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Postcolonial Modernism and the Camera Eye: Eliot Elisofon’s Photographs of African Art

© 2022 Johns Hopkins University Press

1959: The Atlantic magazine devotes its April issue to “Africa South of the Sahara.”  Articles on the politics of decolonization frame a large number of contributions on art and culture. A short story by Chinua Achebe appears alongside the work of Nadine Gordimer, Tom Mboya, Léon Damas, Léopold Sédar-Senghor, Amos Tutuola, and David Diop. “The Sacrificial Egg” is Achebe’s first story published in the United States, and its timing supports the US release of his novel Things Fall Apart. Unlike that classic novel, the story begins in a recognizably modern Nigeria, with a young clerk named Julius Obi sitting alone in a colonial shipping office, gazing at his typewriter. But The Atlantic upstages this narrative by suspending a dark ovoid shape with curling horns above the title and author information, its square eye sockets emptying out onto a yellow block of color on the page behind it. It is a photograph of an Ogoni mask, and it is credited to Eliot Elisofon’s 1958 book The Sculpture of Africa.[1] In fact, photographs from Elisofon’s book hang above all the fiction and poetry published in this issue of The Atlantic. This photograph does not, it almost goes without saying, illustrate Achebe’s story, in which no mask explicitly appears, or the ethnic background of the author, which is Igbo. The connection appears to be purely visual: the mask is egg-shaped.

Elisofon’s photographs of African art appeared on the pages of American magazines throughout the 1950s and early 1960s, and as these photographs circulated in the mass media they illustrated two different histories. First, they were intended to enhance American understanding of the African continent, its history, and its peoples during the era of decolonization. But because Elisofon also reanimated early-twentieth-century ideas of modernist primitivism, his photographs simultaneously illustrated modernism’s midcentury institutionalization in the United States. Understanding Elisofon’s photographs in this period thus requires historicizing them on the news-driven pages of LIFE, The Atlantic, and THINK (IBM’s in-house magazine). As Serge Guilbaut has memorably put it, New York stole the idea of modern art from Paris in this period, and Eliosofon’s photographs of African art were part of this appropriation: against the backdrop of African decolonization, they reenacted modernist primitivism for American consumption in the mass media.[2] As a result, though they appear to be very much of their midcentury time period, Elisofon’s photographs in fact counteract the progressive temporality underlying American reporting on the emergence of new, independent nations in Africa and their relation to the ascendant global power of the United States. On the whole, then, this article is about tangled temporalities: there are multiple pasts in the midcentury present of Elisofon’s photographs; there is an inexorable sense of progress alongside clear evidence of stasis; there is repetition to the point of anachronism; yet there is very little of that form of temporality we call the future.

For example, the photograph of the Ogoni mask that illustrated Achebe’s story in The Atlantic was doubly anachronistic. Denying contemporaneity to Julius Obi and his typewriter, this primitivizing illustration is a throwback to a premodern African past, but only by way of early twentieth-century European modernism.[3] Elisofon hits the double beat of this retrogressive temporality in his lengthy illustrated essay, “African Sculpture,” which immediately precedes Achebe’s story. There he argues that only wan imitations of traditional African art forms were currently being made, in 1959, mostly for tourists.[4] But he also argues that traditional African art is only recognizable as Art because of its discovery by early twentieth-century modernist painters in Paris. Modernist primitivism relies on an origin story set in 1907, when Picasso encountered African masks at the Trocadéro Ethnography Museum in Paris, then renounced naturalistic modes of representation, completed Les demoiselles d’Avignon, and is said to have ushered in the modern itself. This story—which Elisofon relied upon throughout his career—has been extensively reconsidered and refuted.[5] Yet it circulated alongside Elisofon’s photographs on the pages of American magazines at midcentury, validating both the African masks and figures and the photographs as works of art in the modernist tradition. This view of modernist primitivism as primarily an aesthetic category conveniently obscures the fact that African masks and figures were only available for those encounters with artists in Paris because of colonial conquest.[6] Early twentieth-century European primitivism disavowed its own historical conditions of possibility, which included the scramble for Africa and the removal of African art to the museums of Europe. Hal Foster has described it as practically a “metonym of imperialism.”[7] In the 1950s, Elisofon’s photographic work likewise disavows its own historical context, which, in addition to the independence of African nations, also included the civil rights movement in the United States. Elisofon’s midcentury photographs therefore act as metonyms of neo-imperialism.[8]

To be clear, this article is not about the actual art objects encountered by Picasso or photographed by Elisofon. So much of the writing on modernism and primitivism substitutes the art object for African cultures and histories: this article is about the photographs that substitute the category of Art for objects that are already performing that violent substitution. By the time Elisofon’s photographs began circulating in midcentury American magazines, photography had long played a part in the creation of the category of African art in and by the West. As Yaëlle Biro has recently argued, the linear history of the sudden “discovery” of African art does not account for the steady role of the market in the transformation of African ethnographic objects into African artworks.[9] Both Biro and John Warne Monroe see the creation of the category of African Art in the first three decades of the twentieth century as a transatlantic project. Parisian art dealers—and the photographs that appeared in publicity for their exhibitions and in catalogues for their collectors—expanded to New York as early as 1914. Monroe has shown that the leading French dealer Charles Ratton advised the Museum of Modern Art in New York on its 1935 show “African Negro Art,” and he maintained his market for African art by building connections with African-American artists and intellectuals in both New York and Paris.[10] Wendy Grossman has most directly tackled the role of photography in transforming African ethnographic objects into images of modern art: she tracks the transatlantic career of Man Ray’s photographs of African art as they appeared in surrealist journals as well on the pages of Paris fashion magazines in the interwar period. She argues that Man Ray’s “photographs of African masks and figures conveyed Modernist ideas about such objects to a wide audience.”[11] Elisofon’s photographs seem to continue this transatlantic trajectory: he locates his subjects as much in early-twentieth-century European modernism as he does in either pre-modern Africa or in the mid-twentieth century United States.

While the idea of modern art validated Elisofon’s photographs of African art on the pages of midcentury magazines, their denial of contemporaneity also unhitched these photographs from the progressive temporality underlying the institutionalization of modernism in the United States. MoMA’s grand historical narrative, its programmatic march of artistic development over the course of the twentieth century, was in full force in this period: Les demoiselles d’Avignon had been hanging in New York since 1939, and American abstract expressionism had been written into modernism’s lineage—and exported around the world—since the early 1950s. But rather than participating in this narrative of historical progression from Paris to New York, Elisofon’s photographs operate, I argue, in more of an a-historical register of reenactment rather than advancement. This incongruity was on display not just in Elisofon’s magazine work but also in his own small show of photographs and African masks and figures at MoMA in 1952. But incongruity is not necessarily subversive or disruptive: his photographs would not suit the new MoMA any better than they did the old. MoMA’s 2019 reconceptualization and rehang has been described by the New York Times as a more global, cross-media approach to modernism featuring “detours, anachronisms and surprise encounters” rather than the chronological march of modernism’s change over time.[12] But the example of the anachronistic photograph of the Ogoni mask on the pages of The Atlantic in 1959 does not make Achebe’s short story any more modern or any more global. Rather than making it new, Elisofon makes both Achebe’s groundbreaking fiction and the context of African independence old again—just another plot point in Europe’s story of itself.

Thus the tangled temporalities that are the subject of this article also include disciplinary histories and methodologies: art history’s story of modernism alongside the history of photography; African independence and the end of empire as reflected in Cold War–era mass media; and literary studies, a field fundamental to the cultural debates over aesthetic decolonization. The concept of global modernism gathers up these disciplinary strands—it is an expansive field but also stubbornly self-critical. In literary studies, the boundaries of modernist aesthetic production have been extended in space and time, well beyond the metropolitan capitals of Europe and New York and past standard chronologies that bracket off the first half of the twentieth century. Achebe’s novels, for example, can be considered works of modernism—they do not need Elisofon’s illustration to signal this fact. This mode of global modernist study has produced a powerful historicizing drive, which, in addition to expanding modernism’s archives and objects, has also directed attention to its extensions, uses, and applications.[13] As Thomas S. Davis and Nathan K. Hensley have remarked, global modernism is becoming its own institution as it passes from “the moment of the manifesto to the rather less boisterous moment of the handbook.”[14] But does expanding its parameters necessarily change fundamental concepts and methods of modernist study? Elisofon’s photographs of African art in the 1950s and early 1960s aren’t so much an extension or an application of modernism in the era of decolonization as they are a repetition of one of its earliest and most pernicious modes of global appropriation.[15] As Rebecca Walkowitz and Eric Hayot argue, “if you want to theorize modernism globally, you have to theorize modernism’s ideas of the global.”[16] And global modernism’s current expansion risks upholding assumptions about not just the geographical spread of global capital, but also about the progressive unfurling of historical time.

