Letter to Linda 3

(C) 2012 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

Hello and Happy Easter!

Isn’t it great that it’s spring in Michigan now, with daffodils and crocuses coming out and the snow melting away! Hope you’re enjoying it!

I think I wasn’t clear in a recent letter regarding the sale of some photos of mine. I did not “un-sell” them. I think he misrepresented himself and what he was looking for, and/or he believes all that weird publicity that photographic masterpieces lurk in every junk box. So let me explain what happened. Let’s call the guy “the mountain king,” which is a play on the name he used when he contacted me via e-mail after seeing some of my work on a sales website.

Colombia's national Cathedral in the rain ('93)

The Cathedral and the Sagrario Chapel overlooking the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, in April 1993.

When he called my house, I explained to him at least twice that my photography is contemporary–photos taken by me of buildings and places in Bogotá, which will be 474 years old in August 2012. He insisted that the images be printed in a darkroom on fiber-based (FB) paper, and I said I can do that, up to an 11″ x 14″ size. If he came over, he could look through the catalogue and some other prints I have and choose which ones he wanted printed up.

He arrived the following Saturday afternoon, went through the photos available and pretty much threw them physically in my face. After some hemming and hawing, he whined that he had expected me to have a box or two of “old photos, from the Sixties” that I “didn’t want anymore.” Otherwise, I was wasting his time.

I explained as politely as possible at least three times that what he was looking for was nearly impossible to find in Colombia, for many reasons. He insisted that these snapshots did indeed exist, and I agreed that they did, but were in private hands (they usually belong to the people who took them or who inherited them). Also, several cultural agencies have been campaigning very successfully to get people to bring their old family photos to places like the National Museum and the District Archives where they are scanned “while you wait” and returned to their owners. Related information is collected and stored on museum and archive computers. Otherwise, we’re talking about very large archives belonging to well-known photographers, also in private hands, who sell limited edition prints at very high prices. These prints are posthumous or at least contemporary, made from the original negative or an inter-negative. Those collections do what I do–preserve the negatives and make prints to sell, sometimes digitally after scanning a negative and sometimes in the darkroom.  No one is throwing away “unwanted” snapshots.

The “mountain king” got pissed off and stomped away.

I could not “Un-sell” him my photos. He was looking for something that, in Colombia, virtually does not exist, and here’s why.

Photography is first of all a product of the urban environment. The very first photos are of cities. France and the rest of Europe had very old and well-populated cities before photography arrived, but the rise of the educated middle class with access to money and education and some leisure time also created the demand for photography. People wanted “the Kodak moment” before Kodak even came into existence in 1889. I’ll give you an example:

My great-grandparents, R. E. Olds and Metta Ursula Woodward, got married on June 5, 1889. They had their photograph taken and printed on visiting cards and announcements which were mailed to family and friends who did not live in Lansing, Michigan. R. E. was born in Geneva, Ohio, and his wife in Pinckney, Michigan, but both had gone to school and lived in towns. They read the Bible and the local newspapers and books. My great-grandfather was not only an inventor but was tremendously interested in whatever was going on in the world. When his parents celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in 1899, they too posed for the camera. And when R.E. and Metta celebrated their 50th, in June 1939, the party at their daughter’s house was photographed by R. E., his daughter Gladys, at least one professional photographer, plus someone from the Lansing State Journal and maybe even from The Detroit Free Press, as well as a film crew. R. E. understood photography as a wonderful scientific invention as well as a mechanism for preserving memories AND!–to be totally honest here–a fabulous new medium with which to promote and sell first the Oldsmobile and second, the REO. When his parents celebrated their 50th anniversary, Olds Motor Works was then 2 years old and producing the Curved Dash Oldsmobile, using photography as a modern sales tool. By 1939, Oldsmobile was part of General Motors and R.E. had founded another car company, REO Motor Car Company, which made cars and trucks and used photography as a contemporary sales tool.

And all this took place in a short span of time. What helped the auto industry was the fact that so many Americans lived in towns and cities, were connected by a rail system, a mail system, eventually a phone system and a road system, and had access to education, jobs and housing, which also gave them access to money. Women also went to school, in part because they were required to attend but also because a woman without even a basic education would have less chance to defend herself. My great-grandmother was an orphan raised by two maiden aunts, but she was given an education (even in Pinckney) so that she could work until or unless she got married.

Contrast this to Colombia in the same period. In 1899, Colombia’s total population was 4 million people, including the province of Panamá, which only became independent in 1903. Of the four million, only about 10% could read and write, and of those ten percent, probably one or two percent were priests (not necessarily nuns). The fact that the population may have been living in cities and towns did not mean they had access to education, jobs and housing. Transportation was limited and difficult. And the country spent almost all of the 19th Century in one form of civil unrest or another. By 1899, Colombia was involved in the “War of the 1000 Days,” which ended in November 1902.

Economically, the majority of the population was poor. Even rich people were, by standards of the time, middle class financially. But there was no real middle class.

This does not mean there was no photography. There was, but usually in the major cities. In Medellín, for example, Melitón Rodríguez opened a studio and was able to photograph the landscape, the cityscape and the people of Antioquia. We are fortunate that his glass negatives have survived. During the War of the 1000 Days, some photos were taken and are now in museums. They show a devastated landscape and small, underfed men with rifles. Pathetic, in every sense of the word.

The development of the film negative and the cameras that use them made photography possible in Colombia. Even today, the chemicals and basic darkroom formulae and skills needed to make a photograph are drop-dead simple. And cheap. (Very cheap, when compared to the cost of photo printers, inks and imported papers for digital imaging. See? You even need a new vocabulary. Once upon a time, you took a picture. NOW! You “capture an image.” Wow, what an advance.)

