Woodbury & Page

Gusti Jelantik, the Vice Regent of Buleleng, Bali, with his daughter and servants, 1865, Albumen print.



Beyond Pictorialism 

Photography in Modern Indonesia


Yudhi Soerjoatmodjo


Concrete-and-glass shopping plazas will soon fill a wide empty space north of Jakarta, in a decaying area known as the Senen Triangle that is the link to Indonesia's photographic past.

Few remember the rows of studios that were there thirty years ago, with their tiny windows looking out into the busy Chinatown. this is where the tukang potretused to live and work. They never called themselves photographers, however; they were simply tukang, pictorialists. People visited these studios for a touch of Hollywood glamour, or to recreate the image of respectability of the pre-independence Dutch Indies residents. The tukang potret knewthat it was not truth that their patrons wanted from their magical camera boxes, but a bit of fantasy and reassurance.

Despite the fact that these shops have now been torn down and that many view cameras were sold to pay for funeral costs, a discussion on the role of photography in Indonesia's modern culture would not be comprehensive without examining the tukang potret. The perspectives and attitudes of these pictorialists were derived from the earliest practices of photography in the nineteenth-century colonial Dutch Indies. In 1844, five years after Louis Jacques Mande Daguerre's invention of the process, a European by the name of Adolf Schaefer brought the silver-plate view camera to Batavia. In return for his safe passage, the Dutch government employed his expertise on the daguerreotype.

The Dutch saw it as a tool, and, accordingly, one of Schaefer's earliest commissions was to make a photographic inventory of the Hindu-Javanese sculptures in the collection of the Batavia Art and Science Society. Schaefer's plates conveyed the treasures more accurately than any artist's hand-sketch ever could.

The unique qualities of photography were put to good use during the restoration of Borobudur, in Central Java; and by the time it was completed in 1890, the project not only introduced photographers to a wider range of subject matter, but brought many tukang potret into the service of the colonial government. These photographers, with the exception of Kassian Cephas all European, were assigned to the task of documenting and mapping every inch of the Buddhist temple, which had been built circa 8 A.D. by the Syailendra king.

In the late 1800s, photographic illustrations began to replace drawings in books, newspapers and brochures in the Netherlands and throughout Europe. The colonial government used photography to display their rich possession to the people back home, and the images brought by the tukang potret from the Dutch Indies stirred people's imagination for that distant and exotic land. But their empire was more than just a collection of sculptures, temples and lush paddy fields. In 1890, the colonial policy of cultuurstelsel, the forced cultivation of cash crops, was over.

The socialists who soon ascended in the Dutch parliament offered an alternative with their more humane "ethical policy."
In the Dutch Indies, this change translated into a commitment to social welfare—proper education, health and housing—for the "suffering natives." Any form of exploitation—especially the power of the Indonesian Kings over their people—was felt to be sinful. Thereafter, the Law of Decentralization divided the already weakened Mataram Kingdom in Central Java into four rival courts. The other courts suffered as well. The bloody battle of Jagaraga, for example, brought the Balinese royal houses of Karangasem and Buleleng to their knees. Ironically, this was the height of the Dutch power in Indonesia.

One typical image produced around this period is a portrait of Gusti Ngurah Ketut Jelantik, King of Buleleng, accompanied by his young daughter and courtiers. It is clear in this picture that the king still claimed prestige and royalty. His status is confirmed not only in the beautifully woven golden songket and sculpted sacred keris he wore, but also in the way he rested his foot, with all appropriateness, on the leg of his guard.

Despite these trappings, the lens of an unknown Dutch tukangpotret captured despair in the surprised gaze of Gusti Jelantik. That pain, that look, was multiplied in the countless photographs produced by the tukangpotretofthe colonial service. In Sumatra, where war against the Dutch raged for decades, it took the form of the rotting human flesh of the Aceh warriors. The cameras there also focused on the weary kape, the Dutch special commando force that was composed of mercenaries and native soldiers, in their victory pose. It was a war destined never to end, and millions of Dutch riches and lives were wasted in the attempt to crush the sabil, the holy war.

Life was less hectic in Java, the seat of the colonial government in the 1880s. The lava-enriched soil, the polite smiles of the Javanese and the gamelan music drifting majestically from inside the royal courts of Yogyakarta and Solo created a pleasant atmosphere. Here, Kassian Cephas, a photographer of Javanese-Dutch descent, was commissioned to document life inside the walls of the keraton, the sultan's or king's palace. His camera recorded the court rituals and ceremonies of the Javanese nobilities. Other tukang potretfo followed Cephas' lead into the next decades; it had become the royal courts' turn to be subjected to the colonial inventory machine. Today, these photographs evoke powerful emotions, although for the non-Indonesian it may be easy to dismiss the historical facts and zoom in on the elements of artistic or cultural interest of these beautiful images. The truth is, the photographs documented the painful process of the emergence of modern Indonesia.

