Christraud Geary's Postcards from Africa: Photographers of the Colonial Era, is the latest book by one of the world's specialists of photography in Africa. As one of the pioneers of the discipline, Geary has laid out the foundations for a less binary and more complex reading of colonial era's images, one that recognizes nuanced power dynamics. She applies it here with brio and precision to one of the most versatile photographic objects: the postcard. Based on the Leonard A. Lauder Postcard Archive from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, the geographical scope of the book follows the contours of former French, German, and British empires and the routes followed by anonymous or now well-known European and African photographers: Edmond-François Fortier, Casimir Zagourski, Jean Audema, and Alex A. Acolatse, among others. Since Geary's first foray into an exploration of the postcard medium, Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards, was published in 1998, the multiplication of scholarships about African photography has considerably grown, and Geary masterfully weaves and sums up these into her discussion of the African postcard.
The first chapter, “Photographers and Picture Postcards,” traces the biographies of various European but also African practitioners who participated in the lucrative postcard business—so feverish that one observer called it “postal carditis” at the turn of the century. Benefiting from the growing scholarships about early African photographers such as the recent J.A. Green: Reimagining the Indigenous and the Colonial by Lisa Aronson and Martha G. Anderson (2017), Geary is able to give a large panorama of the African—often Creole—photographers who for a long time remained hidden behind European names: Neils Walwin Holm, or George Goethe, for instance. The author succeeds in maintaining a delicate balance between the resolute agency of indigenous photographers as image-makers, the recognition of the historical information that postcards provide, but also the imperial artifact that they constitute.
The second chapter, “Colonial Worlds,” exposes that photography and the postcard medium were complicit in the justification and perpetuation of Empire. Geary demonstrates with mastery how images initially destined to promote the imperial enterprise become formidable tools for postcolonial critique. Views of modern infrastructures are revealed to be propaganda, and images of colonial order and subjugation are revealed to be records of the human rights' abuse, destruction of fauna and flora, or again, missionary proselytism. Following closely the “social lives” of the postcards, Geary also examines the interactions between the writing and the image, opening up additional venues for interpretations. At the same time, complicating the omnipotence of the “colonial gaze,” the author acknowledges how an African photographer such as F.W.H. Akhurst produced images of high-ranked officials and events, giving them the power to represent colonial actors. Similarly, a striking image of the studio of the photographer Alphonso Lisk-Carew in 1938 proudly advertised the patronage of the Duke of Connaught, after he was granted a royal warrant. Supported by thorough historical research about the persons populating the photographs, Geary eschews any simple generalizations about oppressed and oppressors.
As the most fraught genre of the colonial archive, the portrait is dedicated two chapters: one entitled “Tribes, Types, and Portraits” and the second “People and Leaders.” In these two sections, Geary perfectly demonstrates the semiotic slippages and the instability of interpretations that these images received at various points in time and for different audiences. The most blatant examples of African subjects' “authorial presence” are particularly powerful in the representations of chiefs, when the author analyzes how African rulers and monarchs agreed, sometimes commissioned, and instrumentalized their portraits and their circulation to advance their own political agenda, from Madagascar to Togo and Zambia. At the same time, however, Western viewers could project onto those same pictures evidence of “mimicry” instead of cosmopolitanism, of loyalty to colonizers or, on the contrary, of their subjugation to the colonial administration. The particular genre of the deposed or exiled ruler pertained to the latter, but again, Geary's subtle visual analysis shows that for an African viewership, a dignified and stern gaze (as in Fortier's portrait of the captive Muslim cleric Samory Touré) or the perpetuation of a royal pose (as in the group portrait of deported King Prempeh of Asante and his entourage by William Stephen Johnston) could constitute a call to resistance and agency and could defeat the frequently demeaning captions.
In 2002–2003, Geary was the curator of the exhibition In and Out of Focus: Images from Central Africa at the National Museum of African Art (Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC,) and the author of its richly illustrated catalogue. Until now one of the rare extensive examples of research about on photography in the former French and Belgian Congos, this first book already examined how Mangbetu and Kuba people and kings became postcard icons. A regularly reproduced portrait of Kuba King Nyim Kot Mabiinc shows the care put in displaying ostentatious regalia and maintaining their aura and how they inspired awe for their sophisticated beauty and artistry. Mangbetu and Kuba people became the favorite subjects of many European photographers and growing number of tourists, but it is the Polish-born Casimir Zagourski who contributed the most to their photographic fame.
