It is evident that, as the study of photography in Africa opens up, many other fascinating topics will emerge. Photographs by Africans, of Africans, and of African arts in and out of context will come to receive the fuller attention they deserve (Cole and Ross 1985a:28).
In the late nineteenth and throughout the twentieth centuries, the repositioning of photographs as art rather than as documents relying on mechanical reproduction coincided with the growing appreciation of objects from Africa, which moved from being perceived solely as ethnographica and artifacts into the domain of art. Beyond these parallel histories, photography and African art have been intertwined in other ways, for photographic representations of objects from the African continent in print media helped legitimize them as artistic expressions. At the same time, photographs taken in Africa illustrated explorers', ethnographic, missionary, and governmental publications and provided evidence, that is, glimpses of the contexts, in which objects appeared and were used. Thus, photography played an important role in presenting and contextualizing African art when African Arts was founded fifty years ago.
This overview examines photography's essential role throughout African Arts' history. It highlights three special issues on photography and a selection of essays and features that appeared in the journal over the years. (The numerous reviews of exhibitions and books devoted to photography and Africa are, however, beyond the scope of this brief discussion.) I focus on several interrelated aspects, beginning with the journal's use of field images, that is, pictures evoking context, and contributions devoted to the evidentiary nature of such pictures. In another set of essays, which foregrounded image making by European and American professional photographers and researchers in the humanities and social sciences, photographs moved from illustrations providing context to the actual text to be examined. The final part of this overview looks at contributions exploring indigenous photographic practices on the continent, the social lives of images in different material forms, and the nature of the African archive.
The first issue of African Arts in autumn of 1967 set the stage for the subsequent use of color and black-and-white images and contextual photographs, which illustrated several articles. To give just one example, Peggy Harper, a dancer and choreographer who studied life and dance in Nigeria, contributed an essay entitled “Dance in a Changing Society” (Harper 1967). It provides documentary images of dances, taken by Harper and Frank [Francis] Speed, an acclaimed British ethnographic filmmaker and photographer, who recorded the cultures in Nigeria (Fig. 1). In 1969, the journal presented the first field images on its cover and back, with the back one artfully enhanced by Alice McGaughey, the journal's designer (Fig. 2). Taken by folklorist Dan Ben-Amos during work in Nigeria, these images accompanied an illustrated essay entitled “Keeping the Town Healthy: Ekpo Ritual in Avbiama Village,” an Edo village in the Benin Kingdom, by Paula Ben-Amos Girshick and Osarenren Omoregie (Ben-Amos and Omoregie 1969).1
These and many other pictures in the journal belong to the tradition of photography for evidentiary and scholarly purposes, which began in the mid nineteenth century, after the first photographic processes had been invented and became commercially available. Soon explorers, travelers, and researchers in various disciplines, most prominently in anthropology, as well as missionaries, colonial employees, and residents in Africa, engaged in photography, using the technology to create seemingly objective documents.2 Throughout the twentieth century, and certainly by the 1960s, taking along cameras and film for documentary purposes had become de rigueur for researchers in disciplines such as anthropology, art history, and architecture.
Much to the chagrin of the editorial staff, however, many contextual pictures submitted for publication did not meet the high professional standards of the journal, which strove to appeal to a scholarly readership as well as to collectors, connoisseurs, and general readers not involved in academic pursuits. This gave rise to the first special issue on photography in 1985, in which editors Herbert M. Cole and Doran H. Ross covered different aspects of image making in Africa. Their article “The Art and Technology of Field Photography” provided practical advice on image aesthetics and technical matters before the advent of digital photography (Cole and Ross 1985a). The issue included essays with exquisite pictures by professional photographers such as Carollee Pelos, an interview with Carol Beckwith, and a note by René Gardi, featuring their statements about the challenges of image making in Africa (Fig. 3). A memoir by G.I. Jones—former administrator in Nigeria and later lecturer in anthropology at Cambridge University—on his field photographs from Nigeria highlighted the work of nonprofessionals, for lack of a better term, and demonstrated the aesthetic and evidentiary value of their photographs (see Cole and Ross 1985b; Gardi and Gross 1985; Jones 1985; Pelos 1985).
