Photojournalism is supposed to document history as it unfolds, but what happens when artists retroactively apply this genre to a time before photography existed? And in re-staging the past, how can artists attest to the veracity of their work as an addendum to the dominant narratives of a history so often written by the victors?
Tomas van Houtryve is one such artist attempting to reconstitute our idea of the American West. His new series of conceptual photographs, called Lines and Lineage (2017), aims to restore public memory of the Southwest region of the United States when Mexico ruled territories from California to Texas before the outbreak of the Mexican-American War, which lasted from 1846 to 1848. For the past year, Van Houtryve has connected with people whose families lived within the original boundary line between the two countries that existed before the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo shifted it about 700 miles south to the Rio Grande.
Originally the home of Indigenous peoples, land lost in the Mexican Cession quickly became part of a vicious prelude to the American Civil War that questioned the values of American ethics on war and slavery posed by prominent historical figures like Abraham Lincoln and Henry David Thoreau, who penned his groundbreaking essay called “Civil Disobedience” in response to the Mexican-American War, which he believed was an unjust war aiming to expand slave territory.
On the other hand, the territory was also witness to 27 years of remarkable social progress in Mexico. The era saw slavery abolished nearly 40 years before the United States; male suffrage granted regardless of ethnicity; and the secularization of the Mexican state through the disestablishment of Catholic missions in California.
In an email correspondence with Hyperallergic, Van Houtryve said that Lines and Lineage questions if America’s perception of Mexican heritage would be more accurate if it had been photographically documented as well as later periods.
Van Houtryve’s series is something of a correction to US history textbooks, which fail to highlight the history above; instead, they often encapsulate this complicated period of land switching hands through the ideologies of manifest destiny and western expansionism. Contributing to this historiographical problem was a complete lack of photography documenting the Mexico’s ownership of the Southwest. Unfortunately the daguerrotype photography that debuted in 1839 Paris never reached the territory in time. Compare that paucity of images with the great wealth of photos documenting the Gold Rush, pioneers, and cowboys of the American West from 1849 onwards.
“The work seeks to question some of the enduring myths that underpin American identity,” notes Van Houtryve. “How romanticized and inaccurate is the history we learned in school about where we live? Would a more complex and nuanced view of history resolve some of the current tensions in our society?”
Accordingly, Lines and Lineage attempts to right the historical record through a series of diptychs that juxtapose portraiture and landscape photography meant to tie person with place. Photographing the descendants of families who lives on the once-Mexican territory, Van Houtryve proves their existence within a dominant narrative that often ignores them. Using traditional nineteenth century photographic techniques, like wet plate glass negatives, the artist taps into the aesthetic of the 1800s. These subjects appear in a various states of dress: some wear contemporary clothing, some wear Indigenous accessories, and others wear cowboy hats. The variety on display matches the variety of landscapes within the series, which expose the sheer scope of the United States’ acquisition from the Arkansas River to the Pacific Ocean, from the Bonneville Salt Flats to Medicine Bow Peak.
Van Houtryve says that his goal is to force more viewers to question what might be missing from their own understandings of the past. There is not an urge, necessarily, to re-create the past, but to render a clearer vision of what has been forgotten.
“Lines and Lineage” is currently on view through September 23 in the exhibition Focal Points at Photoville 2018 (Brooklyn Bridge Plaza, DUMBO, Brooklyn). The exhibition was curated by Sam Barzilay and Jenny Jacklin Stratton.