Certain elements of Gauguin’s oeuvre are infamous, specifically the Tahitian portion covering the period 1890 until his death in 1903. Much of the controversy from this period is centred on the female models he used as the subject matter for his nudes, many of whom were teenagers (Gauguin’s Tahitian wife, Tehura, was 13 when he married her). Setting aside this issue, I’d like to briefly highlight another area of controversy, one which is particularly topical in light of post-colonial critiques and which has significance for any photographer working in unfamiliar locations and that is the thorny issue of representation.
Uniformed viewers of much of Gauguin’s work from Tahiti would find it difficult to avoid the conclusion that the Tahiti of the time was some form of primitive paradise on earth, a place where the surplus repression that had created the discontents of European civilisation simply had no currency. The reality of course is that prior to Gauguin’s arrival, a century of Christian missionary activity had virtually eliminated traditional Polynesian customs, beliefs, and mythology. In fact by the time Gauguin had reached Tahiti probably only a few elders could recollect native traditions.
So on a fundamental level how do we interpret his work? Outside of any allegory to the body and its history within western art (of which there are probably many), perhaps we can say Gauguin was consciously engaged in a kind of facile filtering of western fantasy, pandering to the expectations of the day within France (and Europe) by knocking out paintings of a kind of dusky tropical fantasia, albeit in a style and colour pallet that was radically different to what had gone before.
Another view is that his work was simply naive, but this probably does him a disservice. We know he was an intellectual, profoundly literary who went the full distance in his travel experiences. By his early life history alone he was an internationalist, well versed in the world, who probably had a reasonable understanding of the period in history he found himself in.
The most likely interpretation I suggest is that Gauguin was simply appropriating from cultures he had only a superficial understanding of (but which he was no doubt fascinated by), never trying to convey an accurate portrayal of the places he visited and spent time in. Cultural specificity was probably not important to him – the location was probably just a vehicle around which he could construct his own historical reality – one which was variously grounded in the imaginary, the sensory, the experiential, the factual, and experimental. In doing so, he probably remained a hostage to primitivist myths but turned the discourse to good use, unaware of the extent to which his work would take on a life its own once it left its studio and headed out into the 20th century.
Which via a meandering route brings us to photography. Are the same kind of issues Gauguin probably grappled with and the same kind of critiques just as relevant to photographers today operating in foreign locations bringing back photos of different places and cultures? Or do we have a more objective view on cultural representation both in the taking and interpretation of images? I’m probably positing these questions from the perspective of travel photography, it being genre that is most often the vehicle for depicting other places; however, I could equally be talking about other photographic genres.
Most of the photography I take is overseas so it’s obviously something I’ve thought about a great deal. The question I often asked myself is to what extent is it realistic to expect any photographer passing through or maybe temporarily residing in a foreign location with probably only a rudimentary understanding of the cultural and geographical space they find themselves in to ever hope to produce material that could be said to be in any way representative or which embodies the essence of place? Is travel, documentary, and observational photography in foreign lands a task so inherently fraught with the potential risk of what Alec Soth refers to as ‘Eiffel tower moments’ that it is almost not worth attempting in any meaningful way?
Let me be clear in stating that I am not dismissing the relevance of my own or other people’s output or anyone’s right to produce whatever work they feel inclined to. However, my current thinking is that the majority of work geographically disconnected from one’s own place should come with an upfront qualification on a personal level about what it exactly is one is doing and how it might be interpreted. This is something that requires the utmost honesty on the part of the photographer and a recognition of the framework of understanding and codification that the material will ultimately find itself sitting within and being judged against.
It seems to me that most experiences of choice in foreign lands are fundamentally a projection of one’s own fantasies, desires, theories, and ideas and they should unashamedly and perhaps uncritically be recognised as such.