From Site to Sight and Still Points

  By John Veldhoen

A once standard book on visual anthropology, eponymously titled “Visual Anthropology”, by John and Malcolm Collier, is a primer on using photography as a method of research, and seems relevant to me to disciplines well-beyond ethnography and anthropology, or what was called in my youth “social studies”. Chapter 9, on the psychological significance and overtones of visual materials in interviewing takes critiques of materialism, engendered by symbolic anthropology, and reorients the motives of a number of endeavours, including photography. It became recognized in anthropology how culture is semiotic in nature, and photography used in anthropology began to depict that. A greater awareness of “thick description” assisted photography and filmmaking in anthropology to exemplify new values. It shows how looking at the edge of other disciplines may help one find inspiration to bring back to the centre of visual media.

What is a practical example? There is one book that explicitly illustrates this change, it is called “From Site to Sight” and was updated last year in a thirtieth-anniversary edition. It recalls various practical studies in anthropology and ethnography that used photography to different lengths. “Site to Sight” details this development to some extent pictorially. I think it is fascinating, and I think it is positive for a photographer to look at since many do not realize that this genre of photography exists, and it shows some of the motivations for the production of documentary photographs. In the late 19th Century, the pursuit of data held particular sway as the “scene of human science” within which fieldwork in anthropology assumed uses for photography, and generated conceptions of humanity. The common one held now, for instance, supports theories of cognition, and neurological phenomena as supposedly true.

My perception, looking backwards, is that the motives for the photographs taken by anthropologists were often hopelessly wrongheaded, and often despicable. But on the other hand, the photographs of Robert Gardner, as seen in a new book also from the Peabody Museum Press, look heroic. While Gardner primarily viewed himself as a filmmaker, his still pictures, gathered in the book “Still Points”, hewn with a Nikon F, and honed with an admiration for Henri Cartier-Bresson and Joseph Koudelka, have a deep feeling of truth to them. They do not drift into an imaginary and romantic vision of the other, precisely because they are so photographic (which is to say they have taken on the virtues of photographic aesthetics. They are pictures made with care). These are not scenes, in the sense of a camera or some other apparatus accumulating “objective” data. These pictures are rather the result of a human being trying to reflect his affection for people. These are potent, unabashedly beautiful images, underlining how there is little of value in life besides compassion. Eliot Weinberger’s fine introduction encapsulates the meaning of “Still Points” using some of Gardner’s words: “Film might be 24 frames of actuality per second but this does not account for what falls into the intervals. Maybe that is where the still wins out”. It sounds like Zeno‘s arrow: Between every point in time there is another point in time, and in the infinitely smallest point, there is no motion. Time is erased: the still point.”

I had to wonder if the title came from the same poem that David Campany’s forthcoming book “The Still Point of the Turning World” takes its cue? It is a poem I read as a teenager that has followed me, and I still agree with the premise. Time will be redeemed by eternity. I link it to close, a sub-current of time.

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In addition to being on our sales team, John curates The Camera Store's book selection and is a contributing author of our blog. He likes to think about photography, talk about photography, and sometimes write about photography.