Staged historical photos raise odd questions in my brain

Today’s Dinosaur Comic tells of Edward S. Curtis, an early 20th century photographer who photographed American Indians in highly subjective style. Not wanting to disappoint stereotypes, he deliberately dressed his subjects in ‘Indian’ garb and removed all signs of modernity. Most people bristle at this. Even if his motives were virtuous – he possibly thought he was documenting and ennobling a ‘dying’ race – this kind of manipulation seems akin to lying.

But at the same time plenty of photographers were travelling far and wide, offering their services to people never before photographed, and I recently learnt that many took along their own backgrounds. They produced thousands of images of…people…, all with the same lighting and against the same scene. I instinctively don’t like this either, but it’s harder to say why. What would the ‘correct’ background add? It would likely only be a very small area, and hardly representative of the surrounding environment. I don’t object to modern-day high-street portrait studios, either.

To me the photos don’t feel false, just disappointing – is this because of the missed opportunity to capture these people in their environments (despite the word ‘documentary’ not being invented until the 20s)? Or could it be that people looked roughly the same 100 years ago as they do now, and the lack of anchoring context robs me of the romance of empathy? I can (kinda) imagine myself in the place of an 1890s farmer working the fields, but in a staged, fixed-background picture there’s nothing to latch onto – it could be any old dude. Accompanying text can tell me who these people are, but this doesn’t produce the same kind of connection as actually seeing photographic ‘proof’. Why do I care about feeling a connection, anyway?

Odd. I don’t have any kind of conclusion here, it’s just an aspect of photographic theory I find interesting. Photos produce weirdly abstracted feelings, sometimes.