Photography in Latin America
Maria Eugenia Haya (Marucha)
For a Latin American, the perception of his own image and reality through photography can only be a passionate observation. For plunder and suffering has formed the very substance of that image, forged out of extreme social contrasts and violent rebellion. Much in the confused life of Latin America has been bound up in that image, and our anger surfaces when we find, hidden in the beginnings of photography and buried by time, that all our glory has been spirited away.
Was photography born in Latin America? The Brazilian researcher Boris Kosloff demonstrated in 1976 that it was—as did Thomas Wedgewood, Niepce, Daguerre, Talbot and others in Europe. In Brazil, at the Villa Paulista de Campiñas, Hercules Florence improvised a laboratory between the bindweed and jicarasa, where by alchemy and witchcraft, Florence discovered through the processes of extraction and retention of the image the formula for light. Since the year 1833 (according to Boris Kossoy), Florence had been photographing with a camera oscura, using glass negatives and sensitized paper.
Florence published his discovery in the magazine El Fénix on October 26, 1839, when the daguerrotype had yet to appear in Brazil. But it was not until 1900 that the Revista del Museo Paulista published documents in Florence’s family’s possession, that proved his invention. Volume VII of the Encyclopedia International, published in 1920, printed the following citation under the title “Florence, Hercules,”: “Credited with the discovery of polygraphy and photography (1832) in the works of Niepce, Daguerre, Talbot and Pitevin, of 1833, 1834 and 1850 ____”
Kossoy continued to investigate Florence’s contribution to photography, verifying his findings scientifically at the highest level, and checking Florence’s sensitization processes with Professor Thomas T. Hill of the Rochester Institute of Technology. He also carbon-tested fourteen of the Florence originals, to corroborate the following:
1) The attribution to Florence of the origins of the photographic processes of sensitizing and fixing, consisting of chemical preparations for contact printing with solar light utilizing urine as a fixing agent (with very satisfactory results); 2) The first recorded use, by Florence, of the word “photography.”
These facts, along with the use of the glass negative, were important in light of Florence’s isolation in the interior of San Pablo and his distance from the European scientific and cultural milieux.
Research in hand, Boris Kossoy announced that photography was born in Brazil, and that this had been purposefully silenced for a century and a half. Even today, in spite of decisive proof, French experts do not accept the existence of Florence’s isolated genius. More than once, the scandal of the irreverent image of the man from Brazil urinating on the sacrosanct plates has silenced them.
The Introduction of the Daguerrotype in Latin America The daguerrotype, as it was baptized in Europe, was the result of a photographic process commercialized over the world, and appeared in Latin America fairly early. We know some of its probable dates of entry: in 1840 to Mexico, Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, and Cuba; in 1842 to Peru and Colombia. By comparison, the first photo studios opened in New York in 1840, in London and Paris in 1841, and one year later in Berlin.
From its inception, “the photographic adventure,” as the invention of Keith McElroy was called, sent daguerrotypists from France, England and the United States to our continent. With rare exceptions, they never established themselves long in the same country. One can trace the names of these early daguerrotypists in different countries through the years: Halsey in Cuba and Mexico, along with Hoit, Doistua, Custin and Vállete; and in Brazil and Uruguay, the same Abade Louis Compte. The Loomis brothers both worked in Cuba and Venezuela, and Hungarian Pal Rosti followed Humboldt’s itinerary during the years 1857 and 1858 across Mexico, Cuba and Venezuela.
Recent information on the daguerrotype and other processes in these early years show their development was similar to the European and North American. Photography in Latin America had many uses since its birth. Employed by naturalists and scientists, it became an aid in drawing and engraving, with miniaturists even painting on photographic plates to give a more lifelike character to their images. But the first daguerrotypists concentrated mainly on the portrait, which at the time was marked by symmetric and formal composition recalling neoclassic painting. The portraitists installed their galleries, according to their preference, in hotels, on roofs, and in storefronts. Infrequently, they hired some “native” assistant, and when they did, these people had to learn the business “by sight.”
