Cover image for Picturing empire : photography and the visualization of the British Empire
Picturing empire : photography and the visualization of the British Empire
Ryan, James R.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
Chicago : University of Chicago Press, [1997]

Physical Description:
272 pages : illustrations, maps ; 25 cm
Format :


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DA16 .R93 1997 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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Coinciding with the extraordinary expansion of Britain's overseas empire under Queen Victoria, the invention of photography allowed millions to see what they thought were realistic and unbiased pictures of distant peoples and places. This supposed accuracy also helped to legitimate Victorian geography's illuminations of the "darkest" recesses of the globe with the "light" of scientific mapping techniques.

But as James R. Ryan argues in Picturing Empire , Victorian photographs reveal as much about the imaginative landscapes of imperial culture as they do about the "real" subjects captured within their frames. Ryan considers the role of photography in the exploration and domestication of foreign landscapes, in imperial warfare, in the survey and classification of "racial types," in "hunting with the camera," and in teaching imperial geography to British schoolchildren.

Ryan's careful exposure of the reciprocal relation between photographic image and imperial imagination will interest all those concerned with the cultural history of the British Empire.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

Written by an Oxford geographer, these erudite essays make an invaluable contribution to the knowledge of Britain's overseas empire and how it entered the Victorian imagination through the medium of photography. Each essay is crafted to examine the images themselves in a richly illustrated text while also situating those images in their wider cultural and historical settings. Chapters include studies of the uses of photographic realism for commercial (e.g., Samuel Bourne in India and John Thomson in China and Cyprus), scientific (e.g., military photographers and science in warfare in Abyssinia, David Livingstone's Zambezi Expedition to capture ethnological data with the camera, and other photographers' efforts to document racial types based on the science of anthropometry), and didactic purposes (e.g., the Colonial Office Visual Instruction Committee project to teach British school children about empire). Exhaustive and well documented, these essays complement other research by geographers, historians, art historians, and anthropologists. Ryan writes in fluid prose that brings the Victorian imagination to life. Other recent complementary studies of equally high caliber include Bernard Smith's Imagining the Pacific (Yale 1992) and Nicholas Thomas's Colonialism's Culture (Princeton 1994). Highly recommended. All levels. H. J. Rutz; Hamilton College (NY)