After Image

At the end of a photo-filled century, can the camera still see?

| November/December 1999

When photography first began to fascinate the public in the mid-19th century, many painters feared the new 'foe to graphic art' would put them out of business. Meanwhile, those on the other side of the lens sometimes feared for their souls. The French poet Charles Baudelaire thought that true art gave something to the human soul, which photos could not do. Mistake this wondrous recording tool for art, he warned in 1859, and both art and viewer would be the worse for it.

Viewed from the close of a media-saturated 20th century, Baudelaire's prophecy has proven at least partly true. With photos now surrounding us by the millions, we lose the energy to choose any one of them and end by ignoring--at least consciously--all of them. Aside from the occasional, sentimental flip through the family album, we tend to take photos for granted. Who took the picture, and how, are questions that rarely come to mind when we're flipping through a magazine. And as to why the picture was taken, we hardly have to ask: for the money.

But as three new books reveal, Baudelaire was wrong to think the photo could not be art--even in an age when photography has been suffocated by its own bulk. Photos, and their subjects, still have stories to tell. Though we can never know what it was like to witness the birth of photography, we can still see its unique power in action, especially among those who have yet to be overexposed to the idea that a captured moment in time can bear an eerie likeness to reality.

The Anthology of African and Indian Ocean Photography (Revue Noire, $85), a perfect blend of short historical essays and images, sets out to be no less than 'a first general exploration of the photography of a continent.' Tracing the birth of African photography back to the late 19th century, the book chronicles the seemingly universal sense that the camera captures a glimpse of intangible realms. According to South African photographer Santu Mofokeng, photos in early 20th century Africa were seen as 'a world between the real and the imaginary . . . noted and pulled out of context. Moments reduced to simple apparitions, flashes of reflected light captured and stored in the film's memory.'

The reader is cautioned early on not to regard African photography as a single style--a point reinforced by the stunning array of pictures from many different countries, ranging from early portraiture and postcard work to modern, politically charged photojournalism. Early African photographers were regarded less as artists pursuing their own brilliant visions--the Western model--than as community members working to portray their subjects in the way they wished to be seen.

Now that many African-born artists are studying in Europe and the United States, the modern photographer's role is changing. 'My work is experimental; the result is often a surprise and there is a high factor of chance,' writes the young Angolan photographer Rui Tavares. 'Witch doctor? Magician? Alchemist? I don't know. . . .' The history of African photography may be steeped in portraiture, but the future promises to be more diverse.

Even today there are communities that do not want the camera to invade their lives. In the photo-essay Hutterite: A World of Grace (Edition Stemmle, $75) photographer Kristin Capp manages to chronicle such a world: the Hutterite agricultural colonies of eastern Washington state and Saskatchewan, Canada. Capp's remarkable record evokes what may have been the original effect of the camera on a people as yet unschooled in, or immune to, its intrusions. Like the Mennonites and the Amish, the Hutterites--a sect with roots in 16th century radical Protestantism--observe strict codes of behavior and dress. Reproducing one's image is generally discouraged among the Hutterites as an idolatrous attempt to mimic God's perfect creation: man.

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