BEYOND TAXIDERMY

Teddy Roosevelt, Library of Congress, 1909.  This photograph was taken during Roosevelt’s first post-presidency safari to Africa.  A film of the expedition, Roosevelt in Africa, was made and released in 1910.

In her reading of Nanook of the North (1922), Fatimah Tobing Rony describes the work of Robert Flaherty as “taxidermy.”[1]  The taxidermic image, like the taxidermied body, “seeks to make that which is dead look as if it were living,” (101).  The taxidermist—often euphemistically referred to as a “naturalist”—must kill his/her subject, so that it can be brought back to life, a stilled representation of its former self.  This rich conceptual paradigm—moving image as taxidermic preservation—not only suggests that the image of the Inuit family oscillates between movement and stillness, life and death, but also aligns the very process of filmmaking with an act of violence and mutilation.  The camera captures, kills, and stills.  The understanding of ethnography-as-taxidermy likewise challenges the indexicality of the film image. Rony writes, “In order to make a visual representation of indigenous peoples, one must believe that they are dying, as well as use artifice to make a picture which appears more true, more pure,” (102).  Nanook of the North does not present life as it is or was, in all of its supposed degeneration and destruction, but life as imagined by Western explorers, travel writers, and ethnographic filmmakers.  Like the taxidermied bodies that populate life exhibits at the natural history museum, Nanook of the North offers only the scantest shells of early twentieth-century Inuit bodies, of lives that once were in a real place and time.  Beneath their cinematic skins, one finds a batting of grasses and leaves.  In thinking film as taxidermy, Rony separates surface and underbelly, representation and reality.  Rather than dismissing the well-documented manipulations that unfolded behind-the-scenes (reenactments, inaccurate costumes, etc.), Rony reads them as a necessary part of the film world, as well as Flaherty’s ethnographic mode.  The taxidermic cinema passes over the actual to signify a fictional constellation of images and ideas.

As a paradigm for analyzing ethnographic film, taxidermy gathers together a number of important concepts and historical associations.  Before the advent of cinema, visual ethnography consisted largely of actual taxidermy.  Rony foregrounds this violent genealogy, collapsing the distinction between killing and filming.  But taxidermy and the camera intertwined with startling frequency throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Finis Dunaway traces the roots of nature photography to the rifle.  In the late nineteenth century, gun and camera circulated freely among the elite members of the hunting party.  Networks of “artist-hunters” or “camera-hunters” began to form, joined by a shared interest in conservation, aesthetics, and the transformative power of the American landscape.  These men “longed to regain primal instincts through gun hunting; they desired to fix the primeval landscape through camera hunting.”[2]  The overlap between camera and gun, observation and penetration fascinates Susan Sontag and shapes much of her writing on the photographic image.[3]  Both Donna Haraway and Mark Alvey explore the union of taxidermy and filmmaking in the figure of Carl Akeley.  Akeley played a central role in the development of taxidermic practice in the United States and Europe.  He was also the inventor of the Akeley camera whose “freewheeling damped-action gyroscopic tripod head […] allowed the operator to pan and tilt with a steady, fluid motion, using a handle mounted on top of the camera.”[4]  In other words, the very person who perfected the taxidermic stillness of the life exhibit, brought an unprecedented fluidity of motion to the field of ethnographic cinema.

Beyond these historical resonances, Rony’s term establishes a firm link between Nanook of the North and Bazinian mummification.  She writes, “Taxidermy is also deeply religious: when Bazin writes that the mummy complex is the impulse behind the evolution of technologies of realism—‘To preserve, artificially, his bodily appearance is to snatch it from the flow of time, to stow it away neatly, so to speak, in the hold of life’—one is reminded of the image of the sleeping Nanook,”(104).  That Allakariallak—the actor who played the sleeping Nanook—died only two years after the film was released, Rony suggests, adds to the authenticity of the film-as-taxidermy/mummy.  Rony makes no distinction between the specific ontology Bazin addresses and that of Flaherty’s work, between the photographic and the film image; nor does she distinguish between written and visual ethnography.  Instead, Rony understands the film as a visual extension of schizogenic time.  She sketches Johannes Fabian’s view and writes, “The cinema of Flaherty worked in the same way: Nanook and his family were represented in a cinematic ‘ethnographic present’ in which intertitles establish the camera, and thus the filmmaker, as observer,” (102).

While one might struggle to bring together “the ethnographic present,” the Bazinian mummy, and ethnographic taxidermy in coherent detail, the central thrust of her critique marks an important rethinking of early ethnographic cinema.  Taxidermy quickly displaced the framework of “salvage ethnography” through which Flaherty, and early ethnographic cinema more generally, had been understood.  And rightly so.  Flaherty’s infamous claim—“Sometimes you have to lie.  One often has to distort a thing to catch its true spirit”—is not an unfortunate admission by one of the founding figures of documentary film.  It is a very particular description of an ethnographic methodology.  Rony insists that we read Flaherty’s distortions carefully.

But Nanook of the North represents but one among a small collection of docu-fiction ethnographic films and taxidermy proves difficult to generalize beyond its boundaries. Between 1910 and 1930, hundreds of ethnographic expedition films were made.  Within the expedition genre, the hunt operates as both a central theme and a structural device. This visual event neither reproduces the divisions of schizogenic time (à la Johannes Fabian), nor preserves its subjects in a mummified or taxidermic state.  Representations of the hunt in ethnographic cinema do not attempt to make “that which is dead look as if it were living.”  In sharp contrast, these films detail an often gruesome transition from life to death, as well as the extensive efforts required to produce a taxidermic rebirth.  Indeed, these films pull back the taxidermic curtain.  They undo the lifelike appearances that populate the corridors and glass enclosures of the natural history museum.  They likewise destabilize the coherence of the expedition itself, puncturing the journey across space and through time with an unassimilable visual rupture–death on screen–what Mary Ann Doane describes as, “as a cinematic Ur-event because it appears as the zero-degree of meaning, its evacuation.”[5]

I think we need to move beyond ideology critique and broad ontologies to engage the specific (visual, spatial, temporal) ruptures that define the ethnographic archive.

[1] Fatimah Tobing Rony, The Third Eye: Race, Cinema and Ethnographic Spectacle (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996): 99-126.

[2] Finis Dunaway, “Hunting with the Camera: Nature Photography, Manliness, and Modern Memory, 1890-1930,” Journal of American Studies 34, no. 2 (2000): 220.

[3] See Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1977) and Regarding the Pain of Others (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2003).

[4] Mark Alvey, “The Cinema as Taxidermy: Carl Akeley and the Preservative Obsession,” Framework 48, no. 1 (Spring 2007): 33; See also Donna Haraway, Primate Visions (New York: Routledge, 1989).

[5] Mary Ann Doane, The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency, The Archive (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2002): 164.

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One thought on “BEYOND TAXIDERMY

  1. Pingback: REMOVING THE JAW | HALF/FILMS

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