Yesterday's Modern Images, Todays Archival Treasures

Article excerpt

Recent studies of the fine works of Bolivia's first photographers are unveiling rich perspectives of nineteenth-century life

In January 1840, some five months after Louis J. M. Daguerre's invention was announced to the world, the Franco-Belgian ship L'Orientale anchored off Rio de Janeiro. Among the passengers who came ashore was Father Louis Compte, a French priest who had brought with him a daguerreotype camera. He amazed an assembly at the Hotel Pharoux by making daguerreotypes on silver surfaces sensitized to light with iodine and developed by exposure to mercury. Although each picture was one-of-a-kind, because no negative was produced, the clarity and detail of the image were remarkable. Rio's Journal do Comercio marveled at Father Compte's demonstration:

It is necessary to have seen this thing with one's own eyes to appreciate the rapidity and the result of the operation. In less than nine minutes, the fountain of Largo do Paco, the Praca do Peixe, the monastery of Sao Bento, and all the other surrounding objects were reproduced with such fidelity, precision, and detail that it was readily apparent that the thing had been made by the very hand of nature, almost without the intervention of the artist.

Unknown to Father Compte, fellow Frenchman Hercules Florence--one of the originators of photography--was living in Brazil at the time. Since the early 1830s, he had been experimenting with image-reproduction processes as possible replacements for lithography. Florence coined the word photographie to describe his inventions, but he didn't commercialize or even announce them until after Father Compte's well-publicized demonstrations in Rio.

Like most immigrants to South America, photography first took root in the coastal cities of Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Valparaiso, and Lima. Several years elapsed before an intrepid photographer strapped the bulky tools of his trade to a mule and made his way to Bolivia's Andean steppes. By the 1860s, however, after the daguerreotype had been supplanted by various photographic processes using glass plates, from which paper copies could be made, photography was flourishing in that country.

Lamentably little is known of Bolivia's photographic pioneers. The Enciclopedia Boliviana, published by the prestigious Amigos del Libro, is a voluminous study of the country's cultural history, offering titles on medicinal plants, folklore, poetry, explorations, music, and the cinema--but nothing on still pictures. Interest in this overlooked aspect of Bolivia's cultural heritage has begun to emerge: Paceno historian Gaston Dick O. has published a series of special magazines, La Paz de Ayer y Hoy [La Paz of Yesterday and Today] and Potosi de Ayer y Hoy [Potosi of Yesterday and Today], illustrating the cities' stories with historical and modern photographs; the municipality of La Paz, in conjunction with an exhibition at the Museo Tambo Quirquincho, last year issued La Paz, Sus Rostros en el Tiempo [La Paz, Her Faces in Time], a near half-century stroll (1898-1940) through the capital's streets and plazas as viewed through the camera lenses of the Cordero family--Julio Cordero Castillo and his sons, Julio Cordero Ordonez and Gregorio Cordero; and antique dealer and collector Javier Nunez de Arco recently organized an exhibition at the Museo Nacional de Arte of the early twentieth-century photography of Arthur Posnansky, a German immigrant and self-styled archaeologist who devoted his life to the study and promotion of the Tiwanaku ruins, located a few miles south of Lake Titicaca. (Posnansky's photographic images were more accurate than his archaeological views: He asserted that Tiwanaku was the birthplace of all prehistoric civilizations of the Americas.)

Despite these recent efforts, the story of Bolivian photography, especially in its formative years, remains to be told. Erika Billeter's mammoth survey, Fotografie Lateinamerika, published in Switzerland over a decade ago, contains not a single Bolivian image. …