The First Images of War It appears certain that the first images of war were captured by Roger Fenton in 1845. Fenton was paid to photograph the war in the Crimea, but was asked to make images that would not alarm the city people who followed the events from their parlors, and much less the families of the men fighting at the front. The subject matter of this photography aired in such amiable terms that it must have given the impression of a boy scout excursion rather than a war.( It is curious how early the problem of the interested manipulation of the photographic image presents itself.)
The holiday character of Fenton’s photographs led European and American researchers to affirm—and they established this for the world—that the first photographic images demonstrating the true horror of war are those taken by Matthew Brady and his colleagues during the war of secession in the United States (1861-65). Nevertheless, we can corroborate that the first images charged with the drama of war were taken by a photographer in Latin America during the bloody occupation of Mexican territory by North American troops in 1847, only two years after Fenton’s falsifying images, and fourteen years before Matthew Brady and his colleagues.
The Multiple Impression With the daguerrotype of the early years, and the diverse techniques that coexisted with it—ambrotypes, calotypes, talbotypes, ferrotypes, and galvanotypes— photographers struggled to perfect the definition of the image. They approximated this goal by using larger formats, which required more time and energy, and, of course, raised the cost.
So the method proposed by Desderi between 1852 and 1853, based on a smaller format, possible through the introduction of the glass negative crystal, the multiple impression and the use of albumen, produced a rapid echo in Latin America. The cheapened costs these changes initiated offered access to photography to a greater number of people from different social strata. To be photographed started to become something relatively inexpensive. And that, together with the rapid proliferation of photographic workers “born” in Latin America, led to the appearance of large and luxurious studios.
By the 1860’s, steady customers filled the securely established studio franchises (which nevertheless had to answer to foreign commercial firms). In addition, some sidewalk photographers created modest studios of their own. The proliferation of studios in the interiors of each country, with their simple homemade backdrops and decorative accessories, rudimentary, but at the same time authentic, favored an important change in the character of the photographic profession. It led to greater freedom, and in the calling cards from the 1860’s and 1870’s, not only the upper and middle classes of society are photographed, but also the poorest people: the indigenous tribes of different regions, the African slaves and the Chinese immigrants.
There is a Latin American iconography from those years that, in spite of having been made by foreigners—almost always Europeans that settled among us over a long period of time—still presents certain choices made by the photographer both in treatment and the interpretation of his subject. This becomes obvious when we compare it with the stereoscopes and postcards for sale at the time, enterprises tied to the apprenticeships that began early in the 1860s, and which, through the modern machinery of the “companies” were sold to ourselves, by ourselves. Those stereoscope and postcard images represent the earliest of many distorted interpretations on a large scale through which we suffered and were consumed. It is interesting to see how the image projected from the first “picturesque” albums like one from Brazil, which includes the famous “pintoresco de la Isla de Cuba,” engravings copied from daguerrotypes, and the ad by Underwood and Underwood with its exuberant landscapes, exotic decorations, bananas and coconut palms, with their “typical” characters, were set up as “stock shots” which already (and until very recently) were shamefully accepted as real. Given the companies’ production capabilities, the avalanche of these images became a kind of dark cloak over the genuine image we already were making of ourselves: an image that was totally legitimate, and recognizably different from the “other” vision in its seemingly plain workmanship, its gravity and absence of dramatic tone, in the freedom and simplicity of the subjects. It is visible in the photographs of Eugenio Courret and Maury in Peru; of Marc Ferrez, José Ferreira, Eugenio and Mauricio, Alberto Henschel in Brazil, Lessman and Próspero Rey in Venezuela; Benito Pannunzi in Argentina, Octaviano de la Mora in Mexico, Lara and Gómez, Julio Racine in Colombia, Spencer and José Maria Bravo in Chile, Mestre, Serrano, Maceo, Arias and Fernández in Cuba, and many others, who have since reinforced the connection between photographic vision and their own culture.
By the 1870s, Europe and North America already relied on numerous specialized journals and photographic societies that organized exhibitions, and on large companies which manufactured equipment, chemical products and photographic materials and handled reproductions of collectible photographs which brought massive sales.
