New Login   

'Veins of Silver'

Anand Vivek Taneja

By Christopher Pinney
Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2011, pp. 174, Rs.1595.00


In a beautiful phrase deployed early in the book, Pinney writes of a retort that 'leaps across the years like a vein of silver in a dark passageway (p.12).' That phrase is a telling one, for it illuminates both the technique and the spirit of Pinney's book. In technique, the book, which is in essence a long illustrated essay, moves back and forth over the century and a half of the intertwined histories of photography and anthropology, picking decisive moments (to use a term associated with the photography of Henri Cartier Bresson) and images that cast a different light on anthropology's understanding of itself, and its relation to photography. In Pinney's own words the book, 'tries to ask what an anthropological destabilization of the relationship between anthropology and photography might look like (p.12).' In spirit, the book is deeply inspired by Roland Barthes and Walter Benjamin's understandings of photography, in which 'no matter how artful the photographer, no matter how carefully posed his subject, the beholder feels an irresistible urge to search a picture for the tiny spark of contingency, of the Here and Now, with which reality has so to speak seared the subject…' 1The vein of silver that leaps across the years in Pinney's meditation is an understanding of photography (and anthropology) having an indexical relationship to the Real, not entirely reducible to disciplinary conventions or codes of representation. This is what makes photography for Pinney, following Benjamin a close relative of magic, and a photographer 'the descendant of augurs and haruspices'. What Pinney subtly argues is that anthropology's understanding of 'primitive' animism and magic is linked to the discipline's emergence in a society increasingly saturated by images. He does a close reading of the importance of photography to the work of the pioneering 19th century anthropologist E.B. Tylor, and concludes that 'His commitment to an evolutionary theory of survivals and partisanship in the 'warfare of science and theology’ prevented him from understanding photography's power except in rationalist and progressive terms' (p. 35). Pinney also draws homologies between Frazer's famous principles of magic, homoepathic and contagious, and the 'iconic' and 'indexical' signs of Piercean semiotics, both of which are crucial to understanding photography's appeal. Photographs look 'like' their subjects in ways previously unprecedented and irreproducible. This is part of their appeal. 'But photography's particular claim to our attention is usually vested in its indexicality' (p. 66), ...

Table of Contents >>
Please or to Read Entire Article

Free Access Online 12 Back Issues
with 1 year's subscription
Archive (1976-2011)
under construction.