At the Musée du quai Branly, photography conquers the world

Micmac Indian women (Newfoundland) on the bridge of “L'Ardent”, photograph taken by Paul-Emile Miot.

The history of photography has long been viewed as a purely European and North American affair. In a rich and well-documented exhibition, already presented at the Louvre Abu Dhabi in a reduced version, the Musée du quai Branly tries to “decenter the gaze” to study how the medium spread and imposed throughout the world in the 19th century.e century, thanks to Western operators, but also indigenous ones.

A challenge, given how much the institution’s historical collections, inherited from the former Musée de l’homme and the Musée des arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie, are linked to the colonial conquest, and were originally based on a very eurocentric vision. ” Since the 2000s, explains Annabelle Lacour, curator of the exhibition with Christine Barthe, we had a comfortable acquisition budget, which allowed us to expand these collections, by reinforcing the strong points, that is to say the images taken early in time and far in space, but also for fill in the gaps, by looking for the first local practices of photography. »

The resulting route, fascinating but very dense, with three hundred images accompanied by long texts, makes photography an interlacing of stories, brings to light unknown authors and strong works. Photography reveals itself sometimes as a tool for knowledge and sharing, sometimes as an instrument of domination and a factory of clichés that will die hard.

Anthropological aim

Very quickly after its invention in 1839, photography was taken on board ships to accompany scientific or military expeditions. The Natural History Museum in Paris equipped itself with a darkroom and commissioned operators such as Louis-Auguste Bisson to make daguerreotypes of native skulls from the Canary Islands, facing and in profile: anthropology, emerging discipline, then sought to establish typologies of human “races” on the model of natural history, shaping racial stereotypes… We also photographed foreigners passing through Paris: both embassy staff – and Jacques-Philippe Poteau posed with respect – that the men and women exhibited like animals, in Paris, at the end of the 19th centurye century.

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Prince Roland Bonaparte thus compiled an enormous collection of images for anthropological purposes, including the portrait of a young Kali’na Amerindian woman, from Guyana, with a look full of sadness, forced to dance for visitors to the Jardin d’Acclimatation during in the winter of 1892, housed in such terrible conditions that eight members of her group died in Paris (including her little brother). The painful story she brought back was passed on to her descendants, who found her portrait in the museum’s collections.

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