All this information sooner or later arrived in Latin America during the time our modest photographic bulletins began to appear. Photography still had not appeared in the newspapers, but capitalist expansion, the constant development and simplification of the photographic process, the ease and growing cheapness of photographing, gave rise to photographers nourished by a steady stream of amateurs. Together, they created an image of the Latin landscape that was romantic, pictorial, and natural.
Toward the end of the century, a Cuban photographer, José Maria Mora, became one of three important figures in studio photography in New York. Mora worked with Napoleon Saroney, who became famous (among other reasons) because of Mora’s talent. Mora showed a special flair in preparing original and imaginative sets that combined painted backdrops with objects on different planes to create a feeling of depth and realism unusual for the time. After Mora opened his own studio, photographs of women seen through imaginary doors, windows, or ovals of flowers began to appear all over America, and Mora joined Saroney and William Kurtz in the triumvirate of fame of New York portraitists. Nevertheless, Mora is ignored in the history of photography.
Photography as Social Witness At the start of the 1880s Latin America began to break away from the European pictorial stereotypes which defined photography as “Art.” Themes which, under conservative academic scrutiny, were considered prosaic, took on new significance. For many, photography was too realistic: life was hard, and that was how Marc Ferrez recorded it in Brazil. Ferrez, who presaged the exceptional work of Lewis Hine, recounted the hard life of the miner, as well as the harsh working conditions on the coffee plantations and in the city.
Within photography classified as “social witness” are images that are irrefutable proofs of the atrocities of war, taken in Paraguay in 1866 by W. Bati, and those documenting (without any cosmetic editing) the death of President Moreno in Ecuador in 1875.
One of the most beautiful examples of Cuban photography, which we have baptized “country photography,” recalls the nomadic and provincial character of “mambisa” life between 1868 and 1895. In 1886, in the barrios andvillagesof Ecuador, both the strongest and earliest Cuban examples of “social criticism” can be found in the horrible images of the Weylerian Introduction of 1896.
A few years later, in Mexico, the most memorable photograph of a social turning point in Latin America was made : the Mexican revolution of 1910, recorded by the Casasola brothers. This monumental work, while an admirably descriptive document, is also an example of the heights poetic vision can reach. Intimate emotion is expressed alongside marvelous and epic action. In its description of the “passions and absurdities of Latin America,” it is, perhaps, the greatest poem ever made about the resistance of a village, and one of the high points of photography as a testimony and loving expression of personal values in Latin America.
The Vanguard The infinite number of avant-guard artistic movements and theories that have appeared since the end of World War I precipitated significant change in artistic criteria. Photography continued throughout, evolving, apart from more specific values, to become more “photographic,” while Latin Americans received all the artistic waves of “isms”: Cubism, Dadaism, Surrealism, Expressionism. Photography opened a new expressive arena to the more restless photographers, whose unusual paths innovated new formal and conceptual language, like Horacio Coppola in Argentina, who as a student of the German Bauhaus in 1928, was already doing photographic work of technical perfection in a definite surrealist orientation; Benedicto Duarte in Brazil, who produced elaborate mounted photos; or José Manuel Acosta in Havana, an important example of a avant-guard artist, revolutionary, and man of his time, who left behind a powerful body of work.
Critic Néstor García Candini notes the arrival of important photographers who came to live and work in Mexico in the 1920s, and the environment of interpretation that discussion of their work generated, as well as the link they established with muralists and artists in general, encouraging exploration of the specificity of photographic practice and its similarities and differences with the other arts. In this period the young Manuel Alvarez Bravo appeared, working first in Oaxaca, and later frequenting artistic circles, sharing long hours of discussion with Tina Modotti, whom he met in 1927. Don Manuel became the stanchion, the father, of modern Latin American photography, consolidating the medium’s independence by securing his own creative reputation. Alvarez Bravo developed a universal photography within traditional Latin American photography, and his name is practically the only one to transcend our frontiers.
