Tag Archives: Bogota

Another Saturday

(C) 2015 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved 

It’s cold, overcast and starting to drizzle. I’m listening to the Beatles and singing along with most of the lyrics. It’s Saturday afternoon in Bogotá.

In. . . hm…m… m… 1967? Maybe.

Actually?

Actually, 7 March 2015. Yes, I can remember the lyrics because I bought the records and played them endlessly–as did the rest of my generation–and learned the lyrics because they were included somewhere on the album. Sometimes on the back of the album, but more often on the inside sleeve holding the record. In the case of Sargent Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club,”  it came out in July 1967. I was in the US because my brother REO was getting married that month and I was going to be a bridesmaid. I bought the LP at the Disc Shop, next to Kewpie’s on Grand River Ave., in East Lansing, and across the street from the MSU campus. Took the record home to my parents’ house and played it, as much as possible. In this case, a lot, really a lot, because my mother and stepfather liked the Beatles, too. My stepfather, in fact, had studied clarinet and was in his high school’s marching band. My mother had studied violin. (And I studied piano and sang in choirs.) REO liked the Beatles, later more drawn to the Rolling Stones and these days, streams The Grateful Dead on his Jeep’s sound system. Whatever blows your hair back, as one of my art teachers used to say.

What fascinated me today, listening to the Beatles on headphones connected to my celular, was how exceptional was their playing. It sounds relatively simple, considering how it was recorded in the Sixties, but  up close, with digital reproduction. . . WOW! Damn good pickin’ there, George! (For those who aren’t familiar with basic rock set-ups in the Sixties, and the Beatles–John was lead guitar, Paul was bass, George was melody guitar and Ringo was drums. Classically stated–John was first violin, George was second; Paul was either viola or cello (depending on the composition) and Ringo was percussion. Some things do not change.) I know I’ve  listened to the Beatles and other British groups from the period hundreds of times in a lot of  moods and using a lot of different equipment. With the Beatles–bought the LP in the US, played it on a German-made stereo in my apartment in Bogotá; said stereo was purchased at Sears (the store) in 1966, and was state-of-the-art at the time. I’d sit on the floor and sing along. The music was on when friends dropped by (kept the volume down, of course). It was on when I wasn’t home in order to keep my dog Mariposa company. (The radio, not the stereo.) These days, I tend to listen to classical music and opera, but the music is on just the same. But the question becomes–why do we keep listening to this? Why does it still sound so G-O-O-D!?!?!?

Personally, I think it’s because, until very recently, musicians and other artists really cared about their craft. No offense, but what is Beyoncé’s craft, exactly–shakin’ her booty in front of a bunch of drunk horny guys? Lying to younger women that her bump-and-grind is a liberation for women? (Really? Is that why Salomé danced?) Craft is caring about what you do and  how you do it. It’s why people outside the arts consider all artists (regardless of medium) whiny prima donnas. The Beatles cared a great deal about what they did and then had the truly great good fortune to work with a man whose musical experience included producing classical music albums, especially Baroque. His name was George Martin. Other  rockers from the Sixties (Zeppelin comes to mind, and then Queen in the late Seventies) cared just as much and–like the Beatles–it still shows. I’ve seen the Beatles and Queen live in concert and their perfectionism carries over onto the stage. The tickets were worth the price. And you know what? Their lyrics were good–not offensive nor insulting nor threatening. These days, groups like these find themselves categorized as “Christian” or are considered so bland they don’t even get contracts or air time. The American group Iron Butterfly would still be playing in dives and bars today, their classic 17-minute piece Inna-gadda-da-vida virtually unknown. (Look it up on Google! The composer was the son of an organist at a Lutheran church in the Midwest. You can hear Bach in it.)

So there we were on the Eje Ambiental this afternoon, Friday and Fabiana and me, in the light drizzle forming little rings on the surface of the Río San Francisco,  TransMilenio buses rumbling by, and I was singing along to the Beatles. I know I wasn’t singing very loudly because no one paid attention to us (fortunately; my voice isn’t all that good any more). But that music sounded as good this afternoon as it did in  the Sixties when I first heard it and first bought the LPs. Javeriana Stereo is right on this point–this music has become classic, not  because of its age, but because of the craft behind it. It’s worth listening to, over and over and over again.

