More than corpses, less than ghosts: a visual theory of culture in early ethnographic photography

par Gregory Delaplace

Visual Anthropology Review, volume 35, numéro 1, 2019, p. 37-49 [en accès libre]

Paru dans le dernier numéro de la revue Visual Anthropology Review (35/1, Spring 2019), un article sur les usages de la photographie par les anthropologues du tournant du XXe siècle. Il y est aussi question de photographie spirite et d'anthropologie physique. Pour la petite histoire, cette publication est issue d'une réflexion élaborée dans le cadre du cours de L2 "Usages ethnographiques de la photographie" et du cours de M2 "Anthropologie de l'invisible". Merci à tous les étudiants qui y ont participé à un moment ou à un autre!

Abstract: In its intent to make “culture” visible through the objective depiction of specific scenes of indigenous life, ethnographic photography at the turn of the twentieth century could be understood against two other scientific uses of the camera at that time: the anatomic photographs of physical anthropologists, on the one hand, and the ghost photographs of spiritualist circles, on the other. Indeed, while capturing “culture” involved having more than still bodies appear on the picture, which implied elaborate apparatuses meant to make it happen in front of the camera lens, early ethnographers were anxious not to let too much appear either, as “culture” was supposed to manifest itself more subtly than the ghosts revealed through spirit photography. This article thus argues that photographing “culture” at the turn of the twentieth century meant getting its invisibility right; it describes some of the devices and operations early ethnographers used to make it appear objectively.