Author of the picture published on the cover of the present book, Zagourski's beautiful images become strong catalysts for examining the “invention” of a romantic and timeless Africa. Entitled Nandi Type and taken in what is today Uganda in 1936, the portrait shows a stunning young girl wearing spiral neck ornament and large ear pendants. The close-up, soft focus of the background and artistic approach of the photograph is at odds with the scientific pretense of the caption. After Elizabeth Edwards, the influential historian of photography and anthropology, Geary demonstrates how photography contributed to construct the anthropological “type,” as unstable a category as it was. Based in Léopoldville (present-day Kinshasa in DRC) but extensively traveling to capture an Africa that was “vanishing” and to make commerce of his missions' pictures and postcards, Zagourski's life in Africa resembles the mercantile approach of other entrepreneurial image-makers at the time such as Jean Audema or Edmond Fortier, also detailed in the book. Geary explains clearly how what Zagourski captured was as much a creation as a salvage operation. Very interesting anecdotes reveal the savviness with which African subjects adapted their appearance for his lens, for instance, when golf socks were removed in favor of a more “traditional” attire. Anticipating what a European spectator wanted, the model “modeled” what Africa was in the eye of the beholder.
A very efficient and recurrent expedient that helps the reader deconstruct the images is the printing of postcards that present themselves as photographic sessions. By allowing the viewer to see what was left out of the image and what was put in front of the lens, the mise en scène and the visualization of the—often white—picture-maker's presence renders clear his intervention in the reality portrayed. However also, it also disrupts our assumptions about the power dynamics at play in that process. One postcard in particular makes literal this ambiguity. Called A Native Photographer and attributed to a German missionary, the scene represents Zulu people near Durban in colonial Natal and was taken near a Trappist monastery about 1910. A missionary, Father Isembard Leyendecker, is directing the poses by pointing a directorial finger, while the photographer's legs, emerging from under the cloth hood, reveal him to be Zulu. The subject in front of the camera, a Zulu woman, is herself pointing a finger at the photographer in the scene while glancing at the one capturing the picture we are viewing. This sort of visual pun shows how the photographic session required the active collaboration of Africans and how they participated in its creation.
Nevertheless, the chapter “Types, Tribes, and Portraits” also expands on how anthropology and science more generally was a fig leaf for racism and voyeurism, such as Fortier's controversial Etudes representing unclothed young girls. One very critical and timely concern that Geary addresses throughout the book is the ethics of (re)publishing the numerous and degrading images of the colonial archive, especially those sexualizing the black female body. By choosing to print only a very restricted number of them as exemplary and by deconstructing their import, the author avoids the pitfalls that another recent book, Sexe, Race, et Colonies (2018), could not. Edited by the French historians Pascal Blanchard and Nicolas Bancel, that study demonstrated once again how the graphic choices made for a book (the sheer number of humiliating and enlarged images, the “beau livre” glossy paper, not to mention the bordello-like neon lights making the cover title) can betray its announced mission, in this case, that of revealing and deconstructing the colonial and sexual violence perpetrated against non-Western bodies. In the section dedicated to the female body, Geary, on the contrary, carefully selects her images, while importantly acknowledging that partial nudity of African bodies was customary at the time when many of these postcards were created and that it does not always equate with their exploitation. Geary sets here an example of how to avoid what what Mieke Ball has called the “complicity of critique,” one that will hopefully be followed more consistantly by others. Another enlightened graphic choice is the several double-page enlargements of some postcards, which allow the viewer to delve into the details that support the author's chiseled analysis. Such details could go unnoticed in their original, smaller format.
Very well served by her double expertise on African photography and classical African art and cultures, in the final chapter of the book Geary explores “Rituals, Dances, and Masquerades,” examining the intertwining of the photographic medium with rituals and beliefs. Next to more researched images such as the series of postcards of Bundoo Girls of Sierra Leone by Lisk-Carew, Geary also explores less well-known pictures. The insertion of photography into funeral practices has been documented mostly when it is inserted in twin practices of Nigeria, for instance. Here, Geary also discusses the postcard of a shrine of Porto Novo in French Dahomey by photographer Antoine Kiki. A portrait of the deceased family elder dominates the picture and is protected by two umbrellas, as he would have been seen in real life. Underneath the portrait, a striking anthropomorphic display of the dead person's clothes reconstitutes his appearance. Geary also shows how the images that pretended to be the most authentic and candid captures of “traditional” and “primitive” Africa, broadly labeled “féticheur” at the time, were often carefully staged pictures. For instance, the frequence of motionless masqueraders helped create a focus on the masks that became so popular in the West, but does not reflect the reality of a masquerade dance.
Continuously putting African agency and collaboration at the center of her discussion, the epilogue of Geary's book focuses on a beautiful portrait of a merchant of Jacqueville and his family in today's Côte d'Ivoire. The author's description of a careful display of objects—a vase, an imported fan, a book, among other things—reveals that the image is designed to represent the family as modern. Inserted in the photograph is a second portrait of the merchant's elders, which confirms the commissioning of the image by the subjects. However, the “social life” of this object as a postcard and its relabelling as picture of a “native merchant” reflects the malleability of the postcard object and the necessity to continually acknowledge its private and public, local and global life. In Postcards from Africa, Geary provides a wonderful and sharp snapshot of the state of the scholarship today that offers a perfect introduction to a history of photography in Africa and a wonderful companion to African art and photography classes. At a time when Manichean reflexes sometimes occupy the forefront of discussions about African art, Geary offers once again a formidable example of scholarly sensibility, nuance and excellence.