It is interesting to note for the record that in Latin America at that time there were, besides our beloved Manuel, excellent photographers. Martin Chambi of Peru, for instance, documented everything that occurred around him from 1905 to 1958 with exceptional technical skill, suppleness, and humanity.When he died in 1973, he left a legacy of 18,000 negatives, perhaps the largest preserved body of photographic work produced by a Latin American. Similarly, Fernando Paillet of Argentina, besides being a photographer, led an active cultural life as a musician and actor, and created an exceptional study of his native Santa Fe. Colombia’s Jorge Obando and Cuba’s Joaquín Blez are possibly the finest portrait photographers of the continent. Blez’s magnificent studies of the Havana middle class between 1912 and 1960 have an exaggerated beauty, full of imagination and gusto. And there are others to add to this impressive list.
Press Photography Though by 1880 the printed photograph (half-tone) had appeared in the North American press, and, a few years later, photographic prints by different processes were already appearing in the Latin dailies, it was not until the beginning of the century that press photography became an area of specialization. The information agencies founded in the US and Europe provided the majority of the photographs we consumed in our magazines.
Many of our Latin American reporter photographers were
as qualified as the better North Americans and Europeans of the time. Nevertheless, they were not known outside their national boundaries. On the rare occasion when the international agencies used the services of a local photographer, they omitted his name; but these same agencies and publications gave very different treatment to North American/European photographers.
When the “Crash of ’29” plunged the North American economy, among others, into crisis, the U.S. government had the idea of cancelling the subsidy given to the country’s poor farmers, and the Farm Security Administration hired a group of important photographers to document the tragic consequences of that absurd law. As a result, the whole world knew the desperate plight of the North American farmers, and also came to know Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, and Ben Shahn, among other photographers.
In Latin America, where the situation became even more critical, where the monopoly of large ranches caused greater and greater unemployment and homelessness, where hunger was really hunger and the wave of agitation was repressed by the “Good Neighbor” with blood and fire, Latin American photojournalists documented everything. They took pictures of Sandino in Nicaragua, of the uprisings in El Salvador with their 10,000 dead, of the students and union workers murdered in Guatemala, of the fall of Machado in Cuba. Nevertheless, the rest of the world did not know at the time that those wonderful images were taken by (among others) Guillermo Castro, Edmundo Clavijo and Leo Matiz in Colombia, and Molina, Pegudo, Domenech and Lezcano in Cuba ... to mention only a few. Our images didn’t seem to interest the North Americans and Europeans. In place of these images, a “representative photo” was released that was adapted to the “refined” sensibility of the foreigner. Among the news photographs viewed as the major photojournalistic work from those years were those included in the book by John Färber entitled “The Cuban Revolution of 1933”; the author, one Sam Shulman, an International Photo photographer.
It hardly bears repeating that each North American penetration into Latin America was more brutal, controlling and determining every aspect of national life, and, as the power of the press expanded in the 40s and the 50s, the media were excellent allies. Petr Tausk, the eminent Czechoslovakian scholar, considers this era, when magazines like Modern Photography, Popular Photography, Camera and others multiplied and diversified, with increasing circulation, an important moment in the evolution of modern photography. It was the decade when The Museum of Modern Art in New York opened its doors to photography, when Steichen organized his “Family of Man,” and when more and more monographs of the great masters began to appear.
Of course, all these changes and developments involved only North American and European photography. We participated as spectators, dazzled by so much progress. One can’t ignore the participatory role of the media, including visual magazines such as Life, Look and others. As part of the Cold War strategy of the United States to counter the growing prestige of the socialist movement after World War II, the media responded to the superpower objective.
The image of Latin America, then, was systematically sweetened and elaborated by foreign photographers, some of whom came to be famous as experts on the problems of Latin America. If a connection between the United States and some Latin American country was desirable, Life would publish elegant pictures of Mondrian composition, beautifying, for example, the petroleum fields of Venezuela. If the big tourism corporations needed to promote Latin America, we would appear resplendent in color, gold and feathers (and just this one time, the Andes would be more beautiful and majestic than the Colorado Canyon). When our indignation reached the point where we kicked the car of the visiting North American vice president, we were portrayed as savage neighbors with whom “geographic bad luck” forced coexistence.
