With the threats of sea water warming and ocean acidification, coral reefs have become both a fire alarm and a barometer for the dangers of human induced climate change. We now face the possibility of a world without coral. In this cogent and timely work, Ann Elias
interrogates how we came to know coral reefs in the way we do and the complicity of this knowing with the forms of modernity that now threaten to destroy them. Coral Empire: Underwater Oceans, Colonial Tropics, Visual Modernity
(Duke UP, 2019) traces the work and lives of two iconic coral photographers of the interwar period – Frank Hurley and J.E. Williamson – who introduced Western audiences to (respectively) the Great Barrier Reef off Australia and the reefs off the Bahamas. Both self-fashioned men of science and entertainers with an eye for spectacle, Hurley and Williamson not only brought the “flowers of the sea” into consumer life, but also tethered them to the tropical exoticism that underpinned colonialism, racism, and the domination of nature. For audiences in Australia, Europe, and the US, their photographs primed postwar consumption of tropical nature through tourism and entertainment. By unweaving how these images were produced, Elias illustrates that how we know the sea is deeply entwined with the values, ethics, and logics of human politics.
Ann Elias is Associate Professor of the History and Theory of Contemporary Global Art at the University of Sydney.
Lance C. Thurner teaches history at Rutgers Newark. His research and writing address the production of knowledge, political subjectivities, and racial and national identities in eighteenth and nineteenth-century Mexico. He is broadly interested in the methods and politics of applying a global perspective to the history of science and medicine and the role of the humanities in the age of the Anthropocene. More at http://empiresprogeny.org.