Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire

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University of Chicago Press, 1997 - History - 272 pages
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When we think of the tools used to build the British Empire, we seldom include photography among them. Yet as James R. Ryan argues in Picturing Empire, photographic practices and aesthetics played a crucial role in expressing and articulating the ideologies of imperialism driving British exploration and colonization. Using detailed case studies of specific persons, places, and practices linked to broader themes and ideological frameworks, Ryan shows how Imperial Britain produced and projected its imaginative geography through photography. He begins by considering the role of photography in the exploration of "darkest Africa" by David Livingstone's Zambezi Expedition of 1858-63. Finding that other travelers used photographs as a powerful means of organizing and domesticating foreign landscapes, Ryan explores this theme through the topographical and landscape photography of Samuel Bourne in India and John Thompson in Cyprus. A detailed discussion of the Abyssinian Campaign (1867-8) reveals how photography and geography were mutually associated in imperial warfare; this collaboration, expanded to include anthropology, also served in the survey and classification of "racial types". In addition, photography allowed the British to "hunt with the camera", both for big game and for mountains to climb and conserve, and helped to teach imperial geography to British schoolchildren through the use of lantern-slides. Weaving these threads together in his final chapter, Ryan reconsiders photography's place within the imaginative geography of Empire and raises questions about the shifting status and mutable meaning of all historical photographs.

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