Taxidermist at Work on the Roosevelt Safari Specimens (1911, Smithsonian Institute Archives)
Posting has been slow and infrequent these last couple of weeks, mostly because I am lucky to be on research leave this semester and I have been trying to focus my writing energies elsewhere. At the moment, I am in the middle of revising a chapter that examines the intersection between ethnographic writing and cinema. It begins with the following excerpt from Theodore Roosevelt:
I almost always had some volume with me, either in my saddle pocket or in the cartridge-bag which one of my gun bearers carried to hold odds and ends. Often, my reading would be done while resting under a tree at noon, perhaps beside the carcass of a beast I killed, or else waiting for camp to be pitched; and in either case it might be impossible to get water for washings. In consequence the books were stained with blood, sweat, gun oil, dust, and ashes; ordinary bindings either vanished or became loathsome, whereas pigskin merely grew to look as a well-used saddle looks.”
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.” 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. Continue reading