Revealed Memory: a Graphic Reflection on Our History
On April 29 we inaugurated the exhibit entitled Revealed Memory: The Emergence of Archaeological Photography in the Antiguo Colegio de San Ildefonso. The exhibit features the work of French artist Claude Désiré Charnay (1828-1915), and for the first time brings together a selection of his photographs. These were the first photographs shot at archaeological sites in Mexico.
Charnay's interest in Mexico began in 1850, while he was living in the United States giving French lessons. At around the same time he read the book Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, by John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, whose accounts of their travels led him to undertake his own expedition in Mexico.
With support from the French Ministry of Education, Désiré Charnay reached the port of Veracruz in 1857, while the country was experiencing a particularly difficult moment, since the Reform War was about to break out. It should be noted that relations between Mexico and France were not at their best, and therefore Charnay was risking his life. In his notes he even comments that "civil war seemed to be the normal state of the Republic."
The photographer and adventurer began his journey in the countryside, visiting Tehuacán, Oaxaca, Mitla, El Tule, Orizaba, Minatitlan, Izamal, Uxmal, Chichen Itza, Merida, Ticul, Campeche, Palenque, Yajalón, Tenejapa, Tuxtla, Tehuantepec, Mexico City, and Popocatepetl, among other places. As a result of this trip, in 1860 Charnay published his Albúm Fotográfico Mexicano, with photos from his multiple visits to Mexico City and its surrounding areas. This is a work that has undoubtedly contributed to our knowledge of our past.
Charnay was a bold man who was not intimidated by the adverse conditions in which he had to operate, such as the forests, rivers, and mountains, and, of course, petty crimes occurring amid the country’s political chaos, Madame Calderon de la Barca recounts her many experiences in this regard in her book Life in Mexico.
These obstacles were coupled with the difficulty Charnay faced in moving around with his equipment, which weighed more than 1,800 kilograms, and the way in which he had to improvise materials for processing photographic images, since photography was infinitely more complicated at the time.
In his notes, Charnay relates how he began producing nitrate and guncotton, having only some crystals, ether, and alcohol that he encountered among his belongings. To develop his photographs, he used iron sulfate, which he extracted from the soil.
In 1862, motivated by Napoleon III’s plans for Latin America, Charnay published Ciudades y Ruinas Americanas, considered the first introduction to Mexican archeology for French readers.
It would not be until 1880 and 1896, with Mexico stabilized under the regime of Porfirio Diaz, that Désiré Charnay made his final expeditions to the country. With the publication of Mi Último Viaje (1885), Charnay convinced the Mexican government to sponsor the first archaeological excursions as part of Mexico’s centennial celebrations.
Whoever has the opportunity to view these photographs will appreciate them as a unique testimonial account, an exciting find due to their fragility and historical content. It has been a privilege for us to carry out the restoration work on Charnay’s photographs, in order to share them with a wider audience. I hope that this will enable us to reflect on our country's history, a history that is not linear, simple, or black and white, as some would have us think, but rather multi-faceted
Understanding our past and our culture reveals our identity. Only then can we build a better country for the Mexicans of today and for future generations. Charnay's work surely contributes to the understanding of our past.
As a posthumous recognition, the exhibition is dedicated to the memory of a great friend of mine, Guillermo Tovar de Teresa (1956-2013), an important historian who was one of the biggest promoters of the arts and culture in Mexico.
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