In this article, I will argue that the global turn in modernist studies can historicize Elisofon’s photographic reenactment of modernist primitivism within the midcentury mass media context of African decolonization and ascendant US power. But restoring that context will not reveal Elisofon’s photographs to be exemplary objects of global modernism’s historicist model of change and expansion over time—historical context alone cannot fully explain the temporality of these photographs.[17] Postcolonial theory, however, can interfere in the smooth unfolding of historical time because it has always attended to temporal inconsistency—to the way, for example, that the midcentury institutionalization of modernism in the United States unfolds as both aftermath and origin. Postcolonial theory may have grown from a backlash against the anti-colonial cultural nationalisms of the era of decolonization, many of which were on display in the pages of The Atlantic in 1959. But today it still provides a substantive theoretical engagement with what Gary Wilder and Jini Kim Watson have recently described as “aftermaths” or “the persistence of pasts in the present.”[18] It can account for the fact that time does not cohere, even on a single page of a magazine in 1959; time can be uneven, out of joint, discrepant. Postcolonial literary theory, in particular, has also always been able to see how works like Elisofon’s inadvertently allegorize their own contradictions and ambiguities. Therefore, after offering a history of Elisofon’s photographic oeuvre in midcentury magazines, this article will argue for a model of postcolonial, rather than global, modernism and will conclude with readings of specific photographs that incorporate postcolonial theory’s skepticism about historicism itself.

Cold War Modernism

Elisofon was a professional photographer, not an art historian, and throughout his career, he argued that the camera was a necessary mediator of the category of African art. This history of his photographic argument will touch down in 1952 with Elisofon’s show at MoMA and related photo-essay in LIFE magazine; in 1958 with the publication of the scholarly book The Sculpture of Africa and related contributions to The Atlantic; and in 1962 on the cover of THINK.

Elisofon was born in New York City in 1911, became a commercial photographer, and joined the Photo League in 1936, the year that Henry Luce founded LIFE magazine, which was dedicated to the medium of photography and its ability to tell stories. Luce famously remarked in his prospectus for the magazine that its goal would be “To see life; to see the world . . . to see and be amazed; to see and be instructed.”[19] During World War II, Luce argued that the twentieth century was “The American Century,” and Americans needed to be instructed about the world so they could more effectively lead it. Elisofon became a staff photographer in 1942 and remained affiliated with the magazine until his death in 1973, just months after its demise as a weekly. LIFE dominated the market—one study has shown that in a given period in 1950 “about half of all Americans, ten years and older, had seen one or more copies” of the magazine (Doss, introduction to Looking at LIFE, 42). The magazine hit its peak in 1956 with 5.8 million subscribers and $137.5 million in advertising revenue, which meant on average there were ninety-one ad pages (most with photographs themselves) per issue.[20] LIFE was the organ of middlebrow visual literacy in America: one critic has described the magazine as “aimed at a synthesis of seeing with belief, combining visuality with consumerism and nationalism, and attempting to diffuse, or efface, the tensions of class, race, and social conflict in America” (Doss, introduction to Looking at LIFE, 11). While scholarly attention has been directed towards how the pages of LIFE represented Black Americans, segregation, and the civil rights movement, John Edwin Mason has recently begun a project on how “[t]he pictures of Africa in Americans heads—the pictures that they thought with—came to a large extent from Life.”[21] He argues that coverage of anti-colonial movements and decolonization in Africa often could not be separated from domestic references to race in America. As a result, “racist stereotypes and caricatures mixed with grudging respect for selected anticolonial causes” (“LIFE Comes (Back) to Africa”). For example, one of LIFE’s most famous photographers, Margaret Bourke-White, published a 1950 photo-essay on South Africa whose title, “South Africa and Its Problem,” borrows American racial discourse on what was at home called the “Black problem” or “Negro problem.”[22] Picturing the world in light of domestic issues was part of LIFE’s political program but also part of its method, which included metonymy—using ordinary individuals to represent social trends—and the immediacy of emotional address (Kozol, “Life’s” America, 11, 23). Elisofon was a creature of LIFE. He adopted its visual pedagogy, describing photography’s greatest challenge as “to help the world to see.”[23] He also once said that his goal was to “produce images that are meaningful but not dogmatic, to be artistic but not arty” (Elisofon, quoted in Flukinger, “To Help the World to See”). That perfectly captures the accessibility of LIFE’s house style, and it is no coincidence that some forty years after its final weekly issue, LIFE’s full run is freely available on Google Books, and most of the photos are open and searchable via a specialized subset of Google Images. These photographs remain “easily accessible.”

Elisofon’s special area of interest was Africa. He was inspired by the blockbuster 1935 MoMA show “African Negro Art.” During World War II, the US Army Photography Corps sent him to North Africa, and he made the first of many photojournalism trips to the continent, traveling from Cape Town to Cairo in a Jeep for LIFE in 1947. While on assignment, Elisofon began to collect African art and to resent what he saw as visual misrepresentations of Africa and its peoples: he saw himself as an evangelist for the continent and its art forms. He bequeathed his collection of African art as well as 80,000 photographs to The National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, where it forms a cornerstone of the collection. Katherine E. Flach has explored the tension in Elisofon’s career between his legacy for African art history and his commercial work for LIFE, which included the first cover photograph of a Black woman (in 1950) but also numerous stereotypical representations of Africa and its people.[24] Elisofon was more of a travel photographer than he was a documentary photographer looking to expose injustice. In 1961, when Elisofon published a photo-essay that began with the line “Africa is writers’ country” and paired literary quotations with his color photographs, the list of novels and travelogues he carried with him could have filled a colonial steamer trunk at the height of empire.[25] The essay was a “color spectacle,” as the table of contents announced, more nostalgic than topical. Raoul J. Granqvist argues that whether Elisofon was taking pictures of African people, landscapes, or art objects he was, in fact, photographing “the Elisofon canon of authenticity, timelessness, and anonymity” (Photography and American Coloniality, 212).

Late in life, Elisofon got into a spat with Maya Angelou, who had made much the same point. Responding to his documentary film Black African Heritage (1972) for which she had provided narration, Angelou wrote to the New York Times to point out that African Americans needed to know more of Africa than “a perfect photograph of a much-photographed Benin mask.”[26] Elisofon returned fire in the letters section, doubting that “one percent of the audience has ever seen the greatest of Benin art before” and positioning himself as advocate but also authority and arbiter.[27]

How did Elisofon’s photographic work participate in the midcentury institutionalization of modernism in the United States? Despite the prestige differential between his commercial work for LIFE and his more scholarly work in The Sculpture of Africa and at MoMA, Elisofon’s photographs of African art objects all depend upon their separation from African culture and history and their reemergence as autonomous works of art.[28] Fredric Jameson has argued that modernism’s ideological emphasis on aesthetic autonomy was a product of post–World War II United States.[29] And Greg Barnhisel describes “the politically driven reinterpretation of the modernist movement” in US cultural diplomacy of 1940s and 1950s as “Cold War Modernism.”[30] This aspect of modernism’s institutionalization is neither a period nor a style, he argues, but a rhetoric of aesthetic form and autonomy. Abroad, modernism became an emblem of American freedom; at home, modernism was made easy and safe for bourgeois consumption (Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists, 4). Elisofon hoped his photographs would educate viewers into appreciating African art, but to do that they had to be immediate, accessible, and easily consumable on the pages of LIFE magazine. Thus the decontextualization of African art objects in Elisofon’s commercial work coincides with more culturally prestigious formulations of modernist autonomy in this period.[31] Simon Gikandi’s description of modernist primitivism gains new traction against this midcentury ground: he argues that the “monumentalization” of modernism disavowed the radical alterity that was its very condition of possibility.[32] As modernism became “a museum event,” in Gikandi’s phrasing, African art objects were neatly separated from the cultures and bodies that had produced them (Gikandi, “Africa and the Epiphany of Modernism,” 33). Elisofon’s photographs reenacted that process of separation for the mass media in the midcentury United States.

