February 11: When you cannot have the thing that arouses your possessiveness through either curiosity or greed, a photograph of it may still satisfy such desires.
[A warning…some pictures in this post are confronting].
He stands proudly and disdainfully erect, though emasculated, on the alien vessel. ‘Blackbirded’ twice; once a respected ancestor, he had been branded and transformed into a birdman, now he was a captive, enslaved to European curiosity. He still dominates his place in the British Museum. He is Hoa Hakananai’a.
His pictures, front and back views, are attributed to Paul-Émile Miot, born on this date in 1827 (†1900) who boarded this ship, the British man-of-war HMS Topaze, in Valparaiso, Chile, after it had visited Easter Island from 1st to 6th November 1868. During the period 1868 to 1871 Miot, who had just been appointed chief of staff of the naval division of the Pacific under Admiral Cloué, was circumnavigating South America aboard the l’Astrée. He was in Valpariso in 1869, not 1868, the date most often given for this photograph.
The primary objective of the voyage of the Topaze was to ‘verify [Easter Island’s] position on the chart, to search for certain other islands that were reputed to be in the vicinity, and then to preempt rumours circulating in Valparaiso: that Chile was considering the annexation of Easter Island. It was also during this visit that the first act of ‘archaeological blackbirding’ of Easter Island’s mo’ai occurred.
Miot’s collodion/abumen photograph still arouses the possessiveness that prompted the seizure of the original object.
It appeared at the Beaussant & Lefèvre auction house on June 7 and 8, 2011 among 170 lots from the collection of a Pierre-Marc Richard which together garnered €1,433,878. Richard, whose connoisseurship of vintage photography is well known for his curiosity in seeking out rare, unusual images, masterpieces as well as modest snapshots;
I seek out unknown pictures by famous photographers, and pictures by unknowns that will one day be famous.
Richard has published two books on Miot; Paul-Émile Miot, un marin photographe (1857–1870). Paris: éd. Galerie Michèle Chomette, 1995, and Sur les traces de Paul-Émile Miot, croisières et fonds photographiques, Mexique, Amérique du Sud, Océanie, Sénégal, 1863–1871. Paris: éd. Galerie Michèle Chomette, also in 1995.
An example from the 2011 sale of his collection (another followed in 2015) is an anonymous 1870 albumen print of a nude woman (€7,500) with a bird for a face, Dada before its time, and another zoomorphic nude, a Leda and Swan (well, a dead goose) by Vincenzo Galdi (1871-1961) which sold at €6,500 with both works bringing more than twice the estimate.
Not long before Hoa Hakananai’a was entombed in the British Museum and more than 120 years before Joel-Peter Witkin started showing his startling images of corpses, Charles Desavary produced Tête de l’assassin Picard photographié après son exécution, 1862 (‘Head of the Murderer Picard Photographed after His Execution), propped unceremoniously on a platter, his pugilist features staring into the abyss like the figurehead on Charon’s ferry.
Witkin would also have been fascinated by a four-print series of Crucifixions à la morgue (Crucifixions at the Morgue) produced by an unknown artist and intended as models for another sculptor or painter, while Antonio Gaudi (1852-1926) had Ricardo Opisso (1880-1966) photograph his model for Christ against converging mirrors for a sculpture intended for his cathedral, the Sagrada Familia.
A further addition to photographic observations made for artists is this rare example from Julien Vallou de Villeneuve (1795-1866) an illustrator and printmaker himself, whose use of paper negatives enabled retouching, in this case with watercolour, to make the subject more ‘artistic’.
Other postmortem images have attracted our collector Pierre-Marc Richard, including a stereoscopic pair made the day after the battle of Mélignano, in the town cemetery, of the piled victims of war awaiting burial…
…and this daguerreotype which brings together the early photographic portrait imprint with that made directly from the face of the dead, the memorial that it superseded.
The auction included another instance of looting in the name of ethnography, made in the depths of the Amazon by Charles Kroehle (c.1876–c.1902) and Georg Huebner (18??–1935), two German nationals who in 1888 opened a studio in Iquitos, Peru, a location which brought them close to the many tributaries of the Amazon. There they photographed the indigenous tribespeople hidden in the vast expanses of jungle. Kroehle died in the early twentieth century. Their ‘mummy’ is constructed from the artefacts they brought back.
The star of the auction was the print attributed to Paul-Émile Miot. Miot’s photographs were long considered, like Kroehle’s and Huebner’s to belong in the category of ethnography. In addition to its documentary value in being the only photographic record of the basalt moai in the process of appropriation from one country to another, today is is considered beautiful, enough to fetch €29,000 for one whose dedication in the auction catalogue reads, poetically;
Pour Ève, et à mes camarades de chasse subtile, qui, longtemps, se sont levés de bonne heure ; pour certains nyctalopes qui voient clair dans la nuit du fatras de la production photographique. Quand je ne serai plus là, ils se mettront à l’oreille les quelques coquillages que j’ai recueillis sur la grève : ils entendront le bruit de la mer.
