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March 27, 2011 5:20 PM   Subscribe

In Oliver Sacks' The Minds Eye he references "primitive cultures" in which people do not recognize photographs as representational. Where can I read more about that?
posted by phrontist to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
This is, as near as I can tell, one of those pieces of passed down folk wisdom. One of the more oft-cited people on this topic is E. H. Gombrich whose book Art and Illusion is a pretty popular book on the odd line between art and the things it represents, and discusses the "goals of art in a given culture" (more, more). He starts off referring to artistic creations by more "primitive" cultures and expands into the way we view art today. Not a lot made of the "photographs are unreadable" angle as near as I can tell from a quick glance. Gombrich is notable for this quote "Art is not a copy of the real world. One of the damn things is enough."

If you're more into the philosophical point and less into the primitive people themsevles, you might like this thesis paper On Depiction and Expression Two essays in Philosophical Aesthetics by Servaas de Villiers van der Berg which discusses this weird semiotic ditch people refer to or this Semiotics for Beginners page.

I'm always a little suspicious when people make broad claims about primitive people, so I'd be really curious to see if this is a statement made regarding actual people or just conceptual understandings about primitive people. Extensive googling has led me to people explaining that to some people it may be a "sympathetic magic" sort of thing [where the photograph supposedly retains some connection to the photographed, the "steal the soul" thing you hear] and the Australian Aboriginal avoidance practices (name from possibly sketch Wikipedia article) where there are warnings in museums that contain representations of Aboriginal people. This does not in any way indicate that these representations are not-understandable, just that may contain other meanings in addition to the representational ones.
posted by jessamyn at 6:59 PM on March 27, 2011 [2 favorites]

I'm not an anthropologist but I do have a (rather hazily remembered) master's degree in social/cultural anthropology FWIW>
A cultural anthropologist (at least post-1960s) wouldn't use the term "primitive culture" because of the superiority/inferiority connotations and progressive linear development model of human culture that the term implies. However, cultural anthropology's studies are as much about showing the enormous fundamental differences between people in different cultures (all the way down to basic cognition and reasoning abilities that are usually assumed to be more universally the same) and how they understand themselves and the world. Given the staggering range of variations of all kinds in human cultures found in anthropology's ethnographic records, I have no trouble believing that there are cultures out there which have not or do not consider photographs as representational. I would be surprised if there wasn't. But this does not mean that these cultures are "stupid" or "weird" or "dysfunctional".

(One example I do remember from my anthropology classes is one tribe somewhere which was shown photographs (of scenes from their village life) for the first time, and their understanding of the photographs was based on the idea that the objects at the margins of the photo were the most important, not the centre - so implying that the idea that the centre of a 2 dimensional space being the "logical" focal point of attention is a cultural construct of the Western anthropologist that wasn't present in the villagers' culture).

I don't have the time to do an expansive search on this now but the phrase "pictorial perception culturally relative" might be a good one to start off with in google.

one of the pages this search brings up is this:, which isn't much (and no images alas) but it's perhaps somewhere to start.
posted by Bwithh at 7:46 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

I'm not sure it's totally bullshit. There has been a lot of work in the cognitive sciences on how culture influences visual perception. I couldn't find a specific study testing whether various people understood photographs (whatever that means), but I found some mentions of related stuff here and there that you can start to track down:

Culture in Mind: Cognitiion, Culture, and the Problem of Meaning

Cultural and Individual Differences in Visual Cognition

Cultural Differences in Cognitive Perception

Cultural Difference in the Perception of Geometric Illusion

A Psychological Optical Illusion

Many sources seem to point to the introduction of the photograph idea, specifically, as as possibly coming from Cole and Scribner, 1974, in their book Culture and Thought: A Psychological Introduction. You can't search inside that book, but it seems there are some hints that they deal with this. What it seems like they might have done is worked with Mooney images, two-tone face images that people can often resolve into an image of a face. Here is an article with a bit of a summary of Mooney image studies and it does seem the studies have been done with all sorts of populations, from brain-injured people to autistic people to people from various cultures to little kids. Interesting stuff, though clearly not as dramatic as the Sacks statement, if this is the kind of thing he is referring to.
posted by Miko at 7:54 PM on March 27, 2011

Marshall Macluhan writes about something like this (only with movies, not books) in "The Gutenberg Galaxy."
posted by dzkalman at 10:42 PM on March 27, 2011

About maps rather than photography, but there's some interesting discussion of cultural approaches to visual representation in Woodward's History of Cartography:

"It is also important to realize that the significance of elements of graphic representation (ideas such as points, lines, and areas) varies considerably, not only from society to society but also between individuals within a group. For example, the concept of a line--whether signifying a boundary, a pathway, or some connection between two geographic elements in the landscape--is so basic to modern Western cartography that "we take it for granted, as given in reality. We see it in visible nature, between material points, and we see it between metaphorical points such as days or acts."26 Among the people of the Trobriand Islands of Papua New Guinea, however, there is no indication that lines are conceived as connecting point with point during a journey, and hence representing such a relationship as a line would make no sense.27

On the other hand, the Yoruba of West Africa regard the line as extremely important, even associating it with civilization. In Yoruba, the phrase "this country has become civilized" literally means "this earth has lines upon its face." The verb meaning to cicatrize scars on a face also has multiple associations with marking new boundaries and opening roads through a forest, in the general sense of imposing a human pattern on the disorder of nature.28"
posted by tangerine at 10:42 PM on March 27, 2011 [1 favorite]

If you'll take an anecdote: My father told me that the first time he saw a cartoon -- Dumbo -- he had no idea what the blobs of color moving around on the wall were. Not to say that New Hampshire in 1941 was a primitive culture, but that it's possible for people to not see what's being represented on their first exposure to an image.

Caveat: my dad also told me that he had a long-lost identical twin, Frobisher, who discovered Frobisher Bay. And that he was Superman.
posted by The corpse in the library at 7:22 AM on March 28, 2011

The actual text: The recognition of representations may require a sort of learning, the grasping of a code or convention, beyond that needed for the recognition of objects. Thus, it is said, people from primitive cultures who have never been exposed to photographs may fail to recognize that they are representation of something else. Oliver Sacks, _The Mind's Eye_, pg 18 Nookbook edition. There's no explicit citation.
posted by endless_forms at 9:27 AM on March 28, 2011

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