There are some similarities between Elisofon’s photographs of African art and another, better-known midcentury photographic project: André Malraux’s The Voices of Silence (1951, trans. 1953), a thickly illustrated edition of his earlier concept of the Le musée imaginaire or, as it came to be known in English, “the museum without walls.” Hannah Feldman reads this volume as representing Malraux’s attempt to decontextualize the art object and to liberate it into pure form through photographic comparison with other objects.[33] This model of modernism Feldman situates directly in the era of decolonization. Her larger argument is that French art in the mid-twentieth century should not be considered post-war art so much as “art-during-war,” that is, art produced and understood during the wars fought to achieve French decolonization between the 1940s and the 1960s (Feldman, From a Nation Torn, 2). Feldman is interested in the similarities between the silencing of this history and Malraux’s curious silence on the medium of photography that makes his project possible. Malraux uses photography to deracinate, decontextualize, and dehistoricize art and to thereby make it “the collective inheritance of ‘humanity’” (39). Elisofon’s project is not exactly the same—his photograph’s captions always include factual information about the origin and provenance of the art object. But like Malraux he uses the camera to emphasize the plastic form of the object and thereby proclaim its status as Art, and like Malraux he uses photography without critical examination of his own photographic practice. Malraux is more of a taxonomist of styles, but Elisofon exhibits the same will towards the universality of Art at the expense of objects’ specific histories. His photographs ignore the colonial history of Africa at the same time that they are silent about their own present era of decolonization. While Feldman’s argument addresses the silence surrounding the wars and violence that accompanied French decolonization, Elisofon’s terrain was the decolonization of the British empire in Africa.

Elisofon’s photographs often appeared in the US press in the context of resistance to colonial rule. At first, this was not the case: his first trip to the African continent, in 1947, produced photographs for LIFE’s article, “England’s King Visits South Africa.” But by 1953 Elisofon’s travel photographs were included in a LIFE special issue dedicated to the contemporary politics of decolonization. The issue was titled “Africa, a Continent in Ferment,” and it filtered its subject for US audiences entirely through race and through Cold War rivalry. The introductory essay explains:

From Morocco to South Africa, the flames of nationalism scorched into wakefulness the native African’s long lost pride, licked at the flimsy framework of white mastery. The split in Africa between rulers and ruled widened and became part of the split in the world. The rising tide of nationalism—and perhaps Communism—seemed to take the whites by surprise. In most of Africa the pattern of white rule proved ill adapted to change.[34]

This special issue of LIFE included political reports on, for example, the Mau Mau uprising in Kenya, as well as maps, travelogues, and pieces on arts and culture. It even published a spread on a new school of oil painting in the Belgian Congo and stressed its contemporaneity. In 1959, when Elisofon’s work appeared in the special issue of The Atlantic, the context was the approaching “Year of Africa” in 1960, when seventeen African nations achieved independence. But Elisofon’s most direct reporting on decolonization in Africa appeared in his LIFE photo-essay “The Hopeful Launching of a Proud and Free Nigeria” in September 1960. The essay’s copy, which was not written by Elisofon, includes numerous stereotypical images and references. It also fawns on British colonial history and its well-mannered process of decolonization—a sub-headline reads: “A Valuable Legacy Left By British Foresight.” But Elisofon’s photographs and their captions do insist upon the contemporaneity of even the most primitivizing images. In addition to photographs of industry, leadership, and education, there is, for example, a seemingly timeless color image of a worker balancing a heavy load in the midst of a scenic grove of palm trees, but the caption points out that this British palm oil operation currently exports its products to the US for use in margarine, soap, and as a special lubricant in steel mills.[35] On this trip Elisofon also photographed a young Chinua Achebe holding two editions of Things Fall Apart. Despite that meeting, he was at the same time working on a project meant to illustrate “literary Africa” for the previously-mentioned 1961 photo-essay. That his photographs could both illustrate modern Nigeria and misty-eyed colonial nostalgia seems to have been lost on Elisofon. He was a craftsman and a technician, especially of color film, but like Malraux he saw photography as a decontextualized medium, a pedagogical tool.

Elisofon’s technical mastery and his faith in LIFE’s visual pedagogy obscure how his style was also shaped by the history of modernist photography of African art. In the late nineteenth-century capitals of Europe, African art objects arrived as the spoils of the colonial scramble for Africa, filling dusty ethnographic museums, curio shops, collectors’ apartments and artist’s studios. Two full-length studies of the camera’s role in creating and disseminating modernist primitivism exist: Grossman’s book on Man Ray in Paris and the United States, and Virginia-Lee Webb’s book on Walker Evans’s photography of African art objects at MoMA in 1935. Scholars have also published on, for example, Carl Einstein’s Negerplastik (1915), which included 111 photographic plates; Charles Sheeler’s 1918 photographic portfolio of the “African Negro Sculpture” show at the Modern Gallery in New York; and the photographs by Herbert List that illustrated William Fagg’s scholarly book Nigerian Images (1963).[36] Grossman argues that in the United States African art objects arrived simultaneously with modern art, and were immediately displayed and photographed as fine art, rather than ethnographic artifacts, as, for example, in Alfred Steiglitz’s 1914 show “Statuary in Wood by African Savages: The Root of Modern Art,” whose punning title perfectly captures the complicated temporality of modernist primitivism (Grossman, Man Ray, 14). In order to resist European conventions of ethnographic photography, Grossman argues, American photographers turned to what are now seen as markers of high modernism in the visual arts: flatness, abstraction, and autonomy from context or use.

Virginia-Lee Webb has examined Walker Evans’s commission to make a portfolio of photographs that would enhance the pedagogical influence of MoMA’s “African Negro Art” exhibit in 1935. Evans produced seventeen portfolios with 477 images of African art objects from the show. These photographs circulated as a traveling exhibit, before the portfolios were sold to museums and colleges and donated to historically Black colleges. This was early in Evans’s career, and these images have often been sidelined as merely archival. But Webb shows how Evans “framed them in ways that anticipate and replicate his classic ‘documentary style,’” a style that to this day appears to be absolutely factual but is in fact aesthetically modernist.[37] Evans had the first one-man photography show at MoMA in 1938, and the press release asserted that “The word modern, in its truest sense, aptly characterizes Mr. Evans’ work as it is ‘straight’ photography, so factual that it may almost be called functional,” a neat twist on one of modernism’s tag lines.[38] Evans frames the African art objects tightly and compresses the space—there is no sense of scale in these images. The shots are frontal or in profile and almost resemble mug shots. The lighting is basically source-less, and Evans recorded setting up a complicated rotating light source after business hours in the museum galleries and using long exposure times to get his shots. Elisofon attended the 1935 show at MoMA and was influenced by Evans, but his photographs twenty years later are not as “straight” as Evans’s. MoMA’s donation of Evans’s portfolios to historically Black colleges demonstrates the pedagogical import of photographs of African art in 1935 and prefigures Elisofon’s embrace of LIFE’s visual pedagogy in the 1950s. Webb shows that Evans’s photographs “helped form the aesthetic criteria and support the method, emphasizing style, by which African art was then studied for several decades” (Perfect Documents, 39). The link Webb notes between Walker Evans’s photographs of African art objects and style as an art historical category was also admitted by Malraux, who did remark in almost an offhand manner that photography imparts “a family likeness,” or a style, to art objects while also stripping them of their original significance, function, and histories.[39] Many critics have noted that Malraux’s universalizing, globalizing, imaginary museum of art is in fact modernist style consolidated through photography.[40] The work of Grossman and Webb, in particular, has begun to reveal the role of photographs of African art in modernism’s pedagogy of style.

There is one more key link between Elisofon’s midcentury photographs of African art and the history of modernist photography: the rhetoric of substitution, in Joel Synder’s formulation, and its connection to the discipline of art history.[41] The photograph substitutes for the object itself and then, more often than not, for a particular art historical style, becoming part of the “technology” of art history, to use Frederick N. Bohrer’s phrase. Bohrer claims that art historians cannot ignore how photography constructs appearances even when it seems to be transparently reproducing an image for the purposes of display in the classroom.[42] Because Elisofon’s photographs of African art objects were always couched in LIFE’s language of visual pedagogy and understanding, it is important to note Bohrer’s arguments about photography, and in particular, his observation that photography allows art history to work with a large body of formal, visual comparisons. Bohrer also argues that the “essence of the photography of art is its ability to fix, or arrest, an image of an artwork, while also necessarily subtracting elements of the work which are not amenable to the process”—a point especially pertinent to photographs of three-dimensional objects (Bohrer, “Photographic Perspectives,” 256). Mary Bergstein’s important essay on the photography of sculpture holds a special place for modernism: she argues that modern sculpture is made with the expectation that it will be photographed. This means that “the medium of photography is absorbed, as it were, back into the work of sculpture like a fine coalescing vapor rather than remaining a separable transparent lamination.”[43] In other words, photography of modernist sculpture depicts its own photographic emphasis on the formal autonomy of the art object. And further, modernist photography suppresses the similarities between its own medium and the modernist ideology of art’s autonomy.

