Ellen Nielsdatter Bonaparte, Prince Roland Napoleon  (French, 1858-1924)

A relation of the French Emperor Napoleon, Prince Roland Bonaparte (1858-1924) took a nineteenth-century gentleman’s interest in the sciences and in particular, during the earlier part of his life, in the study of anthropology. Like others of the period, he looked on photography as a scientific tool for preserving data from his expeditions, and used it to document the Amerindians, Surinames, Hottentots and other unusual peoples brought to European exhibitions.

In 1884 Bonaparte made an ethnographic expedition to Lapland, an arctic region in northern Europe, with the aim of documenting the racial characteristics of the area’s inhabitants, whose origins were a puzzle to anthropology. Photographs were taken of the inhabitants, each captured in paired frontal/side views similar to police mug shots. A stick with numbered card identifying the sitter is visible in each image. The negatives were used to produce a portfolio of collotype plates published in France ca. 1886.

Bonaparte’s work is grounded in the anthropology of his time, which focussed on the documentation of physical characteristics, and in particular on shape and dimensions of the skull as a means of establishing relations between the human races. This tack had been given to European anthropology by its pioneers earlier in the century, notably Paul Broca, whose thinking was informed by the discovery of the first fragments of early man and whose standard field guide for anthropologists involved a complex series of physical measurements. The hard scientific results of Bonaparte’s expedition were thus conclusions of the sort that Laplanders were "brachycephalic," had little facial hair, and possessed a "mean nasal index of 74.59 for the men, 73.64 for the women" (Escard 1886, xiii). This attitude is clear in Bonaparte’s images, yet paradoxically the sitters role as human specimens, accentuated further by the numbered cards held next to each on a short stick, allows them a status and often a dignity which would be lacking in more commonplace photography.


Ghost in the Shell: Photography and the Human Soul 1850-2000 by R. Sobieszek.