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2 May 2019

Morton Photography Symposium at Broughton House

Written by Ben Reiss, Morton Photography Curator
A crowd of people sitting in a wood-panelled room surrounded by paintings. Facing them sit 7 speakers from the symposium.
On Tuesday 9 April 2019, the National Trust for Scotland held the first Morton Photography Symposium at Broughton House & Garden in Kirkcudbright, inspired by the photographic collection of artist Edward Atkinson Hornel.

Supported by the Morton Charitable Trust, this symposium brought together academics, museum professionals and scholars to hear papers on the subjects of The Camera, Colonialism and Social Networks.

A crowd standing in the studio of painter E A Hornel at Broughton House. Paintings by a contemporary artist are on display.
Attendees gather in E A Hornel’s Studio at Broughton House before the start of The Camera, Colonialism and Social Networks (Photography © Katie Blair Matthews)

The first panel of the day was concerned with western representations of the ‘other’, whether people or landscapes, as Hornel’s photographs and paintings relied very heavily on using imagery of the ‘other’ to create idyllic and exotic fantasies.

Maria Golovteeva (PhD candidate at the University of St Andrews) explored some of the photographs taken at the 1885 and 1894 Antwerp international exhibitions. Belgian King Leopold II’s rule in the Congo began in 1885, and the Congolese deputation at the exhibition that year was treated with respect and dignity, something reflected in statesmanlike photos taken of one of their number, King Massala. By the 1894 exhibition, Leopold’s regime was committing regular atrocities in the Congo, and photographs of Congolese present at the exhibition reflect this change in attitudes. They were made to live in a fake village where they had to undertake pointless tasks to illustrate their ‘otherness’.

3 black and white photos of Congolese women in an album. The flanking images are busts; the middle one has 2 women standing.
Two Portraits and a Double-Portrait of Congolese Women, Hippolyte Wouwermans, c1890–94 (RP-F-2001-7-1487-64 – Rijksmuseum)

Sarah Hepworth (Deputy of Special Collections at the University of Glasgow) focused on the way natural landscapes and feats of engineering in the USA and Australia are presented in photographs in the collections of the University of Glasgow. In the USA, these were inclined to emphasise the apparent naturalness of the wilderness, entirely ignoring the fact that many of these landscapes had in fact been carefully tended to by indigenous communities. In Australia, the emphasis was much more on the west’s ‘conquering’ of the landscape through ambitious feats of engineering, once again ignoring the careful managing of the landscape previously undertaken by Aboriginal peoples.

A black and white photo of train tracks climbing a hillside in Australia. Some sections of track are supported by arches.
Untitled, Lithgow Zig Zag Railway embankments and stone viaducts in Australia, unknown photographer, c1870 (Dougan 103 #4 – University of Glasgow Special Collections)

Both papers gave examples of how identities of either people or places can be constructed or erased through photography. Hornel also used his photographs to construct identity – that of the exotic eastern woman – while completely erasing the individual personalities of his models.

Two men (Alex Supartono and Nick Pearce) seated in front of a projector screen; Alex on the left speaking and gesticulating.
Dr Alexander Supartono and Professor Nick Pearce answer questions after their papers on 19th-century photography in Asia (Photography © Katie Blair Matthews)

From the landscapes of America and Australia, the symposium moved on to those of Java and China. The second panel discussed the way these two Asian countries were represented and the networks that made this representation possible. Dr Alexander Supartono (lecturer at Edinburgh Napier University) took us through photographs taken on Java, and how these images were carefully constructed for western colonisers on the island, not the metropolitan elite who remained in Europe. He illustrated how crucial industrial networks (such as the network of sugar factories across the island) were to the growth and spread of photography across Java, fed by western engineers who wished to document their experiences.

A black and white photo of a train crossing an iron-lattice viaduct, with jungle-covered hills in the background.
Viaduct of the State Railway over Tjiherang in Preanger region, West Java, H Salzwedel, c1900 (Collection Number 100052 in Alb-686: Donald Maclaine Campbell album p.11, KITLV – Leiden)

In China, photographer John Thomson and missionary doctor John Dudgeon formed a friendship that showed how social networks could influence photography overseas. Their relationship and its influence on photography in China was demonstrated by Professor Nick Pearce (Sir John Richmond Chair of Fine Art at the University of Glasgow). He concluded by positing that amateur photographer Dudgeon may well have shown professional Thomson (whose photos continue to influence our image of China today) where he could take the best photographs.