This survey of the photography of African art in art history shows how Elisofon’s emphasis on the formal, plastic qualities of African art objects decontextualizes them from history, culture, and ritual use and recontextualizes them as Art. But his 1952 LIFE photo-essay also provides an example of photography’s power to generate visual comparisons and thereby to consolidate the ideological power of modernist style. While many of the individual photographs in the essay also appeared on MoMA’s gallery walls the same year and were published in 1958 in The Sculpture of Africa, the mass-media context most clearly reveals how Elisofon’s photographic reanimation of primitivism at midcentury worked to institutionalize modernism itself.[44] The essay, “Mystic Art of Tribal Africa,” begins with a bronze Ife head, its dramatic three quarter profile almost entirely filling the extra-large magazine page (fig. 1). LIFE’s associate art director, Bernard Quint, was in charge of layout and design, and Quint would also later design The Sculpture of Africa book. The essay—written as per LIFE’s policy by an in-house editor using Elisofon’s notes—trades on visual resemblances to make the case for the serious appreciation of African art. The sub-title claims “Images of early negro culture influence native life of today,” but instead of describing the present “life of today,” the article immediately turns back to the past, specifically to European artists in the early twentieth century discovering “the geometrized forms of African carvings.”[45] The “influence” between the African past and its present is not historical but visual, and as such, it must be charted through modernist primitivism’s insistence on pure, plastic form. From this starting point, the visual connections begin to proliferate. On the first page, Elisofon pairs what he calls a Baluba “Ancestor figure with an elaborately scarified torso” with a picture of a young girl from the Congo. Her caption reads: “Body of Congo girl is adorned with scarifications like those on old carving (right).” A later page is subtitled “The unchanging faces” and pairs a portrait of a queen of Benin from 400 years ago with a contemporary portrait in silhouette of a girl from the Congo. The caption reads: “Continuity of African facial types through ages is apparent.” And Elisofon’s portrait of Bope Mabinshe, king of the Bakuba tribe, is paired with a portrait of his own royal ancestor carved around 1800 (fig. 2). In each of these examples, the portrait photographs are small, black-and-white inserts, while most of the African art objects appear monumentally against the white background of the page. LIFE is trading on its signature visual immediacy to put African art into context, but here the excess of visual resemblance in fact demonstrates the lack of historical context. What is conspicuously missing here is any reflection on photography itself—its history, affordances, and limitations.

From the pages of LIFE, “Mystic Art of Tribal Africa,” September 8, 1952, 117–18, via Getty Images.
Fig. 1. From the pages of LIFE, “Mystic Art of Tribal Africa,” September 8, 1952, 117–18, via Getty Images. LIFE and the LIFE logo are registered trademarks of The Picture Collection Inc., used under license. © 1952 The Picture Collection Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted/Translated from LIFE and published with permission of The Picture Collection Inc. Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited.
From the pages of LIFE, “Mystic Art of Tribal Africa,” September 8, 1952, 124–25, via Getty Images.
Fig 2. From the pages of LIFE, “Mystic Art of Tribal Africa,” September 8, 1952, 122–23, via Getty Images. LIFE and the LIFE logo are registered trademarks of The Picture Collection Inc., used under license. © 1952 The Picture Collection Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted/Translated from LIFE and published with permission of The Picture Collection Inc. Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited.

The final spread in the photo-essay is subtitled “Old forms now new,” and it includes a photograph depicting a Baluba funeral mask that has, its caption points out, “almond-shaped eyes, triangular nose, and other stylized features which appear in Picasso’s works of 1907” (“Mystic Art,” 119).[46] The subtitle is thus clearly intended as a modernist tagline, but it equates Picasso’s “new” forms in 1907 with one of Elisofons’s photographic experiments nearly fifty years later. The rest of the spread is given over to the resemblance between a Dogon figure from Elisofon’s own collection that he multiplied by rotating it on the same negative to give a dynamic sense of its three dimensionality. LIFE paired this image with a photograph of dancing boys from the Congo whose caption points out that they form “angular patterns like multiple view of Dogon statue” (fig. 3). If you look hard enough at any of these pairs, you might see some form of resemblance, but what you are actually seeing is simply photography. Elisofon inadvertently offers a demonstration of photography’s ability to generate visual correspondences and to turn objects into works of modernist art, outside of time and history.

From the pages of LIFE, “Mystic Art of Tribal Africa,” September 8, 1952, 124–25, via Getty Images.
Fig 3. From the pages of LIFE, “Mystic Art of Tribal Africa,” September 8, 1952, 124–25, via Getty Images. LIFE and the LIFE logo are registered trademarks of The Picture Collection Inc., used under license. © 1952 The Picture Collection Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted/Translated from LIFE and published with permission of The Picture Collection Inc. Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited.

Postcolonial Modernism

The photographically multiplied Dogon figure also appeared in Elisofon’s 1952 MoMA exhibit and on the cover of THINK in 1962, and it represents a more experimental strain in Elisofon’s oeuvre. In order to follow this image on its travels, this article will turn away from Elisofon’s commercial work and towards more scholarly venues such as MoMA and the publication of The Sculpture of Africa in 1958 before returning to THINK and the visual representation of African decolonization on the pages of American magazines.

At MoMA in 1952, Elisofon exhibited seven African art objects alongside thirty-two photographs of those same objects. According to the press release, Elisofon’s “camera studies” and “photographic analyses” were meant to teach viewers how to see and appreciate African art forms and to understand the relationship between modern art and African sculpture.[47] Yet MoMA’s installation views show the African art objects pushed to the edges of the exhibition spaces—they are clearly ancillary to the enlarged photographs on the walls (fig. 4). For scheduling reasons, this MoMA exhibit appeared first at the Art Institute of Chicago before New York and then traveled to sixteen other galleries—from Coral Gables, Florida to Zanesville, Ohio, to Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire—until 1955. But even as it traveled the country, the historical context offered by the show was not contemporary or even pre-modern Africa: it was European modernism. The MoMA show’s introductory placard invokes modernist primitivism via the same retrogressive temporality displayed in The Atlantic and LIFE:

Negro sculpture has played an important role in the development of modern Western art, while modern art, in turn, has opened our eyes to the bold structure and expressive force of African art and brought it out of the ethnologist’s cabinet and into the art museum. (Museum of Modern Art, “Exhibition”)

At least one viewer, an anonymous employee of the Art Institute of Zanesville, Ohio, noticed that early-twentieth-century modernism was not really the primary context for the show. He or she sent a publicity report back to MoMA that satirically posits Ohio in the early 1950s as in need of colonial missionary work:

Public resistance high, general unwillingness to attempt to understand the unfamiliar. Comments ranged from “ugly, distorted, grotesque, savage, modernistic, weird” to plain “I don’t like it and I don’t want to know anything about it.” Local Negro population completely indifferent. Some whites used the exhibition to confirm their racial prejudices—“they’re just one step from the jungle and the Supreme Court wants us to associate with them.” A small minority appreciated aesthetic qualities of sculptures and a number of photographers admired Elisofon’s work. Zanesville lies in deepest McCarthy territory. Much missionary work needs to be done here. Will keep trying, but the intellectual climate is not propitious.[48]

This writer clearly recognized the political context of the show to be race as it was lived and understood in the civil-rights-era United States.[49] Back in New York, the show’s title, “Understanding African Negro Sculpture,” was seen as potentially offensive to African Americans in this context, and MoMA’s archives record a curator wondering if it was “somehow patronizing” and another scrawling a list of replacement titles, including:

“African Negro Sculpture in the Camera’s Eye”

“Camera’s Eye on African Negro Sculpture”

“African Negro Sculpture – A Photographer’s Appreciation”[50]

These discarded titles announce the relationship between photography and African art that Elisofon’s chosen title occludes. What “Understanding African Negro Sculpture” does announce is its pedagogical intent. LIFE’s pedagogy of visual literacy won out over the MoMA curator’s metaphor of the camera as an organ of sight. The “camera eye” is a tenet of modernism, with associations both technical and avant-garde.[51] The active modernist ingredient in Elisofon’s show was not primitivism in early-twentieth century Paris—it was modernist photography’s ability to decontextualize African art objects from history, culture, and ritual use and to then recontextualize them as autonomous works of Art.

Installation views of the exhibition, “Understanding African Negro Sculpture,” July 1–October 5, 1952.
Fig. 4.1. Installation views of the exhibition, “Understanding African Negro Sculpture,” July 1–October 5, 1952. Photo: Soichi Sunami. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art.
Installation views of the exhibition, “Understanding African Negro Sculpture,” July 1–October 5, 1952.
Fig. 4. Installation views of the exhibition, “Understanding African Negro Sculpture,” July 1–October 5, 1952. Photo: Soichi Sunami. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, U.S.A. Digital Image © The Museum of Modern Art/Licensed by SCALA / Art.

