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Documenting Empire: Frank L. Crone's Photographs of Colonial Philippines

As industrialization continued to spread its smoky haze all over the West and beyond by the turn of the twentieth century, the visual language of imperialism emerged in new forms.  Imperialist powers displayed their colonies as spectacle in the form of photography, film, and international exhibitions in order to build, justify, and sustain their narratives of colonial rule.  In the case of the United States—an emerging imperialist power at the end of the nineteenth century—some of the first films about its first colony, the Philippines, were studio-produced war scenes of American soldiers fighting against and successfully subduing unruly colonial subjects during the Philippine-American war.  Sometimes films displayed real footage, such as the "technologically backward" navy of General Emilio Aguinaldo, the leader of the Filipino revolutionary forces (first against Spain, then against the United States).  Another form of spectacle, the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, Missouri, went so far as to put on the first human exhibits, featuring Filipinos.  Alleged to be representative of the various regions of the Philippines, Filipinos hailing from all over the Islands were shipped to Missouri (many dying on the way) to be observed by curious Americans and attendees from all over the world.  Such displays intended to demonstrate how effective Americans were in “civilizing” the Filipinos, while at the same time insisting that the Filipinos were still “backward” enough such that they must remain under the tutelage of the American colonial regime.  Photographs were an amalgam of the fair and films' modes of representation.  Like the fair, photographs were considered to be "authentic" representations; like film, they had the ability to be easily commodified and consumed by the vast majority of the American public that needed to be acquainted with the new colony in the far-away, "exotic" Pacific.

This exhibit focuses on a collection of photographs kept by Hoosier Frank L. Crone, the American Director of Education in the Philippines from August 1913 to June 1916.  About a decade into American colonial rule in the Philippines, the colonizers sought to display the "progress" of the Filipino thanks to the availability American public education.  Crone's photographs demonstrate the contradictory messages of the new American imperialism based on President William McKinley's plans for "benevolent assimilation" in the new colony.  Because photographs are often subject to "free-floating contemplation," in the words of Walter Benjamin, and because of their accessibility, they became useful (and frequently used) weapons in crafting imperialist narratives.  In the case of Crone's photographs, they circulated in magazines and academic publications as well as among the political elite, effectively spreading the crafted imperialist visual displays of Filipino "progress" under American rule.  The exhibit examines the complexities in unpacking such narratives in Crone's photographs, as well as photography's effectiveness in displaying the cultural transformation the American colonizers considered to be the centerpiece of their imperialist project.

All photographs are part of the Crone Manuscripts held by the Lilly Library, Indiana University, Bloomington.


Curated by Bernadette Patino. Photographs by Zach Downey.