I have a friend who was only 7 when Sargent Pepper came out. He became a musician. I have to wonder what would have happened if he’d been able to listen to this music before he started classes (at age 8) at the Conservatorio del Tolima. That’s just a thought. . .

(C) 2015 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

 

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3 More Poems

LES  BELLES
(Dedicated to Emily Dickinson and Dorothy
Parker, "Les Belles des Letres.")

As future poet laureate of the Americas
and
Belle of Bogotá
I have questions "entre nous"--
De mujer a mujer
or 
sister to sister,
as they say.

Would you today
become a blonde?
Would you as a woman
dress in "coctel noir" most elegant
and then--
Champagne glass to hand--
THROW yourself
Across the timps of a man
who makes you stay up all night,
Writing?

Would you drive a 'Vette?
Or stick with the sedate,
a serious sedan--
4 doors V-8 plus options?

Can your mind and heart still make you a poet
When your body dances cumbia
and your soul
Marries another culture?

So,
What does a Belle do
These days?

(NOTE: "Timps" means kettle drums, timpanies.)

(C) 1995 by Metta Anderson
All Rights Reserved



PEARLS AND DIAMONDS

Pearls --   black & White shots of César
            moments
            facets of his sculptured face
            and
            elegant hands

Diamonds -- the subject of the potos
            sparkling
            first one way
            then another
            winking
            moving
            the light is within
            and
            dazzles
            even in the dark.

(C) 1995 by Metta Anderson
All Rights Reserved




BELLEZA INFINITA

Veo en ti una belleza infinita
César
Que empieza en tu corazón de músico
and expands outward through your eyes
alert with interest and your mouth
in its quick expression

To your hands and their exquisite
uniiqueness which move out
into a space you have created
full of light

Full of sound. . .

I begin to know 
where the music
comes from.

(C) 1995 by Metta Anderson
All Rights Reserved



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Devoured by the Angel

Devoured by the Angel

(C) 1995 by Metta Anderson


I am devoured by the angel.
But I am drinking the angel.
I live in the angel.

I see in my mind
Bernini's Ecstasy of Santa Teresa de Avila
and I feel like that

but nude.

I lie spreadeagled,
a dog on each side,
devoured by the angel
and wanting more.

We walked around the corner,
César's hand on the small of my back,
pressure from his fingertips pushing me,
but I felt him
taking big
slobbering
juicy
bites
out of me,
ingesting me
into his own entity
as we went along,
the non-physial space and 
essence of me
swallowed up
absorbed
in the erotic 
Bogotá rain
along Carrera Sexta
between
Calles Diez and Once.

Surrendered to the angel.

(C) 1995 by Metta Anderson
All Rights Reserved

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An Update, of sorts

I want to apologize for not having written in the past few months. I have not been able to pay the phone bill, so the phone and its Internet connection were shut down. Nevertheless, I hope to be able to post something in the near future. A friend lets me use her computer so I can check my e-mail once a week and do whatever else I need to do, and I am very grateful for that!
Meanwhile, I’ve been reading a monograph/art show catalogue which I bought in 2011 after attending a retrospective for the late Marco Ospina, a Colombian artist who first brought international abstract painting to the country in the late 1940s. While I am enjoying the book, I realize it’s making me ask questions and make comments about the state of art in Colombia in the present day, and contemporary art in general outside the country. I won’t spoil the surprise, but I can see that I will have to write a more detailed blog on this subject before Christmas.
Otherwise, my small gallery is open and I have expanded its inventory to include oils, acrylics and small pastels done in the last few months. In fact, on Tuesday, which was a gorgeous day here, I trekked up to the Quinta de Bolìvar and spent a couple of hours doing a pastel of part of the exterior of that estate. I plan to put a double mat on it, cover it with cellophane and offer it for sale at a low price. (Because the price of framing is nowhere near low).
Otherwise, I just live from day to day. My life is a mess and if I dwell on it or describe it here, I get seriously depressed.
So thank you for reading and I look forward to your comments. If you’re in Bogotá, please drop by the gallery some Sunday. No obligation to buy, but I have interesting things to look at. See you soon!

