Fabric of India

The Fabric of India
Rosemary Crill (editor)
Hardcover, 248 pages, 11.5 x 10″
V&A Publishing, 2015
$75 Cdn.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

 

At the heart of making is craft.

And if one had to choose a date when craft came to widespread institutional attention it would probably be the Great Exhibition of 1851. Also known as the Crystal Palace Exhibition, this first World’s Fair was remarkable in the breadth and scope of its displays. Over one-hundred-thousand artifacts including mechanical miracles of technology such as printing presses, steam locomotives, fire engines (horse drawn, of course), industrial weaving and spinning machines; and new innovative materials such as rubber and cast iron. Beside these, and seemingly inert by comparison, were more subtle objects: notably textiles from around the globe. As befitted an empire in the ascendency, textiles were positioned as industrial artifacts; items of trade, and examples of exotic and fabulous skill from the lands Britain colonized.

An estimated six million people visited the “Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of all Nations” under the vitreous rooftops during the six months of it tenure in Hyde Park. During this time it realized a profit of £186,000; enough to purchase 96 acres of land in South Kensington and to fund the construction of what is now the Victoria and Albert Museum. It also gave birth to the Museum of History and Science, The Royal Colleges of Art, and Music and the Royal Albert Hall.

IS.155-1953 Hanging Wall hanging of embroidered cotton with silks, Gujarat, ca. 1700. Gujarat Ca. 1700 Embroidered cotton with silk yarn

Wall hanging of embroidered cotton with silks, Gujarat, ca. 1700. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The exhibition’s legacy was deep and long-lasting. It was as if the world were one great watershed during a season of rains. But what flowed into the heart of London was not water but cultural artifacts; items which, in the skill of their execution and in the materials they used, beggared the imagination. Subsequent events such as the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855 and 1867 contributed significant pieces to the V&A, and when the Indian Museum in London dispersed its collections in 1872, the weaving, costumes, fabrics and embroideries also went to the V&A.

Today the V&A’s holds the greatest collection of Indian Textiles in the world. As Director Martin Roth points out in his introductory notes to The Fabric of India, it is surprising, therefore, that there has never been a major exhibition of them, nor has there been a comprehensive volume such as The Fabric of India.

Readers will not be disappointed with the Fabric of India. It is a large format, hardcover edition with 248 pages documenting the exhibition and providing expansive supplementary text. Rosemary Crill’s prose is exactly what one would expect from a senior curator of such an august institution. It provides a wealth of technical and historic detail, yet is accessible and open, somehow managing to satisfy both general readers and those with more scholarly interests. Crill’s unornamented style conveys the exceptional nature of so many of the pieces simply by serving the facts straight up  how pieces were made, why they are important, and how they fit into the larger picture of patronage, trade, Anglo-Indian relations, or textile history.

The book contributes much toward an understanding of the role of textiles in trade and industry. The eighteenth century craze for chintz displaced local British-made items – despite bans on chintz imports. Later, British mills, utilizing technologies like the ones showcased at the Great Exhibition, reversed the situation and devastated the Indian spinning and weaving sectors. These trade relations are well known as the factors leading up to Indian independence. But India also had far reaching trade relations with the Arab world in the middle east and even further into Africa. A favourite image shows a group of Kalabari men dressed in Madras check wrappers (the photo was taken by Joanne B. Eicher in 1991). Travelling in the opposite direction, Indian cottons patterned with mordant dyes and resist printed (chintz made c. 1720-30) went as far as Japan. These were not simply Indian textiles traded to Japan, rather they were specifically designed as Kimonos and made for the Japanese market.

The book concludes with a provocative look at the future of Indian textiles. Provocative, because it points toward the constantly changing nature of craft. As paradigms shift from artisan to designer and from tradition to innovation, the role of artisan is once again brought into question. Where notions of prestige for Indian textiles were once motivated by royal patronage, now they are announced by inclusion in the high-stakes fashion industry. Runway collections are the world of the auteur. Notwithstanding designers who might wish to emphasize the role of craft, or even showcase collaborative projects, industrial fashion is a game of brand recognition and name retention. Runway shows are equal measure performance art and provocateur role-play. It is possible that, in the same way that industrial processes took over the science and manufacturing aspects of craft (its ingenuity and productive power), fashion designers will co-opt the art and imaginative aspects of craft (its creativity and power of expression).

Women's 'Ajrak' Jacket, digitally printed linen, designed by Rajesh Pratap Singh, Delhi, 2010. Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Women’s ‘Ajrak’ Jacket, digitally printed linen, designed by Rajesh Pratap Singh, Delhi, 2010. Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

The Fabric of India contains an excellent section on the role of the artisan. And as the book points out, the dichotomy between artist and designer becomes harder to maintain when artisans go to design school and become artisan/designers. But in most cases art colleges and design schools (even those in India) promote Western models of creation based on the fashion industry or the commercial gallery — the two main arenas of personal expression for textiles in the west. Can such centres encourage tradition? Or is this idea antithetical to their very nature. Can very high-level artisan skills even be taught institutionally? And how can such institutions respond to students who are are themselves coming from families that enjoy a multi-generation craft heritage? Innovators in the architecture of cloth (Jurgen Lehl springs to mind as one example) look to tradition (in this case handloom) for grounding and inspiration in a way that capitalizes on highly refined yet flexible hand techniques. As India grapples with modernization these issues will become increasingly poignant, and India’s reputation as the place where the greatest diversity of high-level textile knowledge lives on, will be at stake.

The Fabric of India is an exhibition in a book. For those who cannot view the exhibition in London the book does an excellent job of bringing the exhibition home. And for those who wish to gain a comprehensive understanding of Indian textiles … it would be difficult to recommend this title too highly.


17734950.smallThe most recent issue of V&A magazine features the Fabric of India show. Tim McLaughlin and Charllotte Kwon contributed a feature article to this issue describing hand block-printed Indian textiles. The Issue is available in Maiwa’s Online store here.

The Book The Fabric of India is available in Maiwa’s Online Store here.

 

 

The Fabric of India

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Fabric of India back

Deeper_than_indigo
Jenny Balfour Paul
Deeper than Indigo: Tracing Thomas Machell, Forgotten Explorer
9 x 6” 320 pages, hardcover
Medina Publishing, 2015
$50 Cdn.

Reviewed by Tim Mclaughlin

Thomas Machell. Self Portrait

Thomas Machell. Self portrait in Arab dress. Thomas had his father endorse the drawing: “Thomas Machell after his return from India, Arabia & Egypt – and very like him it is.” British Library

I must leave off for the night, the Rain has filled the house with insects, I am covered with them and with grasshoppers of all sizes and colours which are swarming over my paper, hopping on my pen, filling my nose and eyes, worrying in my hair and whiskers […] the insects get into the inkpot and cause you to blot your paper when they are brought out impaled on the end of your pen.

