Coral Empire

Underwater Oceans, Colonial Tropics, Visual Modernity

Book Pages: 296 Illustrations: 16 page color insert Published: May 2019

Author: Ann Elias

Art and Visual Culture > Photography, Cultural Studies > Ocean Studies, Postcolonial and Colonial Studies

From vividly colored underwater photographs of Australia's Great Barrier Reef to life-size dioramas re-creating coral reefs and the bounty of life they sustained, the work of early twentieth-century explorers and photographers fed the public's fascination with reefs. In the 1920s John Ernest Williamson in the Bahamas and Frank Hurley in Australia produced mass-circulated and often highly staged photographs and films that cast corals as industrious, colonizing creatures, and the undersea as a virgin, unexplored, and fantastical territory. In Coral Empire Ann Elias traces the visual and social history of Williamson and Hurley and how their modern media spectacles yoked the tropics and coral reefs to colonialism, racism, and the human domination of nature. Using the labor and knowledge of indigenous peoples while exoticizing and racializing them as inferior Others, Williamson and Hurley sustained colonial fantasies about people of color and the environment as endless resources to be plundered. As Elias demonstrates, their reckless treatment of the sea prefigured attitudes that caused the environmental crises that the oceans and reefs now face.


“Ann Elias's Coral Empire is as intoxicating as a plunge into a reef lagoon: a refreshingly original and compelling analysis of how the underwater coral realm has evolved from a planetary space of fathomless mysteries and alien terrors to become a complex technology-driven spectacle that feeds the rampant imaginations, pleasures, vices, and curiosities of modern humans.” — Iain McCalman, author of The Reef: A Passionate History: The Great Barrier Reef from Captain Cook to Climate Change

Coral Empires is a brilliantly researched, aesthetically nuanced study of early photographic and film imagery representing coral reefs, one of the most gorgeous areas of the undersea, which is the least explored dimension of the blue humanities. Focusing on how coral came to be captured and exhibited in visual media of the twentieth century, and expanding to coral's transformed presence in museological displays, Ann Elias shows the power of imagery and exhibition to create our imagination and relation to the inaccessible undersea. In the process, Coral Empire tracks changing human interactions with the environment of the coral reef that became a tourist destination in the early twentieth century and that is at the forefront of exhibiting the devastating impact of climate change today.” — Margaret Cohen, author of The Novel and the Sea


Availability: In stock
Price: $26.95

Open Access

Fall 2019 Sale
Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

Ann Elias is Associate Professor of the History and Theory of Contemporary Global Art at the University of Sydney, author of Camouflage Australia: Art, Nature, Science, and War and Useless Beauty: Flowers and Australian Art, and coeditor of Camouflage Cultures: Beyond the Art of Disappearance.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction 1
Part I. The Coral Uncanny
1. Coral Empire  15
2. Mad Love  29
Part II. John Ernest Williamson and the Bahamas
3. Williamson and the Photosphere  49
4. The Field Museum—Williamson Undersea Expedition  68
5. Under the Sea  83
6. Williamson in Australia  97
Part III. Frank Hurley and the Great Barrier Reef
7. Hurley and the Floor of the Sea  117
8. Hurley and the Australian Museum Expedition  131
9. Pearls and Savages  147
10. Hurley and the Torres Strait Diver  165
Part IV. Hurley and Williamson
11. Explorers and Modern Media  185
12. Color and Tourism  199
Part V. The Great Acceleration
13. The Anthropocene  217
Conclusion  230
Notes  235
Bibliography  261
Index  277
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Paper ISBN: 978-1-4780-0382-3 / Cloth ISBN: 978-1-4780-0318-2
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