Thinking About Colonial Photography Through the Photographs of the Menage Expedition to the Philippines

By Professor Mark Rice

 

How should we make sense of colonial photographs that bridge the divide or blur the lines between different colonial regimes who occupied the same place but at different times? That question is at the heart of my current research project, a project that involves more than 150 photographs taken by two young, white, American men in the Philippines in the early 1890s.

Here’s how I found my way to this project and this question: about seven or eight years ago, when I was doing the research for my 2014 book, Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography and Film in the Colonial Philippines, I occasionally would come across an image in the archive whose date fell outside of the 1899-1913 parameters of my study. The photographs were included within the Dean Worcester archives I was interested in, but they had dates that situated them several years prior to Worcester becoming a colonial administrator who used his camera to argue for the importance of US colonial control of the Philippines. At the time I treated them as “noise” that I could ignore while I went about trying to understand the ways that Worcester employed photographs to advance his imperial ambitions.

After the book was published, I thought I was done with Worcester. He was an unpleasant man, and many of the photographs that I came across during the course of my research were disturbing to look at. However, there was something about those misfit photographs that I had ignored that kept them lingering in my brain and wouldn’t let me go. I thought that maybe if I turned my attention to them I would find something interesting and significant about those photographs.

The work of Gael Newton, the former Senior Curator of Australian and International Photography at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra, got me thinking even harder about the photographs. Newton has helped direct increased attention to the history and circulation of photographs across the Asia-Pacific region. I figured that those early 1890s photographs from the Philippines would help add to that growing body of scholarship, whatever else might or might not be significant about them.

The photographs were taken during the 1890-1893 Menage Zoological Expedition to the Philippines, an expedition sponsored by the Minnesota Academy of Science and funded by Louis Menage, a Minneapolis-based real estate and financial tycoon. Worcester led the expedition along with his friend and former classmate, Frank S. Bourns. (Bourns was the principal, if not sole, photographer on the expedition.) The subject matter of the photographs range from photographs of buildings and towns, to scenes of the men and their Filipino employees working in the field, to portraits of a wide cross-section of the inhabitants of the rural Philippine. (See figures 1 to 3.)

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Figure 1. Photo taken in January 1891. (Courtesy of Hennepin County Library.)
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Figure 2. Photo taken in June 1891. (Courtesy of Hennepin County Library.)
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Figure 3. Photo taken in February 1892. (Courtesy of Hennepin County Library.)

The Menage Expedition photographs occupy a unique position within the history of photography in the Philippines for a few different reasons. First, they are the largest known set of photographs taken by Americans in the Philippines prior to the United States taking control of the Philippines in 1898. Second, they were taken by men who later played roles in the U.S. colonial regime in the Philippines, though they had no way of knowing that that would be part of their future. Third, the photographs were taken in parts of the Philippines that had not been widely photographed at that time. And, fourth, they can complicate our analyses of the nature of colonial photography.

How should we think about these photographs that were taken by two Americans during the late Spanish colonial era? As I mentioned above, in at least three of the archives that I’ve identified as having Menage Expedition photographs, those photographs  exist within archives detailing the American colonial era in the Philippines. However, I would argue that they were not taken with any colonial agenda in mind, much less an American colonial agenda, despite the later careers of Bourns and Worcester. Few Americans had heard of the Philippines in 1890, fewer still would have imagined a future American colonial state there, and Bourns and Worcester both believed that they had left the Philippines forever when their expedition ended.

The Menage Expedition photographs are, as much as anything else, travel photographs. The primary mission of the Menage Expedition was to collect zoological specimens; the photographs were ancillary to that, taken and sent home to family members and to the academy sponsoring them. They were also used in gift exchanges with some of the people that Bourns and Worcester met during their travels. After developing their negatives in the field, they were able to make cyanotype prints. In letters and in his 1898 book, The Philippine Islands and Their People, the book that propelled him to his colonial career, Worcester wrote about sharing such photographs with everyone from a wealthy Spanish sugar planter on the island of Negros to a nomadic Mangyan family on the island of Mindoro.

Although it might be tempting to look at the Menage Expedition photographs simply as interesting travellers’ photographs taken in parts of the Philippines that hadn’t yet been photographed extensively, I would have been remiss had I chosen that right. There are just too many complicating factors. For example, many of the Menage Expedition photographs reveal certain “photographic obsessions” that Westerners have for non-Western peoples and places. Five “photographic obsessions” are described in the book 2001, The Chittagong Hill Tracts: Living in a Borderland, and I used those obsessions as a way to categorize and interpret many of the Menage Expedition photographs in an article I published in 2018 in the journal, History of Photography. While the Menage Expedition photographs weren’t made with a colonial agenda in mind, the impacts of colonialism on photography helped frame how Bourns and Worcester encountered the Philippines.

Just as significantly, or perhaps even more significantly, is the fact that Dean Worcester incorporated some of the Menage Expedition photographs into his government reports, his articles written for National Geographic and other magazines, and even his 1914 career-capping two-volume work, The Philippines Past and Present. In these publications, there was no way to distinguish which photographs Worcester took himself during his colonial career and which photographs were taken by Bourns during the Menage Expedition. Compositional similarities and the malleable nature of photographic meanings allowed such photographs to seamlessly transition from American “pre-colonial” photographs to American colonial photographs, and historians have unknowingly written about Menage Expedition photographs as though they were taken after 1898.

I’m at the point in my project where I’m prepared to begin pulling my thoughts together into a book. I envision it as having three parts.. The first section will be an introduction that will cover details about the Menage Expedition itself—the who, what, when, where, and why of it. It will discuss why and how the Minnesota Academy of Science and Louis Menage came to be involved in it  and will trace the movements of the men through the Philippines as they collected specimens and took photographs.

The second section will introduce the photographs, their dispersal into multiple archives, and my efforts to reintegrate them in the book. It will include a large selection of the photographs themselves with the original captions assigned to them by Bourns and Worcester. I have access to high-resolution scans of almost all of the photographs with permission to use them for this project. This section will also include excerpts from letters, reports, and published sources that will sometimes link specifically to the photos themselves, and at other times will provide glimpses into how the men experienced their time in the places where they took the photographs. This will allow for a rich understanding of the contexts of the creation of the photographs. For example, the photograph seen in figure 4 could be paired with this excerpt from a Worcester letter that was quote in an 1893 article in The Chautauquan magazine: “Monday morning we loaded our baggage on four small boats and with a crew of twelve men started up the river. Seven of the men were in our permanent employ, the other five being boatmen engaged for the trip. We went up the river leading to the lake and remained there several days bird hunting, and then began the catching of crocodiles.”

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Figure 4. Photo taken in March 1891. (Courtesy of Hennepin County Library.)

The third section will be an essay that considers how the Menage Expedition photographs can be interpreted and understood. It will include a discussion of evolving theories of colonial photography and the ways that the Menage Expedition photographs complicate some of those theories. It will also examine the ways that some of the Menage Expedition photographs came to be used by Worcester after 1898 to support his arguments for long-term U.S. retention of the Philippines. I argue that because of U.S. colonial control of the Philippines, the meanings of the Menage Expedition photographs changed after 1898; the meaning of a photograph doesn’t exist simply in its formal elements but also in the context of its creation and in the contexts of its use. The Menage Expedition photographs allow us to better understand the rich complexity of historical colonial photography.


Dr Mark Rice is Professor of American Studies at St. John Fisher College, in Rochester, New York. Dr Rice specialises in the history of photography, colonialism and 20th century American culture. Dr Rice is the author of Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines (University of Michigan Press, 2014).