History delights in the near miss—the manuscript decaying in the attic, rejected by its author is later published and held to be a work of genius. Negligent executors famously ignore the author’s final wishes. The publication of Virgil’s Aeneid is perhaps the most well-known example of the cultural benefits of author betrayal. The fact is, no one can control their writing after death.

We keep our journals. We write down words; trace our days and mark time. Like photography, or taxidermy, we attempt to preserve something for later. We can never know who in the future might read us … if we will be read at all.

If we could imagine an ideal reader—it would have to be Jenny Balfour Paul. A woman who not only read the journals of Thomas Machell (written between 1840 and 1862) but who retraced his journeys, visited his childhood home, located his grave, connected with his descendants, and imagined the details of his life with clarity and great sympathy. No, indeed, went further than this: fell in love with him, defended him, championed him … and in a strange way became him.

Text and illustration from Thomas' 1847 journal that records his arrival in Muscat, Oman.

Text and illustration from the 1847 journal that records Machell’s arrival in Muscat, Oman. British Library.

Jenny Balfour Paul is recognized internationally as a leading authority on indigo. Her doctoral thesis, Indigo in the Arab World, recorded traditions that had almost completely vanished (in 1983, the year of her first visit to Zabid, Yemen, indigo studios had dwindled from over one hundred in the 1960s to only two). She popularized this famous blue dyestuff with her book Indigo, (first published by the British Museum in 1998) a work that set the benchmark not only for craft research but also for engaging writing. The book is complemented by excellent photography much of it taken by Balfour Paul herself on location throughout the world.

Jenny is voraciously curious. When I first met her it was the quality that most impressed me. Highly intelligent with a precise memory and the ability to piece together disparate bits of information, Jenny’s questioning is almost predatory. One feels that in different circumstances detective work might have been her calling. Already thoroughly immersed in the history and culture of indigo, when she was led to the journals of Thomas Machell the inevitable happened, she began to investigate him and reconstruct his life. Originally she only wanted to publish an edited version of his journals, but her own explorations combined with an uncanny set of coincidences led to the present work.

machell_03

A page from Machell’s journal with text and an illustration of the Baghlah, a large deep-sea dhow. British Library.

Thomas Machell’s personality drew her in. He seduced her from a century and a half away. He was observant, articulate, and possessed a gift for compelling prose. A disability kept him out of the Army and gave him empathy for the cultures that his compatriots were colonizing. He was an eyewitness to the first Opium War as the East Indiaman in which he served, the Worester, was commissioned to bring troops and supplies to Hong Kong. Thomas Machell was at times a sailor, a Bengal indigo planter, a Kerala coffee planter, tutor, a professional writer, and more; but he was above all, an adventurer.

Thomas became a student of languages. The son of the Reverend Machell, Thomas was as openly critical of Christian missionaries as he was of the effects of the colonial project and the transgressions of his fellow countrymen. He was equally wary of fundamentalist Islam (Wahabism) which he encountered while travelling on an Arab Merchant ship, the Hamoody. For five months Thomas donned more comfortable Arab dress and introduced himself as “Sheikh Abdullah el Hajji.” Going ashore Thomas felt “rather bashful as I passed the first English Gentleman I had seen since I assumed the Oriental dress but I was relieved to hear him remark that I was a fierce looking dog.”

While still a teenager and on his second voyage, Thomas arrived in the South Pacific. In the Marquesas he fell in love with “a little savage girl, daughter of a cannibal.”

I felt as if all I saw must be a fantastic dream, but was roused from my trance by the touch of a delicate brown hand on my sleeve, and raising my eyes from the decks I encountered the laughing gaze of a pair of brilliant dark eyes whose glance darted through my whole frame like an electric shock. “Ti ho,” said the little Gypsy laughing in my troubled face, “Ti ho Whyheva moutakee?” And again laid her delicate tattooed hand on my arm. What could I do? From that moment I was the slave of the dark eyed Whyheva, daughter of a savage Chief.

Thomas illustrated his Journals with drawings and water colour paintings. The works have a delightfully innocent, folk-art style. They take the reader immediately into Thomas’ world in a way that would be difficult using a more polished technique. On more than one occasion the drawings guide Balfour Paul in her search for Thomas’ Bengal (and now Bangladesh) plantation houses.

Thomas visits the town barber of Suez.

Machell visits the town barber of Suez. British Library.

As rich as it is, Thomas’ life is only half the tale of Deeper than Indigo. The second half, the mirror image, the echo, will be Jenny’s tale. Taken together they are anima and animus (to use the entirely appropriate Jungian terms for gendered complementary elements). An intrepid traveler herself, Jenny will be the equal of her muse in exploration, journal keeping, and illustration. For example, in 2010 Balfour Paul will book passage on the freighter CMA-CGM’s Coral—the last freighter to take passengers from the UK to India. Like Thomas before her, the four-month journey will take her through pirate-infested waters.

machell_02

The only photograph of Thomas Machell, taken in 1862, the last year of his life.

When Jenny takes her adult daughter Finella to Madhya Pradesh to find Thomas’s grave, elements of life and biography merge into accomplished travel writing. The search has great purpose, yet is frustrated by petty officials, road works, and inevitable temple visits. Through all this Finella provides wry asides to counter the desperate search. The results are witty, humorous, and thoroughly engaging.

Deeper than Indigo is a unique work. It is part biography, part autobiography, part history, part genealogy, part travel writing, and part fiction. Balfour Paul writes the text to complete the last two of Thomas’ missing journals; an act that permits her to include the first Sepoy Uprising of 1857 (also know as the Indian Mutiny) and the subsequent Blue Mutiny in Bengal (British coercion had already let to widespread famine in the area). These were perhaps the most important events of the century for Anglo-India relations and as a former Indigo planter, Thomas would have been at the centre of them.

Deeper than Indigo may hint at comparison to W.G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn. Both Sebald and Balfour Paul combine an inner dialog formed while travelling with expansive historical excursions. Both works, for example, visit the first Opium Wars, and both works follow writers (for Sebald it is Joseph Conrad, for Balfour Paul it is Thomas Machell) and are brought up against the colonial enterprise. But while Sebald’s voice is thoroughly steeped in an exacting melancholy (and just as exacting sentence structure), Balfour Pauls is pellucid—with great veracity but also with a conversational lightness and occasional bathos.

Deeper than Indigo is ultimately a heroic undertaking—both in the lives of its protagonists and in the composition of it pages. It explores many lives and organizes them into a universe of connection. Using poetry, quotes, maps, family trees, illustrations, paintings, photographs, Deeper than Indigo is a symphony of a book. It is a work that vividly evokes a time now lost, and yet clears a window to show how the past is always directing the present. In its investigations it has gone further than most dare go. It has plumbed strange depths that are indeed, deeper than indigo.

