RE-IMAG(IN)ING HISTORY: PHOTOGRAPHY AND THE SUGAR INDUSTRY IN COLONIAL JAVA

PhD defended at: 

University of St. Andrews, Scotland

Author: 

Alexander Supartono

Defended: 

2015

This thesis seeks to examine the ways that the success of the Dutch Empire at the turn of the twentieth century was represented and celebrated in the photographic albums of Dutch sugar industrialists in Java. It aims to show how the photographic practices that developed in the colony in parallel with its industrialisation informed the ways that the colony was imagined in the metropolis and the colony. Whether social portraiture, topographic studies or depictions of industrial machinery and infrastructure, the photographs of the sugar industry were part and parcel of a topical vernacular tradition that generated distinct visual themes in the development of popular photographic genres, and which reflected the cultural hybridity and social stratification of the local sugar world.

This analysis is pursued through close reading of the photographic albums of the Pietermaat-Soesman family from the Kalibagor sugar factory in Java. These albums exemplify how the family albums of sugar industrialists retained the familiarity and cult value of the family album whilst illustrating the values and attitudes of the colonial industry and society. What is more, the Pietermaat-Soesman albums underline the significance of the albums’ materiality; their story is not only one of images, but also a story of objects. I specifically pay attention to the role of photographers and commercial photo studios in the formulation of the pictorial commonplace of the sugar industry. It is the collaboration between sugar industrialists and colony-based photographers that reveals the social necessity, ideological constraints, pictorial conventions and cultural idioms of colonial industry and society in the Dutch East Indies.

Largely understudied in both the Dutch and Indonesian histories of photography, this material, I argue, may problematise the ideological premises of ‘colonial’ photography.

ICAS is an initiative of the
International Insitute for Asian Studies