Looking Out, Looking In
First Seen: Portraits of the World's Peoples (1840-1880) at the University Art Museum
By Steven Robert Allen
These days, it's easy to take armchair travel for granted. With 8,000 cable channels at our fingertips, nothing could be simpler than to kick back in our La-Z-Boys with our remote in one hand and a cup of hot cocoa in the other as we take in exotic sights and sounds from the furthest reaches of the globe.
A century and a half ago, though, ordinary people had very little access to the world outside their immediate locales. Some had access to the travel accounts of explorers. Some had seen paintings and drawings of distant places. But they had no way to directly witness what people on other continents looked like.
The invention of photography—which occurred almost simultaneously in England and France—changed all that forever. European photographers immediately set off around the planet to document diverse cultures. The results gave people back home their first true glimpses of the inhabitants of the world.
The traveling exhibit of 19th-century photographs currently on display at UNM's Art Museum incorporates some of the finest examples of this work from the first few decades after photography's invention. Creating these images was no easy task. In our era of tiny palm-held digital cameras, the sort of bulky, heavy, utterly inconvenient equipment necessary to take a picture at the dawn of the photographic age seems almost inconceivable.
Also, due to lengthy exposure times that could last several minutes, early photographs lack any sense of spontaneity. Every image, even the "action" shots, are totally staged. Looking at the portraits in this show, you might come to the conclusion that 19th-century people were unnaturally stiff, formal and statuesque. Not true. The state of the technology simply required that subjects freeze for long periods of time to get a clear image.
It's a fascinating yet disturbing show in other ways as well. An image by Rev. John Wheeley Gough Gutch of a quartet of miners in Cornwall, for example, shows four tough, damaged, ornery boys. One of them looks like he might be 12 years old. The rest couldn't possibly be over 10. The misery etched into their young, tired faces is gut-wrenchingly palpable.
A series of photographs by Joseph Montano is disturbing for a different reason. His images of individuals in the Philippines have a distinctly racist tinge. Montano placed his subjects in front of plain sheets, in profile, so he could best exhibit the outlines of their facial features and skulls. These photographs are cold, scientific, as if he were documenting newly discovered exotic animals—rather than fellow humans—to show the folks back home.
Even more alarming is a group of photos taken by Colonel William Willoughby Hooper of famine victims in Bangalor. The emaciated bodies look all too familiar to modern eyes, but Hooper's techniques will still seem shocking. He apparently gathered women and kids who were starving to death in his studio, took careful pictures of them and then sent them back to the countryside without even feeding them. For his astonishing cruelty, he was roundly skewered in the British press.
Despite such morbid displays, this is an enlightening show. When people finally had the opportunity to create precise 2D reproductions of the physical world, they first turned the lens on each other. It was human faces, human features, human lives and human realities that fascinated us above all else. In that way, the 21st century really isn't all that different from the 19th.
First Seen: Portraits of the World's Peoples (1840-1880) runs through May 14 at the University Art Museum. Co-curated by Kathleen Stewart Howe and Karen Sinsheimer. Organized by the Santa Barbara Museum of Art; sponsored by Santa Barbara Bank & Trust. 277-4001.
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