Copies are available in the Maiwa Handprints Bookstore.

Sketchbook of H. Craig Hanna

 

H Craig Hanna
Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna
8.5 x 12″ 232 pages Hardcover
Editions Somogy. 2008
$72.00

 
Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 

 

 

 

 

 

His portraits are […] diptychs where, on the one hand, the absolute of a substance or color takes the place of the gods of old, and on the other, the figure has lost the hands of the prayer.

Laurence Lhinares

 

These reviews usually focus on photography and photobooks. However, it would seem that the best photography owes it’s power to the ability to represent something which portrait artists, working in traditional media, accomplish much more naturally. Attempts to define, even vaguely, what this “something” is usually fail, but the attempt itself can be interesting. It is this ‘something’ that separates draftsmanship from art, and it is precisely this elusive nature that makes one return, again and again, to an image in an attempt to feel what it is that tips the balance.

In the Sketchbook by H. Craig Hanna almost every page has this inexplicable quality. The images don’t represent the world, they reconfigure it. Hanna has taken his refined, renaissance skill and then backed up a bit, distressed the image slightly, and through his manipulations amplified the power of these works to communicate both as portraits and as artifacts on paper. One is caught as the face forms out of marks made by the hand. The result is a masterful play between technique and visage. As Laurence Lhinares states in the introductory essay to the book:

Craig Hanna opposes or approaches, we don’t quite know how, pure painting and a taut description of the figure. The counterpoint can play with the opposition of a face in front of two parallel lines, or of a naked body with a simple flower in front of the striations of a wooden panel, a material that the artist overtly displays.

Sketchbook contains the pages and traces of an artist’s life. The spiral rings of the original are just visible and show the edge of the territory. Some pages are filled with Hanna’s scrawl, a writing that unlike his images, has no sense of beauty. As if the image exhausted him and he could not bring himself to control the letters. Some of the work is deliberately loose, as if Hanna were holding back his considerable ability to delineate the objects of the world. The tension between skill and looseness hints at a dramatic power struggle, perhaps one that take place between different parts of the same man.

Hanna’s work is widely exhibited in the art centres of Europe. He earned a commendation in the 2001 BP Portrait Award at the National Portrait Gallery in London. And his work is on regular exhibition at Laurence Esnol Gallery in Paris. Sketchbook is available there or online from the usual sellers.

It is rare that one can call a book unreservedly brilliant. This one is.

Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna
Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna Sketchbook by H Craig Hanna

 

PofI_cover

The People of India

Edited by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye
Published by W.H. Allen and Co. between 1868 and 1875
468 Albumen prints in 8 volumes 13” x 9.5”
Long out of print.

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 
 
 

 

What we have is both an example of the interplay between photographs and text, and a fascinating insight into the mind of the British Raj. The photographs are, for the most part, conventional studio-type portraits of individuals, though there are some fine group studies. It is the texts that are the most revealing: a mixture of gossip, ethnography and military intelligence report, with little attempt at distance or objectivity.

Martin Parr and Gerry Badger – The Photobook: A History volume I

 

PofI_002

From Volume I “Mishimi Hill Tribe, Assam”

In the beginning of the nineteenth century the British found themselves in direct control over much of the Indian subcontinent. Vastly outnumbered by their subjects and facing a bewildering array of religions, languages, customs, tribes, and castes, the British Raj sought to define (and hence regulate and control) the inhabitants of its Indian territories. If, as Foucault suggests, knowledge is both an effect and instrument of power,1 then the project of understanding the myriad facets present in India culture was also a project of recutting that particular gem in the imperial crown in order to let the light of justification and reason shine on the British Raj.

The “definition” of the Indian peoples took place before there was much in the way of either theory or practice of anthropological study. The project of identification and description filled hundreds of volumes. It was made manifest in the census (and accompanying reports) that began in the early 1870s. It formed a substantial part of a series of gazetteers (generally, one volume for each district) and the administrative manuals to various areas. As British officials with an interest in ethnography began to collect and compile accounts, the project of classifying India’s people took the form of a series of “Castes and Tribes” books for different regions. These were heafty multi-volume works. In terms of such publications, the project could be said to start with Edward Balfour’s 1858 Cyclopaedia of India and close with the 1928 four-volume set Mysore Tribes and Castes.

Within the imperial purview, the need for accurate ethnographic information was made acute by the 1857 rebellion. There was a sense among administrators that lack of cultural knowledge could be fatal.2

The project of understanding the Indian cultural landscape was in no way a small one. It was, in fact, the type of project that could only be undertaken with the resources and urgencies of an empire behind it. In the end it would reveal as much about its authors as it did about its subjects. At its worst the classification system sought to announce a theory of racial types. Certain groups were categorized as criminal tribes or castes. Individuals in these groups were thought to be so addicted to crime that it was a defining characteristic of the group (as opposed to crime being a reaction by individuals to economic or social circumstance). Children who belonged to these groups would necessarily display criminal tendencies when they came of age. As part of the classification project, the Criminal Tribes Act was implemented in 1871. Members of a group so classified lost basic human rights and were required to register and report to police on a regular basis.3

At its best, the project was a formative compendium of ethnographic detail completed by sympathetic and intelligent observers who sought to understand the cultures they were living among. While it was true that it was formative anthropology with a heavy bias, it still managed to preserve a wealth of invaluable detail.

Into this massive endeavour, the photograph brought a new documentary authority. The Peoples of India brought into play a number of diverse (and sometimes contradictory) influences and desires. The book itself is the result of multiple authors and photographers. The photographs “were produced without any definite plan, according to local and personal circumstances, by different officers; and copies of each plate were sent home to the Secretary of State for India in Council.”4 On the most superficial level, the eight-volume set was the result of a desire by Lord Canning (Governor-General of India 1855 – 1862) and his wife to have a photographic souvenir of native Indian people.5 After the events of 1857 the project became an official government study. As official publication it sought to communicate the ideology of the British Raj:

This increasing systematization of caste was intimately connected with the development of photography. As much of the effort of ethnological classification was directed by a search for ‘scientific’ precision, the recording of ‘exact’ images by photography logically complemented the compiling of statistical information. Insofar as a photograph of a ‘typical’ member of an ethnic group could be used to identify the precise characteristics, of physiognomy, dress, and manners, that defined the group as a whole.6

Even given the cumbersome nature of early photography equipment it was lightweight compared to other methods of ethnographic recording. The Schlagintweit brothers, commissioned by the East India Company in 1853 to explore and survey the Himalayas, made a large collection of plaster casts of Indian heads.7

If the transport of life-size plaster casts was difficult, it was probably nothing compared to bringing back the actual people. This was a colonial prerogative from the time of Columbus, but toward the end of the eighteenth century it was done in the name of anthropological science. Franz Boas himself helped to orchestrate the Anthropological Hall at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893 where fourteen Kwakiutl were displayed.8

The Peoples of India occupying as it did an uneasy position somewhere between exhibition curiosity and colonial administrative manual was, apparently, largely ignored by the public.9 Many of the photographs are dispassionate, a cross between police line-up and family portrait. They are, of course, remarkable for what they depict and the time they were taken. Many of the group poses are unusual – showing individuals sleeping while leaning up against each other. It is impossible to tell if this was a natural state or a romantic notion on the part of the photographer. There are some excellent portraits in the collection, however, on the whole the photography lacks the impact of a unified vision or an emotional attachment to the subjects. Despite its failings, a photographic project of the range and scope of The People of India would not be undertaken again. The apparatus of the State would switch to photographing individual criminals, and the public’s interest in diverse cultures would be satisfied by professional photographers and travel writers.

