September 2nd would have been the 89th birthday of Edmund Snow Carpenter, a groundbreaking visual anthropologist who died earlier this summer. Deeply interested in the effects of media on culture, Carpenter crossed disciplinary lines and collaborated with Marshall McLuhan to establish the University of Toronto as an important center of media studies, and he made innovative use of media tools in anthropological studies and ethnomusicology.
Carpenter began his academic career after serving in the Pacific during the second World War, finishing his PhD with a focus on prehistoric Native American sites in the American Northeast. After securing a position at the University of Toronto, Carpenter went on to study the relatively unexplored culture of the Inuit, and also created programs on tribal art and culture for Canadian radio and television. It was during his time in Toronto that he partnered with McLuhan, winning a Ford Foundation grant to study patterns of language in media, co-authoring a number of articles, and working on what became McLuhan’s Understanding Media.
Carpenter left Toronto for California, where he was appointed to found a program that joined anthropology and art at San Fernando Valley State College. During this time, Carpenter partnered with folklorist Bess Lomax Hawes to film traditional Gullah songs and dances. Later, he moved on to teach at the New School for Social Research, Adelphi College, and Harvard’s Center for Visual Anthropology. In his later years, Carpenter curated several shows of photographs and art from his years of studies.
Carpenter’s best-known book, “Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!” can be borrowed through iShare, as can the film of the same name made by John Bishop and Harald E. L. Prins from footage taken by Carpenter and his photographer and wife, Adelaide De Menil in Papua New Guinea and the Arctic.
Edmund Carpenter, Archeologist and Anthropologist, Dies at 88 by William Grimes, New York Times
Edmund Carpenter: Explorations in Media and Anthropology by Harald E. L. Prins and John Bishop, Visual Anthropology Review
Excerpts from the film “Oh, What a Blow That Phantom Gave Me!”
Upside Down: Arctic Realities press release
By Edmund Snow Carpenter
Upside Down: Arctic Realities
Explorations in Communication, an Anthology (with Marshall McLuhan)