Born in 1922 in Rochester, New York, Edmund Snow Carpenter (nicknamed “Ted”) was a renowned visual anthropologist known for his work with indigenous peoples of the Canadian Arctic, Papua New Guinea, and as a pioneer in the development of media theory. He was also a filmmaker and collector of Paleo-Eskimo art, and conducted archaeological fieldwork in Siberia.
After serving in the US Marines during the Second World War, he taught anthropology at the University of Toronto and at the same time worked as a radio programmer at the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation).
In the 1950s, Carpenter began his fieldwork with the Avilik (Nunavut Inuit), particularly during the great winter famine of 1951-52. When public television began broadcasting in Canada with the launch of CBC-TV in 1950, Carpenter produced a series of programs. His comings and goings between the Toronto recording studios and the Arctic camps sparked his interest in the ideas being developed by Harold Innis and Marshall McLuhan, and he joined forces with McLuhan to develop theories on the role of modern media in the process of cultural change. In 1953 they received a grant from the Ford foundation for an interdisciplinary media research project, which provided funding for their Seminar on Culture and Communication (1953-59) and the publication of the seminal Explorations journals.
In 1957 Carpenter was appointed chair in an interdisciplinary and experimental program entitled “Anthropology and Art” at California State University-Northridge, where he endeavored to combine anthropology and film. This fruitful comparative approach bringing together the four traditional fields of anthropology gave rise to a number of films. In 1967, however, as visual anthropology gained a significant institutional foothold, the program was closed.
It was during this period that he worked with McLuhan on his book Understanding Media (1964). The two men worked together again in 1967, when they shared the Schweitzer chair at Fordham University. Carpenter subsequently held the Carnegie Chair in anthropology at the University of California-Santa Cruz (1968-9), and then oversaw research at the University of Papua New Guinea, where the Australian government asked him to study the effects of electronic media on tribal people.
From 1973 to 1981 he worked at the Museum of Ethnology, Basel, where he edited art historian Carl Schuster’s research and published the twelve-volume Social Symbolism in Ancient and Tribal Art (1986-88). As Emeritus Professor, Carpenter has taught at several universities, including Adelphi University, Harvard (Center for Visual Anthropology), New School University and New York University.
In addition to his anthropological work and writing, especially throughout the 1970s, 80s and 90s, Carpenter and his wife Adelaide de Menil began to steadily assemble a world-class art collection, largely focused on the ancient walrus ivory carvings from the Paleo-Eskimo cultures of the Old Bering Sea. His keen visual sensibilities and sensitivity to the art made by non-western cultures allowed for a unique study collection to grow, eventually establishing the largest private collection of Paleo-Eskimo art in the United States, now housed at the Menil Collection, Houston.
Carpenter’s collecting and writings about art and visual culture also extended his activities into curating exhibitions. In 1999, Carpenter developed and curated the memorable exhibition Witnesses to a Surrealist Vision, incorporated into the Menil Collection’s galleries of Surrealist art. He was also responsible for the landmark survey of ancient arctic art, Upside Down, installed at the Musée du Quai Branly in 2008, and reconstructed at the Menil Collection in 2011.
Carpenter also continued researching Arctic archeology in Siberia as a participant in a collaborative project initiated in the 1990s between Russian scientists from the Institute for the History of Material Culture and archeologists from the Smithsonian Institution. This fieldwork was executed on Zhokhov Island, a far north Mesolithic site in the Russian Arctic, dated 6000 B.C.E. and situated 76 degrees North Latitude; and at Yana RHS, the earliest site to trace Paleolithic human activity in the Arctic, dated 25,000 B.C.E. and situated 71 degrees North Latitude. Carpenter and de Menil continued traveling to Siberia each year to actively participate in the fieldwork there up until 2004.
Edmund S. Carpenter passed away in 2011 at his home in Long Island, at the age of 86.
Photo by Adelaide de Menil, circa 1992, East Hampton, NY.