The photographs collected were destined for the London International Exhibition of 1862 but, according to John Falconer in his essay “A Passion for Documentation” through lack of time and organization, most of the material arrived too late for inclusion in the exhibition.”

From Volume I, Mullick, Soonee Mahomedan, Behar

From Volume I, “Mullick, Soonee Mahomedan, Behar”

1. I owe this concise statement of Foucault to Nicholas B. Dirks who stated it in Castes of Mind: Colonialism and the making of Modern India, published in 2001 by Princeton University Press.

2. From the British perspective the Indian “Mutiny” was largely explained by a failure of cultural knowledge:
“The final spark was provided by the ammunition for the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. These rifles, which fired Minié balls, had a tighter fit than the earlier muskets, and used paper cartridges that came pre-greased. To load the rifle, sepoys had to bite the cartridge open to release the powder. The grease used on these cartridges included tallow derived from beef; which would be offensive to Hindus, or lard derived from pork; which would be offensive to Muslims.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Rebellion_of_1857

3. Criminal Tribes Act. 1871

4. Preface to  The People of India, the full title of which is The People of India: A Series of Photographic Illustrations with Descriptive Letterpress of The Races And Tribes Of Hindustan, Originally Prepared Under The Authority of The Government of India and Reproduced by Order of The Secretary of State for India In Council.

5. Charles Canning was not disinterested in culture having served on the Royal Commission on the British Museum (1847–49).

6. Thomas R. Metcalf 1997 The New Cambridge History of India. Volume 3, Part 4, Ideologies of the Raj, pg 119.

7. “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography” John Falconer in India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 – 1911 ed. Vidya Dehejia, Charles Allen 2000 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. pg 79.

8. “The Visual in Anthropology” David MacDougall in Rethinking Visual Anthropology ed. Marus Banks, Howard Morphy 1997 Yale University Press p 276.

9. “A Passion for Documentation: Architecture and Ethnography” John Falconer in India Through the Lens: Photography 1840 – 1911 ed. Vidya Dehejia, Charles Allen 2000 Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution. pg 82

 

 

Volume1p60 Volume1p92 Volume1p97 Volume1p111 volume1p148 Volume1p180\

 

silent_warriors

 

 

Silent Warriors
Eric Klemm
Steidl 2009
256 pages Hardcover 9.5 x 11.5″
$45

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin
 

 

Photography is all about perspective. This is both literally and figuratively true. At the end of a photographer’s career this may be the single quality that amplifies or detracts from the images themselves. In a photobook we read the photographer just as much as the photographs. It is this quality that makes a deeper understanding possible. We hope that our notion of what is happening in a book moves beyond “Yeah, that’s a nice picture.” The work may be arranged to grapple with ideas, struggles, individuals, cultures and the question of what is important and what is real.

Take, for example, the work of Edward Curtis. Today, his work is widely regarded as one of the most ambitious and impressive photography projects ever completed. It is also widely acknowledged to be fundamentally flawed. Its flaw is that it sought to document not what he found, but what he wanted to find –  a romantic, Eurocentric idea of the North American Indian as alone, in traditional dress, preferably on a horse, distant, aloof, spiritually aware, and above the worldly materialism of western culture. Edward Curtis didn’t just seek to record history, he sought to manufacture it. The informed modern viewer cannot see the Curtis’ photographs without also seeing his perspective. And tragically, this perspective worked against the very thing Curtis sought to accomplish. Today his work is still very impressive – but it is seldom viewed as an historic record. It is mostly viewed as what it is: a staged romance, a beautiful fiction.

What if someone today once again took up the project of photographing the first nations of North America? How might that look? There is a good chance it would look like Eric Klemm’s Silent Warriors.

To begin with, my intention was to photograph my participants immediately wherever I met them – passing on the street, at a supermarket, at a ceremony or sporting event, to capture that moment just after the eyes meet, that moment while the recognition and acknowledgment of a shared humanity was still in our eyes before the guardedness of difference darkened it.

Klemm’s project was to make three-hundred photographic portraits of “men and women in a style that is contemporary, straightforward, and vital.” When he was finished he had 312 images of individuals from 122 different Tribes, Bands, and Nations. Klemm then worked with the founder of Steidl (Gerhard Steidl) to select the 149 images that appear in the book. The final images are equally partitioned between Canada and the United States. Klemm is careful to avoid saying more than this. “My photographs are not by any means meant to be a comprehensive representation of the images of the North American Indian people.”

The book contains a short description of his encounter with each individual in the back. All but one. Photographing in the centre of Yellowknife, Klemm relates:

A group of natives had gathered around the spot where we had set up the camera. I photographed about 30 different people, and one of them was a drifter called Quinn. He took off his black baseball cap and for a split second his grey hair stood up high, and that was it. Then all hell broke loose. A drunken guy (not a Native) came and yelled at me: If you don’t stop photographing I shoot you in the head. One of the bystanders shouted back: Don’t speak about it, do it. Chris and I took off as quick as we could and that’s what Quinn did too, he disappeared into thin air. In the confusion of the situation we never got his name and address.

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm working in Whispering Pines Reserve, Kamloops, BC, Canada. Photo Chris Taylor.

Working with a simple white backdrop and medium format camera on a tripod, Klemm’s methodology was similar to that Avedon used for In the American West. There is a tragic thread that runs through both works. Avedon completed his work in 1985, the next year he received a letter stating:

I am sorry to informed you that my brother Benson James has passed away in the month of July 1980. The mother of Benson James, (Priscilla James) did not know that her son’s photo was being drawn and was sold to be published in a book that she had received. […] Benson was stabbed about 40 times behind a Cedar Hills grocery store in Gallup, NM. The police had no evidence to this, but the murderer turned himself in, in Vancouver, Washington. (1)

In Klemm’s case he also receives bad news when he mails out a print to one of the subjects, Raymond Eagle. The print went to his mother’s address. She wrote back:

I am writing this note just to let you know what happened to Raymond & thank your for the print. He never wanted to get his picture taken, this is strange … Things haven’t worked out for Ray. He got beat up on Aug. 3/06. He has been in a coma since.