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Manifesto Letter

Text and images (C) 2012 by Metta Anderson – All Rights Reserved

Caillebotte in Bogotá ('99)

From the series “Caillebotte in Bogotá,” taken on a rainy Saturday afternoon, in homage to Caillebotte’s paintings of Paris around 100 years earlier.

Last weekend was pretty good at the gallery and I hope this weekend will be the same. However, I’m not really writing about sales and visits so much as attempting a statement about what I hope to accomplish. Part of this blog tonight is therefore a continuation of my Letters to Linda as well as an addition to the “manifesto” I started when I re-opened the gallery.  Hence the title.

Hundreds of people will buy a photo taken in Paris, France, because it was taken in Paris, France. Or London or Rome or Madrid (España, not to be confused with a small village on the Bogotá sabana also called Madrid). An equal number will purchase a photo because it was taken in an exotic location, or buy a “famous photographer” (99% of the time male) or a combination of these factors. The connecting definition is that the city/event/photographer is already well-known on a major scale.

Colombia is–despite its geographic location–not well known. It has produced well-known artists and photographers, but Sady González (yes, a man) or Ruven Afanador are held to second or third place positions after, let’s say, Cartier-Bresson or David LaChapelle. All these men are talented, but Cartier-Bresson and LaChapelle have access to some major p.r. companies in countries where the latest news now carries the weight of an Egyptian tomb discovery. Even Mario Testino (Peruvian) benefits from this access, even though some may criticize his work as “kind of fluffy.” The bottom line is that p.r. and volumes of literature and poetry have made millions of people believe that a photo taken in or of a world-famous city is automatically “important” or “valuable.” By comparison, Bogotá Distrito Capital, Colombia, is a non-descript podunk. When people think of Colombia and/or Bogotá, they think of drugs and Pablo Escobar.

Truthfully, Bogotá was never really the drug capital. That’s Medellín and, later, Cali. Bogotá is the political capital of Colombia, and frankly, there are very very few drugs as powerful as politics. For the other drugs (cocaine, pot, whatever), Medellín and Cali are the centers for wheeling, dealing and getting killed. Less so now, but still, their reputations are pretty strong.

I do not live in Medellín and Cali. Considering their idyllic climates and entrepreneurial spirits, maybe I should. Each has a lot to recommend it.

But alas! I live in Bogotá, because I choose to, and visit all the other places. If I actually did move to another Colombian city, I’d probably go to Santa Marta. It sits between the Caribbean and the desert and is backed by mountains. Beautiful place! Or Mesitas del Colegio, which is a very small town wrapped around a mountainside 32 km southwest of Bogotá. (That’s 32 km as the crow flies. As the car drives, it’s about an hour away along a two-lane highway. Fabulous scenery!)

So here we are in Bogotá. And that is what I photograph. I photograph Bogotá as one big object, in the same way thousands of other photographers photograph their personal objects of desire. This is mine. In the last 20-some years, I’ve acquired a fairly large archive, most in black-and-white, but quite a bit in color. I print my own black and white and would like to do more color printing now that I have a big Epson printer, but the cost of the inks makes this impossible right now. I just do not have the US$250 to $300 it would take to buy a full set of the pigmented inks the printer uses. And another US$250 for decent printing paper in two sizes (letter size and either 11″x14″ or 13″x19″), imported from the US. Traditional darkroom is simply my best option.

The more the city changes, the more valuable my photos become, therefore the price for a print goes up. Fine with me. But, who are my clients? Most are Colombians, over 40, college-educated and well-travelled. May have worked and lived abroad. Also Europeans. At one point, I realized that the number of Americans buying my work could be counted on the fingers of one hand. I do not know why this is so.  I did have one particular American client who was very knowledgable about photography and bought many prints, even ordering a few for Christmas presents. Then he got married and his wife decided that I was not important enough to be in her livingroom. I regret losing him as a client because it’s nice to be able to talk about a photo with someone who understands photography as an art form, but I hope he kept the prints. A few of them have since become historic documents. Love that added value!

