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Photography's Many Faces

October 19, 1986|JONATHAN KIRSCH

The photographic archives of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University include a half-million "visual documents" that reflect more than a century of anthropological fieldwork in distant and exotic places around the world. From Site to Sight: Anthropology, Photography and the Power of Imagery (Peabody Museum Press/Distributed by Harvard University Press: $30) is drawn from the newly renovated museum's latest exhibition, which explores the evolution of photography in the study of native cultures: "Unlike most photography exhibitions, it presents its images not strictly as art, social documentary or even history," explains anthropologist Margaret B. Blackman in an introductory essay. Rather, the exhibition--like the book--"is about the 'culture of imaging' . . . the changing patterns of belief and behavior brought to making, viewing, and understanding photographic images within the context of anthropology."

The images collected here are variously poignant and pedestrian and only occasionally interesting from a purely aesthetic point of view. Thus, for example, the 1885 study of a sod dwelling of the Omaha Indians turns out to be a sensitive study of shadow and shape, but denser and more diverse meanings are to be found in a simple before-and-after depiction of three Native American children who were forcibly transformed into prim Virginia schoolgirls by their well-intentioned benefactors.

Indeed, one important theme of "From Site to Sight" is the violence, sometimes willful and sometimes inadvertent, that early and amateur anthropologists have done to their own science and the native men, women and children who are the subjects of their study--displaying them in compounds at fairs and exhibitions, romanticizing them in palpably fake studio portraits, exploiting them in an attempt to prove spurious racial theories. In one lush but disturbing photograph from the 1860s, we see a European man--bearded, formally dressed, aloof and arrogant--around whom are displayed a half-dozen naked children and adolescents from the Andaman Island in the Bay of Bengal; the tableau is nothing less than a study in sexual as well as scientific imperialism.

"From Site to Sight" illustrates how far anthropological photography has come in 150 years, both in technology and scientific ethics. From the posed studio photograph of a turn-of-the-century tattooed Polynesian islander to ultraviolet photography of Cro-Magnon cave paintings, we are witness to the effort of anthropologists to refine and enhance not only their methods but also their sensitivity to the subtle but powerful interaction between the observer and the observed.

A lifetime of intimacy with the camera is celebrated in Legends: Joan Crawford (Little, Brown: $14.95), which documents Crawford's career in more than 100 portraits and publicity stills culled by John Kobal from the work of obscure studio photographers as well as portrait artists such as George Hurrell. "With liquorice-colored hair and great shadowed eyes," observes Anna Raeburn in a biographical essay, her face can be "harsh to the point of ugliness"--and these photographs, intense and vivid, amply reveal the dangerous undercurrents of Crawford's undeniable physical beauty.

Mercifully, the book follows Crawford no further than the mid-'50s, when Robert Coburn photographed her as the star of "Queen Bee"--Crawford as icon but not yet as self-parody. More surprising are the images from the early '30s: the very young Joan Crawford as a scantily-clad Venus de Milo, a chorus girl, a vamp, a seductive ingenue, all the familiar roles through which she passed on the way to enduring stardom. "She became for popular culture what (T.S.) Eliot in his jazzy moments was to high culture," observes Ross Woodman in an afterword on Crawford and her court photographer, George Hurrell.

Despite its off-putting and slightly misleading title, Etta Clark's Growing Old Is Not for Sissies: Portraits of Senior Athletes (Pomegranate Artbooks, P.O. Box 980, Corte Madera, Calif. 94925: $16.95) is an endearing collection of profiles of older men and women who remain not only physically active but openly competitive--a 67-year-old weightlifter, a 72-year-old marathoner, a 92-year-old swimmer, and so on. It is true, as Richard Selzer observes in his introduction, that "Etta Clark's compassionate camera seek(s) out and find(s) the beauty in what is fading rather than what is full-blown," but she tends to seek out precisely those aging athletes who look a decade or so younger than their chronological age. Clark confesses that she judged the success or failure of her work on the reaction of her family to the physical appeal of her subjects: "If they made comments like 'that man's head does not fit on his body,' " Clark writes, "I knew I had a good shot."

In fact, Clark takes special pride in presenting a photograph of her comely 64-year-old mother in the nude--"She rides to the hounds, she hikes, she's superwoman"--but, then, Mary Shutkin's bare-breasted figure is still lovely to behold. More inspiring, I believe, are the men and women in 73-year-old Erna Neubauer's aerobic class--old people whose faces are wrinkled and careworn, whose bodies are yielding to age and gravity, but whose spirits are undaunted.

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