These are the stories that stay with you. They are as powerful as the faces that look out of the pages. But it would be wrong to use these stories alone to give context to the book. There is also youth, optimism, and a steadfast strength. There are photos of individuals who are just off from work, people caught in the midst of daily life, stopping at the grocery store, on the way to meet someone. Many of the people were simply asked to be photographed and they agreed. There are no stylists on these shoots, arranging hair and fixing clothing. There are also a number of portraits taken at ceremonial gatherings in regalia. It is important to remember that in both the United States and Canada, despite official claims of religious freedom, traditional first nation ceremonies were illegal for many decades.

Klemm hopes to pick up Curtis’s project, seventy years later, without the romanticism. He hopes to photograph ordinary people. “People who refused to give up. Because of the scale of the devastation to the North American Indian people and their culture, the mere act of surviving, no matter how desperate the personal or communal conditions, was transformed into an heroic one.”

Silent Warriors has been well received, images were included in the 2007 exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and the project was awarded 1st prize at Prix de la Photographie Paris.
Eric Klemm currently lives on Salt Spring Island, BC, Canada.

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

Eric Klemm - Silent Warriors

1. The letter is reproduced in Avedon at Work: In the American West by Laura Wilson. University Of Texas Press. 2003.

Editor’s Note: On January 2, I posted a critical review of Jimmy Nelson’s “Before They Pass Away.” When I put it up I contacted Jimmy Nelson through his website and offered him the opportunity to respond. He took me up on that offer. What follows is posted exactly as received.

I extend my appreciation to Mr. Nelson for taking the time to send these comments.

Jimmy Nelson

 

 

 

 

 

Tim

Good Afternoon.

Thank you for taking the time to write an article about “Beforethey,” for your blog.

I must compliment you on your observations and your ability to write. A talent that I am afraid I do not have hence why I generally just try and make photographs.

Initially I would like to say that what I have produced is a very personal document which has grown a commercial skin. It goes without saying that producing projects of this scale require enormous investments hence the somewhat pompous way it which it presents itself.

That is not to say that what I see and have experienced is disappearing very quickly and I find it enormously sad. Change is inevitable and the discussion we have here is a healthy way to learn how to progress forward.

Thank you for taking the initiative in contacting me and helping me continue to learn by having to answer your very good questions.

It would be my pleasure to reply to your review.

Culture is a slippery business. It is easy to find yourself authoring of a kind of patronizing determinism – especially when what attracts you to a subject is exotic, distant, and other.

Indeed it is. But not too slippery dare to discuss and yes using the exotic, distant and other, makes it more immediate and attractive to a wider and perhaps originally uninterested new audience.

This is the unfortunate case with Jimmy Nelson’s massive project “Before They Pass Away.” The anthropological assumptions of this project are so heavy handed; are in fact, so loudly announced on the promotional web site, Nelson’s talks, and the book itself, that what might have been a short aside when discussing Nelson’s photographic work demands to be addressed outright.

You are right in saying that my anthropological observations are loudly announced. This is very deliberate, as to cause a stir and to act as a catalyst for discussion . Just the same as the title of the book , Before They Pass Away.

To identify a culture with it’s appearance, and to equate a change in this appearance with the end of a culture, is to make a fundamental mistake. The Scots did not vanish when the kilt went out of fashion. Inuits persist even without beaded mukluks and dogsleds. If North American native peoples do not look as they do in the photographs of Edward Curtis, this does not mean they have “passed away.”

What has “passed away” is a romantic idea of a culture. A fiction.

I believe that culture and appearance are directly linked. This belief has been developed and evolved over many years of me, living, cohabiting and photographing these indigenous cultures. The aesthetic authenticity of their appearance will “Pass Away,” very soon. At the same speed with which the recent digitization of the world has arrived. What is disappearing is not a romantic idea,  it is the essence of our cultural origins and individuality. The Homogenization of the world will spell the death of authentic cultural creative expression.

This romanticism is formulaic. It begins by constructing a dichotomy. There is a fundamental difference between us and them. We are first world. They are tribal. Once this separation is established, the others are described with the values one wishes to project: they are noble, original, true, and pure. Ignore such universal realities conflict (inter-family or inter-tribal) and say that they have a sense of peace and harmony that we have lost.

As far as I am concerned there is already a dichotomy, which is the essence of what I present in my book. You are right when you say there are some universal realities which are ignored. But as I am not a studied anthropologist, I am purely communicating what I have seen and have experienced first hand. More often than not academic criticism and syndical assessments are directed by non objective sources who may not have had first hand experience.

This romantic fiction is disconcerting and not a little bit troubling. It’s a form of reverse discrimination. Instead of portraying tribal peoples all as backward, savage, uneducated, and primitive; portray them all as noble, egalitarian, peaceful, pure, and honest. It is still discrimination – it still ignores the reality of the people. Moreover, once you have isolated them as “original” (existing in a kind of idyllic garden before the fall) you can add the tragic narrative stinger – that they will all soon be gone forever.

Yes it is a reverse observation not discrimination, to bring them to our attention to the fact that their ” Idyllic Garden of eden will definitely soon fall.” It is also tragic narrative portrayed in a romantic non fiction because it is fact. I find it no more troubling that the way we present ourselves in all our developed the worlds printed commercial media. True or false, it is the way we like to perceive ourselves and be perceived accordingly.

It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have  been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant. (3)

Imagine a meeting with a member of these tribes who does not look like the pictures in the book. Imagine meeting a Maasai man in Kenya, out of traditional dress, working, perhaps, as a night security guard. Is he no longer a Massai? That would seem to be the implication – that you didn’t meet him in time, and that the Maasai, like the rest of the cultures in the book have “passed away.” Perhaps also, during such a meeting, the man is not able to teach you about “love, respect, peace, survival and sharing.”  Obviously it was too late.

The Massai working as a Night Security Guard is still a Massai. Much the same as a Cherokee Indian working in Mc Donalds. But what they are both not capable of teaching us “Love peace, survival and sharing as perhaps they used to when they lived, acted and dressed in their traditional settings. What they now teach would be an applied set of lessons. Lessons adapted to a very different world to that from where they originated. Lessons which would definatley not be traditional.

Indeed, in Nelson’s mind it is already too late for North America, where “the tribes haven’t fully retained their heritage the way others have.” (4)

Indeed it is too late for the Cherokee working in McDonalds . Not only have they not retained their heritage but they have lost all relative respect and pride.  Both of which are still to be seen in the tribes and cultures which I documented.

