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“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” – Susan Sontag


Photography was used early in the developing discipline of anthropology to validate observation. “Ethnography” refers to the qualitative study of social and cultural conditions. Ethnographic applications of photography draw broadly from the documentary approach. Ethnographic photography is embedded with meaning, its images culturally and historically situated.

So too must the ethnographic photographer be viewed in context. His or her intentions, relationships with subjects, and the social and cultural norms he or she represents must all be taken into account when assessing an image. The photograph fixes an image in time, and yet the ways in which it will be received and when this may happen are limitless. Photographers like Edward Curtis arguably represented their subjects with Anglo-centric views and even staged many of the photographs; many representations of indigenous peoples are inflected with nostalgia or foreignness. Many of the photographs once deemed anthropological are now viewed as “colonial photography.”

Images purporting authenticity of a culture were taken both in the studio and in the field, as demonstrated in the James R. Maxwell papers and the George Handy Bates Samoan papers in the University of Delaware Library. James Maxwell, a Delaware engineer who worked on railways in the American West and South America, owned examples of the highly collectible cabinet cards and cartes-de-visite of indigenous peoples that were sold as souvenirs to travelers and scientists. Delaware diplomat George Handy Bates had an interest in reporting on the culture of pre-territorial Samoa, and was fortunate to acquire excellent images of Samoans in their villages as taken by the Burton Brothers, who used a mobile dark room to travel around the South Pacific islands. A small collection of Maxwell’s images of Native Americans is shown in the case here; the Bates Samoan photographs may viewed as a digital collection in the digital frame in the gallery front case, or online.


Luis González Palma Il silenzio dei Maya

Luis González Palma (b. 1957)

Il silenzio dei Maya. Postfazione di Laura Leonelli ; a cura di Mario Peliti, Valerio Tazzetti. Roma : Peliti associati : Photo & Co, 1998.

Guatemalan photographer Luis González Palma’s work draws from the Maya and mestizo peoples of Guatemala; his unique photographs, often distressed by scratching, folding or painting, bring together modern symbols and icons and explore themes of colonialism and oppression. His photographs are known for their rich sepia tones. This is the author’s autograph copy.







Margaret Randall (b. 1936)

Photographs by Margaret Randall : image and content in differing cultural contexts. Essay, Margaret Randall ; introduction and catalogue, Robert Schweitzer ; foreword, Kent Ahrens ; Everhart Museum, Scranton, Pennsylvania, May 15, 1988-July 10, 1988. Scranton : The Museum, c1988.

Feminist writer, photographer, and activist Margaret Randall has lived abroad in Mexico City, Havana, and Managua for extended periods. Her travels to North Vietnam and Peru and habitation in these areas of the world greatly influence her writing and photography; she has authored biographies of Latin American women revolutionaries in war-torn countries like Honduras.

Selected photographs of Native American Indians (North and South) from the James R. Maxwell papers, 1870s-1880s.
James R. Maxwell papers, gift of Homer Riddle Lee

In the course of his survey and engineering work for the Union Pacific and Northern Pacific railroads in the American West, as well as his position on the Chimbota and Central railroads in Peru, Delaware native James R. Maxwell (1836-1912) collected photographic souvenirs to remember the landscapes and people from these diverse parts of the world where he traveled to work. Collected studio cards of North American Indians, possibly purchased in Utah, circa late 1860s left panel, clockwise from upper left : Pawnee, Omaha Punkah Sioux, Arapaho Collected studio cards of Peruvians, Ricardo Villaalba, Fotografo, Lima, circa 1870s right panel, clockwise from upper left : Musicians; Chancho, wild Indian Aymari, Indian girl at Puno; Indian porter


Edward Curtis (1868-1952)

The North American Indian: Being a series of volumes picturing and describing the Indians of the United States, and Alaska. S.n. : s.l., 1907-1930.

American photographer Edward Curtis documented the American West and Native Americans across the country. Curtis’s masterpiece, the twenty-volume The North American Indian, was issued between 1907 and 1930. President Theodore Roosevelt supported the endeavor and supplied an introduction to the first volume. Banker J.P. Morgan backed Curtis financially; however, most of the cost fell to Curtis himself, from which he never recovered. Five hundred copies of The North American Indian were produced, yet fewer than 300 were sold. The work represents an attempt to capture images of American Indians as they lived before contact with Anglo cultures. The richly toned photogravure prints reveal Curtis’s powerful and sensitive rendering of his vision. It stands as one of the most iconic yet controversial representations of traditional Native American culture. Curtis employed a variety of techniques during his career as a photographer; he perfected the orotone, or the goldtone process, and called his version Curt-tones after himself. Shown here are "A Hopi Girl" (volume 12, Plate 406) and "Two Whistles" (Volume 4, Plate 111).

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