Which translates roughly as “To Eve, and to my perspicacious hunting companions, who, for a long time, got up early; for those nyctalopes who see clearly in the darkness of the jumble of photographic produce. When I am no longer there, they will listen to the few shells I have collected on the beach: they will hear the sound of the sea.”
This evocation of the sea brings us back to Paul-Emile Miot who was born in Trinidad to a French father and a West Indian mother, and trained in the Naval Academy in Paris in 1843-9, attaining the rank of sub-Lieutenant, being given the command of the merchant ship Ceres.
He survived the tribulations that beset a navy man of the era including yellow fever which killed two thirds of his crew and service as an officer with the French naval fleet in the Crimean War, after which he took leave from the navy in 1856 and became interested in photography.
During the Crimean War engagement he met Lieutenant (and later Admiral) Georges-Charles Cloué, with whom he sailed in 1857, now promoted to full lieutenant, on a voyage to Newfoundland in the Ardent. There he took some of the earliest known photographs of the east coast of Canada and Newfoundland and its peoples. They were the basis of line illustrations in le Monde Illustré which attracted much of the curiosity about the French colonisation of north America.
Miot’s photography contributed to early photogrammetry for Ardent’s hydrographic and mapping mission, which Cloué describes in a letter of September 27, 1857;
One of the officers of the Ardent, Lieutenant Miot, took up photography during his last period of leave. He is remarkably successful, Commodore, as you have been able to see for yourself. I have given some thought to utilizing this new science, which, until now, might have appeared to have no more than an artistic value, for our precision work, and I believe that, thanks to the ability and the intelligence of Mr. Miot, I have achieved results that give extremely high hopes for the future.
Theodolite readings taken from the main points of triangulation require a certain experience of drawing to produce the views, which, with the aid of the angles that are included in them, are invaluable in later recreating the contours of the coast and the main features of the terrain. Henceforth, a few angles taken with the theodolite will suffice, and the readings will be complemented by a photographic view on which the angles need not be calculated until the moment when the map is drawn.
I have had Mr. Miot take several of these views, taking care that the focal point of the instrument’s lens is in the same position for each of the views, so that the horizontal distances on the print always represent the same number of degrees in the angle. When taking measurements from the photographic views, with a graduated metal ruler, of the distances that separate the verticals drawn from various readings, I have frequently obtained accuracy to within one minute compared to the angles provided by theodolite readings.
By 1860 his work brought official recognition when photographic facilities were set up at the Dépot des cartes et plans. When the Ardent got trapped in ice, Miot carried his camera on to the ice-flow to make studies that rival some Arctic pictures of the nineteenth century. During stopovers in the French islands of Saint-Pierre-et-Michelon (today the last remaining fragment of the French Empire) off the coast of Newfoundland, he also became the first person to take photographs of the islands’ inhabitants and their villages.
Photographs from the Newfoundland expedition were printed for Miot by Furne et Tournier of Paris in quite large numbers. Others were used as the basis of engravings for Le Tour du Monde over a period of months in 1863, a serial published intermittently until the mid 1870s.
By 1863 he had his first command, of l’Astrée, and during the period from 1868 to 1871, now promoted as Admiral Cloué’s Chief of Staff, circumnavigated South America, along the way visiting the Marquesas Islands, where he produced group portraits of the Royal Family of Vahitou. His imagery caters to a romantic, European image of Pacific islanders, the wreaths worn by the boys above most likely having been given them by Miot, whose pictures sold well in Paris and may have been seen by Gauguin, encouraging his ill-fated travel to Tahiti.
The demands of a blossoming naval career seem to have limited Miot’s time for photography, the majority of surviving images covering the period 1858-1875. By 1881 he had reached the rank of Rear-Admiral, and Vice-Admiral by 1888. By then he was deskbound in Paris, retiring from the navy at the age of sixty-five. In the last years of his life, he became in 1893 Curator of the Marine Museum, until his death in Paris on October 6, 1900. A substantial number of his glass plate negatives survive in the archives of the Ministére de la marine in Vincennes, France.
On the crew of the Topaze at Easter Island were members who could make useful sketches and maps, but none who were photographers. One documented Hoa Hakananai’a, which was one of the smaller moai, in a ritual stone building which the sailors demolished in order to extract the statue. It then, with the willing help of the islanders, was dragged face down to the shore and rafted across to the Topaze. It was recorded at the time that much of the coloured decoration on the statue was erased in this process.
Miot’s other photograph, the back view of Hoa Hakananai’a made some weeks later and now held in the Vatican, still shows the engravings on his back, exposing lighter stone under his 700 year old patina (the moai are assumed to have been created around the year 1200).
The tragic fate of Hoa Hakananai’a is now clear. In 2013 British archaeologists who analysed engravings on the back determined that the petroglyphs were made after the Easter Islanders themselves had turned away from the huge statues representing ancestors after the ecological crisis which followed the disappearance from the island of its tall palm forests, and altered them so that they served as a kind of altar for the new Birdman cult (Tangata Manu). The genitals and hands of the figure were also removed. When the British explorer James Cook visited the island he found most of the 1,000 similar statues on Easter Island had been toppled.