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Curatorial Essay

At a time of great technological and economic change, in the early and mid 1800s, photography and the reproduction of chemically-based images came of age with the announcement of the ‘Daguerreotype’ in Paris. It took only six months after the 1839 announcement for enterprising businessmen to reach the shores and cities of Latin America with the new invention.  By the mid-1840s, portrait studios were established in many coastal cities and the major capitals of Latin America.

Daguerreotypes, tintypes, cartes-de-visite, calotypes, collodion prints were only a few of the many and diverse developments in photography that found their way throughout Latin America between the 1840s-1870s.  Portraiture was much in demand from the rapidly growing entrepreneurial classes. But it wasn’t until the late 1880s with the development of affordable multi-reproduction techniques that photography became truly accessible to large numbers of people across professions and income levels.

Having one’s image reproduced was an affirmation of self and identity, and photography made this possibility widely available and reasonably cheap. For Latin American photographers, the sales catalogues from France, England, Germany, the United States and Argentina specializing in photo equipment were as thick with mechanical possibilities as digital equipment catalogues are today.

Technical advances in photography came at a time in the late 1880s when the turbulence of the earlier Latin American independence movements had largely subsided in many countries.  International trade, the export of primary materials, the building of infrastructure, particularly railroads, were widespread, and manufacturing was growing.  ‘Progressivism’ and industrial development were in the air.  Many cities began large public works projects, often ‘re-making’ themselves in the image of their French and English counterparts.

Latin Americans of all classes were moving from the countryside into cities in search of new opportunities and jobs. New entrepreneurial classes were emerging alongside urban and industrial workers. Portrait studios and, later, photo news agencies became good business. In the hands of some practitioners, portraiture and photo reportage became an art form as well.

Latin American photography from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was rich in important work. But it took nearly a half-century after World War II for much of this historical work to be re-discovered.  Important archives of photography in many Latin American countries remained unseen, unknown, and underappreciated, even after museums and markets in Western Europe and the United States had begun to recognize photography as an art form and an important historical artifact.  It was only in the 1990s, twenty years ago, that pioneering work by individual Latin American researchers and scholars/curators from the United States and Europe began to rediscover these archives and bring their works back into public visibility.   

The works in this exhibition represent some of the finest historical photography in Latin American archives.  The works are significant as aesthetic objects, and they are important as historical and sociological documents, reflecting the diversity, breadth, energy and creativity of Latin American societies: pictures of economic transformation, cultural diversity, rituals and public ceremonies, the onset of revolution, and the images of self, public and private.

At a time when Houston’s own population and economy continue to become more international, it seems appropriate to begin the new downtown arts initiative by arts>Brookfield with an exhibition that speaks to the history of social and economic forces that play an important role in Houston today. We thank Brookfield Office Properties, Allen Center and arts>Brookfield for the opportunity to partner with them in this endeavor.

Wendy Watriss, Senior Curator
FotoFest International, Houston Texas

This exhibition is made possible through the support of Brookfield Office Properties and FotoFest’s 2010-2011 Exhibition Sponsors. We want to especially thank Sarah Johnston, Coordinator for Marketing, Houston Region, Brookfield Office Properties, and Debra Simon, Vice President for Arts & Events, Brookfield Office Properties – U.S. Commercial Operations; and Annick Dekiouk and Jennifer Ward of FotoFest’s Exhibitions staff.

FotoFest is a Houston-based, international non-profit photographic arts organization that promotes international exchange through the photographic arts; the discovery and presentation of important, but little-known, art work from the U.S. and around the world; and the use of photography in schools to promote writing and cognitive learning skills among students in grades 3-12.