So, to my friend Linda and my brother–I know you both think I’m crazy and wasting my time, even tempting fate and endangering my physical health (I barely have enough money to buy a few things to eat right now). But I am an artist. Fine art photography is what I do best and I’ve discovered that running a gallery showing and selling my work is a job I can perform quite well. Alone. And I find it very interesting that you two think I should give you prints as a token of my esteem, rather than accept money from you. Thanks for the support and respect. I know that you have trouble understanding my work because you’ve never been to Bogotá and so you view my photos as aesthetic excercises, rather than art objects to hang on your wall. After all, if I were really good, I’d be rich and famous by now, wouldn’t I?  Has it never occurred to you that an artist (any artist) only becomes rich and famous when people buy his/her work? You guys have been in Michigan way too long!

The other day, I decided that, should the opportunity arise (and I hope it does, soon!), I want to go to Peru and later Chile to take the photos that I’ve wanted to take for over 20 years. Why didn’t I do it before now? Because the idea of going someplace and seriously taking pictures freaked me out too much. But I think I’ve gotten over that. I want to go to Machu Picchu and take photos to compare with the ones I took in July 1965. I want to go to Piura and Sipán and photograph the landscapes there, also Arequipe (specifically a convent there).  And Inca ruins. In Chile, I want to photograph the landscape.

And in Colombia, I just have an incredibly long list of places I want to photograph, and at what times of the day.

And after every excursion, I’ll select the best images, print them and show them in my gallery. I hope people order copies, of course, but I’d like to accomplish my goals of going, photographing and exhibiting.

I simply can not do that living in the US on welfare.

In my neighborhood in Bogotá, people know who I am by what I’ve done–open a gallery that specializes in photography and painting and which welcomes everyone to come in and look. A gallery where the artist is in residence, permanently. That sounds trivial to an American, but in Colombia, I’ve been able to communicate something about art that gallery visitors find special. On my birthday, celebrated with my dogs, I spent some time photographing a young man who plays saxophone on the Eje Ambiental to earn money for school. I plan to give him copies of some of the photos. He was surprised that I’d even noticed his existence, and that I wanted to photograph him at all was a novel experience for him. I got some great shots and a free concert, and he discovered that sometimes people really do listen to him. A fair exchange, I think.

As I said before, you probably think I’m crazy to stay here and crazier still to spend my time photographing Bogotá. Maybe so, but there are over 7 million people living here, who want to live here, and we can not all be crazy.

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La Pequeña Galería Dominical re-opens!

(C) 2012 by Metta Anderson – Text and images – All Rights Reserved

Street-level door to gallery with pendant

Gallery location with identifying pendant

After almost five years, I have finally re-opened my art gallery, La Pequeña Galería Dominical. Even though the space is very small, compared to the other places I’ve used, it works very well for the contemporary photography that is on display.

I started the gallery in 2002, when I moved into a very large apartment on a ground floor in an even bigger house in the Candelaria Centro Historico in Bogotá. At the time, I used the two front rooms, with their 15 ft ceilings and approximately 6 ft high windows overlooking the street. The walls were painted in a soft peachy-orange, which drew attention just because of the color. Locally, walls are painted white. Period. Not mine. I used two shades of the orange and the blue-white light of Bogotá coming in the windows created a very inviting glow. I used the pendant that you see in the photo when the gallery was open on Sundays because zoning laws do not permit objects that light up at night or hang over the street or are beyond a certain modest size. I could hang up the pendant from a nail in the outside wall and take it down at the end of the day. I also left a small poster (19″ x 13″) in one of the windows showing gallery hours and related information.

At the time, I specialized in my own photography and art work, changing the exhibitions on a regular basis and getting a lot of visitors. But then my partner and I decided to move the gallery to a more upscale neighborhood, on the belief that economic upscale equaled cultural upscale and a more liberal mindset. We were wrong. We had a gorgeous and very large gallery, and sold nothing, so we closed it after two years.

Just as we closed it, the owners of the house where the first gallery was, and where I actually lived, told me they were selling the house and I had to move out. This proved to be traumatic for me, so I stopped all my painting and photography and locked myself into this apartment, where I wrote two novels and am finishing a third. Good for me.

In February this year, I met a Frenchman who opened a gallery half-a-block from my original one. In fact, he wanted that house precisely for a house and gallery, but ran afoul of the husband of the owner of record. That’s an extremely easy thing to do and I sympathize with the Frenchman. But he bought a really nice house and opened a gallery, so he’s happy. I, on the other hand, was bitten again by the gallery bug. I looked around at spaces available, of places I wanted to be in and how much money I’d have to spend. No surprise–the high traffic areas are way beyond my budget. So I re-trenched.

