Colonial Landscapes and Organic Vision: Robert Lohmeyer's Dreifarbenphotographie of Africa

Hanin Hannouch

Robert Lohmeyer's three-color glass plates at the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin

Plants dominate the landscape photography of photo-chemist and color photographer Dr. Robert Lohmeyer (1879-1959), whose archives are housed at the Ethnologisches Museum. The ca. 400 photographs and original glass plates stem from the two earliest color photography expeditions to Africa, which Lohmeyer undertook in 1907 and 1909 after having mastered the subtractive three-color process Dreifarbenphotographie nach der Natur; developed by Adolf Miethe (1862-1927). A selection of his images was reproduced throughout the two-volume book Die Deutschen Kolonien (released in 1909 and 1910) whose circulation long outlived the German colonies and can still be purchased online today.

By investigating the uneasy shift away from the dwindling anti-racist and liberal anthropology towards the more völkisch ethnography informed by holism in the Kaiserreich at the turn of the last century, I analyze Lohmeyer's photographic canon "Tropenphotographie" which he based entirely on the representation of "tropical" nature and by extension of Naturvölker through the Museum's collection. My contention is that "Tropenphotographie" is representative of a new organic paradigm of vision and of an embodied observing spectator of ethnographic imagery which is emblematic of the changes in the hierarchy between the marginalized color photographic image and the dominant black-and-white one. My work centers on the mechanical color generation disclosed by Dreifarbenphotographie, as well as the various discussions on color vision and the functioning of sight traversing the natural sciences (including anthropology) during the early 20th century, in order to posit a hitherto unexamined visual and epistemic break with the perspectiveless vision proper to German anthropology's visualization technologies of the previous century.

This project is part of the Research and Fellowship Program 4A Laboratory: Art Histories, Archaeologies, Anthropologies, Aesthetics, a cooperation between the Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz and the Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz.


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