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Photographic images of Amazonia and Amazonians have been widely familiar since the mid-19th century when cartes-de-visite replaced woodcuts of pot-stirring cannibals with the sombre gaze of the forest Indian. Complemented by floral and faunal exotica, the Amazonian Indian continues to epitomize a kind of Amazonian actor seemingly unchanged from pre-history to the present. There have been significant variants, Lévi-Strauss’s unromantic Nambikwara refugees and Salgado’s modern extractivist labourers among them, but even an expanded repertoire of ‘the ordinary Amazonian’ has hardly diminished the focal image of the solitary, forest-dwelling Indian.

The earliest photographic images of Amazonia, those of Frisch for example, showed a minimalist social Amazonia and concentrated on portraits, often of couples, but unlike much of Curtis’s work with North American Indians, Frisch’s portrayals took Indians as models for museum display/dioramas, using postures familiar from earlier paintings and woodcuts. Images that documented more of the social life of Amazonia accompanied the rubber industry and with the increasing cosmopolitanism of Amazonia, studios – such as that of Huebner in Manaus – produced both observational and posed photographs. Huebner also worked for early anthropologist-explorers such as Koch-Grunberg and produced studies of urban Amazonians. The effects of the rubber industry and intensification of trade in the region did not produce as much of a photographic record as might be imagined, but the scandals associated with the Putumayo rubber estates led to the wide dissemination in Europe and North America of a new, pathological Amazonia, no longer a natural, ‘green hell’ of the post-Conquest period, but a ‘devil’s paradise’ constructed around the organized persecution of Indians.

An important champion of the photographic documentation of Amazonian Indians was E. Im Thurn, a colonial functionary in what was then British Guiana. His ascent of Mt. Roraima (Venezuela/Brazil border) inspired Conan Doyle’s The Lost World  (1912) which, rendered cinematically in 1925, reinforced much of the pre-modern imagery of the region (factually- and fictionally-based), but with the collapse of the rubber industry and the withdrawal of many of the commercial and transport links that had helped familiarize the region and its peoples, Amazonia became again an official terra incognita, and the kinds of images emerging over the subsequent period, and up until the 1970s,  tended toward the exotic naturalistic: ‘stone-age’ Indians, forest canopies and oxbow rivers, natural curiosities (colourful frogs, odd-looking fish, happy dolphins, buttress roots), idiomatically the ‘jungle pastoral’.

The explorer/adventurer take resurged under the official ‘frontier-taming’ expeditions of Cândido Rondon, the Brazilian soldier commissioned to establish a telegraphic system in Amazonia, and whose extensive forays amongst Indian peoples were documented in some 1500 photographic images as well as ‘newsreel’ style footage (directed by Col. Thomaz Reiz; many of the stills in the official publication were actually frame-grabs from Reis’ material).

While the post-World War II era saw a growth in photographic documentation via ethnographic and natural history research, the dominant impressions were created through mass-cult/mid-cult publications such as The National Geographic, The Reader’s Digest, The Sunday Times and Life Magazine, a major message being that Amazonia was the last frontier and the benign, natural counterweight to the social change being experienced by – especially in the case of Brazil – the ‘sleeping giant’ of the modernizing state. Typically, the adventurous architecture of Brasilia, the modernist ‘experiment’ in frontier colonization, was contrasted with the soporific life of the paddler of a dug-out canoe (with pet parrot/monkey/sloth…).

This neat pairing of the old and the new was dissolved with the reinvention of Amazonia c. 1970, now as a frontier not be to be left to its own devices, but to be forced out of its torpor, and here commenced a new epoch as well in Amazonian photography. Sebastian Salgado is undoubtedly the most revered of those who have documented the cost of this newest assault on Amazonia and he has certainly embraced the notion of a combined cultural and natural crisis that has so emphatically characterized late-modern Amazonia, but there is a profusion of Amazonian images (and image-makers), both from Brazil and other Amazonian countries and elsewhere. One of the emergent themes has been a new kind of quotidian Amazonia, one that is attentive to the complexities of indigenous and traditional Amazonians as well as to the many kinds of neo-Amazonians. This is hardly to say that the Amazonia of exotic nature has retreated from view, nor is it to say that new Amazonia is any less exotic. Rather, the stage on which subject and photographer sit is more likely to be the same one. What is depicted in the photographs is something that is uncertainly weighted as familiar or unfamiliar. What is depicted of the daily routine has its own intriguing differences, but these are graspable in a way that previously they were not. The frogman Amazonian who dives for gold is not the embodiment of some totemic shadow, but a sub-surface worker on the frontiers of the extractive zone. The free trade zone mall-shopper who has long forsaken one kind of hunting and gathering for another, the lab-suited abattoir-worker, the prim ayahusaqueiro, the roadside snacker, all hark back to a familiar Amazonia and touch down in a less familiar one, o futoro so often invoked to explain the uncertainties of the present.

© Stephen Nugent, 2006

See images here.