Within this manipulated panorama the true image of Latin America didn’t fit. Our neighbors to the North were interested neither in the authenticity of our own features, nor in the value of images made from inside our culture. They preferred to avoid the critical vision of photographers like Nacho López in Mexico, and José Tabio in Cuba.
In this context of coercive interpretation, and lack of respect, at least two exceptional moments allowed us to determine our image. In 1957, a picture was circulated all over America which contradicted the Batistan rumor of the death of Fidel Castro. In the picture, taken by René Rodriquez, a fighter of the rebel army, Fidel appeared holding the territory of the Sierra Maestra. Later, in 1959, the magazine O’ Cruzeiro published the amazing photo taken by Hernando López, a Cuban photographer, of the assault of the city of Fomento by the legendary Che Guevara. López, an intrepid character straight from a Hemingway novel, flaunted strict police surveillance to develop the precious rolls of film secretly in the little lab of Aladino Sánchez.
After the period of the fighting in the Sierra, cutting a wide swath during the era of revolutionary triumph in 1959, an avalanche of photographers from AP, UPI, and Magnum descended upon Cuba. Those times were a priceless fountain of raw material for the manufacture of news. And it was the photos of Bob Taber, Andrew St. George, Lee Lockwood, Marc Riboud, and Cartier-Bresson himself that illustrated every article on Cuba published in the outside world, in spite of the fact that the most moving documents of all, with the simplicity and poetry of our early rustic photographs, were taken by the rebel soldiers who fought in the mountains. All this explains, in part, the silence of our photographers, and the absence in our photography of a Latin American iconographie system. Under these conditions, “made in the USA,” the development of the Latin American media and diffusion of photography just collapsed, to use an expression by Lezama, “like a circus tent.”
In 1976 the Consejo Mexicano de Fotografía was created, an institution which has played a most important role in the organization, validization and development of Latin American photography. This association, founded by photographers and critics, convoked the First and Second Colloquia of Latin American photography on a basis that was truly explosive: expounding nothing less than the recovery of our image under the vindication of our own values, and the affirmation of a multinational identity in Latin America. In other words, it began to put into practice what had been for photographers just a theory of cultural decolonization.
Since the First Colloquium, Latin American photography has proved its existence and above all, its urgency. From that moment the so-called “centers of power” in photography have had to live with a phenomenon that can be considered parallel. But our efforts cannot be weighed on esthetic grounds and much less under ethnic criteria. With a strong sense of unity between us, Latin American photographers have evolved as a solid front. And so, over these years, we have won back, little by little, recognition and prestige.
Time-Life devoted ten pages to our Latin American exhibition in its yearbook, and recognizing it as something unusual, Venice 79 also welcomed the Latin American show, programming a symposium with the show. The Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, the Museo Español de Arte Contemporáneo de Madrid, the Kunsthaus in Switzerland, the Arles Festival in France, and many more welcomed the Latin America photographic phenomenon. Also significant in the development of Latin American photography were the efforts of the Casa de la Cultura of Ecuador, an institution that recently celebrated their first conference on Ecuadoran photography, and the Casa de las Americas of Cuba, whose prize in Latin American photography garnered considerable prestige. The Minister of Culture of Cuba first established an award for Cuban photography, then included it in the Bienal of Ffavana, one of the most important events in the plastic arts of the so-called third world. The Ateneo of Caracas, Venezuela, the Casa de la Cultura of Sáo Paulo, Brazil, El Archivo de la Imagen y el Sonido, Brazil have joined other institutions in Colombia, Panama, Nicaragua in establishing a strong Latin presence in photography.
If Latin American has developed a sensibility and character rich in hue, it is most of all because it is a photography connected with a world and its people, and because it represents its soul.
(Translated by Jeanine El Gazi, Romanie Rout and Eniac Martinez; edited from a presentation given at the Third Latin American Photography Colloquium in Havana, Cuba in 1984).