By the early twentieth century, it had become clear to the oppressed that there would be no ratu Adil, or Savior, to free the Indonesian people from colonial dominance. The sultans and princes had deserted their fate in return for some illusory titles from the colonial government in Batavia. Ironically, the implementation of the Dutch "ethical policy" encouraged the growth ofpriayi kecil, a new class of well-educated and well-bred Javanese who further displaced much of the prestige of the older keraton dignitaries. Whatever the nobles were able to preserve within their palace walls was overtaken by the new priorities and agendas of colonialism.

Signs of rapid change are clearly evident, for example, in the photographs of the Mangkoenogoro court, and the portrait of Prince Mangkoenogoro V with his escort of female court dancers that revealed the cloistered world of kings. With these pictures, what had been considered sacred intimacy became common gossip, not only among the Dutch residents in Batavia, but as far away as Europe. The camera, with its eye that dared to stare back at these demigods, broke down the wall that for thousands of years had protected the nobility's mortal soul from the gaze of the ordinary man. The push for modernization did, however, arise from these conflicts and tensions. One of the founding fathers of Budi Utomo, the first Javanese intellectual movement, was Mangkoenogoro VII.

The French critic Alain Bergala has said that photography is condemned to miss as much of reality as it captures. It is easy, for example, to be seduced by the apparent mysticism and elegance of the royal courts of Java and Bali, but much more difficult to perceive, and admit, the shock of change not only in the sentimental portrait of the young princess of the keraton of Yogyak, but also in Gusti Jelantik's anger. These articulate and often sensitive images from the past do not constitute an insult to Indonesia's history.

The Indonesian princes and princesses simply miscalculated their longing for lost power, and the cameras were there to record it. Unfortunately, the royalty also failed to perceive in their own proud portraits the sweeping implications of change.
Currently, the failure in Indonesia to understand the power of images has prevented photography from developing into a living language there. Indonesians are certainly visual people, as can be witnessed from the vast array of paintings, sculptures and carvings they created. However, every art reflects the underlying situation or thought of its period. The Dutch used their photographers' artistry to take inventory of their possessions in the Dutch Indies, and their emphasis was on the exotic and the majestic.

How significant is photography to modern Indonesia? After Indonesia's independence, and with the passing of old values, confusion set in. As some Indonesians tried to redefine themselves, others found solace in nostalgia. Thus, while some tukang potret entered the struggle for the "next revolution" by joining the burgeoning press, others peddled dreams.

Unfortunately, the Indonesia of the fifties and sixties was more concerned with slogans than with substance. The tukang potretwho were fluent in the language of photog­raphy ignored message in favor of pictorialism and commercial acceptance.
Modern Indonesian photography seems to prefer the grand gesture, a case in point being the publication in recent years of a number of coffee table picture books on Indonesia. Millions of dollars have been spent by people who, by putting Indonesia on the world map, have cashed in on the West's surging interest in exotic lands.

During the past five years, countless troops of the world's "greatest" photographers have been commanded to fly over mountains or scuba dive the deepest water of the archipelago in search of mystical, mythical Indonesia. The results have been a pictorialism catering to tourists' fantasies that are not all that far from the imagery offered by the tukang potret in Jakarta's old Senen Triangle.

Photography exhibitions, exclusive of the occasional shows organized by international bodies and cultural centers, are virtually non-existent, even in Indonesia's capital city. Magazines often hold "instant" photographic competitions with cars, houses and girls as models, yet hardly any media have opened their pages to indepth photographic essays on issues such as the deforestation of Indonesia's tropical jungle or the growing problems of street urchins in the big cities.

As is clear in this book, there has been a tradition of concerned documentation in Indonesia; a commitment toward life and humanity that is clearly shown in the images of Walter Spies and Henri Carrier-Bresson, for example. Nevertheless, modern Indonesian cameramen have failed to grasp that quality as their own traditions have developed. By failing to move beyond formal documentary and pictorialism, photography is thus sadly left to play an insignificant role in Indonesia's cultural and historical present.

By focusing only on exotic images of exotic people and landscapes, modern Indonesian photography continues to be influenced by money and fashion. Furthermore, without liberating themselves from colonialism's projected image, Indonesians cannot discover their true nature. Dreams have turned to yellow dust in the images produced by the tukangpotret, while millennia of empires are remembered only in beautiful and formal pictures.



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