I began this review wanting to praise the photographic beauty of Nelson’s portraiture. The photographs are exceptional, carefully positioned with delicate light and a direct intimate closeness. I like the formal precision of them and it does not worry me that the subjects are carefully placed and posed. By all accounts Nelson’s interaction with individuals from the various groups was considered and time consuming. I don’t suspect that he exploited individuals and it is not surprising that “Before They Pass Away” is a commercial project. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking pictures of people, tribal or otherwise, provided the interaction is honest. Photographs, after all, are a common method of investigation, discovery, and representation.

There are many ways this project could have been staged and presented: as a series of portraits; as a showcase of regalia and costume; as a catalogue of remarkable people. Or better still, let the people speak for themselves.

Thank you for the compliment and yes the photography is very time consuming and as I have communicated at length, this project is still in its infancy. Production is in place to return to all the subjects in question and present them with the book and their photographs. A process which will be documented on film and give the people the voice to speak for themselves.

But I cannot get beyond the patronizing marketing material and the imperial posturing of the project. The title says everything. To be included in the book is to be an exotic other who is doomed. Peter Blaise, author of the anthropological introduction to each group, states:

“Because they are the last original humans, we must give them as many chances as we can to let them co-exist in modern times. This will not happen without intelligent plans. We are invited to organize their continuity, to paint their souls for posterity, if we don’t, they will indeed disappear forever and an essential part of us will disappear with them.” (5)

What?

What Mark Blaisse , the author to the introduction states is 100% correct in his statement.

With his talk of “the last authentics” and “pure sources,” one almost expects Nelson to start talking about eugenics.

 But who decides what is authentic and how?

 Is this judgment, in fact, not about cultural integrity at all, but rather about entertainment? That is, a judgment about visual representation: about Jimmy Nelson’s idea of what it means to be culturally real. Perhaps it would be more “authentic” for Nelson to speak personally, and simply state that he finds the Maori photogenic – the Navajo, less so. He is certainly free to photograph whom he pleases. But making pronouncements about the authenticity of a culture betrays an incredible cultural arrogance.

In this case as well as in the production and sale of the book, I state at length that what I have seen is photogenic. I state at length that my representation is one of positive discrimination.

I have decided from personal experience, which is anything but culturally arrogant that what I have photographed is my personal vision and designed to create debate.

Before They Pass Away” seems to have the ghostly hand of Edward Sheriff Curtis directing it. Both Nelson and Curtis seem to share more than just their flawed romanticism. Both projects attracted financial backers with deep pockets. For Curtis it was J.P. Morgan (who put up 75,000 dollars in 1906), for Nelson it was Marcel Boekhoorn (who put up an initial contribution of 400,000 euros). Both photographers have put out extremely expensive, rare book editions of their photographs.

The similarities are of no coincidence as I used Edward Sheriff Curtis as a inspiration.  Curtis 30 year document can be perceived as romantic yes but as flawed?

“Taken as a whole, the work of Edward Curtis is a singular achievement. Never before have we seen the Indians of North America so close to the origins of their humanity, their sense of themselves in the world, their innate dignity and self-possession. These photographs comprehend more than an aboriginal culture, more than a prehistoric past — more, even, than a venture into a world of incomparable beauty and nobility. Curtis’s photographs comprehend indispensable images of every human being at every time in every place. In the focus upon the landscape of the continent and its indigenous people, a Curtis photograph becomes universal.

Edward Curtis preserved for us the unmistakable evidence of our involvement in the universe.”  N. Scott Momaday

For Nelson it was one, massive, oversize book measuring 42 x 59 cm containing 464 pages and selling for 6500 euros (aprox 9000 dollars). (9) This may seem expensive, however, Curtis’ 20 volumes (completed between 1907 and 1930) of ethnographic text and photographic images (over 2250 photogravure images were included in the final edition) stands alone not only as the most “photographically accomplished and influential record ever produced of Native cultures in the United States” (9) but as “the largest, the longest, the most ambitious and the most expensive photographic project ever attempted in photography.” (11)

It is especially odd that, working today and knowing the criticisms leveled at Curtis, Nelson did not temper or recast his project. It is perhaps equally odd that, knowing that Curtis had completed such an ambitious ethnographic mapping (the largest photographic project in human history – the scope of which Nelson could never hope to match) he still judged the North American tribal cultures as having “not fully retained their heritage.” By Nelson’s own peculiar standards, Curtis’ work failed in the cultural preservation that he so fervently hopes his own exposures will accomplish.

With all Grand artistic cultural statements, both positive and negative criticism ensues. Edward Curtis received both but the in hindsight large majority of contemporary critic is positive and admirable for the monumental undertaking he achieved.  As I have only just begun my project Beforethey it seems very difficult to make an direct immediate comparison with Curtis’s extraordinary ethnographic mapping. Let alone to judge me for my own peculiar standards on a result of an undertaking which is far from finished let alone to be applied to long term cultural preservation.

 Yes, cultures are rapidly changing. Yes, many are endangered (UNESCO estimates that by the close of this century approximately half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will no longer be used). Yes, many cultures are remarkable, possessing attributes, customs, and attire that redefines and expands notions of human ingenuity and creativity. And yes, a well-executed visual record is an invaluable document.

A photograph is neither true nor false. It simply is. It is what we say about the photograph which will stand as honest or fabricated. Hence it is disappointing to read a book that had the potential to be one of the most beautiful books ever produced, and find that, instead of speaking about these very real cultures and the challenges they face with an expanding modern culture, Jimmy Nelson has forced them to play a part in a colonialist myth – the myth of the noble savage.

The book which was intended to be one of the most beautiful photographic books ever produced is only the first step on a long journey of cultural documentation and dialogue to the challenges we all face in an ever expanding modern world . With this initial visual statement of the Beforethey book , I hope to learn with active discussion how to broaden my knowledge and better communicate that many cultures are remarkable and that continuing with my well intended and executed visual recordings I can provide further invaluable documentation and continuing debate.

Kind Regards

Jimmy Nelson

 

 

Before They Pass Away Cover

Before They Pass Away
Jimmy Nelson
XXL Edition 464 pages, 42 x 59 cm, 6500 euros
Trade Edition 424 pages, 29 x 37 cm, 128 euros

Reviewed by Tim McLaughlin

The thought which this picture is meant to convey is that the Indians as a race, already shorn of their tribal strength and stripped of their primitive dress, are passing into the darkness of an unknown future.

Edward Curtis (1)
Photo Caption

In 1830 when the American President, Andrew Jackson, fulfilling an election promise to his western and southern supporters, pushed the Removal Act through Congress, he did so in order to get rid of thousands of Indians — particularly the Cherokees, Choctaws, Chickasaws, Creeks, and Seminoles — who were not dying and not particularly interested in going anywhere. 