Hornel himself was heavily reliant on such personal networks (his cousin was a marine biologist in Sri Lanka) and more professional ones (such as the Japan Photographic Society) to take and collect his photographs, so it was fascinating to see examples of others sorts of western networks in Asia in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

A black and white photo with a lion sculpture in the foreground and stone buildings climbing a hill in the background.
View of Wanshoushan from Lake Kunming, John Thomson, 1871 (published in Through China With A Camera, 1898, facing page 246)

The theme of networks continued after the break, with papers by Julie Gibb (Assistant Curator at National Museums Scotland) and Rachel Nordstrom (Photographic Collections Manager at the University of St Andrews Library, Special Collections Division). Julie introduced the United Stereoscopic Society (USS), who took and exchanged stereo cards throughout the first half of the 20th century. They would write comments on the stereo cards of other members, much like a comment feed below an image or video today. Exchanging images was very important to Hornel as well, and we have letters from him asking other artists to send him photos of particular subjects.

A black and white stereo image of 2 almost identical views of a chapel interior and a stone memorial of a woman and 2 angels.
Stereo card of Princess Charlotte's Memorial, J W Vaisey, 1920 (NMS IL.2003. – Howarth-Loomes Collection at National Museums Scotland)

Rachel explored a rather different set of networks. By mapping duplicate images across albums in the collection of the University of St Andrews, she demonstrated that early photographers used pre-existing scientific and academic networks to share ideas and images, something which directly contributed to the growth of photography in Scotland. The earnest and supportive opinions shared by these pioneers contrasted considerably with the jokey and critical ones written on the backs of stereo cards by members of the USS.

A black and white photo of a man with a beard and dressed as a baby being fed from a bowl by a second man with mutton chops.
Sir H Playfair and Dr MacDonald (The Sick Baby), unknown photographer, 1855 (ALB-6-131-1 – Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Library)

The final panel of the day combined issues of representation with modern social networks. Jessica Lee (completing her degree at Glasgow School of Art) took us through the history of photographs of geisha, starting with the way they were photographed by and for male photographers – both western and Japanese – and including Hornel himself. However, with the growth of social media and explicitly feminist photographers, modern geisha are much better equipped to take ownership of how they present themselves. They no longer need to be shown as the subservient and exotic women that were marketed to western men, and photographs of them can now be much more honest and nuanced.

A black and white photo of 2 Japanese women dancing with fans, the 1 on the left standing and the 1 on the right crouching.
Two Japanese Girls Dancing, attributed to E A Hornel, c1893–1921 (2015.1565 – Broughton House & Garden, National Trust for Scotland)

Alice Strang (Senior Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the National Galleries of Scotland) delivered the final paper on the contemporary artist Monster Chetwynd, who uses photographic images extensively in her work. Chetwynd has used this work to build multiple subversive social networks that have been described as a ‘goo’ that links people together across the world. Photography is crucial to this, either appearing in collages or being used to capture and record the otherwise ephemeral performance pieces that the artist undertakes.

An oil painting of the photo of 2 Japanese women dancing with fans, the 1 on the left standing and the other crouching.
Two Japanese Girls, E A Hornel, c1921–25 (5.30 – Broughton House & Garden, National Trust for Scotland)

These papers led into an enthusiastic discussion about the impact of digital photography and social media on photography today. The general consensus was that these had been good for photography, making it a more democratic and accessible medium. However, concerns were raised that these modern phenomena risked devaluing the skill of professional photographers and that social media sometimes encouraged people to focus on taking photos of themselves rather than looking at the photos in front of them.

This discussion encapsulated how, throughout The Camera, Colonialism and Social Networks, social networks of all kinds have been crucial to photography throughout its history, from the very earliest scientists to today’s social media. This was particularly true for photographers working in what were for them far-flung corners of the globe. These photographers used their networks and the opportunities the camera provided to access and acquire images of ‘exotic’ people and places. Hornel took full advantage of this himself, and became the artist he did as a result.

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