Essentially, it’s almost impossible to have photography in a country that has not experienced the 19th Century the way Europe and the US did. Uneducated women who have three or perhaps four options in life (marriage, prostitution, joining a convent, suicide) do not produce forward-thinking children. The few women who could get an education often tried to help others, but had to do this very carefully, so as not to anger the men in power.

The one thing the men in power understood about photography was its realism, its immediacy and its ability to communicate with no intermediaries. Great for sales, but not so great for political and religious power. Even today, there are lots of paintings, drawings and photos in collections in other parts of the world, all produced in Colombia or inspired by the country. But Colombians themselves have little access to these works. Years ago, I saw a book called Dance of the Millions, which is about the violence of the late Forties and into the Fifties. It contains some incredibly graphic photos of the way people were assassinated. The book was actually banned here, and might still be prohibited. Out of that violence, and without photography, has come the violence of the drug lords (who grew up in that time period) and then the paramilitares. I do not know who took the pictures in that book, but I’m sure the scenes were burned into the photographers’ memories.

In short, the only people who could take pictures for the pleasure of it were from the upper class, and they in turn believed two things–one, that they were destined by God to be in charge, and two, that those people socially below them could not be educated, so why bother? But I have no doubt that they also believed that photography was a weapon that could too easily be turned on them. Therefore, education became a luxury and the Colombian government could easily control the importation of cameras, film, lenses and everything else relating to photography.

Fine art photography really did not take hold in the US until the 1970s, and I really do not care what kind of re-spun history the galleries and dealers put on that in order to make a sale. Fine art photography is as rigorous as painting. Much of the fine art being sold today is really documentary photography, especially if it comes from Latin America. It’s just that some photographers in these so-called undeveloped countries were artists at heart, and nationalists to some extent, who used their skills to preserve a history that was vanishing before their eyes. A few years ago, I saw an ad for some photos by the Peruvian photographer Martín Chambi, being sold by a prominent New York gallery. One photo in the display ad was titled “Cuzco,” a Peruvian city and the original Inca capital. But in fact, it was a photo taken at Machu Picchu. I knew that because, A) I’ve been there, to both places; B) I took pictures; C) the wall with three triangular windows is famous and often photographed, by me, by my father and by thousands of other people; D) the mountain peak Huayna Pichu is not visible from Cuzco, and was very visible in the photo.

I really felt sorry for Martín Chambi. His work is superb, and he deserves a better representation than what his work received from this “famous” gallery. Photography in South America, in Latin America (Mexico to Tierra del Fuego), was practiced by some real die-hard individuals. That the photographers did not follow idiotic dictates laid down by Ansel Adams and his followers should be applauded, not patronized.

So now, we’re in the 21st Century and Colombia is trying to re-assemble its own past. Digital photography is a huge hit, because it requires virtually no technical information. Point and shoot, and then plug it into your computer. Voilà. You’re a photographer. (And of course, everyone is an artist.) But digital is very recent, and the search is on for the non-digital. While I certainly back up all the groups trying to find and preserve these fragile images, I also understand the odds. Not good. Photography was too much a luxury item. A family with a camera or access to one prized the images it produced. In 1976, my friend Barbara Chase and I went out to Mosquera, a village near Bogotá, to visit my former maid and her husband. The husband, the brother-in-law and some friends played “tejo,” a local sport, and I photographed it with a simple Minolta camera. After I got the pictures back, I taped them to a wall in the small apartment I was sharing with Barb. We had a party and the Colombian guests really could not understand why I’d taken the photos in Mosquera. First, because “tejo” is pretty much a sport among working class men, and as an educated American woman, Colombians felt I was either making fun of them or was being frivolous–taking pictures for my own amusement; therefore, these were “private” pictures which I should not show to anyone. A Colombian would have taken pictures of the other guests (group shots or the “cute” individual shot), or a landscape, or of the food and drink offered, but never a complete sequence of beer-drinking men in shirt sleeves tossing a flat rock at a gun powder cap 20 feet away.

Fortunately, my maid was more liberal. I gave her copies of some of the photos and she loved them, especially the ones of her husband and the guys drinking beer and playing “tejo.” She could identify with that, and so could an awful lot of other Colombians, even though they wouldn’t admit it.

Photography even now is politically and culturally limited in Colombia. These are powerful influences. I have pictures that are, sometimes, historical documents as well as aesthetic objects. They are for sale. That makes them unique. And I know it.

But the Mountain King is of the social class which pretends to live in another country altogether. He’s convinced he’s going to find a prize-winning shot by Leo Matiz that was “accidentally” thrown away by Matiz’s widow or daughter. He’s equally sure that the son of Sady (pronounced “sáh-dee”) González doesn’t really need a box of his father’s 1948 negatives re-touched by his mother before printing. The Mountain King believes that because, in his mind, he lives in Paris.

I’m sorry this is kind of long, but I hope I’ve explained a few of the differences between photography in the US and in Colombia. Two weeks ago I went to see a beautiful photo exhibit held at University of the Andes. The photos were originally taken by the Vargas brothers, in Arequipa, Peru, and the negatives are reprinted for the show, with the exception of a couple of ferric-oxide and cyanotype prints. Wonderful show! Loved it! And, for those who think Latin America is made up of a few white people and a lot of Indians, the exhibit is a revelation! It’s a travelling show, so if it turns up at MSU, go see it!

Sorry to go on and on about photography, but, as you know, this is pretty much my field. I was really happy to hear about your art sales! I’m so glad you can show your work on a regular basis, too! As for the buyers, at least with you they know they’re getting something original, and not some weird image that requires a ten-page monograph to explain!

Okay, it’s late and I have to go to bed. Happy Easter! Hope the Easter Bunny leaves you lots of presents!

Metta

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