Monday, December 2, 2013

Farbfotografie from Deutsch-Südwestafrika

Hereros from Farbenphotographien aus den Deutschen Kolonien
Color photography was in its infancy at the turn of the 20th century, yet it did exist and there were enthusiastic amateur photographers using this medium in the years leading up to World War I.  The Autochrome process developed by the Lumière brothers and brought to market in 1907 required a tripod and a longer exposure time, lending itself more readily to portraiture and landscape photography.  Although not in use during the German Herero War, there were color photographs taken in German Southwest Africa  as early as 1910. 
Many of these were published in 1913 in Farbenphotographien aus den Deutschen Kolonien by Dr. Willy Scheel, and some of these later appeared among the 126 color photographs included in the 2 volume Die Deutschen Kolonien written by former Schutztruppe Officer Kurd Schwabe.  Schwabe's books credit three photographers:  Dr. Robert Lohmeyer, Bruno Marquardt and Eduard Kiewning.  I am not certain whether any of these were responsible for taking the images in 1910 published in Scheel's book of Southwest Africa. 

These color photographs are an astonishing visual record of the land and some of its people in the years immediately following the Herero and Nama uprisings.  They are of particular interest to me both because of what they reveal (and perhaps betray) about the "colonizing lens" of the photographers, and also the material culture of the indigenous people they have captured in color.
Christian Herero Woman from Farbenphotographien aus den Deutschen Kolonien

These two color images of Herero people  were published by Scheel.  Given the overcast sky, the group image above was taken during the rainy season.  You can just make out two tin roofed, white walled houses beyond the trees.  The crease of the hat worn by the man at the front of the cart is worn and discolored from frequent removal and his coat may be corduroy.  The tall man's blue and white striped shirt is too small for his long arms.  The women in the cart wear orange and red print dresses.  None of them looks at the photographer, except, perhaps, for the man whose face is entirely in shadow.. 

In contrast,  the portrait of the Herero woman in white, above is hauntingly direct.  Identified by Scheel as a Christian Herero woman, her dress has what look like bone buttons.  She wears multiple strands of beads that are predominantly a reddish brown color but also include yellow, white, blue and black segments.  Her eyes, though, are unflinching, fathomless, and for the European viewer in the early 20th century, ultimately unknowable. 

In a time when few people smiled for the camera, viewers projected their own interpretations on the subjects of these portraits.  Did  German readers of Scheel or Schwabe see a "civilized" Africans,  defeated subjects brought back to their allegiance, evidence that the extermination of the Herero had been greatly exaggerated?  Do viewers today see the defiance of a survivor, or a thousand yard stare?

No comments:

Post a Comment