MoMA’s press release and exhibit placard exemplify Elisofon’s modernist style: he wanted to “help explain the plastic qualities of this sculpture” and to use his “enlarged camera studies” and “photographic analyses of their form” to teach viewers how to appreciate them as Art (MoMA, “Exhibition”). To do that, he used the camera to focus viewers’ attention by creating enlargements, close ups, and profile shots. He rotated the object, and framed and cut to direct the eye towards the balance and abstraction of different elements. A review of the show in Chicago quoted Elisofon remarking, “I discovered that a lot of people, in looking at a small piece of African sculpture, were not able to see quite a number of things which were apparent to me . . . By using light and enlargement it is possible to greatly increase the visual impact, and to point out details not ordinarily seen by the naked eye.”[52] According to Elisofon, his photographs were no more than “studies” and “analyses,” manipulations of light, enlargement, and detail. But this disavows their construction of and by modernism’s ideology of autonomy as well as their uncritical reliance on “straight” photography’s ability to accurately depict African art. Years later, at a symposium held at Harvard’s Peabody Museum in 1971, Elisofon doubled down on his position. In his lecture titled “How to Photograph Primitive Art” he made pronouncements: “The most basic idea in photographing any subject, including both environment and still life, is simplicity.” And he offered practical advice: “[i]n photographing sculpture it is essential to eliminate distractions such as shadows. To do this it is necessary to float the sculpture on a continuous roll of paper.” He also attacked his one-time collaborator, William Fagg, who had provided the text for The Sculpture of Africa in 1958. Fagg, who was also at the symposium, had praised another photographer who used only natural daylight to photograph African art objects, arguing that he “succeeded in . . . liberating for us the real nature of these sculptures.” Elisofon retorted, “This is nonsense . . . What does Fagg mean by real? If objects were kept in a dark shrine where there is almost no light is this the way it should be photographed? What about masks and objects used at night?”[53] In this touchy moment, Elisofon makes two important points: first, that photography can never capture African art objects as they “really” are, in place, in use, in context. Second, he repeatedly returns to the idea of clarity as a sort of compensation for his photographic construction of African art objects. In a draft of his statement for the 1952 MoMA show (published in full only after his death in 1974), Elisofon insisted:

There are no tricks involved in these photographs. No object has been distorted by either false camera viewpoint or the use of a wide-angle lens to emphasize perspective. The only devices used were those of selecting the part of the object to be photographed and its position in relation to the lens, and the use of light either to reveal or hide detail as needed. There has not been a single dot or line of retouching.[54]

This insistence on clear, plain style, with no tricks, makes sense as a pedagogical approach. But it is also a tenet of modernist photography, especially as represented by Walker Evans’s 1935 photographs of African art. To “explode the object into recognition as a work of art,” as Elisofon intended, is to focus photographically on the purity and autonomy of form itself (Elisofon, “On Photographing African Sculpture,” 17).

And yet Elisofon’s most experimental photographs contradict “straight” modernist styles of photography—they are, in fact, full of tricks. He used multiple exposures on a single negative, strobe lights, cross lighting, composites, and enlargements; he set the African art object into motion, multiplied it, exaggerated its size and monumentality. For example, the photographically multiplied image of the Dogon female figure from the 1952 LIFE photo-essay also appeared at MoMA, this time with the Dogon figure itself nearby. Elisofon also included a Fang male reliquary figure from his own collection alongside five other African art objects acquired or borrowed by MoMA. Both the Dogon and the Fang figures are quite small, but Elisofon’s photographs of them are monumentalizing. Because he printed multiple images of the Dogon figure on the same negative, she appears against a dark background, in contrast to her appearance just a few feet away against the white gallery walls at MoMA. The background almost obscures the overlapping square base of the figure as she turns towards the light source, which seems to be coming primarily from the right (fig. 5). She has been set into dynamic, seemingly independent motion, but her rotations also demonstrate how viewers can learn to understand her, visually: start on the left with the frontal view, then move through the three-quarter portrait, a profile shot, and another three-quarter view before ending with a view from the back (this final rotation was cut from the spread in LIFE). This female figure thus displays her full body, in the round. In this period, Elisofon also experimented with a composite photograph of the Fang male reliquary figure which includes three different shots printed on the same negative (fig. 6). Against a dark background, a close-up profile shot fills much of the frame while a smaller reverse profile of the figure appears to perch atop the figure’s own shoulder. A third frontal shot fills the lower right corner of the frame. This composite image appears to depict the Fang figure in something like a moment of existential doubt—he is given the suggestion of interiority. In another experiment, Elisofon’s photograph of a throwing knife was an “attempt to capture the essence of the object in flight, without its having actually been thrown and seen in flight” (fig. 7; Elisofon, “On Photographing African Sculpture,” 17). Installation shots from Chicago show that this image was also displayed alongside the knife itself. While in each of these cases Elisofon’s photographic experiments seem to bring the African art objects to life, his own explanation of this work turns back again to early twentieth-century modernism. The 1952 MoMA press release states that the multiple exposures follow “the Cubist device of simultaneously seeing around an object rendered on one plane” (MoMA, “Exhibition”). That the actual object was in the room and viewers could easily walk around it themselves does not seem to warrant mention.

Dogon female figure (variation #1), photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1951
Fig. 5. Dogon female figure (variation #1), photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1951, vintage silver gelatin print, EECL 1973–002, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. From the pages of LIFE, “Mystic Art of Tribal Africa,” September 8, 1952, 124–25, via Getty Images. LIFE and the LIFE logo are registered trademarks of The Picture Collection Inc., used under license. © 1952 The Picture Collection Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted/Translated from LIFE and published with permission of The Picture Collection Inc. Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited.
Fang reliquary figure (variation #1), photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1951
Fig. 6. Fang reliquary figure (variation #1), photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1951, vintage silver gelatin print, EECL 1973–002, © LIFE Picture Collection, Shutterstock, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.
Gobu throwing knife (variation #1), photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1951
Fig. 7. Gobu throwing knife (variation #1), photograph by Eliot Elisofon, 1951, vintage silver gelatin print, EECL 1973–002, © LIFE Picture Collection, Shutterstock, Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

These photographically multiplied images are not, first and foremost, photographic reenactments of cubism: they are revealing experiments in the history of photography of African art. They uphold the ideology of modernist autonomy as constituted by the camera eye, but they also seem to acknowledge its lack: Elisofon’s photographs almost always appear with supplements, sometimes the actual objects, sometimes documentary or portrait photographs from his African travels, sometimes images of Picasso’s paintings.[55] In The Sculpture of Africa, which Elisofon worked on throughout the 1950s and which became an important scholarly resource after its publication in 1958, the autonomy of the art objects he photographs is supplemented by claims to their universality.[56] The book includes 405 of Elisofon’s photographs, a preface by Ralph Linton (originally written in 1941), and William Fagg’s scholarly essays, organized by geography. Elisofon thanks Bernard Quint from LIFE for “his part in the formulation of the visual concepts of this book and their embodiment in its design.”[57] In his acknowledgements, Elisofon claims he selected the 405 photographs after examining 20,000 objects and taking 3,000 pictures, and many LIFE field photographs from his travels illustrate the prefatory materials, including a few where masks are worn and displayed in ritual use. Praeger’s press release claims:

And because Elisofon is himself a genuine artist, there are no intruding tricks of lighting or distracting camera angles; the drama in these photographs is tension and suspense brought out of the sculptures themselves.

Bernard Quint, Associate Art Director of Life magazine, is responsible for the unique method of pictorial presentation, almost revolutionary in its direct impact. With the greatest possible simplicity, it brings forward the sculpture itself to strike the reader’s eye with an immediacy never before achieved in any art book.[58]

At least one contemporary review objected to the fact that the photographs seem to overshadow the art historical and ethnographic scholarship in this ostensibly pedagogical text.[59] But here, the photographs’ “drama” and “immediacy,” their “revolutionary” presentation, do not merely present the African art objects as autonomous works of art—they also seek to make them universal. The title pages of The Sculpture of Africa include a dramatically cropped photograph of a sculpted face without no caption except a quote from Terence: “Homo sum; humani nihil a me alienum puto” (I am human: nothing human is alien to me; fig. 8).[60] Is this a humble affirmation, a grandiose declaration, or both? The cropping implies that this African figure must first be violently decontextualized before she can be made to signal universality. This photograph belongs to the Bakongo section of William Fagg’s essay on the Congo, where the caption there reads: “Ancestor Figure: Female statues, often holding children, were kept in Bakongo ancestor-cult shrines, to commemorate the founders of lineages. They are imaginatively naturalistic, having perhaps assimilated early European influence. The realistically carved eyes and corded breeches of this example may indicate considerable age” (Elisofon and Fagg, The Sculpture of Africa, 190). This caption speculates about “early European influence” in order to emphasize the naturalism of the figure, but it is really Elisofon’s photograph and Bernard Quint’s violent layout that emphasizes this naturalism. She seems to address the reader and to speak the words “I am human,” but it is really the photograph that is speaking. At the Musée Royal du Congo in Belgium, where Elisofon took the picture, this carved figure is only nine and a half inches high, but here her face alone fills fourteen vertical inches of scholarly space. This compensatory universalism undergirds The Sculpture of Africa.

 Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), title page.
Fig. 8. Eliot Elisofon and William Fagg, The Sculpture of Africa (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), title page.

One final variation of Elisofon’s Dogon multiple appeared on the cover of THINK, IBM’s in-house magazine, in 1962. Reading this photograph in its mass-media context again challenges Elisofon’s insistence that early-twentieth-century modernist primitivism is the necessary context for understanding his photographs of African art. I have shown that Elisofon’s work makes better sense as part of the institutionalization of modernist formal autonomy via the visual pedagogy of resemblance in the United States at midcentury. And yet this most experimental photographic variation does not tally that well with its midcentury historical context either, because it does not exemplify the progressive temporality underlying either the movement of modernism from Paris to New York or American reporting on the era of decolonization and the independence of African nations. Elisofon’s third variation on the Dogon female figure reenacts rather than historicizes early-twentieth-century primitivism. But more crucially, it does not reenact the styles associated with modernist photography of African art: it explodes them.

THINK dedicated its January 1962 issue to Africa. The editorial introduction claims, “When 19 new nations start life on the continent of Africa within a span of two years, when these nations join the U. N. and assume a voice in world affairs, from atom-testing to Berlin, when a tribal chief wins the Nobel Peace Prize, it is time for us to know more about Africa.”[61] Elisofon contributed a short piece titled “African Art: Primitives to Picasso” which recycled much of the writing that had appeared in The Atlantic in 1959. He illustrated this essay with two photographs of African art works and one depicting Bapende men from the Congo in head-to-foot raffia during a puberty rite.[62] But the Dogon figure dominates the entire magazine special issue. The editors explain:

Our front cover is a multiple exposure photograph, on a single negative, of the 5-inch-high, 100-year-old African statue shown at left and on our back cover. The photograph illustrates an argument by the photographer Eliot Elisofon, in his article on page 30, that African art influenced modern art. It is also a symbolic keynote for this special issue on Africa, in which we explore many of the restless continents innumerable facets.[63]

The editors have taken Elisofon’s argument about seeing Cubist “facets” literally, and they have sprinkled tiny, cropped images of the Dogon figure’s head, each in a different rotation, throughout the issue. But the cover layout is the most striking example of Elisofon’s experimental photographs appearing in the mass media. The Dogon figure’s rotating multiples wrap around the cover of the magazine, from front to back, overlapping and blurring—no single facet is even discernable (fig. 9). Later in Elisofon’s career he explained: “it occurred to me that I could carry the process [of photographic multiplication] one step further and include a much larger series of such impressions, mostly overlapping, to arrive at a completely Cubist effect” (Elisofon, “On Photographing African Sculpture,” 17). And yet the effect of this cover image is not cubist, it’s photographic. This image inadvertently drives modernist photography of African art to its extreme.

Eliot Elisofon, Dogon female figure (variation #3), 1951, published on the cover of THINK 28, no. 1 (1962)
Fig. 9.1. Eliot Elisofon, Dogon female figure (variation #3), 1951, published on the cover of THINK 28, no. 1 (1962). Reprint Courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation, © 1962 International Business Machines Corporation.
Eliot Elisofon, Dogon female figure (variation #3), 1951, published on the cover of THINK 28, no. 1 (1962). Reprint Courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation, © 1962 International Business Machines Corporation.
Fig. 9.2. Eliot Elisofon, Dogon female figure (variation #3), 1951, published on the cover of THINK 28, no. 1 (1962). Reprint Courtesy of International Business Machines Corporation, © 1962 International Business Machines Corporation.

Comparison to a technically similar Elisofon photograph will demonstrate how reenactment interferes with the progressive march of modernism across the twentieth century. In April of 1952, Elisofon contributed a photograph to an article titled “Dada’s Daddy” on Marcel Duchamp’s life, work, and residence in a small studio apartment on 14th Street in Manhattan. The article begins with a small insert of Duchamp’s famous painting Nude Descending a Staircase (1913), alongside Elisofon’s large photograph depicting Duchamp—fully clothed—also descending a staircase (fig. 10). The caption reads: “Duchamp descends staircase himself for a repetitive-flash picture, and thereby makes a modern photograph as Dadaist as his 40-year-old Nude painting.”[64] Was this really supposed to be funny? While the 1913 nude has no discernible individuality, Duchamp strides forward, recognizably himself. Yet this is not quite a parody, because there is no critique of the avant-garde provocateur becoming brand icon. It’s strangely unknowing. Duchamp’s painting appeared in the 1913 Armory show in New York, where his mechanical portrayal of a sensual and classic subject—the nude—seems to gesture towards cubism with its facets and planes, but really it is about motion and seriality (she is descending, step by step). It references the time-lapse photography of Muybridge, for example, and the cinema, and the mechanization of everyday life. In other words, Duchamp uses the traditional medium of paint on canvas to portray the changing modern world, a world that is specifically being changed by the mechanization of sight. Elisofon and LIFE look back from the midcentury when the techniques of modern life, and the techniques for visual understanding that Duchamp alludes to, have become so ubiquitous as to be imperceptible, even to their practitioners. To reenact Nude Descending a Staircase using cutting-edge photographic techniques is to dehistoricize the painting completely. To claim that Elisofon’s photograph is “as Dadaist” as Duchamp’s “40-year-old Nude painting” is to deny the change of medium: it is almost as if Elisofon’s photographic technique is compensating for the loss of the avant-garde itself.

From the pages of LIFE, “Dada’s Daddy,” April 28, 1952, 100, via Getty Images.
Fig. 10. From the pages of LIFE, “Dada’s Daddy,” April 28, 1952, 100, via Getty Images. LIFE and the LIFE logo are registered trademarks of The Picture Collection Inc., used under license. © 1952 The Picture Collection Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted/Translated from LIFE and published with permission of The Picture Collection Inc. Reproduction in any manner in any language in whole or in part without written permission is prohibited.

Elisofon’s THINK cover is another example of photographic technique—multiple exposures on a single negative—undermining its reference to early-twentieth-century modernism. The capitalized word AFRICA repeats seven times in white letters below the image, and the multiple exposures give the Dogon figure a kind of dynamic, even frenzied, abstraction.[65] There is no emphasis on the plastic qualities of the figure, no “straight” style: this image does not positively identify and depict a specific sculptural object while insisting on the transparency and pedagogical value of the medium of photography. There is also no supplement—no Picasso or Duchamp painting inserted on the page, no actual object in the gallery room, no universalism. This is not just technically but also allegorically a negative image: it depicts not the object but its representation in and by the West. The repetition of the subject of the magazine—“AFRICA AFRICA AFRICA”—below the image mimics the photographic multiplication of the figure and seems to name exactly what it represents: “less a place than a topos,” as Edward Said put it long ago, or “a set of references, a congeries of characteristics” generated by and repeated in the West.[66] This image dehistoricizes early-twentieth-century modernism to fit its subject to American institutionalization and consumption, just as the Duchamp photograph does. But this image of the female Dogon figure also represents the midcentury multiplication of a persistently dehistoricized and abstracted Africa, despite its appearance on the cover of one of the many special issues of American magazines dedicated to understanding the continent as it emerged from colonial rule.

Postcolonial theory has long held that the progressive time underpinning historicism can be a tool of Western domination.[67] Restoring the midcentury mass media context of Elisofon’s images does not set them comfortably in history, because they pull away from context and from historicist postulates about change over time. Though the Dogon figure is meant to be seen in rotating motion, to be dynamic, Elisofon’s photograph in fact represents the temporal stasis of primitivist thought and its long relation to the medium of modernist photography. The various special-issue magazines dedicated to the emergence of new African nations in the 1950s and 1960s all share an underlying assumption that countries and peoples develop along a series of stages. Using Elisofon’s photographs as illustrations appears to be an attempt to manage difference in the era of decolonization. Postcolonial interventions into modernist temporality reveal that while Elisofon’s photographs may deny contemporaneity to African artworks and to authors like Achebe, his most experimental images do not deny their own contemporaneity. They allegorize it. In THINK magazine in 1962, Elisofon’s image wraps around the magazine and is printed right over the binding: the Dogon figure appears in a clear profile shot only on the back, where it is a recognizable sculptural form in wood, looking to the right, towards the overlapping multiplication of its own figure. But the cover of THINK as it would appear in a reader’s hands shows only these multiples, without the anchor of the sculptural form and its suggestion of three-dimensional volume on the back. As a result, the cover presents a two-dimensional photographic abstraction. The Dogon figure is not, at first, recognizable as an object because it is represented only by light reflecting off overlapping angles and planes. In its media context in 1962, Elisofon’s experimental image is a representation of and by reflected whiteness, the threatened heart of primitivism both in the early twentieth century and in Elisofon’s midcentury context. Thus multiple times and temporalities tangle and compete in this image: the primitive and the contemporary, the historical and the a-historical. In this way, Elisofon’s experiments with photographing African art show how postcolonial modernism can productively interfere with global modernism’s most expansionary forms of historicism.

