Once again, Stan Banos has got me thinking. Stan's a photographer who always has interesting things to say (mostly about politics and photography) on his blog, Reciprocity Failure. Today, which is not coincidentally of Martin Luther King Day, he's a published a terrific post that he calls Race and Photography -- A (Very) Brief Review. In it, he illustrates the point that we can't escape the fact that photography has been one of the ways in which the powerful have created what passes for knowledge about the powerless. (He shows many examples.) This has been especially true where people of color, women, and the poor have been concerned.
J. Barnett and Co.: Two Zulu Maidens in Costume, n.d. [late nineteenth century]. National Anthropological Archives, Smithsonian Institution. (Click on any of the images to see larger versions.)
The aura of truth and objectivity that surrounded photography during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries -- the high tide of colonialism -- made it admirably suited for the purpose of bringing images and ideas about racial "others" to whites in Europe and the Americas. As Stan says...
...the "other" (i.e., people of color) was usually displayed and depicted in a variety of demeaning, subordinate, and disparaging poses and situations -- and in the control or supervision of their white "overlords." Colonial empires would go into these far away, exotic lands and capture images that would play to the curiosity of those back home. Those in front of the lens had little say in how they would be represented....
Energetic commercial photographers in the colonies -- commerce followed the flag -- sold their images to eager audiences in the home country, often as postcards. All too often, as you can see in the postcard above, representation of female "others" seemlessly blended the ethnographic curiosity and sexual voyeurism. The three-quarter profile is a classic ethnographic pose, and the averted eyes, commonly seen in erotic photography and pornography as a sign of submissiveness, leave the women open to the erotic fantasies of male viewers.
J. Barnett and Co.: Young Xosa [Xhosa] Woman in Costume; Wood Bowls and Gourd Container Nearby, n.d. [late nineteenth century].
But Stan didn't get me thinking about the photo of the two Zulu maidens. Images like that were made by the thousands, throughout the colonial world. I've been thinking instead about this photo of a young Xhosa woman. If it's not unique, it's pretty darn close, and it just happens to be one of the most complex images I've ever seen. (Remember, click on the photo to see a larger version.)
On the one hand, it has all the trappings of soft-porn disguised as ethnography. The bowls and gourd, the necklace, headdress, and elaborate belt embed her in her South African "tribal" culture. At the same time, her breasts turn toward the camera and suggest sexual availability.
On the other hand, all of that adds up to a hill of beans because the single most powerful thing about the photograph is her direct, steady, and unapologetic gaze. It's as though she seized control of the moment from the photographer. In very fundamental ways, the image is at war with itself.
So I find myself wondering what it means when someone who is twice the "other" -- female and black -- doesn't avert her gaze? What happens when she looks back without a hint of submission or shame but instead with tremendous poise? What happens when she confronts the viewer with we can only imagine is her self?
It turns out that people have asked a similar set of questions about another nineteenth-century image.
Edouard Manet: Olympia [Victorine Meurent], 1865. Wikimedia Commons.
I have to admit that I find the similarities between Young Xosa Woman and Olympia absolutely uncanny. It's hard to imagine that it's a coincidence. Yes, it's a more or less stock pose. But the point really isn't that the arrangement of arms, legs, head, and breasts resemble each other so closely. The point is the gaze, the way that the women look back at us.
Both of these women challenge the viewer (who, for female nudes, is conventionally assumed to be male) in a way that is entirely unhelpful when it comes to sexual reveries. They are simply too willful. It's also a gaze that the Parisian audiences who first encountered Olympia thought was inappropriate for a lower class woman, in this case a courtesan. As Mary Elizabeth Williams explains, this "startlingly direct and defiantly unaccommodating" gaze means that the woman "in the frame is the one doing the sizing up, and it is we who are left feeling appraised -- and potentially rejected." Olympia turned the tables on her audience, and they hated her for it. (Needless to say, they also turned their ire on Edouard Manet, her creator.)
The young Xhosa woman in the J. Barnett and Company postcard provoked no furore, caused no scandal. But she certainly raises the same questions as Olympia. There's not a hint of submissiveness or inferiority about her. She may be, because of her status as a colonial subject, sexually available, but, as Williams said about Olympia, "everything else, including the meaning behind that enigmatic almost-smile, she's keeping for herself."
The anonymous photographer, who, working for J. Barnett, made the portrait of the Xhosa woman, must have seen Olympia. More than that, I'd guess that he not only knew the work, but that he had studied it closely. (By the time the photo was made, opinions had changed about Olympia, and it had become an icon of French art.) I'd like to believe that he was amusing himself and adding some spice to a humdrum job by making a private joke. Did he expect his co-workers to get it? His boss? The boss's customers? Posterity?
Or maybe I'm wrong. Maybe the power in the portrait of the young Xhosa woman is due entirely to her. The pose, after all, is conventional and might only coincidentally resemble Olympia. The magic is in the gaze. Isn't it unlikely, I ask myself, that a white journeyman photographer, in an outpost of the British empire, could have coaxed such an expression from a woman who was so distant from him in every sense, except the one that can be measured in inches and feet?
There are other possibilities, of course. You've undoubtedly thought of one or two already. Ultimately, we'll never know just how the photo came about. The Xhosa woman and the journeyman photographer will keep their secrets. And maybe there's magic in that, too.