Modernist Photography in Indonesia

I recently finished Jane Levy Reed’s book Toward Independence:  A Century of Indonesia Photographed.  The book chronicles major moments in Indonesian photography from roughly 1840’s until the late 1940’s, when the nation won its independence from the Dutch.

Although photography entered Indonesia from afar and was borne necessarily on the wings of colonial enterprise, it has also contributed to the process of imaging Indonesia.  The power of photographic images was immediately recognized  by Indonesian rulers and petty princes who, early on, commissioned portraits of their families and courts.  Photography also became an important medium for the validation of the colonial enterprise in the Netherlands as popularly oriented Dutch-language publications extolled the virtues of European administration while exploring the cultural and geographical diversity of the great tropical archipelago.

Eric Crystal

The book is a series of essays and accompanying photographs, each by a different writer and photographer, all organized by Jane Levy Reed.  The book begins with the first daguerreotypist commissioned to photography Borobudur – Adolph Schaefer – and ends with the Henri Cartier Bresson photographs documenting the fall of the Dutch colonial government, and the rise of Sukarno.

In between, the book chronicles a number of other photographers, ranging between photographers commissioned by the Dutch to document archeological sites, the war in Aceh, and the successful developments in Batavia and the plantations across the archipelago; and including some of the first Indonesian photographers, whether Dutchmen born in the islands, or native Indonesians trained in the arts of photography.

As a photographer, the works that interest me the most are by Adolph Schaefer, Woodbury and Page, Thilly Weissenborn, Isidore Van Kinsbergen, Onnes Kurkdjian, Kasssian Cephas, and, of course, Cartier Bresson.

The book also includes a number of interesting and well-known writers on Indonesia, including Adrian Vickers and Jan Fontein.


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