Campus / News / October 8, 2009

Racial photography: a real representation?

Photographers use photographs to focus on the subtleties that people overlook on a daily basis, whether they are the features of a person’s face or the beauty of a landscape. But it is the former that visiting Professor Amos Morris-Reich is concerned with.

He presented his lecture, “Photography and Racial Imagination: Three Cases from Weimar and Nazi Germany” to students and faculty last Thursday. He explored the implications of various men who experimented with photographs during the early and mid 20th century.

Morris-Reich explained three main ideas through the works of these men: Optometric Photography, Mendelian Principles, and Imagination vs. Measurements and explored how these ideas relate to race.

He spoke about racial photography chronologically as it applies through the early and mid 1900s. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, Morris-Reich stressed that de-familiarization was practiced in order to train the eye how to focus. Control was necessary to make a good and meaningful photograph. The focus was on physical features that describe one’s culture and racial types.

“I think the theories of racial ideology and picture-taking implications are already in our minds. But through his lecture, Professor Morris-Reich helps us understand the historical aspect of photography,” said sophomore Katie Frank.

Student Nina Litoff observed, “The photographer is tricking himself, expecting to see to see what he wants in how he manipulates the camera, which is different from trying to reach an end through showing the photograph to other people.”

Faculty also voiced their thoughts on Morris-Reich’s lecture. What appealed to Philosophy professor Dan Wack was “…Morris-Reich’s insistence on the opacity of this literature for contemporary audiences and his demonstration that the photographs he discussed work, in different ways, to teach their audience to see them as representations of abstractions.”

By ‘this literature’, Wack referred to numerous books that Professor Morris-Reich mentioned throughout his lecture. While explaining the topic of racial photography, the visiting professor showed photographs taken from these books. The books examined how each photographer viewed race in their own unique manner. For example, Morris-Reich showed a photograph taken by Francis Galton that depicted “The Jewish Type”, an illustration of composite portraiture. Each person knows that these portraits are of Jews because of “The Gaze.” According to Morris-Reich, each race has a specific gaze that causes them to stand out from other races.

Morris-Reich went on to say that Mendelian principles were followed as the Nazis were coming to power. One such person was Fischer, who believed in these principles and that people should be racially mixed but they should not blend. He believed that the outward look (captured by the camera) could deceive and lie. During the 1930s, Ludwig Klaus, a Nazi coefficient, only used photographs and did not take them. He merely studied them as visual experiments and used them in order to re-educate their viewers. Klaus would abstract the figure to the form of a single line, similar to Renoir’s drawings. Unlike Klaus, Gunther set up a program to “Assyrian-ize” the East and set the code of photography in Nazi Germany. He would confiscate photographs from Jews in order to observe differences- not complete types, but particular traits. Gunther’s goal was to create a “Nordic Gaze”. He saw racial photography as a recreation of a new distinct Nordic way of seeing. According to Professor Amos Morris-Reich, after 1945 scientific photography lost its culture and legitimacy.

Morris-Reich’s lecture on racial imagination calls into question if a camera lens can really reveal a truth as accurately as one’s eye. If racial imagination is merely one’s imagination, is race then a reality? Imagination and reality are two competing entities that neither a camera nor one’s eye can completely reveal.

Lexi Kremer

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