EUROPEAN AND AMERICAN IMAGE MAKERS AND PHOTO ESSAYS
The 1985 special issue was not the first presenting the work of photographers from the geographic north. The earliest note on a single image maker dates back to autumn of 1974. It served as an obituary for and celebration of Eliot Elisofon (1911–1973), a prolific documentary photographer, collector, and champion of African art (Nooter and Nooter 1974). The cover, with the subtitle “The Photography of Eliot Elisofon,” featured a picture of a mosque in Mali (Fig. 4).3 Elisofon photographs appeared as illustrations in African Arts, in many other publications, and in exhibitions on the arts of Africa and created an image of Africa for a generation of viewers. An exploration of his practice, vision, and interventions seemed an appropriate step when the journal introduced the Photo Essay department in 1993. “Two Days in Mushenge: Eliot Elisofon's Images of the Kuba (1947)” described the unfolding of Elisofon's photo shoot in Nsheng, the capital of the Kuba kingdom, and how the ruler himself and his courtiers actively participated in the construction of the/their images (Geary 1993).4
Over the years, short photo essays presented a broad spectrum of themes and provided a forum for professional photographers and researchers who excelled in photography, and for illustrated research notes. To mention just a few: art historian Gary Van Wyk (1998) presented his images of mural art of Basotho women in South Africa; Susan Vogel, an art historian and filmmaker, provided images for art historian's Mary Jo Arnoldi's article on Sòmonò puppet masquerades in Kirango, Mali (Vogel and Arnoldi 2001); and anthropologist, photographer, and filmmaker Frédérique Cifuentes (2008) contributed a piece about the Sufi movements in Sudan.
Other image makers also garnered attention. A photo essay in a special 1995 issue commemorating William Buller Fagg (1914–1992) explored his visual legacy. Fagg was Keeper of the Department of Anthropology at the British Museum and had conducted pioneering work on the arts of Nigeria. Deborah Stokes discussed his archive of some 3000 black-and-white negatives of field photographs (Stokes Hammer 1994; Stokes 2003).5 A frequent contributor to African Arts, the missionary, anthropologist, and collector Paul Gebauer (1900–1977) also created an extensive visual record while in Cameroon between 1931 and 1961. He published many images in his own writings, among them a piece on dances in Cameroon (Gebauer 1971), with one of his photographs selected for the journal's cover (Fig. 5). After his passing, his vast image archive became the focus of essays by Virginia-Lee Webb (1987) and Yaëlle Biro (2012).6
THE “VISUAL TURN” IN THE HUMANITIES AND SOCIAL SCIENCES
By the late 1980s, research and publishing on photography and Africa through the disciplinary frames of history, cultural anthropology, and art history were thriving (see Hartmann, Silvester, and Hayes 1999; Killingray and Roberts 1989; Landau and Kaspin 2002; and Edwards 1992). Postmodernist critiques of colonialisms in Africa and other parts of the world engaged with the colonial visual record in archives, examining the ways in which it reflected and enacted the creators' and viewers' stereotypes and invention of Africa (Mudimbe 1988). Scholars examined the work of early European and American photographers, long-neglected materials in archives, and developed theoretical approaches and methodologies to interpret images.
Six years after the first special on photography, a second photographic issue explored historical photographs of Africa from these different vantage points (Fig. 6). It was my pleasure to serve as guest editor and bring together researchers who were familiar with archival collections and the cultural settings in which the photographs had been created (Geary 1991). In an important contribution reflecting the scholarly discourse at the time, historian David Prochaska critically examined the “postcard world of colonial Senegal” as an archive of colonialism, castigating the cards' role in promulgating racial and gender stereotypes and reinforcing Western perceptions of colonial achievement (Prochaska 1991:40, 47).7 Anthropologist and Keeper at the Museum of Mankind, British Museum, John Mack discussed the visual documentation of cultures in the present-day southern Democratic Republic of the Congo during Hungarian ethnographer Emil Torday's expeditions between 1900 and 1909 (Mack 1991). Enid Schildkrout, then curator of Anthropology at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, analyzed images of the Belgian Congo by Herbert Lang taken between 1909–1915 during an expedition sponsored by her museum (Schildkrout 1991). They presented nuanced analyses of Torday's and Lang's scientific missions and of the agency of the photographers and subjects in the photographic occasion.
NEW APPROACHES AND THE INCLUSION OF AFRICAN PHOTOGRAPHIES8
Theoretical and methodological understandings of photography in Africa have evolved since the 1990s. Critical studies on photography and colonialisms continued, as did the examination of the practice of individual European and American—and by extension, South African—image makers. At the same time, researchers began to explore the role of indigenous photographers, their practices as distinct local articulations, their creative interventions, and the local and at times international milieus and networks they were embedded in. They addressed questions of the photographic subjects' agency in the encounters with image makers and performative aspects of photography, as well as the nature of the African archive.
