95)

[“The Smile” …]

“The smile, like the portrait, follows cultural conventions in defining and depicting the person. … These conventions stand in marked contrast to other ethnopsychologies (Lutz 1988) and other, more serious modes of composing the self for the photograph (King 1985). The smile is a key way of achieving idealization of the other, permitting the projection of the ideal of the happy life.” (p 96)

[“Portraiture” …]

“… the goal of humanizing the other—giving the reader a sense that these are real people—is furthered when people are photographed as individuals and encountered as readable faces.” (p 96)

“The portrait allows for scrutiny of the person, the search for and depiction of character. It gives the ideology of individualism full play, inviting the belief that the individual is first and foremost a personality whose characteristics can be read from facial expression and gesture. In a related, although seemingly incongruous way, the portrait may also communicate a message of universal brotherhood. Many at the _Geographic_ might agree with Carder-Bresson’s assessment of portraits: ‘They enable us to trace the sameness of man’ (Galassi 1987). They do this by stripping away culture and leaving the universal, individual person.” (p 97)

“Benjamin (1985:682) notes that portraits were very popular when the camera was first invented as part of a ‘cult of remembrance,’ a kind of ancestor worship. The _National Geographic_ portrait may likewise be related to what Rosaldo (1989) calls imperialist nostalgia, that is, mourning the passing of what we ourselves have destroyed.” (p 97)

[“Group Size” …]

“… individuals and small groups are nonetheless often depicted in what might be read as rugged individualist stances.” (p 98)

[“Gentle Natives and Wars Without Brutalized Bodies” …]

“In fully twelve percent of our sample photographs, however, there is some military presence, particularly men in uniform. In these photos, the military is presented as a regular, not unpleasant part of everyday life in the third world, but is rarely seen in internal or cross-national conflict. The military as an institutional force has been normalized, anger or aggression erased.” (p 98-99)

“Violent resistance to empire building, American or European, has usually been treated as a personality trait of natives rather than a situational response to the theft of land or other mode of attack (Drinnon 1980).” (p 99)

[“A Middle-Class World” …]

“This duality can be seen in the context of JanMohamed’s (1985) useful argument (contra Bhabha [1983]) that the ambivalence of colonial representations does not represent genuine confusion within the colonial mind over the value of the other. Rather, he maintains, ‘the imperialist is not fixated on specific images or stereotypes of the Other but rather on the affective benefits proffered by the manichean allegory,’ which include the ability to create an Other whose goodness and badness seem absolute and not merely social, or so extreme as to be neither human nor historical. Accordingly, ‘those who have fashioned the colonial world are themselves reduced to the role of passive spectators in a mystery not of their making’ (1985:68).” (p 105-106)

[“A World of Work” …]

“… pragmatic incentives, however, do not cancel out the role of the photographs in broader cultural discourses about the industriousness of the native.” (p 106)

[“The Ideal of Virility” …]

[“Natural Humans without History” …]

“_National Geographic_ has typically focused on those whom Eric Wolf (1982) has called the people without history. Wolf’s thesis is that Western culture often presents non-Europeans as having timeless societies and personalities. … Those without history, seated in the natural rather than the cultural realm, have a morphology rather than a trajectory.” (p 108)

[“The Halo of Green” …]

“These pictures of naturalized societies stand in marked contrast to the reverse strategy of anthropomorphism employed in National Geographic nature photography.” (p 110)

[“There Are Only Two Worlds” …]

“Although the magazine focuses on exotic differences, at many points there appear to be only two worlds — the traditional and the modern; the world before ‘the West’ and its technological and social progress came to ‘the rest’ and the world after. … This framework of balance becomes increasingly common, as when the Apache are said to live, perhaps permanently, in ‘two worlds’ (February 1980).” (p 110-111)

“Decolonization brought interesting changes in the structure of contrast pictures, something Pratt drew our attention to with her brilliant analysis of landscape descriptions in Western travel literature (1982). Pratt finds that in both colonial and contemporary postcolonial travel accounts the narrator is often looking down on an exotic scene from mountaintop or hotel balcony. This stance and its related stylistics she calls the-monarch- of-all-I-survey scene, giving its narrator the opportunity to examine and evaluate the whole and to thereby assert dominance over it.” (p 113)

[“The Naked Black Woman” …]

“With some very recent exceptions (photographed discretely from behind), none of the hundreds of women whose breasts were photographed in the magazine were white-skinned.” (p 115)

“In Western cultural rhetoric, women are beautiful objects. Their photographs in the magazine can play a central role in allowing the art of photography to exist silently beneath a scientific agenda and thereby increase readership and further legitimate the _Geographic_’s project as one of both beauty and truth. All of this elaborate structure of signification, however, is built on a foundation of racial and gender subordination: in this context, one must first be black and female to do this kind of symbolic labor.” (p 116)

[“Conclusion” …]

“Ultimately, the evaluation should be based not on the intentions of the magazine’s makers but on the consequences of its photographic rhetoric. In what ways do these photos change or reinforce ideas about others held by their readers?” (p 117)

Selected References

  • Benjamin, W. (1985). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. In Film Theory and Criticism, 3d ed. G. Mast and M. Cohen, 675-694. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Drinnon, R. (1980). Facing West: The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
  • Gaines, J. (1988). White privilege and looking relations: Race and gender in feminist film theory. Screen 29 no. 4: 12-27.
  • Galassi, P. (1987). Henri Cartier-Bresson, the early work. New York: Museum of Modern Art.
  • Geary, C. M. (1988). Images from Bamum: German Colonial Photography at the Court of King Njoya, Cameroon, West Africa, 1902-1915. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
  • Graham-Brown, S. (1987). Images of women: The portrayal of women in photography of the Middle East, 1860-1950. London: Quartet Books.
  • King, M. (1985). Maori images. Natural History 94, no. 7: 36:43.
  • Lutz, C. (1988). Unnatural emotions: Everyday sentiments on a Micronesian atoll and their challenge to Western theory. University of Chicago Press.
  • Modleski, T. (2005). The women who knew too much: Hitchcock and feminist theory. New York: Methuen.
  • Rosaldo, R. (1989). Culture and Truth. Boston: Beacon Press.
  • Sekula, A. (1975). On the invention of meaning in photographs. Artforum (Vol. 13, No. 5, pp. 36-44).
  • Shapiro, M. J. (1988). The politics of representation: Writing practices in biography, photography, and policy analysis. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
  • Sontag, S. (1977). On Photography. New York: Dell.
  • Tagg, J. (1988). The burden of representation: Essays on photographies and histories. Amherst: Unuversity of Massachusetts Press.
  • Traube, E. B. (1989). Secrets of success in postmodern society. Cultural Anthropology, 4(3), 273-300.
  • Williamson, J. (1978). Decoding Photographs. London: Marion Boyars.


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