As if to substantiate their uneasy relation to progressive time, Elisofon did not pursue these these midcentury photographic experiments any further. And they were only collected for the first time in 1974 for a posthumous tribute to Elisofon's life and work.


 Thanks to Amy Staples at the National Museum of African Art, whose assistance and article, “Africa ReViewed: The Photographic Legacy of Eliot Elisofon,” Tribal Art 18, no. 71 (2014): 84–94, proved invaluable at the start of this project. Thanks to Roy Flukinger, who helped me with the Elisofon archive at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin. For inviting me to share this article as it progressed, thanks to Lori Cole and Kelly Sullivan and the Global Modernisms Group at NYU, Devin Daniels and Alex Miller and the Mods working group at the University of Pennsylvania, and the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rowan University.

[1] Chinua Achebe, “The Sacrificial Egg,” The Atlantic 203 no. 4 (1959): 61–62.

[2] Serge Guilbaut, How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1985).

[3] The concept of the denial of coevalness underlies Johannes Fabian’s classic 1983 argument in Time and the Other: How Anthropology Makes its Object (New York: Columbia University Press, 2014).

[4] Eliot Elisofon, “African Sculpture,” The Atlantic 203, no. 4 (1959): 48–60. Elisofon also offers his personal experience of collecting African art, describing buying trips and quoting recent auction prices in New York. The impulse behind the essay was to instruct and inform Western readers, buyers of art books like his own, and potential collectors, but the final sentence strikes a more political note: “It might not be a bad idea to return some African sculpture to the Africans” (60). The tone here is less grudging than it is didactic and benevolent.

[5] Some of the best reconsiderations and refutations include: Joshua I. Cohen, The “Black Art” Renaissance: African Sculpture and Modernism across Continents (Oakland: University of California Press, 2020); Anne Cheng, Second Skin: Josephine Baker & the Modern Surface (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011); Simon Gikandi, “Picasso, Africa, and the Schemata of Difference,” Modernism/modernity 10, no. 3 (2003): 455–80; and Patricia Leighten, “The White Peril and L’Art negre: Picasso, Primitivism, and Anticolonialism,” The Art Bulletin 72, no. 4 (1990): 609–30. This origin story also has no single, authoritative source: most scholars today cite André Malraux’s account in Picasso’s Mask (which was only published in 1974) where Picasso is adamant that his encounter was not with sculptural forms but rather with magical intercessors and threatening spirits. See André Malraux, Picasso’s Mask (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1976), 11.

[6] For example, scholars have shown that masks and objects were likely made for the Western market at the turn of the century but were collected and encountered as if they were authentically primitive. See Joshua I. Cohen, “Fauve Masks: Rethinking Modern ‘Primitivist’ Uses of African and Oceanic Art, 1905–8,” The Art Bulletin 99, no. 2 (2017): 136–65. Collectors and photographers often stripped raffia, beads, and feathers from masks to emphasize these objects plastic qualities and their autonomy from use. Paul Saint-Amour puts this concisely: “The working African artifact is defetishized (in the popular anthropological sense) to be refetishized (in the technical Marxist sense) as, ironically, a ‘work’ of art—that is, as a commodity wholly alienated from the labor of its production.” See “It’s Good to be Primitive,” in Modernism and Copyright, ed. Paul K. Saint-Amour (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010), 298.

[7] Hal Foster, Recodings: Art, Spectacle, Cultural Politics (Seattle, WA: Bay Press, 1985), 183.

[8] For more on this view, see Raoul J. Granqvist, Photography and American Coloniality: Eliot Elisofon in Africa, 1942–1972 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2017).

[9] Yaëlle Biro, Fabriquer le regard: marchands, réseaux et objets d'art africains à l'aube du XXe siècle (Dijon, France: les presses du reel, 2018), 330.

[10] John Warne Monroe, Metropolitan Fetish: African Sculpture and the Imperial French Invention of Primitive Art (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2019), 228.

[11] Wendy Grossman, Man Ray, African Art, and the Modernist Lens (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009), 61.

[12] Jason Farago, “The New MoMA Is Here. Get Ready for Change,” The New York Times, October 3, 2019.

[13] The idea of “global modernism” resonates differently in literary studies and in art history. For literary studies’ most expansive approach, see Susan Stanford Friedman, Planetary Modernisms: Provocations on Modernity Across Time (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015). For an argument from art history against pure transnational extension and for “explanatory paradigms that meaningfully address issues of multiple locations, palimpsestic temporalities, and processes of transcultural configurations,” see Monica Juneja, “Global Art History and the ‘Burden of Representation,’” in Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture, ed. Hans Belting, Jacob Birken, Andrea Buddensieg, and Peter Weibel (Ostfildern, Germany: Hatje Cantz, 2011), 274–97. For new applications and extensions see, for example, Michaela Bronstein, Out of Context: The Uses of Modernist Fiction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018); Peter Kalliney, Commonwealth of Letters: British Literary Culture and the Emergence of Postcolonial Aesthetics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Aarthi Vadde, Chimeras of Form: Modernist Internationalism Beyond Europe, 1914–2016 (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016).

[14] Thomas S. Davis and Nathan K. Hensley, “Scale and Form; Or, What Was Global Modernism?,” Modernism/modernity Print Plus 2, no. 4 (2018):

[15] For an argument from art history that primitivism served as the “primary engine of modernism’s global dissemination” and as a precursor for contemporary ideas of multiple modernisms, see Ruth Phillips, “Aesthetic Primitivism Revisited: the Global Diaspora of ‘Primitive Art’ and the Rise of Indigenous Modernisms,” Journal of Art Historiography 12 (2015): 1–25.

[16] A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, ed. Eric Hayot and Rebecca L. Walkowitz (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 3.

[17] Or, as Christopher Bush puts it, “modernism’s global context was and remains something that cannot be fully grasped through knowledge saturation.” For more, see his essay “Context,” in A New Vocabulary for Global Modernism, 89.

[18] The Postcolonial Contemporary: Political Imaginaries for the Global Present, ed. Jini Kim Watson, and Gary Wilder (New York: Fordham University, 2018), 3. For more recent engagement with postcolonial theory today, see Nasia Anam, “Introduction: Forms of the Global Anglophone,” Post45: Contemporaries (2019): and Leela Gandhi, “Epilogue: If This Were a Manifesto for Postcolonial Thinking,” in Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction, 2nd ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2019). For use of the term “postcolonial modernism” applied to art in this same time period, see Chika Okeke-Agulu, Postcolonial Modernism: Art and Decolonization in Twentieth-Century Nigeria (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015).

[19] Quoted in Erika Doss, introduction to Looking at LIFE Magazine, ed. Erika Doss (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 2001), 2.

[20] Wendy Kozol, “Life’s” America: Family and Nation in Postwar Photojournalism (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1994), 35–36.

[21] John Edwin Mason, “LIFE Comes (Back) to Africa: Life Magazine and the Visual Representation of a Continent,” John Edwin Mason: Documentary, Motorsports, Photo History (blog), October 8, 2017.

[22] John Edwin Mason, “Picturing the Beloved Country: Margaret Bourke-White, Life Magazine, and South Africa, 1949–1950,” Kronos 38, no. 1 (2012): 154–76.

[23] Eliot Elisofon, quoted in Roy Flukinger, “‘To Help The World To See’: An Eliot Elisofon Retrospective,” The Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin.

[24] Katherine E. Flach, “Eliot Elisofon: Bringing African Art to LIFE” (PhD diss., Case Western Reserve University, 2015), 22.

[25] The photo-essay includes quotations from Joyce Cary, Henry M. Stanley, Teddy Roosevelt, Kipling, Conrad, Hemingway, Churchill, Gide, and, towards the end, Alan Paton. See “Storied World of Africa: A Writer’s World of Primitive, Eloquent Beauty,” LIFE, October 13, 1961, 66–87.

[26] Maya Angelou, “For Years We Hated Ourselves,” The New York Times, April 16, 1972.

[27] Elisofon did not take kindly to this criticism—his own letter to the Times was headlined: “Being White, Do I Love Africa Less?,” The New York Times, May 14, 1972.

