|“The Figi Cannibals.” Photograph by Mathew Brady, 1872. Courtesy of the Meserve-Kunhardt Foundation.|
BY ROBIN BLYN
Associate professor of English at the University of West Florida
Traditionally, Mathew Brady occupies an esteemed place in the history of photography and in the history of the United States.
Otherwise known as “Mr. Lincoln’s Camera Man,” Brady stands nobly as a pioneer of photographic portraiture and as the fearless chronicler of the Civil War. In fact, Brady’s Civil War photographs inaugurate the genre of war photography. It may come as a surprise, then, to find that a sense of righteous indignation filters through the pages of Brady’s biographies, which inevitably portray him as a tragic artist. He dies impoverished, unappreciated, and unable to sell the collections of photographs he designed for and as history. First, his 1850 Gallery of Illustrious Americans was a commercial failure. Then he was unable to find a venue for the exhibition of his Civil War photographs until the time of his death. During the Reconstruction Era, neither the Library of Congress nor the American public took an interest in the frank photographs of the divisive war they wished to put behind them. Yet, Mathew Brady did enjoy popularity in his lifetime, earning acclaim for his images of the freak show performers who P.T. Barnum featured in his “American Museum,” one of the most popular mass culture venues of its day.
Only in passing do any of Brady’s biographers mention his extensive work photographing freaks, as though his association with the tawdry business of Barnum was beneath the patriotic artist they depict. When they do mention his incredibly popular cartes de visite and daguerreotypes of Barnum’s freaks, the implication is that these images were simply the training ground for Brady’s more serious work, a juvenile pursuit that he gives up to realize his greater vision. Yet, the dates refute such a neat plotline. The thousands of freak photographs attributed to Mathew Brady were taken before and after the war, and although they have yet to be legitimated as a “gallery” or a “collection,” they were taken side by side with Brady’s more famous portraits of “Illustrious Americans.” Indeed, these entertainers were themselves illustrious Americans of the period. Brady’s photographs of freak show performers may be the result of fortuitous circumstance—his first studio was directly across the street from Barnum’s museum—but these photographs are as valuable any of the others that he produced in his life. It is in his freak photography, and not in his more celebrated historic or journalistic enterprises, that Brady arguably experiments most fully with the powers of photography. More than any others, these photographs contemplate the freakishness of photography as a medium. A closer look at them reveals some of photography’s earliest reflections on the desire specific to photographic consumption.
We might take as an example Brady’s photograph of the “Figi [sic] Cannibals,” an image that reflects the unrequited desire at the heart of photographic representation. Both the exotic dress and the spears the Fiji carry suggest their racial and cultural differences from the largely white Victorian audience who paid to see them. Yet, the specific freakish aberration that Barnum attributed to them is entirely absent from the photograph. Unlike so many freak performers—armless men, legless women, conjoined twins—there is no corporeal evidence for cannibalism. These ostensible cannibals have the same bodies as the “normal” people who came to see them. So, too, it seems that despite their geographical point of origin, the Fiji remain in an indeterminate void; there is absolutely no background to this photograph, no theatrical setting that might remove their freakishness safely to another place or time. The cannibals are right there, before the viewer, and they are armed with a series of vertical spears that presumably find their mark on human flesh.
The disturbance of the photograph lies, then, in its frontality, for the gaze of the performers breaks the two-dimensional frame. Unlike the photographic portraits of upstanding citizens in the nineteenth century, the Fiji look directly into the camera and out at their viewers. We become the objects of their presumed hunger. To gaze at the photograph of the “Figi Cannibals” is hence to engage in a never-ending cycle. As viewers, we become frustrated visual consumers of the frustrated consumers of human flesh. The cannibals stare back at us, mirroring our own unfulfilled hunger for representation with their hunger to consume. Rather than serving as evidence for the freakishness of the “Figi Cannibals,” the photograph bears witness to its own failure to represent, to the unknowability that photographs present to us. It is this presentation of the unknowable that makes photographs objects of our desire. Instead of confirming a narrative about the cannibal population of Fiji, the photograph resists our desires—for knowledge and for proof.
However unwittingly, it is this power of photography that Barnum brought, thanks to Mathew Brady, to his freak shows.
Robin Blyn is author of The Freak-garde: Extraordinary Bodies and Revolutionary Art in America. She is associate professor of English at the University of West Florida.