African Arts had published its first contribution about African photographers9 and their practice many years earlier, when it presented Stephen Sprague's seminal essay entitled “Yoruba Photography: How the Yoruba See Themselves,” a much-cited and reprinted classic (Sprague 1978). Sprague (1942–1979), a photographer himself, interviewed local photographers and described their techniques, range of image making, and business practices in the Yoruba town of Ila-Orangun. Other observations address the self-presentation of Yoruba sitters—that is, their authorship in the photographic encounter—and the culturally determined local uses of photographs.10 Vera Viditz-Ward, also a professional photographer, authored an influential essay entitled “Alphonso Lisk-Carew: Creole Photographer,” which traced the oeuvre of an eminent African photographer based in Freetown, Sierra Leone (Viditz-Ward 1985). In preparation, Viditz-Ward explored public and private archives in Sierra Leone, while she engaged in her own photographic projects, and later conducted research in British repositories (Fig. 7). This essay and others by Viditz-Ward had a lasting impact on future research on African photographies and indigenous practitioners (Viditz-Ward 1987).11
In the following years, the journal contained few contributions on African photographers. Curator André Magnin wrote a celebratory piece on acclaimed Malian photographer Seydou Keïta for a special issue entitled “Protecting Mali's Cultural Heritage.” It appeared in the Artist Portfolio segment, clearly a statement about the way in which the oeuvre of this African photographer had been moved into the domain of art, had entered the art market, and was featured in exhibitions and art books (Magnin 1995). Questions about authorship in portrait photographs by Keïta and the authorial role of photographer, subjects, and the images' viewers were the theme of a later essay by Elizabeth Bigham, which ranks among the journal's important contributions, resonating to this day (Bigham 1999).12
INTO THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
Research on the work and activities of contemporary African photographers has increasingly gained momentum, a development reflected in recent issues of African Arts. In an Artist Portfolio entitled “‘Decolonization is Never Cheap’: The Rwandan Photography of Paul Nzalamba,” Allen Roberts and Doran Ross, both editors of African Arts, brought Nzalamba's photographs to a larger reader/viewership. Born of Rwandan parents in Uganda, Nzalamba had lived in Uganda, Rwanda, and Tanzania before coming to the United States. His evocative documentation of “memorials to the genocide and sites of memory and pilgrimage” in Rwanda belongs into the realm of conflict and aftermath photography (Roberts and Ross 2011:50). A report in the same issue described the Second Biennale of Photography and Video Art in Lubumbashi in the DRC (Mudekereza 2011).
South African visual artists received much attention, among them Zwelethu Mthethwa and his portrait photographs, which had entered and taken the art world by storm (Wu 2010). A special issue in 2012 on “Gender and South African Art,” edited by Brenda Schmahmann, a scholar of art history and visual culture, and Kim Miller, an art historian specializing in gender studies, examined the work of feminist visual artists and their explorations of the construction of gender and gendered identities. Photographs, whether images taken by the artists themselves or found in family archives or official repositories, are part their interrogations, especially in Schmahmann's essay “Developing Images of the Self: Childhood, Youth, and Family Photographs” and Raél Jero Salley's “Zanele Muholi's Elements of Survival” (Schmahmann 2012; Salley 2012) (Fig. 8).
Other contributions in African Arts demonstrate that research on the practice of early African photographers is flourishing, and a growing number of scholars now follow in the footsteps of pioneers like Sprague and Viditz-Ward.13 The Photo Essay section featured the work of Jonathan Adagogo Green, an Ibani photographer active in the Niger Delta between ca. 1891 and 1905, by Martha G. Anderson and Lisa L. Aronson (2011). They presented the findings of a team of American and Nigerian researchers who uncovered significant information about Green's life history, practice, local and foreign clientele, and the afterlife of his images (Fig. 9).14
“African Photography,” the journal's third special issue on photography, edited by Charles Gore, appeared in 2015 and gives an excellent overview of the current state of research and its theoretical parameters through the lens of several case studies. In his essay “Intersecting Archives: Intertextuality and the Early West African Photographer” (Gore 2015b) Gore examines the practice of a small group of elite photographers. He also explores their local and transatlantic networks and those of their patrons through which prints of images traveled, to be reprised by other professionals and in different media such as postcards and newspapers in West Africa and in Europe. Thus, these practitioners became mediators between the local and the global, as well as “agents and conduits for the dissemination of new technological innovations and visual practices,” and engendered modes of intertextuality (Gore 2015b:16). Art historian Julie Crooks revisits Alphonso Lisk-Carew's career, work, and community involvement based on her longterm research in Sierra Leone and the UK, while Chloe Evans, an independent researcher and photographer, brings a new perspective to portrait photography in Senegal, another subject that has been discussed in writings over the past thirty years (Crooks 2015; Evans 2015). Other essays address a range of subjects, some of which break entirely new ground, such as a contribution by Malcolm Corrigall, currently a doctoral student at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, about the landscape photography of the Chinese Camera Club of South Africa (Corrigall 2015). Given the dominance of writings about portrait photography, it is refreshing to see that research agendas are expanding (Peffer 2013:6–7). This seminal issue will become a classic among studies of African photographies.
