A. F. Dixon. 1890. Untitled. Digital print of silver gelatine, glass-plate negative (Ciarán Walsh and Ciarán Rooney, 2019). The original negative is held in the School of Medicine, Trinity College, University of Dublin. © curator.ie.

I can’t tell you all the excursions we made in Aran. it wd be as tedious for you to read as for me to write suffice it to say that Dixon & I left very little unseen & what with sketches & photographs we have a good deal on paper.

A. C. Haddon describes the beginning of visual anthropology in a journal he kept aboard the S. S. Fingal during a survey of fishing ground off the west coast of Ireland in 1890

Previously unseen photographs of the Aran Islands feature in an exhibition Ciarán Walsh and Andrei Nacu curated for the Royal Anthropological Institute in London. ‘Haddon and the Aran Islands’ opens on 15 October 2023 and features twenty five photographs that are organised around Haddon’s first ethnographic account of the Aran Islands, which he presented as a slideshow in Dublin at the end of 1890.

The photographs challenge the idea that anthropologists like Haddon were, by default almost, preoccupied with evolution bracketed by race and colonialism while their counterparts in cultural nationalism and literary modernism became fascinated by Island dwellers. John Millington Synge’s writing is usually presented as the antithesis of Haddon’s science but this exhibition points to a common interest in social documentary photography that manifests a deeper connection between the ‘Head-hunter’ and the ‘Playboy‘.

Haddon and Dixon spent a week in the islands in 1890 and they documented the extraordinary glaciokarst landscape, the people, their way of life, customs, folklore and numerous archaeological sites. On his return to Dublin Haddon used ten of Dixon’s photographs in a slideshow titled ‘The Aran Islands’, the first of six slideshows that included ‘Ethnographical Studies in the West of Ireland’ in the Anthropological Institute in 1894. He renamed this ‘On the People of Western Ireland and their Mode of Life’ when he showed it at a meeting of the anthropological section of the British Association for the Advancement of Science later in the year. Given the high profile this topic gained in the Home Rule crisis in 1895, the change registers a the overlap between Haddon’s photo-ethnography, his anticolonial activism and the Home rule crisis.

Dixon took over fifty photographs while working for Haddon on a fishing survey in 1890. Haddon sent a box of the glass plate negatives to R. J. Welch, a photographer in Belfast, to be processed as lantern slides. On their return, Dixon seems to have put them on a shelf under the ‘Old’ Anatomy theatre in TCD, where they lay undiscovered until 2014. Dixon’s camera was lost, but the camera shown here is a kit-built quarter-plate from the same period and matches the negative holders Dixon used (foreground). In 2019, Walsh commissioned Ciarán Rooney (Filmbank) to print a new set of photographs from digital scans of the negatives (photo Ciarán Walsh).

Haddon summarised his photo-ethnographic experiments in a manifesto published in 1899 and re-issued in 1912, but the document entered modern anthropology as it was becoming what Margaret Mead later called ‘a discipline of words’. Furthermore, a misplaced historiographical focus on Haddon’s career in zoology obscured his interest in art and photography and so masked the beginning of visual anthropology.            

This exhibition brings us back to that beginning: Haddon’s discovery of ‘instantaneous’ photography in the Aran Islands in 1890. It features ten new prints from Dixon’s negatives of Haddon’s slideshow and these are contextualised by photographs from various archives in Dublin, Belfast and Cambridge that point to Haddon’s influences and impact, most of which have never been exhibited before. They include digital prints of the oldest surviving photograph of Skellig Michael (1868), a study of folk dance by Clara Patterson (1893) and a still from Haddon’s film of the last dance of the Malu Zogo-Le (1898). Synge first met Haddon in 1886 and and is represented by a photograph that registers the latter’s influence, which, in turn, indexes Haddon’s extraordinary modernism.

Walsh explores these developments in more detail in an RAI Research Seminar in the Royal Anthropological Institute on 31 October 2023 after which his book Alfred Cort Haddon: A Very English Savage will be launched. For details / registration see the events page on the Institute’s website.

J. M. Synge. 1898. Islanders of Inishmaan. Digital print from scan of glass plate negative (Timothy Keefe, Sharon Sutton, Gill Whelan 2009).  TCD MS11332_28_b courtesy of the Board of Trinity College, University of Dublin

circle of texture grey back ground with the words www.curator.ie embossed on it. designed by Ciarán n Walsh

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