Monday, June 25, 2007

Eve Noire and The Island of the Fisherwomen

Since the age when cameras were made portable and didn’t require entire caravans of supplies a'la Francis Frith to create images, photography and travel have gone hand in hand. Photography was often the only way for many people to experience any sense of the world’s many far away lands. It readily brought different cultures into the living rooms and salons for entertainment or examination and study.

Within this genre of photography and cultural “exploration,” nudity has played a role in the imagery. Often photographers found their way amongst cultures that had different attitudes towards nudity, bodies and modesty.

(An interesting discussion that I heard once on the radio was centered on the different instincts of modesty women around the world display. For instance, the instinct of American women, if intruded upon while naked, is to cover their breasts with one hand and genitals with the other. Muslim women may cover their faces with their hands. Certain women in Africa will cover only their knees leaving everything else exposed.)

When photographers find themselves amongst those cultures where nudity is the norm one could imagine the various intents when making images. Are the images made for ethnographic or anthropologic interest or does the photographer have other motives? Aside from the fact that National Geographic was one source for adolescent boys to get that elusive and coveted clear view of naked breasts, it may be quite clear in that publication at least, the intent seemed true and clear. Other books however seem to pose as an anthropological study but in reality are an early form of soft-core pornography. They represent the kind of very soft-core material that could live up on the shelf next to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

The first book I am talking about in this post seems…well… suspect in its motives. Eve Noire (Black Eve) by Bertrand Lembezat published by Hanns Reich Verlag in 1953 is one title that caught my attention and spurred these thoughts.

The book opens with an essay that may confess that the book’s content is less anthropological and more of an appreciation of beauty. Even so, there is something about it that may strike the viewer with a wave of discomfort.
In that essay written by Bertrand Lembezat (the photographer) he starts by writing:

How could anyone possibly be black and live entirely naked? And in addition how could anyone find this beautiful? Isn't it just repulsive? Because it's completely different from our conception of how things should be?

He goes on to write:

Nothing but feelings of vague eroticism mixed with simple minded curiosity occupies their minds when they see a naked black girl or a women undressed in pure nudity. Criticism nothing but criticism enters their brains: 'These androgen masks, these shaved circle shaped heads above edgy angular shoulders...these thin skinny legs, abominable tattoos...’

Despite any criticism, their beauty cannot be denied .You just need to look at their shiny muscular bodies coming from their daily bath illuminated by the hot African sun. At dusk they balance jugs of water on their shaven skulls to the deep fountain (a cultivated waterhole); pearls of water shamelessly touch their soft skin, slowly rolling down their slender bodies.

The eternal Eve comes to the mind of the beholder. An Eve before her fall from grace. Nudity and shame do not know each other yet. A jolly innocence, an innocent happiness. We envy her for her calm naiveté, we envy her for her peace, we envy her for her lack of knowledge about shame.

A black Eve? - So what? Let us remember the verse:

"I am black, so lovely, you daughters from Jerusalem..."

Hasn't a dark beauty been the inspiration for one of the oldest and most beautiful love poems of all time?

Even Gide once said (admitted it): "The Mudang women are usually completely naked; some of them are very beautiful." And he continues: "certain women whose voluptuousness (Aristide) Maillol would have loved."

His description about their huts could be used as a description of them: "Certainly the Masa huts are unique and incomparable. They are not only strange but strangely beautiful. I like them for their beauty I don't like them because they are strange."

The essay ends there. This is Bertrand’s reasoning behind what follows which is frame after frame of nude African women and girls with exposed breasts and airbrushed pubis.

Even though they seem far removed from modern life, the subjects are often aware of what photography is, as some follow an inherent instinct to smile at the camera. The odd photos involve a form of modeling from the subjects. They are posing openly but since nudity is the norm, it may be safe to say that they are not considering what I sense to be the obvious veiled aspects of their collaboration.

Remarkably, there are some really well made photos included among the 64 plates (otherwise what would be the point of talking about it?). This is by no means a good book but it does feature beautiful and rich gravure printing and the somewhat wacky essay in German was worth my $15.00 dollars. Although Bertrand Lembezat is credited as the main photographer, there is another name credited with some photos, a Robert Carmet. There is not much to distinguish in style from one to the other besides Carmet seems more drawn to the dances and daily rituals.

Another title that was brought to my attention is The Island of the Fisherwomen by Fosco Maraini published in an English edition in 1962. This book is subtitled: An enchanting tour of an unspoiled island paradise where modern Japanese mermaids dive below the sea’s surface to wrest a living from the depths.

It features a full story in text about a “student of ethnology’ traveling to a secluded Japanese island in quest of “mermaids.” He finds them, and describes their way of life in both text and photographs. They are known as “Ama” women and they are Japanese women who dive nearly nude for mollusks to earn a living. The written story is not without its own doses of titillation and open double entendre.

The flap copy paints the tone: In the perceptive, witty text and beautiful photographs of this beguiling book, he (Maraini) reveals the charming innocence of a simple way of life, uncorrupted by the trappings of our civilization, with neither automobiles nor television nor, indeed, feminine attire.

This title goes a bit out of its way to avoid being perceived as anything less than an adventure story and ethnological study by taking its time to get to the nudity. It features both black and white and color photography. The underwater shots are entirely cast in aquamarine color. The black and white are in nice gravure.

It features some rather funny captions to the photos that come across as the equivalent of ignoring the one ton elephant sitting in the room. The caption for the second photo in from the right-side of my composite above reads: “These goggles are worn under water.”

Again, there are some nice photos and the text is actually a fun read that reminds me of a Hardy Boys adventure story (with breasts).

My point being that in certain circumstances although the subject is described in words as “uncorrupted” it was eventually corrupted. Not by automobiles or television but by photography. Perhaps unknowingly, they were all trapped by our civilization in the end.

I would like to thank Patrick Becker for his translation of the German essay in Eve Noire and also to Charlie Rhyne for loaning me his copy of The Island of the Fisherwomen.

Book Available Here (Eve Noire)

Book Available Here (Island of the Fisherwomen)