These were not the Indians that Curtis went west to find.

Curtis was looking for the literary Indian, the dying Indian, the imaginative construct. And to make sure that he would find what he wanted to find, he took along boxes of “Indian” paraphernalia — wigs, blankets, painted backdrops, clothing, — in case he ran into Indians who did not look as the Indian was supposed to look.

Thomas King (2)
The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative

Edward Curtis - Sioux Chiefs

Edward Curtis – Sioux Chiefs

Culture is a slippery business. It is easy to find yourself authoring of a kind of patronizing determinism – especially when what attracts you to a subject is exotic, distant, and other.

This is the unfortunate case with Jimmy Nelson’s massive project “Before They Pass Away.” The anthropological assumptions of this project are so heavy handed; are in fact, so loudly announced on the promotional web site, Nelson’s talks, and the book itself, that what might have been a short aside when discussing Nelson’s photographic work demands to be addressed outright.

To identify a culture with it’s appearance, and to equate a change in this appearance with the end of a culture, is to make a fundamental mistake. The Scots did not vanish when the kilt went out of fashion. Inuits persist even without beaded mukluks and dogsleds. If North American native peoples do not look as they do in the photographs of Edward Curtis, this does not mean they have “passed away.”

What has “passed away” is a romantic idea of a culture. A fiction.

Jimmy Nelson Before They Pass Away

This romanticism is formulaic. It begins by constructing a dichotomy. There is a fundamental difference between us and them. We are first world. They are tribal. Once this separation is established, the others are described with the values one wishes to project: they are noble, original, true, and pure. Ignore such universal realities conflict (inter-family or inter-tribal) and say that they have a sense of peace and harmony that we have lost.

I’m not making this up. This is exactly the copy that fades in and out of the “Before They Pass Away” web site:

“Jimmy Nelson’s vision connects us to the purity of mankind.”

“Tribes teach us aspects of humanity such as love, respect, peace, survival and sharing.”

“A reminder of the harmony between man and nature that once was.”

“The tribes in Nelson’s book demonstrate the essence of life.”

“An example of pure and honest living.”

“The tribes achieved a harmony with nature that we can only dream of.”

This romantic fiction is disconcerting and not a little bit troubling. It’s a form of reverse discrimination. Instead of portraying tribal peoples all as backward, savage, uneducated, and primitive; portray them all as noble, egalitarian, peaceful, pure, and honest. It is still discrimination – it still ignores the reality of the people. Moreover, once you have isolated them as “original” (existing in a kind of idyllic garden before the fall) you can add the tragic narrative stinger – that they will all soon be gone forever.

It is a dangerous move to fictionalize a culture. By promoting a romantic ideal with a naïve set of attributes, the first steps have  been taken toward eliminating that culture. Because you say what is authentic and what is not, you can erase entire cultures in an instant. (3)

Imagine a meeting with a member of these tribes who does not look like the pictures in the book. Imagine meeting a Maasai man in Kenya, out of traditional dress, working, perhaps, as a night security guard. Is he no longer a Massai? That would seem to be the implication – that you didn’t meet him in time, and that the Maasai, like the rest of the cultures in the book have “passed away.” Perhaps also, during such a meeting, the man is not able to teach you about “love, respect, peace, survival and sharing.”  Obviously it was too late.

Indeed, in Nelson’s mind it is already too late for North America, where “the tribes haven’t fully retained their heritage the way others have.” (4)

Jimmy Nelson Before They Pass Away

I began this review wanting to praise the photographic beauty of Nelson’s portraiture. The photographs are exceptional, carefully positioned with delicate light and a direct intimate closeness. I like the formal precision of them and it does not worry me that the subjects are carefully placed and posed. By all accounts Nelson’s interaction with individuals from the various groups was considered and time consuming. I don’t suspect that he exploited individuals and it is not surprising that “Before They Pass Away” is a commercial project. There is nothing inherently wrong with taking pictures of people, tribal or otherwise, provided the interaction is honest. Photographs, after all, are a common method of investigation, discovery, and representation.

There are many ways this project could have been staged and presented: as a series of portraits; as a showcase of regalia and costume; as a catalogue of remarkable people. Or better still, let the people speak for themselves.

But I cannot get beyond the patronizing marketing material and the imperial posturing of the project. The title says everything. To be included in the book is to be an exotic other who is doomed. Peter Blaise, author of the anthropological introduction to each group, states:

“Because they are the last original humans, we must give them as many chances as we can to let them co-exist in modern times. This will not happen without intelligent plans. We are invited to organize their continuity, to paint their souls for posterity, if we don’t, they will indeed disappear forever and an essential part of us will disappear with them.” (5)

What?

It may come as a surprise to the Tibetans, the Maori, and many others in the book that their cultural integrity depends on Jimmy Nelson’s photographic project.(6) Moreover it may be a shock to learn that their culture is public property, and that the world (presumably the first world so lacking in harmony and balance) has been invited to organize them for posterity.

We are invited to paint their souls?

In an interview posted on Time Lightbox Nelson claims “We’re out of context, that doesn’t mean we should reset to tribal living, but instead create a dialog with the last of the authentics to see where we went wrong; to learn from the purest source what they’re doing right and to take that with us into the future.” (7)

With his talk of “the last authentics” and “pure sources,” one almost expects Nelson to start talking about eugenics.

In his 2003 Massey Lecture, “The Truth About Stories” author Thomas King talks about the difficulty in presenting himself as a North American native when speaking publically. In particular, if he dressed as a native and spoke as a native he was seen as “entertainment.” Interesting, but not to be taken too seriously. If, on the other hand, he dressed as a white (western suit and tie) and reasoned like a white he was no longer either authentic or native and had no authority to speak on behalf of first nations. There is no escape from the authenticity trap.

“When I was going to university there was an almost irresistible pull to become what Gerald Vizenor calls a “cultural ritualist” a kind of “pretend” Indian, an Indian who has to dress up like and Indian and act like and Indian in order to be recognized as an Indian. […] We dressed up as the “Indian” dressed. We dressed up in a manner to substantiate the cultural lie that had trapped us, and we did so with a passion.” (8)

These are the very real difficulties of appearance. Maori are authentic (they get into the book) while Navajo are not – “they have not fully retained their heritage.” Neither option is very empowering. As blogger Scott Hamilton has pointed out when talking about Nelson’s portrayal of the Maori “For scholars of history and sociology, the noble savage myth recycled by Nelson is an annoyance; for indigenous artists, though, it is a serious threat.” (9)

But who decides what is authentic and how?

