Viewpoints, an exhibition at the New York Public Library on photography in Latin America, begins with an enigmatic set of four sepia cartes de visite from 1863, all depicting women. The women on top appear enveloped in black fabric; they are tapadas limeñas, or “the covered women from Lima.” They wear the traditional manto y saya (a petticoat and veil), which gave women an inordinate amount of freedom in pre-Republican Peru as it allowed near-anonymous movement through public space. The women in the bottom row visibly enjoyed none of those benefits, and were photographed instead with a breast exposed. One woman shown in the top left looks at the camera with particular self-assurance: with one arm tucked under her right breast while her right hand holds close the ends of her manto, she obscures her face and creates an opening for her right eye. Her coquettish posture is disarming; protected by her shawl, she meets the viewer on equal terms. In highlighting a centuries-old Peruvian custom believed to have derived from Moorish influence in Spain centuries earlier, these somewhat mysterious cartes de visite illustrate one among many instances of complex colonial and cross-cultural exchange in the exhibition.
Displayed in the Rayner Special Collections Wing on the third floor of the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, Viewpoints features photographs made in Latin America by local photographers as well as foreigners, each group assigned one side of the hallways, creating a spatial dialogue between the two. The 104 photographs, made between 1860 and today, represent work made in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Guatemala, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, and constitute the first exhibition at the NYPL devoted solely to Latin America. This fact surprises given that the show appears to be a small selection from the NYPL’s extensive photography archive of Latin American photographs.
The prints demonstrate not only the breadth of the library’s photography collection in the Wallach Division of Arts, Prints, and Photographs, but also the expansive range of experiences and photographic styles that have been used to portray cities, people, and landscapes from Latin America beginning in the mid-19th century. Given their age, the photographs represent fascinating episodes in economic, political, and cultural history, from nation-building to scientific explorations, addressing the emergence of the photography-stimulated tourism industry in the 19th century as well as the shift to more modern and authorial approaches in the 20th and 21st centuries.
A number of the photographers in the show were inspired to travel to Latin America by the writings of John Lloyd Stephens, an American travel writer, according to the exhibition’s wall texts. As documented in their 1854 volume Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, Stephens and draughtsman Frederick Catherwood set out for Central America “with a view of the examination of the remains of ancient art said to exist in the dense forests of those tropical legions.” Frenchman Désiré Charnay was one of those under Stephens’s spell, and, funded by the French government, set out to explore the ruins of the Yucatán. His “Bas-relief Colossal à Palenque” (1862–63), a large, stunning albumen-silver print of a ruin fragment in the Yucatán, was surely difficult to produce with glass negatives at the time. It presents a modern-looking, close-cropped rendition of anthropomorphic shapes etched in stone. It’s uncanny to grasp that the print is over 150 years old, that the softness of the paper still conveys with such poignancy the hardness of the stone, that the photographer personally glimpsed this scene on the back of a heavy camera in the midst of the Mexican jungle.
However, Charnay’s work, like Stephens’s travels, is also part of a larger narrative less underscored in the exhibition of US and European scientific and anthropological expeditions in Latin America that began after most countries in the region obtained independence from Spain and Portugal in the 1810s and 1820s. As geography historian Felix Driver and Latin American visual-culture scholar Luciana Martins write in Tropical Visions in an Age of Empire (2005), the tropics have long been “the site of European fantasies of self-realization, projects of cultural imperialism, or the politics of human or environmental salvage,” an idea that is present throughout the show’s earlier works.
In the 19th century, Europeans and Americans also went to Latin America with the objective of resource extraction and domesticating the wilderness through large-scale infrastructure projects that demanded quixotic ambitions (perhaps nowhere better illustrated than in Werner Herzog’s epic film Fitzcarraldo). Dana B. Merrill’s photo album, pages of which are on display in Viewpoints, document the construction of the 230-mile Madeira–Mamoré railroad , led by a US company in the Brazilian Amazon. The pages include not only landscape views showing preparations for track-laying, but also documentation of beetles the size of a human hand, a monkey identified in the hand-written caption as “a native Brazilian,” and romantic, pictorial moonlit views of the Madeira river. A photograph by Henry DeWitt Moulton and Alexander Gardner of the so-called Great Heap of guano (seabird excrement) includes Chinese laborers dwarfed by the mound’s immensity. Guano was so sought-after as a fertilizer that Peru imported indentured Chinese laborers to mine it.
Local photographers (or foreigners who had settled permanently in Latin America) captured more daily-life scenes, such as Esteban Gonnet’s depictions of two men drinking mate on the side of road in the Argentine countryside in 1866, or the Cuban G. Blain’s geometrically pleasing images of tobacco leaves hung to dry, printed around 1900.
The 20th-century section includes Latin American photographers whose names are probably better known to visitors, such as Sebastião Salgado or Graciela Iturbide. Their images are not the photographers’ iconic works, but more unexpected examples, such as a quiet photograph of dirty, hardworking toes by Salgado, or a religious festival in Ecuador photographed by Iturbide. In this section, small photographs by the Peruvian Martín Chambi are particularly charming, especially a 1938 postcard of a Peruvian farmer with a llama. Surely a testament to fine conservation practices, a century hasn’t been able to erode the feeling of fluffiness of the llama’s pelt. Another image by Chambi, a 1935 group portrait of carnival-goers wrapped like ill-fitted mummies in strips of paper is both hilarious and, as the photograph hanging before viewers in 2017 attests, timeless.
It’s surprising to discover the whereabouts of some foreigner photographers, such as Walker Evans and his Havana photographs from 1933 and Margaret Bourke-White and her photographs from Rio de Janeiro from 1936. Particularly stunning is Bourke-White’s up-close portrait of a female coffee picker, a photograph confirming that the photographer’s dedication to representing female workers wasn’t bound by national boundaries or by the contours of a particular assignment (the photographs displayed here were made on assignment for Pan American Airways and the American Can Company’s Bureau of Home Economics). Ann Parker’s color and black-and-white photographs (1970s), made while traveling with a troupe of Guatemalan portrait photographers, display the hand-painted backdrops and the subjects’ bashfulness with touching sincerity. Douglas Sandhage’s large black-and-white Polaroid portraits dating to 1974 are fascinating for their backstory: Sandhage travelled to the Amazon and sold his instant portraits for 25 cents or traded the prints for food or boat rides.
The exhibition lacks in female voices. While this is perhaps a reflection of women’s limited involvement in 19th century expeditions — a thematic focus of the exhibition — female photographers’ active engagement in the 20th century is well known and recorded, and feels underrepresented. Perhaps more surprising is the exhibition’s focus on the countryside and folk customs rather than on urban, metropolitan representations. This is in contrast to recent survey shows that consciously foregrounded the street life of Latin American metropolis and more contemporary work, such as the International Center for Photography’sUrbes Mutantes: Latin American Photography 1944–2013 or the Fondation Cartier’s América Latina 1960–2013. Instead, Viewpoints strikes a dialogue between the empathic portraits made by foreigners and the more mysterious, intimate representations made by locals, a focus that serves as the exhibition’s cornerstone and is one of its greatest assets, as it plays on the strengths of a historical collection.
Viewpoints: Latin America in Photographs continues at the New York Public Library (Stephen A. Schwarzman Building, 476 Fifth Avenue, Midtown West, Manhattan) through June 28.