Colour, Camera, Colonialism: A Response

19 Aug 2021 - 10:45

By Sihle Sogaula

 

In this session of the Spirals Series titled ‘Gustav Fritsch ca. 1900: Three-Color Photography, Nature, & Colonial Science’, Dr Hanin Hannouch explores the practice and work of Gustav Fritsch, a German anthropologist and racial hygienist, revealing the entanglements in his use of three colour photography and colonial science in the name of technical advancement and political victory.

Three-colour photography is a photographic process where light sensitive chemicals record colour information during the time it is exposed, and is normally done by analysing the spectrum of colours into three routes of information, namely red, green and blue. This is in imitation of the way in which the retina receives colour (Sanger, 1900). Fritsch considered the photographic plate to be equivalent to the retina in its capacity to convert light into colour, and as such, insisted on the camera’s capacity to produce colours and images as they would appear in nature. To this end, the evocation of nature in his work, and his meticulous reasoning of the anatomy of the eye, helped justify Fritsch’s use of human and animal remains in his scientific endeavours. In positioning the camera as a scientific tool, rather than a visual notebook for documentary practice, Fritsch was able to position his preoccupations as fact, a science fiction that was then accepted as objective truth.

Dr Hanin Hannouch begins the talk with quite an unexpected introduction on the complexities that come with harvesting the human eye. It is strange, uncomfortable, and incredibly provocative. But it is also necessary. It begins to shape the human cost involved with the advent of the photographic project, the colour industry, and Fritsch’s scientific preoccupations. She also spoke of the conditions in which the underprivileged worked in these colour producing factories, conceptually creating a link between the capitalist manufacturing and reproduction of colour products and the loss of life resultant from it. 

The camera has often been a menacing instrument. There is a long and deep history of the ways in which it has been used to image the world in such a way that allowed colonial powers to study it, profit from it, and own it. By the late 1840’s, photography had become crucial for justifying European domination, playing an incredibly important role in administrative, missionary, commercial and scientific endeavours (Cole, 2019). After completing his medical studies in 1863, Fritsch travelled through southern Africa on a scientific expedition to study the ‘native’ races, taking portrait images of political prisoners on Robben Island and indigenous peoples across southern Africa during a period of colonial domination on the continent. The intellectual and historical entanglements of the camera also flow through the Bleek and Lloyd archive. Bleek’s theoretical concerns led him to participate in Thomas Huxley’s anthropometric photographic project, where they photographed the prisoners of the Breakwater prison of South Africa in conformance with criterion established by Huxley for photographing human ‘specimens’ (Bank, 2006). During this time Bleek corresponded directly with Huxley, a scientist who viewed photography as an indispensable tool for the collection of accurate anthropological data (Bank, 2006). Under the colonial project, and with the advent of photography - nothing would be allowed to remain hidden from the powers that be. 

The first photographic images created a demand for photographs in ‘natural’ colours, but to reproduce images as they are found in nature is an arduous task that is not without technical mediation. Research to address the incapability of the camera to produce images as they are found in nature fell into two groups: the preparation of light-sensitive surfaces that retain the colour of light when exposed, and the production of photographic images which must be superimposed and coloured in order to achieve the desired result. Both require some sort of manufactured manipulation (Von Hubl, 1904). Most representations of images endeavour to reproduce, as closely as possible, that which is found in nature. It is quite the task to present an idea of the nature of an object by a simple drawing, one introduces shading to create depth, and colour to render drawings as close to truth as is possible. Colour intensifies this illusion. Fritsch’s aesthetic experiments in colonial photography influenced the nature of perception. The entanglements between his photographic and anthropological work, and the colonial project becomes clear in the kind of images that he made, and who they were for. The images that he produced to prove and promote his findings were of landscapes that featured prominent Western European architecture. These landscape photographs imaged the land as perfect utopias without war, without military presence, without life and essentially visualised them as available for conquest. To the upper class, these images carried with them a charm, incredible photographic objectivity and historical weight. All the more to justify the colonial project with.

 

View the discussion, here.


 

Sihle Sogaula (b. 1993, eQonce) is an Honours in Curatorship student at the Michaelis School of Fine Art. She is interested in fashion as cultural phenomenon and how it becomes inextricably implicated in the construction of group and individual identities. Her current research is an exploration into the ubiquity of the fashion moment in contemporary South Africa and its remarkably ordinary presence in daily life. By reading South African fashion and its representations as text, Sogaula wishes to explore the ways in which meaning is inscribed on the body, and how social subjects reimagine binary constructions of identity.

 

References
Bank, A. (2006) Bushmen in a Victorian world : the remarkable story of the Bleek-Lloyd collection of Bushmen folklore. Cape Town: Double Storey.
Cole, T. 2019. When the Camera Was a Weapon of Imperialism. (And When It Still Is.). The New York Times. 6 February. Available: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/02/06/magazine/when-thecamera-was-a-weapon-of-imperialism-and-when-it-still-is.html [2021, August 06].
Sanger Shepherd & Co. 1900. Provisional catalogue of apparatus and materials for natural colour photography: Sanger Shepherd process. Holborn, London, W.C. : Sanger Shepherd & Co. Available: http://archive.org/details/provisionalcatal00sang [2021, August 06].
Hubl, F.V.A. 1904. Three-colour photography: Three-colour Printing and the Production of Photographic Pigment. London: Hardpress Publishing. Available: https://filmcolors.org/wpcontent/uploads/2013/05/Huebl_Threecolourphoto1904.pdf [2021, August 06]
 
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