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12 - Photography, Inoperative Ethnography, Naturalism: On Sharon Lockhart’s Amazon Project

Felipe Martínez-Pinzón
Affiliation:
Brown University, Rhode Island
Javier Uriarte
Affiliation:
Stony Brook University, State University of New York
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Summary

This essay explores the work undertaken by US photographer and filmmaker Sharon Lockhart over the course of two anthropological expeditions to the Brazilian Amazon in the late 1990s. First exhibited at Rotterdam's Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in 1999, under the title Teatro Amazonas, Lockhart's Amazon Project is comprised of two photographic series made in specific Amazonian locations as well as a short 35mm film shot in Manaus's emblematic opera house. I read Lockhart's experimental work as a critical intervention into the ‘representational archive’ of the Amazon: that is, the complex of images, discourses, conceptions, and ideas that have historically produced the region as a predominantly natural space destined to either wait for or resist outside cultural and civilizing inscriptions. This widespread “naturalism”, as anthropologist Stephen Nugent calls it, not only pertains to the old ontological divide between nature and culture, but also represents a particular embodiment of instrumental rationality, one whose legacy in Amazonia includes some of the most enduring images and perceptions about the region to this day: from Paradise and Last Frontier to Green Hell, to National Destiny, to Lungs of the Earth, and so on. Moreover, I am interested in the artist's strong reliance on ethnographic and documentary conventions for this project—a standard format in naturalist visual regimes with a history that dates back to the nineteenth century in the Amazonian context. I argue, however, that Lockhart's incorporation of these visual conventions corresponds to an immanent critique of ethnographic legibility, in which the drive to classify, document, and systematize is simultaneously inhabited and rendered inoperative while also illuminating marginal and long-neglected Amazonian cultural landscapes. Thus, what I refer to as the “inoperative” aspect in Lockhart's work signals the suspension and the potential interruption of the aforementioned historically constituted modes of visual representation of modern Amazonia.

Art critics have frequently noted the enigmatic, almost unreadable quality of Lockhart's creations, which often results from the controlled tension between formal aesthetic structures and delicate inflections on intimate details and visual closeness. For Timothy Martin, for instance, “inscrutability in Lockhart's practice … arises from a co-presence of deceptively simple appearances and overtly complex artistic means … It is not an obstacle that must be overcome [but rather it is] the thing itself to be comprehended”.

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Intimate Frontiers
A Literary Geography of the Amazon
, pp. 227 - 247
Publisher: Liverpool University Press
Print publication year: 2019

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