The gallery as seen front the entrance

La Pequeña Galería Dominical is open.

Et voilà!  I have re-opened my gallery on the first floor of my triplex apartment! The entrance hall (front door to stairs) is at least 10 ft long and there’s a decrepit but serviceable stretch of molding high up on two walls. I have a big custom-made armoire on one side, too heavy to move, which blocks the molding above it, but the other wall is fine. It’s a narrow space, but the big windows overlooking the street keep it from being claustrophobic. The walls are off-white.

Currently, I’m offering a selection of black-and-white photos of Bogotá which I have shot over the years. Quite a few of them have become historic documents, since the city has undergone rapid changes in the last ten years. A few are just that split-second of timing that made Henri Cartier-Bresson famous. ALL were taken (and continue to be taken) as fine art photography.

I think I should explain this concept. To me, photography is a medium like painting–two-dimensional, and capable of reflecting the world either with great realism (PRE-Photoshop!) or with large amounts of abstraction (also pre-Photoshop). I like to combine certain storytelling elements with an abstracted image. This has taken years to develop, in part because all the arts evolve as the artist evolves. This is a basic truth among artists, but not among the galleries and other cultural businesses operating these days. Some of my best images are the result of looking at a scene as if it were a painting on canvas–the arrangement of the elements within a flat and confined area. Sometimes I have to crop the image when printing, but the basic components are there when I press the shutter. Trust me–Photoshop can not save what is not there in the first place. With black and white, the “palette” is limited–black, white and gray. But it’s really fascinating what you can do with that.

I do have work in color and I’m glad I’ve learned to print it well with the computer. I scan the negatives and can create some beautiful prints, but at the moment, I need to buy inks and some paper, and I do not have the money. Therefore, there are no color prints available.

I have a good catalogue to show anyone looking for something unique. I can make copies in the standard sizes (8″ x 10″, 11″ x 14″ and also 16″ x 20″ in black and white only) and these are delivered matted and mounted, ready for framing.

Boxes holding more images

Boxes holding more images available plus copies of some on display.

What I hope to do later in the year is move the gallery to a larger space and be able to show other photographers, older photographers who have developed an interesting portfolio and would like to show some of their best images. I am also interested in working with ceramic artists, because they have very original visions. Essentially I want to work with older artists and foreign artists because the majority of the galleries in Bogotá push young Colombian males and have created the fantasy that these newly-minted kids are genuine stars, so “BUY NOW!!!” I’m from Michigan. I know the difference between this year’s Cadillac and last year’s, and I know that a five year old Cadillac can get you to your destination just as easily as the new one. When I see art being shilled as if it were a new model car, I’m turned off–to the work, to the artist and to the gallery promoting it. I have nothing against advertising. I’m opposed to lying. What I want for my gallery is to be able to sell something to which the buyer can relate, with which he or she feels comfortable and wants to have in his/her home or office. That may limit my client list somewhat, but what artist wants to sell his/her work to someone who thinks a work of art must either turn a profit for its owner or be thrown out with the trash? Art is not a consumer product.

So, having launched my gallery’s manifesto, I will just say that I’m pleased to have the gallery open again, even though it’s only two days a week. At least it’s open and everyone’s invited to come over and have a look. (Um, if you’re in Bogotá, of course.) Hours are 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., on Saturdays and Sundays. The address is both Calle 15-A #1-A- 26 and Calle 12-D-Bis #1-Bis – 26. Ring Apto. 301. I give both addresses because, if you’re in a taxi and give the driver the new address (Calle 12-D etc.), he’ll get lost. For sure! Calle 15-A is La Candelaria Centro Histórico. Taxi drivers know the neighborhood. You can also get here on TransMilenio. Take a bus marked Las Aguas and get off at that station. Walk back along the Eje Ambiental and follow Carrera 3 south (against the traffic). Calle 15-A/Calle 12-D-Bis has a hardware store on the corner on the left. Go straight up that street, staying on the left. And take a deep breath. It’s a steep climb!

So now that the gallery’s open, I hope to see you here soon!

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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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