Picture Protectorate: Power and Postcards in Empire

By Anna Reser

Picture postcards emerged in the middle of the 19th century alongside changes in postal services in Europe, and they quickly gained enormous popularity. Improvements in photography and technologies for reproducing photographs made the picture postcard one of the cheapest ways for Europeans to consume photography. Photographs of the colonies, including architecture, local flora and fauna, and most famously local people, were popular souvenirs. Once made into postcards, they became objects of exchange among colonists and tourists abroad and their friends and family in the metropole. Photographs made in the colonies were shipped back to the metropole to be made into mass-produced postcards, which were then shipped back to the colonies. European colonists all over the world could purchase these postcards to send home to friends and family or to compile into albums documenting their time in the colonies. Picture postcards of colonized people and their export to the West are representative of the pervasive culture of commodification of the colonies extended even to the likenesses of their peoples. Both photography itself and its portrayal of colonized people was underpinned by the burgeoning authority of modern science.

As historian Jennifer Tucker has pointed out, photography is distinct from other kinds of images, which are made like drawings, in that a photograph is taken. In the history of scientific photographs in particular, the word ‘taken’ helps to establish the photograph's analogy to a specimen collected from nature, thus, enhancing the truth value of photography. Tucker argues that it is the enthusiastic embrace of photography by science in its collecting practices that legitimated photography as a reliable and truthful record of the world. The unimpeachable objectivity of photography, a notion which emerged at the same time science was beginning to professionalize in the middle of the 19th century, has since been undermined --because of course the contemporary reader knows better than to trust the photographic image unreservedly. But it is important when looking at photographs made in the past to understand that while their objectivity certainly wasn't completely unquestioned, it was widely accepted. Perhaps even more important is to understand that photography's objective status was endorsed by the elite science of the nineteenth century.

Like most Western image traditions, the damaging possibilities of this trade in the image of colonized bodies fell disproportionately on women. The seemingly neutral gaze of the camera reproduced and solidified racist and sexist ideas about colonized women, ideas that came directly from the mainstream of 19th century science. Jane Desmond, in her study of the visual culture of tourism in Hawaii from the late 19th century to the present, has detailed the ways in which picture postcards of native Hawaiian women were produced according to widely-held ideas about the classification and valuation of different races. Races that were perceived as more modern, or more amenable to modernization via imperialism, were ranked higher than those races that were seen as primitive and backward, or largely “beyond help.” Part of the reason that the stereotype of the hula dancer, indeed tourism in Hawaii general, remains so popular is that the image of native Hawaiian women, marked out by racist classification systems as members of a more ‘tractable’ culture, were distributed widely on picture postcards. These cards were essential to securing the Western notion of native Hawaiians as “ideal natives.” Native Hawaiian women in particular were idealized as appropriately and inviting sensual, as opposed to the more overt and threatening imagined sexuality of black women.

The effects of scientific racism on the images in picture postcards is compounded and amplified when they are made from ethnological displays, or the exhibition of non-western people in ostensibly educational contexts, such as museums and expositions. Most famously staged at World’s Fairs, these displays leveraged the authority of anthropology in their presentation of colonized people as curiosities and specimens of the uncivilized Other. Robert Rydell has argued that these contrived exhibits were presented as authentic and endorsed by anthropology as an accurate way for World’s Fair audiences to learn about the strange people that inhabited the colonies. Along with the agricultural and mineralogical products from the colonies and technological and scientific wonders, human beings were also procured by fair organizers and contracted to perform characteristic activities in an ‘authentic’ reproduction of their homes designed by white anthropologists. Once photographed for postcards, these skewed representations of colonized people were exported to a far wider audience even than those many thousands who saw the exhibit in person.

Significantly, Rydell notes that images of people are far outweighed in world’s fair postcards by images of technology and science, architecture, nature views, or iconographic illustrations. That almost all of the cards depicting people are of the people in the ethnographic displays indicates that “postcard publishers quite literally framed nonwhites and commodities to be traded, collected, and recombined in modular fashion with other marketable goods on display at the fairs.” (55) In this context, women in particular were transformed into consumable objects, often with explicit erotic overtones. Colonized women were often photographed bare-breasted; their “willingness” to be pictured this way presented as a sign of their savagery and exoticism. Picture postcards, far and away the most popular World’s Fair souvenir, allowed fairgoers to purchase and possess images of colonized women for visual and erotic pleasure. Just as people in the metropole enjoyed the material products of empire, they could also consume the spectacle of colonized women by purchasing, collecting, and sending postcards.

Picture postcards are a valuable set of sources for exploring the intersections of scientific racism and ethnographic practices, nineteenth century visual culture, imperialism and commodity culture. Scientific authority functions not only to sanction the content of ethnographic photography by labeling images of colonized people as anthropologically accurate and authentic, but also acts as an endorsement of photography as an objective and mechanical means of representing reality that buttressed the truth value of postcards. Picture postcards made from photographs were generally understood to represent the reality of the colonies--a reality that anthropology had already assured the West was backward, savage, and in need of the paternalistic protections of empire. Colonized women, portrayed as overly sexualized and lascivious, were seen as offering firm proof of the uncivilized nature of colonized people. As we have argued several times before, the oppressive aspects of scientific authority have disproportionately affected women and women of color even more significantly. Because women in the 19th century were actively excluded from scientific practice and because colonized women were by default the objects of scientific inquiry, racist and sexist ideas about women became naturalized when backed by the authority of modern science and apparently objective photographic practices.

Further Reading:
Christraud M. Geary and Virginia-Lee Webb, eds. Delivering Views: Distant Cultures in Early Postcards (Smithsonian Institution Press, 1998) pp. 65-90.

Max Quanchi & Max Shekleton, “Disorderly categories in picture postcards from Colonial Papua and New Guinea,” History of Photography, 25:4, 315-333.