Soft-Focus Lens on Ethnic Facts

IT is unsettling that the best motives do not always age well. At the turn of the century, under the direction of Gilbert Hovey Grosvenor, National Geographic magazine was transformed from a dull technical journal into a popular magazine with an explicit policy against publishing racist material. Codified in a 1915 statement of principle, National Geographic promised to print only accurate information ``of a kindly nature ... about any country or people....''

Despite the magazine's commendable goals, Catherine A. Lutz and Jane L. Collins, authors of ``Reading National Geographic,'' a new analysis of the inner workings and public reception of National Geographic, argue that the magazine has portrayed non-European cultures as exotic, and, until relatively recently, avoided anticolonialist struggles as well as racial conflict in the United States.

Similarly motivated by good intentions, late-19th-century photographers in America set about recording the traditional lifestyles of what they considered a vanishing race. The success of cross-country railroads, the 1890 massacre at Wounded Knee, and the devastation of the buffalo herds seemed to confirm the eventual end of native American cultures. Against a background of popular newspaper accounts and fiction that depicted American Indians as hostile savages, these photographers viewed themselves as unbiased visual historians embarking on a ``grand endeavor,'' hence the title of this new collection of photographs: ``Grand Endeavors of American Indian Photography.''

Yet despite their ambitions, many of these well-meaning photographers succeeded only in romanticizing the passing of native Americans before the onrush of westward expansion. Brutalities and injustices dissolved before their soft-focus lenses. Stunning close-up portraits of native Americans represented them as noble, passive, and doomed.

Now, 100 years later, many books have set about rethinking the history of cultural confrontation. Of these two recent entries, ``Reading National Geographic'' is the most critical.

Unfortunately, it is also the most muddled. Few would deny that photography, empowered by its resemblance to human sight, has frequently cast many of the world's peoples as losers in the race toward modernism. Sometimes the purpose of these depictions has been racist, economically opportunist, or both. But the fault of National Geographic, outlined by Lutz and Collins, is not so much overt racism or greed as ``humanism.''

In their words, the magazine and its readers have shown deliberate ``preferences ... towards colorful good feelings and peace.'' Worse, one of the chief pleasures of Geographic readers is envisioning a connection between their life and the life of the people portrayed in the photographs.

The harm, of course, is that 40 million readers are lulled into empathy, not roused into action, or at a minimum, critical reflection. National Geographic photographs have erred in broadcasting the message that all's right with the world, but to locate paternalism and cultural supremacy behind every image is equally excessive. Lutz and Collins call for photographs that raise troublesome questions, or cause embarrassment and discomfort. In starchily academic buzzwords, they invalidate their own critique by forgetting what they said about photographs being knit into larger fabrics of understanding. Simply put: To change the world, you have to change patterns of cognition, not just pictures.

Nevertheless, it is essential to situate historical images now deemed derisive and offensive in the complex circumstances of their creation. In assembling photographs of native Americans taken around 1900, Paula Richardson Fleming and Judith Lynn Luskey preface their remarks with a concise history of the sentimental pessimism that surrounded the ``grand endeavor'' to fashion a record of cultures thought to be rapidly disappearing.

Throughout ``Grand Endeavors of American Indian Photography,'' one gains a fresh awareness of the proportions that the photographic enterprise took in these years.

Perhaps the best known, and certainly the most controversial, photographer in the collection is Edward S. Curtis. He insisted on having native Americans reenact battles and ceremonies and required that his subject remove any objects or clothing that signaled the presence of Western culture. However amiable his intention, he idealized life on the Western reservations.

MANY of the photographers in ``Grand Endeavors'' were people of good will who refused to commercialize their work. They endured hardships and admonishment to complete their projects. Despite the authors' obvious knowledge and admiration for native Americans, in the end, the photographers' deeds appear more substantial than the fate of the people portrayed in their photographs. By relying so heavily on the notion of the masterwork, Fleming and Luskey negate the significance of historical context.

Both these books go a long way to demonstrate what mid-19th-century photographer Maxime DuCamp discerned. ``The camera does not lie,'' he observed, ``but neither does it tell the whole truth.''

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.