I ran across this postcard on Peel’s Prairie Provinces a few months ago, and I was struck by it for a multitude of reasons, only some of which I can put into words. (What specifically is the “punctum” for me with this image, to borrow Barthes’ terminology?), I find myself noticing details – the three lines on the left side of his coat, indicating it to be a capote made from a Hudson’s Bay Company point blanket (still all the rage), a slightly furrowed brow, the gleam of a ring on his finger, his slightly hunched almost defensive pose, the casual way he holds his pipe.
But most of all I feel that I was struck by his gaze, staring directly at the camera – and therefore, us, the viewers, over a hundred years later. What is communicated in this gaze? What, if anything, can we know of this man?
Recently, I read a fascinating article by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins, “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes”, which was a chapter in a book on different aspects of reading and understanding National Geographic magazine. They pointed out something startling to me about choices in representation of the “gaze” of their photographic subjects. Namely, when it came to different types of posing in photographs, (“to a statistically significant degree”), “Those who are culturally defined as weak – women, children, people of color, the poor, the tribal rather than the modern, those without technology – are more likely to face the camera, the more powerful to be represented looking elsewhere.”(199)
Subaltern peoples, particularly in the cases of women and children, are often depicted photographically staring directly into the camera. (Think about the famous Afghan girl.) It is perceived as being more both a more direct and more naïve gaze; perhaps they are curious about the camera or the person who wields it. Those with power, who are perceived to have intellect and so on, are often depicted gazing into the distance, as if they have more important things on their minds than the camera taking their photograph. Thinking back on examples of photography in the 19th century, I can picture many examples of photographs which fit this mold. Think of all of the depictions of Queen Victoria in which she is in profile or slightly off-centre. Traditionally, however, working class folks (“the rougher classes”) were depicted with direct gazes, whilemiddle- to high-class subjects with a (at times) more casual lounging posture, gazing to the side as if lost in thought. Both, especially in a studio setting, are constructed poses, but what I find intriguing are the subconscious ways in which such poses speak to the individual’s personality and background (at least as imagined by the photographer and viewer).
That being said, these authors were speaking of a specific set of photographs accompanying photo essays published quite some time after the postcard above. (Judging by the use of “N.W.T.” (Northwest Territory) instead of “Alberta” to designate the location of Qu’Appelle, and the format which places the message on the front alongside the image instead of the reverse with the address, this postcard likely predates the formation of Alberta as a province in 1905). However, the photographs were selected by the magazine editor because in some way they were compelling photographs that helped them tell the story they wished to tell. Whether consciously or subconsciously, the editors selected photographs that fit into this model, and rejecting others. Creators of postcards, too, wanted to sell compelling images that didn’t jar overmuch with the understandings their purchasers held of the world, a region or its peoples.
As a viewer, I definitely feel a sense of connection with the man depicted in this photograph. The purchaser and sender of this postcard certainly must have felt some element of this connection as well, judging by the message on the front: “Dear Teddy: – How would you like to greet this man? – Aunt J—(Jason?)” Photographs like this one facilitate imagined encounters between the “Indians” of the West and interested (likely white) parties elsewhere. Intellectually, I understand that the man pictured in this image was looking at a photographer and his camera lens, but due to the nature of the medium, he seems to be looking directly at me, erasing the distance of both time and space. Photography – and photographic postcards – facilitate such connections.
Nevertheless, in the case of postcards at least, such imaginary encounters are not accompanied by much information aside from just enough to tantalize the receiver. Is he truly a medicine man? How does he live? What does he believe? We think that we know this man – we meet his gaze as he “meets” ours – but how much can we truly know of him?
Francis, Daniel. The Imaginary Indian: The Image of the Indian in Canadian Culture, Vancouver, BC: Arsenal Pulp Press, 1994. (E-book at least partially found here.)
Lutz, Catherine A. and Jane L. Collins. “The Photograph as an Intersection of Gazes,” Reading National Geographic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993: 187-215.
Every National Geographic magazine ever.