Picturing Empire, Photography & Geography

Photography is often really about geography. So argues James R. Ryan of much Victorian photography practiced between 1837 and 1914.

Photographs made and consumed during this period often fed into and constructed peoples ideas about empire. Whether from travel, natural history, or topographic studies, photographs were carriers of particular ideas about progress, racial superiority, militarism, and patriotism. This landscape of ideas and images formed an “imaginative geography” of the British Empire.

In emphasising the cultural construction of photographs and photography, Ryan cites the previous work of Allan Sekula (1982,1984) and John Tagg (1988), who both rejected photography’s prior claims to transparently representing reality.

Sekula and Tagg belong to a group of photography critics who from the 1970s onwards launched attacks on realist and simplistic interpretations of photographs which did not account for cultural contexts and issues of power. Susie Linfield (2010) describes these critics (also including, Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Martha Rosler, Carol Squires, and Victor Burgin), as the postmodern and poststructuralist children of Susan Sontag, John Berger, and Roland Barthes.

Construction is clear in John Thomson’s Still life of Fruit, a germane example selected by Ryan. The photograph depicts fruits and wine from Hong Kong assembled in an aesthetically pleasing arrangement following in the tradition of still life painting.

L0055514 Still life of fruit, Hong Kong.
Still life of Fruit, Hong Kong, 1868/1871 © John Thomson. Wellcome Library Record.

Ryan points out that the image works as a kind of photographic inventory of overseas resources and so emphasises the prospects for colonial expansion.

However, to succeed in this temptation it also relies upon the descriptive detail captured by the photographic process and a belief in its transparent depiction of that reality. So the photograph is both constructed and real – or neither fully constructed nor fully transparent.

The trouble with making an argument about messages contained within a photograph and accompanying photographic practices is that they cannot be over-emphasized. In pointing out that photography was used to construct the British Empire during the Victorian period, Ryan qualifies that “it would be wrong to exaggerate the coherence or effectiveness of photography as a vehicle of imperial repression” (219).

Photographs are indeterminate and never fully defined. Always more and less than a photographer may wish. Sometimes even seemingly impenetrable like Thomson’s Foliage which was taken around the same time as Still life of Fruit.

L0055621 Foliage, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871.
Foliage, Hong Kong, 1868/1871 © John Thomson. Wellcome Library Record.

Ryan’s project is historical as well as geographic. Photographs operate within historical processes and cultural practices and so are deemed to be “dynamic objects with entangled histories.” In this view, Still life of Fruit and Foliage can both be understood to be about processes of possession and consumption. Still life of Fruit offers resources for capitalist consumption while Foliage captures plant life for scientific possession and possible later consumption.

Photography’s close relationship to capitalism was observed by Susan Sontag (1977). For Sontag, capitalism requires a society based on images to produce entertainment, to stimulate buying, and to provide information on exploitable resources. It also relies on the camera’s ability to objectify reality (178), making pictured subjects possess-able.

In addition to photography, capitalism is doubly intertwined in the construction of the imaginative geography of the British Empire. It finds a home in ideas about progress, civilisation, and growth and also induces a particular way of seeing, possessing, and ultimately consuming new geographies, so feeding back into the ideology of empire.


Burgin, Victor, ed. Thinking Photography. Palgrave Macmillan, 1982.

Linfield, Susie. A Little History of Photography Criticism; or, Why Do Photography Critics Hate Photography? University of Chicago Press, 2010.

Ryan, James R. Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire. University of Chicago Press, 1997.

Sekula, Allan. ‘On the Invention of Photographic Meaning’. Thinking in Photography, Palgrave Macmillan, 1982.

Sekula, Allan. Photography against the Grain: Essays and Photo Works, 1973-1983. Press of the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, 1984.

Sontag, Susan. On Photography. Penguin Books, 1977.

Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation: Essays on Photographies and Histories. University of Minnesota Press, 1993 [1988].