Carol Beckwith
& Angela Fisher,
Passages: Photographs in Africa
(Abrams, 2000)

Passages: Photographs in Africa is a large, glossy coffee-table sized trade paperback offering ample space on its capacious pages to display the magnificence and intricate details of the images caught by the cameras of Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher. This intrepid team of British anthropological photographers has traveled in Africa separately and together for more than 30 years. This book, the economical version of their monumental and expensive two-volume African Ceremonies, is a dazzling and affordable way to enjoy 89 pictures from that project and also serves as a catalogue for a 2000 exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York.

Passages is organized in sections devoted to specific purposes, in which pithy and succinct texts provide explanatory data. The introduction in the book provides an excellent background followed by segments devoted to: coming of age and initiations; courtship and marriage; bridal portraits; seasonal rites; beliefs and worship; royalty and power; and spirits and ancestors. The text written by the photographers explains what is happening in the pictures and does so in such a way that the love and respect that Beckwith and Fisher feel for their subjects is clear -- but it in no way interferes with communicating the information necessary to understand what the viewer sees. And what sights!

The distillation of three decades of research and travel, these photographs are dramatic, sometimes intimate, always gorgeously composed images of authentic African rituals that take place all over the entire continent. These remarkable pictures, so breathtakingly beautiful and fascinating, evoke a mixture of awe and sadness -- for the forces of global corporate homogenization means that many of these ceremonies which had never been recorded and many which will never be performed again, are herein preserved for posterity -- a poignant testimony to human cultural ingenuity and diversity which, once destroyed, can only be recalled in such invaluable records as embodied in this volume.

Passages should be seen and savored by as wide an audience as possible in order to increase appreciation for the splendid and multifarious manifestations of the human spirit indigenous to Africa and to fully understand what a special place this continent is -- a wholly different world from that of Europe, the United States or Asia yet sharing universal human needs and desires. To lose this specialness is tragedy -- to preserve it is a triumph! Beckwith and Fisher's work is nothing short of heroic -- to see it in Passages is a rite of passage to enlightenment about the glories of African cultures.

[ by Amy Harlib ]

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