PMG Winter Meeting – "New Photo Histories in West Africa" by Erin Haney, Feb. 21

This was the final session of the 2015 PMG Winter Meeting.  Speaker Erin Haney is an art historian and co-founder/co-director of Resolution, which hosted the 2014 “3PA” workshop in Benin. During the Q&A afterward, one conservator remarked that her talk “reminds us why we do what we do.” That couldn’t be more true. She provided an exciting glimpse of family and private photograph collections in West Africa that have not been widely seen nor studied. The stewards of important West African photography collections have recently started to come together to explore strategies for their preservation as well as raising their visibility worldwide.
She began by saying that West Africa has valuable historic photographs that won’t come up on Google searches. The reason is simply that these photographs tend to be dispersed widely in private and family collections. There are very few cultural institutions, archives and museums that have enjoyed stability from the colonial era to the present day. Some institutions have lost all or part of their photographic collections in times of political upheaval. Instead, it is primarily families and private owners who have safeguarded that region’s photographic heritage.
Haney showed just a few examples that reflect the diversity of images that can be found in these collections. These include photographs made during the colonial period, the images made by the great, early studios (often now in family collections of their descendants), domestic portraits, group portraits, and events of social and political importance. There are images of the social elite and the wealthy, showing a materially rich and cosmopolitan West Africa that is seldom seen, and a history that is seldom taught. She showed a daguerreotype by Augustus Washington, who went to Liberia from the US and made daguerreotypes in cities all along the West African coast. There were photographs made by the Lutterodt family, which established a far-reaching network of family photography studios that operated from the 1870’s to the 1940’s. There were British colonial scenes, portraits by early French-run studios, portraits of West African women and their Bordeaux trader husbands, and debut portraits–young women dressed in the finest cloth, showing their readiness for marriage. More recent images included Gold Coast soldiers, independence movements, city skylines and infrastructure, and prominent political figures. These are but a few of the many treasures in these collections, spanning the 19th and 20th centuries. There is an extraordinary variety of subjects and photographic traditions.
She showed how photographs were made and remade in order to improve them and preserve them. Some photographs took on new meaning as memorial objects when the sitter passed away. These could be marked with crosses, mounted, and/or captioned by loved ones. Other photographs that had condition issues over time might be heavily overpainted to refresh them. In one case, a painting of a Dutch ancestor was remade by photographing it, in order to present it alongside a group of other family portrait photographs. The original image was not sacred. To study these collections, one has to understand how the images functioned when they were made and how they continue to function. Theirs is an iterative practice of artistry, which must inform preservation and conservation decision-making.
Of grave concern today is that these collections are at risk when the custodians feel they must sell or dispose of them to reclaim the valuable space they occupy in a private home, or generate much-needed income. Resolution communicates the importance of photographic cultural heritage to people in West Africa and around the world. The Benin workshop provided participants with the skills to document and manage their collections, while networking with others in the region working toward the same goals. The workshop involved nine countries in Francophone West Africa and is actively building partnerships and capacity to make a case for the ongoing support of photographic collections. There is a growing recognition of their critical importance for national identity, education and research. It was an inspiring end to this PMG Winter Meeting.