Publications and exhibitions about photography and Africa continue to multiply, given the richness of the terrain and the increasing number of scholars now pursuing research. In general, West Africa with countries such as Senegal, Sierra Leone, Mali, Ghana, Togo, Bénin, and Nigeria, has been the focus of writings and ongoing projects. Several researchers choose Eastern Africa—in particular Kenya and Tanzania with Zanzibar, that is, the Indian Ocean realm—as site to conduct inquiries. Studies on photography in South Africa have also come to the fore, due to a cohort deeply involved scholars from South Africa, other African countries, and countries in the geographic north.
Finally, I should mention two upcoming publications, both focusing on Nigeria. One is a volume edited by Martha Anderson and Lisa Aronson on photographer Jonathan Adagogo Green, whose oeuvre was presented in a short essay in the journal, as mentioned above (Anderson and Aronson 2017). The other is a book by Amy Staples tracing the career and work of Solomon Osagie Alonge (1911–1994), who operated a studio in Benin City, Nigeria (Staples 2017) (Fig. 10). Alonge was also the focus of a recent, well-received exhibition at the National Museum of African Art, curated by Amy Staples and Bryna Fryer and reviewed by Mark Auslander in African Arts (Auslander 2016).15 A selection of works from this show will soon open at the National Museum at Benin City in Nigeria, bringing photographs back to the places where they originated. This project, which shares photographs with their source communities, is among several ongoing and future similar endeavors too numerous to mention in this brief account. Given the vibrant scene of research, it is likely that African Arts will continue to present essays on various aspects of African photographies, including reviews of exhibitions and publications.
In conclusion, I return to the quote from the 1985 essay by Cole and Ross, which introduced this overview: “Photographs by Africans, of Africans, and of African arts in and out of context will come to receive the fuller attention they deserve.” Some thirty years later, their prediction has not only been confirmed, but it still holds true for the future.
My thanks and appreciation to Paula Girshick, Erika Nimis, Amy Staples, and Deborah Stokes, who kindly sent me information about their contributions and writings in progress.
The coauthors were Paula Ben-Amos Girshick, then a doctoral candidate at Indiana University preparing a study on tourist art, and Nigerian Osarenren Omoregie, who as a student of his own culture assisted her during field research in Benin.
This image is now preserved among some 60,000 color and black-and-white photographs by Elisofon in the Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives at the National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, in Washington, DC.
See also Amy Staples and Bryna Fryer, who presented a recent assessment of Elisofon's work in their exhibition “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon” (November 21, 2013–December 14, 2014, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution).
Stokes organized the archive in collaboration with Fagg and, with the support of Jefrey Hammer and collector Paul Tishman, had four sets of the entire corpus hand-printed. Fagg bequeathed all negatives to the Royal Anthropological Institute, London. The Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Washington, DC; The Robert Goldwater Library, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; and the Fowler Museum, University of California, Los Angeles, received sets with complete annotation by Stokes. In addition there are digital copies at the RAI and the Yale University Library's Photographic Collections.
Gebauers archive is now in the Photo Study Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See also Gebauer 1979, which featured many of his photographs.
Scholarly writings about picture postcards addressing this medium's significant role in shaping the popular discourse about Africa and Africans in the first decades of the twentieth century began in the mid 1980s (see, for example, Alloula 1986; Geary 1998). They continue into the present, although the focus has now shifted to the multiple involvements of African photographers in the postcard business.
The plural “African photographies” reflects the multiplicity of photographic practices on the Continent and varied meaning of the resulting images in different cultural settings (Morton and Newbury 2015:4).
The essentializing designation “African photographer” appears here and in other writings with the awareness that it needs to be deconstructed and that African practitioners and their images must be situated within their cultural and historical milieus (for a critical discussion of this term see Gore 2015a:5).
The Stephen Sprague Archive, which contains his photographic work, images he acquired from local practitioners in Nigeria, and his papers, is kept at the Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona. In 2000, Erika Nimis revisited some of the photographers mentioned in Sprague's article and shared her research in an as yet unpublished essay (Nimis, personal communication, August 19, 2016). See also her influential book on Yoruba photography (Nimis 2005).
See also an essay on West African photography moving from the local to the global by Candace Keller (2014).
Wendl and Behrend (1998) and Saint Léon et al. (1999) published important books about African photography. Among recent contributions are Haney's overview of the state of research (2010), as well as Pefer and Cameron's edited volume on portrait photography (2013). A 2014 special issue of Visual Anthropology edited by Haney and Schneider discussed early photographies in West Africa.
The team included E. J. Alagoa, Alfred Allison, Anderson, Aronson, Tam Fiofori, and this author. The project was made possible through a Getty Foundation Collaborative Research Grant.
BBC News covered the exhibition in a report entitled “Behind the Scenes of the Royal Court of Benin” http://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-29485333 (accessed August 22, 2016).