Reality and the Fragmented Gaze

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Clara Alvarez Caraveo

Reality and the Fragmented Gaze

Travelogues are meant to depict a destination and the narrator’s place in it, an authentic commentary on a travel experience. But the “authenticity” the narrator experiences is veiled by the actual perception of the narrative. The author wants to obtain and relate the authentic experience to others, but always falls short. Especially in travel narratives, the external narrator, usually unknowingly, assigns themselves a position of superiority to those they encounter while
exploring. This holds true for almost all of historical and modern travel narratives. They unconsciously draw what they want from the experience—contrary to what actually happened—in order to entertain, not to relay fact. Travelogues have, therefore, become more about the aesthetic value of the narrative than the relayed experience. Likewise, historical context plays a
significant role in the meaning drawn from the travel narrative and the narrator’s perspective. But can this significance be drawn from other mediums void of the word “I?” In the case of a pictorial book, like World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, one would expect an illustrated travelogue to depict reality better than a subjective first-person account. But this isn’t the case. The same false reality can be assumed by every click of the camera or stroke of the
brush. No matter the medium, when the author/artist’s point of view is added to the narrative or visual representation, the work assumes the narrator’s perception, or gaze. By analyzing the gaze the reader takes on, one can use it to understand and explain the gaze of the author by using the historical, social, and cultural phenomena that accompany the work. 

Pictures, like the written language, provide their own substance. The pictorial book, World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, is a prime example of the viewer’s gaze transcending the purpose of the work to represent its historical context. This book is an assembly of professional photographs depicting various buildings and exhibits featured at the famous Chicago World Fair. For witnesses who experience these events through these pictures, each photograph in the bounded copy is a souvenir, a visual representation of one of the fascinating cultural exhibits displayed—making the entire book a representation of the event as a whole. Almost every picture in the book is taken from an aerial point of view, make the viewer assume a position high above the images of grand buildings and recreated cultural exhibits depicted. Likewise, just by making the viewer of the photos take the position of the gazer, they automatically assume a position of superior to the objects of their gaze. Any owner of a picture book immediately assume this role, making every exhibit and artifact something to be assigned significance and value by the viewer. These exhibits captured in a still-frame transcend time and space; the same perception, or gaze, the photographer assumed while taking these photos are transcribed onto the looker. The viewer sees the Fair and its exhibits through their eyes, making everything, even the photographers faulty perception and sense of superiority to the exhibits and artifacts, assumed by the looker.This picture book was one of many souvenirs available for purchase at the event. Tourists and travelers from all around used these exact picture to show off their experience in the “White City” to their friends and family. But these pictures are only a visual representation of the exposition—lacking certain degree of authenticity. Actual Fair-goers, like the photographer, who saw these exhibits firsthand witnessed a “realer” experience because of their close proximity to
the exhibits on display—In the case of the World’s Columbia Exposition, the objects were other people, races, and cultures.

The World’s Columbian Exposition prided itself in its display of exhibits that glorified America’s place as an international power. The World Exposition was intended to celebrated the 400 year anniversary of Christopher Columbus’s arrival to the New World, so naturally colonialism and imperialistic prowess was a reoccurring theme throughout the exhibits. The bourgeoisie used this event to celebrate progress, world power, and display the established identity of the Western middleclass to others of the same ilk. Those who were perceived as lower on the taxonomic scale, like other non-western cultures and races, were put on display to inflate this sense of superiority. Many of the cultural exhibits contained caged individuals from different cultures and races, displaying these “primitives” to Western citizens. Every visitor, including the photographer of the pictorial book, who viewed these caged people, whether intentional or not,
assumed this inflated role of superior to those put on display. Therefore, this form of objectification of other cultures served as a means to perpetuate the hegemony of western cultureon other countries, nations, and people. Consequently, this perception taken precipitated from the eyes of the photographer, to the photograph, to the eyes and mind of the viewer. Similarly, the book, its pictures, and the exhibits they depict all serve as a means of objectifying other cultures and races through stereotypes justified through the lens of imperialism.

But this reoccurring gaze assumed by both the photographer and their audience isn’t just a product of the World Fair, but of the historical context behind the displays. As Raymond Corbey puts it, “The fairs told the story of mankind, the very same narrative that accompanied and legitimized colonial expansion. In this epic, staged by themselves, white, rational, civilized
European citizens cast themselves in the role of the hero.” This heroic façade taken on by the photographer and their audience parallels the same heroic attitude assumed by colonialists and missionaries that began this cycle of perpetual oppression—establishing the roles of the hero and the noble savage. In a sense, the person looking at the picture book, he photographer, the visitor
looking at the display, and the conquistador looking at the natives and their land all assume the same role—a position of privilege and superiority compared to the objects of their gaze. Consequently, by conquering the land, by taking the photograph, and by viewing the book, each participant in varying degrees participates in the the taking possession of the native people and land as their own whether it be through the actual act or the symbolic representation.

Travel narratives, no matter the medium, assume a role deeper than the narrator’s experience. In the case of World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893, the colonial and imperialistic context of the subject matter precipitated from the exhibit, to the photograph.Likewise, the role of superiority to other people, races, and cultures also transcended from the conquistador, to the photographer, to the viewer by means of the visual representation of the travelogue. Even just the act of collecting these picture, taking possession of these images, is a power play in-of-itself—perpetuating the superiority of the looker and collector while taking it away from the subject. All in all, historical context plays and important role in every travel narrative because of the implied gaze it indirectly imparts.

Bibliography

Laurent Ferri, “Tourist Narratives,” (presentation, Rare and Manuscript Collections at Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, February 25, 2016).

Raymond Corbey, “Ethnographic Showcases,” Blackwell Publishing, July, 10, 2011,http://www.jstor.org/stable/656317origin=JSTORpdf&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents.

Robert W. Rydell, “World’s Columbia Exposition,” The Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago, 2016,http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/1386.html.

World’s Columbian Exposition (1893 : Chicago, Ill.), World’s Columbian Exposition, Chicago, 1893 (Chicago, Illinois: 1893-1900, 1-15)

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