Writing on photography

Arles 2015 Dispatch #2: Vernacular/Martin Gusinde

For the first time I’ve taken some days out from the summer to head to the south of France for the annual Recontres Les Arles photography festival. I’ll be posting a few pieces over the coming days highlighting some the festivals highlights. Following on from my brief survey of the selections for the prestigious Discovery Award I thought I would focus on a couple of my favourite exhibitions of the festival so far, first of all two that consist entirely of historic imagery, Vernacular and Martin Gusinde: The Spirit of the Tierra del Fuego People.

The curating or repurposing of amateur photography is very much in vogue and as much as it has spawned some very worthwhile responses it has also led to a great many exhibitions and books that are just timed to cash in on a passing fashion and are for the most part poorly conceived and curated. Fortunately Vernacular is neither of these things, but rather a small and very tightly curated display of images from the collection of Jean-Marie Donat. It consists of three sets of found photographs, each one consisting of the same type of image. This might sound dull but the repetition of the same photographic tropes across dozens of photographs becomes increasingly bizarre, (an example of Freud’s theory of the uncanny according to the show notes, although this might be pushing it a little)

One of the three series demonstrates this particularly well. Each of the fifty or so photographs in the series Predator features alongside its main subject the shadow of a hat wearing man protruding into the bottom of the frame. What at first seems like a familiar photographic trope becomes increasingly disturbing as the series goes on, and the shadow goes from seeming like the benign presence of an inept photographer, to a sign of impending threat reminiscent of film noir villains like Peter Lorre’s child murderer in M. Similar but quite different tricks are at work in the other two series and the result is an exhibition which is engaging, funny and a little bit disturbing. Vernacular is a neat a reminder of how changing fashions and social norms reshape the meaning of photographs, and how important the cumulative effect of viewing multiple images can be on how we understand what they mean. As has often been said on this blog, no photograph is an island.

The second highlight for me so far has been Martin Gusinde: The Spirit of the Tierra del Fuego People. Gusinde was a Germany missionary who at the start of the twentieth century made a series of four trips to the far south of Latin America. Arriving with the fantasy of meeting tribes untouched by western civilisation, Gusinde soon found that in reality life was a constant battle in this remote region, and that the tribes of the territory were having their cultures and traditions increasingly eroded by European influence. He undertook a project to document them, in his own words ‘before they disappear’ and went on to produce over a thousand photographs of three tribes in the region. For obvious reasons you have to approach photographs like these with caution, given who they were made by, when, and for what. Leaving aside the basic assumption that these tribes were doomed to die out, and the quandry that Gusinde was very much part of the civilisation that was causing them to disappear, these remain interesting, beautiful and at times very moving photographs.

Gusinde photographed very broadly, capturing family groups, individual portraits, settlements and ceremonies. Some of the most remarkable photographs come from the rituals of the Selk’nam tribe, including a lengthy initiation ceremony known as the Hain which involved participants dressing as spirits and mythological figures by painting their bodies with ochre and crushed bone and wearing starkly minimal headpieces made of bark. Whatever his politics as a Christian missionary and his agenda as a self-appointed ethnologist, one gets a sense from the photographs that Gusinde felt very deeply about the plight of these isolated groups, and seems to have gone so far as to take part in some rituals like the Hain. As much as a record of a disappearing way of life then, these photographs also make for a fascinating record of one man’s interest in a culture profoundly unlike his own.

About the author

Lewis Bush

Lewis Bush works across different media and platforms to make structures and cultures of power visible. He has exhibited, published, and spoken about his work internationally, is acting course leader of MA photojournalism and documentary photography at University of the Arts London, and runs workshops from his studio in London. From September 2020 he will be an ESRC funded PhD candidate at the London School of Economics researching automation's impact on visual journalism.

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Writing on photography