Is this judgment, in fact, not about cultural integrity at all, but rather about entertainment? That is, a judgment about visual representation: about Jimmy Nelson’s idea of what it means to be culturally real. Perhaps it would be more “authentic” for Nelson to speak personally, and simply state that he finds the Maori photogenic – the Navajo, less so. He is certainly free to photograph whom he pleases. But making pronouncements about the authenticity of a culture betrays an incredible cultural arrogance.

“Before They Pass Away” seems to have the ghostly hand of Edward Sheriff Curtis directing it. Both Nelson and Curtis seem to share more than just their flawed romanticism. Both projects attracted financial backers with deep pockets. For Curtis it was J.P. Morgan (who put up 75,000 dollars in 1906), for Nelson it was Marcel Boekhoorn (who put up an initial contribution of 400,000 euros). Both photographers have put out extremely expensive, rare book editions of their photographs.

For Nelson it was one, massive, oversize book measuring 42 x 59 cm containing 464 pages and selling for 6500 euros (aprox 9000 dollars). (10) This may seem expensive, however, Curtis’ 20 volumes (completed between 1907 and 1930) of ethnographic text and photographic images (over 2250 photogravure images were included in the final edition) stands alone not only as the most “photographically accomplished and influential record ever produced of Native cultures in the United States” (11) but as “the largest, the longest, the most ambitious and the most expensive photographic project ever attempted in photography.” (12)

It is especially odd that, working today and knowing the criticisms leveled at Curtis, Nelson did not temper or recast his project. It is perhaps equally odd that, knowing that Curtis had completed such an ambitious ethnographic mapping (the largest photographic project in human history – the scope of which Nelson could never hope to match) he still judged the North American tribal cultures as having “not fully retained their heritage.” By Nelson’s own peculiar standards, Curtis’ work failed in the cultural preservation that he so fervently hopes his own exposures will accomplish.

Yes, cultures are rapidly changing. Yes, many are endangered (UNESCO estimates that by the close of this century approximately half of 6000 plus languages spoken today will no longer be used). Yes, many cultures are remarkable, possessing attributes, customs, and attire that redefines and expands notions of human ingenuity and creativity. And yes, a well-executed visual record is an invaluable document.

A photograph is neither true nor false. It simply is. It is what we say about the photograph which will stand as honest or fabricated. Hence it is disappointing to read a book that had the potential to be one of the most beautiful books ever produced, and find that, instead of speaking about these very real cultures and the challenges they face with an expanding modern culture, Jimmy Nelson has forced them to play a part in a colonialist myth – the myth of the noble savage.

About the author:

In addition to critical writing, Tim McLaughlin is a photographer and designer who has been working to help document traditional craft techniques for over ten years. At times this involves working with tribal cultures (mostly in India). He has worked as the designer on the museum exhibition “Through the Eye of a Needle” documenting the tribal embroidery of the Kutch desert in India. He also edited the documentary film and co-authored the book of the same name. In 2005 he helped bring two of the tribal embroiderers to Canada for the Maiwa Textile Symposium. More recently through Maiwa he has been working with embroiderers from the tribal Banjara community.

Notes:

1. Edward Curtis’ photo caption is quoted in: The wrongheaded obsession with “vanishing” indigenous peoples by ELISSA WASHUTA. http://www.salon.com/2013/11/24/americas_wrongheaded_obsession_with_vanishing_indigenous_peoples/

2. Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Massey Lecture Series 2003. Available as audio from CBC radio: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey-archives/2003/11/07/massey-lectures-2003-the-truth-about-stories-a-native-narrative/

3. Within this conversation it is important to keep in mind that many interests (from governments that must honour treaties, to corporations who work in resource extraction) see indigenous cultures as holding rights to territory and status that are a hinderance. There is often a vested interest in eliminating tribal status. If tribal status is interpreted to be the equivalent of visual appearance (or an idea of a tribal people as not modern) then it becomes easier to deny a group status. This is the goal of much government legislation which states who is native and who is not.

4. Portraits of the Authentics: Photographing Ancient Cultures Before They Pass Away – LightBox http://lightbox.time.com/2013/10/31/portraits-of-the-authentics-photographing-ancient-cultures-before-they-pass-away/#ixzz2pGy08mxP

5. Before They Pass Away. Trade Edition Book. “Painted Souls: The Beauty of our Origins” by Peter Blaise.

6. At least one Maori has blogged about the unusual experience of discovering the book. Jay Dizzle “We’re Not Dead Yet.” Posted November 11, 2013 http://jdhq.blogspot.ca/2013/11/were-not-dead-yet.html

7. Portraits of the Authentics. See (3)

8. Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative. Massey Lecture Series 2003.

King’s comments on Edward Curtis are worth quoting at length:

Curtis was fascinated by the idea of the North American Indian, was in fact obsessed with it. And he was determined to capture that idea, that image, before it vanished. This was a common concern among many intellectuals and artists and social scientists at the turn of the nineteenth century, who believed that, while Europeans in the New World were poised on the brink of a new adventure, the Indian was poised on the brink of extinction.

In literature in the United States, this span of time is known as the American Romantic Period, and the Indian was tailor made for it. With its emphasis on feeling, its interest in nature, its fascination with exoticism, mysticism and eroticism, and its preoccupation with the glorification of the past, American Romanticism found in the Indian a symbol in which all these concerns could be united. Prior to the nineteenth century, the prevalent image of the Indian has been that of an inferior being. The romantics imagined their Indian as dying. But in that dying, in that passing away, in that disappearing from the stage of human progress, there was also a sense of nobility.

I probably sound a little cranky – I don’t mean to. I know Curtis paid Indians to shave away any facial hair. I know he talked them into wearing wigs. I know that he would provide one tribe of Indians with clothing from another tribe because the clothing looked more “Indian.”

So his photographs would look authentic.

And while there is a part of me that would have preferred that Curtis had photographed his Indians as he found them, the men with crewcuts and moustaches, the women in cotton print dresses, I am grateful that we have his images at all. For the faces of the mothers and fathers, and aunts and uncles, the sisters and brothers who look at you from the depths of these photographs are not romantic allusions, they are real people.

9. The noble savage and the Toilet Club. Posted November 9, 2013 on “Reading the Maps” a blog by Scott Hamilton. http://readingthemaps.blogspot.ca/2013/11/the-noble-savage-and-toilet-club.html

10. Beforethey.com Nelson’s work is also offered in a more conventional format, measuring 29cm x 37cm, containing 424 pages and four gatefolds. It is a behemoth that requires a table to support it and sells for approx. $150.

11. ‘Art-Science’: The North American Indian (1907-30) as Photobook. Shamoon Zamir. published in The PhotoBook from Talbot to Ruscha and Beyond ed Patrisia Di Bello, Colette Wilson & Shamoon Zamir.

12. Martin Parr and Gerry Badger, The Photobook: A History. Vol 1.