[28] It is true that Elisofon did photograph artisans at work as well as rituals in which masks were worn, but criticism has dogged these more ethnographic, documentary images—evidence shows that he often insisted his subjects remove signs of modernity and westernization, such as wrist watches. By contrast, his cover photograph for a LIFE photo-essay on the Nile in 1950 depicts a Shilluk girl, and the caption in part reads: “Like most smart women of her village of Kwon Fashoda, she wears on her chest decorated aluminum jewelry, fashioned by a local craftsman from the wreckage of a World War II plane.” This is an example of an African art form in use, with historical context and import, but this is not the type of thing Elisofon included in his book on African sculpture. For more on his staging of photographs, see Christraud M. Geary, “Photographic Practice in Africa and its Implications for the use of Historical Photographs as Contextual Evidence,” in Fotografia e storia dell’Africa: Atti del Convegno Internazionale Napoli-Roma 9–11 settembre 1992, ed. Alessandro Triulzi (Naples, Italy: Istituto Universitario Orientale of Napoli, 1995), 103–30. For Kwame Anthony Appiah’s take on James Baldwin remarking “This has got to be contemporary!” about a Yoruba sculpture of a man with a bicycle—a sign of modernity and Westernization like the ones Elisofon often removed from his photographs—see “Is the Post- in Postmodernism the Post- in Postcolonial?,” Critical Inquiry 17, no. 2 (1991): 336–57.

[29] Fredric Jameson, A Singular Modernity: Essay on the Ontology of the Present (New York: Verso, 2002).

[30] Greg Barnhisel, Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015), 3.

[31] Will Norman’s study of European émigré writers and artists in the United States between the 1930s and the 1950s also unpacks how modernism repeats itself at midcentury. For Norman, these writers and artists “found themselves at once to be both creative subjects and premature historical objects, having experienced the era of modernism twice, as it were, as European tragedy in the interwar period and as American farce in the forties and fifties.” There is something similarly farcical about Elisofon’s repetition of modernist primitivism at midcentury (Transatlantic Aliens: Modernism, Exile, and Culture in Midcentury America [Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2016], 5).

[32] Simon Gikandi, “Africa and the Epiphany of Modernism,” in Geomodernisms: Race, Modernism, Modernity, ed. Laura Doyle and Laura A. Winkiel (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2005), 34.

[33] Hannah Feldman, From a Nation Torn: Decolonizing Art and Representation in France, 1945–1962 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014), 21.

[34] Alexander Campbell, “Africa: A Continent in Ferment,” LIFE, May 4, 1953, 9.

[35] “The Hopeful Launching of a Proud and Free Nigeria,” LIFE, September 26, 1960, 54–74.

[36] See Zoe S. Strother, “Looking for Africa in Carl Einstein’s Negerplastik,” African Arts 46, no. 4 (2013): 8–21; Virginia-Lee Webb, “Art as Information: The African Portfolios of Charles Sheeler and Walker Evans,” African Arts 24, no. 1 (1991): 56–63; and Suzanne Preston Blier, “The Long Arm of the Lens: Photography, Colonialism, and African Sculpture,” in Sarah Hamill and Megan R. Luke, Photography and Sculpture: The Art Object in Reproduction (Los Angeles, CA: Getty Publications, 2018), 120–37. To explore a catalogue of 5,000 pictures of African art published before 1921, see the James J. Ross Archive of African Images.

[37] Virginia-Lee Webb, Perfect Documents: Walker Evans and African Art (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000), 15, exhibition catalog.

[38] Museum of Modern Art, press release, [“The first one-man photography exhibition ever given by the Museum of Modern Art . . .”], September 24–25, 1938.

[39] André Malraux, The Voices of Silence, trans. Stuart Gilbert (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 21.

[40] Rosalind Krauss, “Postmodernism’s Museum Without Walls,” in Thinking About Exhibitions, ed. Reesa Greenberg, Bruce W. Ferguson, and Sandy Nairne (New York: Routledge, 2005), 243. In direct contrast to Malraux, Chris Marker’s 1953 film Les statues meurent aussi (Statues Also Die) voices these lines over shots of African art objects in European collections: “When men die, they enter into history. When statues die, they enter into art.” The film was deemed too anticolonial to be released in full until 1965.

[41] Joel Snyder, “Nineteenth-Century Photography of Sculpture and the Rhetoric of Substitution,” in Sculpture and Photography: Envisioning the Third Dimension, ed. Geraldine A. Johnson (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 21–34.

[42] Frederick N. Bohrer, “Photographic Perspectives: Photography and the Institutional Formation of Art History,” in Art History and Its Institutions: Foundations of a Discipline, ed. Elizabeth Mansfield (London: Routledge, 2002), 246, 253.

[43] Mary Bergstein, “Lonely Aphrodite: On the Documentary Photography of Sculpture,” The Art Bulletin 3, no. 74 (1992): 496.

[44] At the time, this particular photo-essay was seen as an important representation of Africa and Africans in the pages of a national magazine. As Katherine E. Flach notes, Jet magazine remarked upon its prominence (Flach, “Eliot Elisofon,” 138; “African Art in LIFE,” Jet, September 18, 1952, 22).

[45] “Mystic Art of Tribal Africa,” LIFE, Sept 8, 1952, 117–20.

[46] James Clifford also makes this point about camera angles being the source of visual resemblance in the notorious 1984 MoMA show, “‘Primitivism’ in 20th Century Art: Affinity of the Tribal and the Modern” (“Histories of the Tribal and the Modern,” in The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1988]).

[47] Museum of Modern Art, “Exhibition of African Negro Sculpture to Go on View at Museum,” press release, July 2, 1952.

[48] Publicity report from Art Institute of Zanesville, Ohio, June 6–27, 1952, Department of Circulating Exhibitions Records, (folder) II. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York (MoMA Archives).

[49] It was only with his documentary film work much later in his career that Elisofon made the politics of his photographic pedagogy more explicit: Black African Heritage (1972), for example, was intended to educate African Americans. The promotional slogan was “If there’s one thing future generations of black Americans need, it’s a past” (see the illustration in Flach, “Eliot Eliosofon,” 349).

[50] Note in Libby Tannenbaum’s handwriting, Department of Circulating Exhibitions Records, (folder) II. The Museum of Modern Art Archives, New York (MoMA Archives).

[51] The curator’s points of reference for this phrase may have included Dziga Vertov’s radical documentary film work in the Soviet Union or, closer to home, Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy. A more mainstream, technical, and influential take was published with the title “Eye and Camera” by George Wald in Scientific American in 1950. His article contained diagrams comparing the structure of the eye to that of the camera.

[52] Barbara Powell, “Around Chicago . . . at the Institute,” WHERE magazine, January 26, 1952, 5.

[53] Eliot Elisofon, “How to Photograph Primitive Art,” transcript of lecture given on May 7, 1971 at the Peabody-CAAS Symposium, Eliot Elisofon Paper and Photographic Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas.

[54] Eliot Elisofon, “On Photographing African Sculpture,” in Tribute to Africa (Washington DC: Museum of African Art, 1974), 16–7.

[55] Thanks to Gina Patnaik for this excellent point, and to Jed Esty for pointing out that, really, you can only “do” modernism once.

[56] For more on the midcentury American discourse of “universal man,” see Mark Greif, The Age of the Crisis of Man: Thought and Fiction in America, 1933–1973 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2016).

[57] Eliot Elisofon and William Fagg, The Sculpture of Africa (New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1958), 6.

[58] Frederick A. Praeger, “The Sculpture of Africa,” press release, Eliot Elisofon Paper and Photographic Collection, Harry Ransom Center, The University of Texas at Austin, Texas.

[59] G. I. Jones, “The Sculpture of Africa by Eliot Elisofon,” Africa: Journal of the International African Institute 29, no. 2 (1959): 198–99.

[60] Leslie Jamison discovers the contradictions of this quotation in “Mark My Words. Maybe,” The New York Times, April 12, 2014,

[61] “A Memo to Our Readers,” Think 28, no. 1 (1962): 1.

[62] Eliot Elisofon, “African Art: Primitives to Picasso,” Think 28, no. 1 (1962): 30.

[63] Inside cover, Think 28, no. 1 (1962).

[64] Winthrop Sargeant, “Dada’s Daddy,” LIFE, April 28, 1952, 100. It’s likely Elisofon worked on the stroboscopic technique for taking multiple images with his friend Gjon Mili, another LIFE photographer, who had taken a photograph titled “Nude Descending a Staircase” in 1942.

[65] See Nidesh Lawtoo for the colonialist implications of this sense of “frenzy” in “A Picture of Africa: Frenzy, Counternarrative, Mimesis,” Modern Fiction Studies 59, no. 1 (2013): 26–52.

[66] Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 177.

[67] This claim also appears in Fabian, Time and the Other. For more postcolonial critiques of historicism, see Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture (London: Routledge, 1994); Dipesh Chakrabarty, Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008); and Keya Ganguly, “Temporality and Postcolonial Critique,” in The Cambridge Companion to Postcolonial Literary Studies, ed. Neil Lazarus (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 162–82. For a related take from a different field, see Jennifer Fleissner, “Historicism Blues,” American Literary History 25, no. 4 (2013): 699–717.