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Benjamín de la Calle, Balbino Jaramillo, Santa Rosa, Medellín Colombia, 1897

BenjamÍn de la Calle (1869-1934)
Medellín, Colombia

In the late nineteenth century, when Colombia started to build a modern economy, the capital city in mountainous region in the northwest part of the country was becoming a new industrial center. Two photographers extensively documented the changing profile of Medellín - its people, its social classes and its physical structure.  Benjamín de la Calle photographed the workers who came from the rural areas of the province to find work in the newly industrializing city. Melitón Rodríguez portrayed the upper and middle classes, the new bourgeoisie and the military, the new urban infrastructure.

This region of Colombia, the province of Antioquía and its capital, Medellín, were famous for its gold mines and skilled work force, but they had been geographically isolated from the rest of country until the advent of the rail­road late in the nineteenth century. The city of Medellín became a leader in the production and export of glassware, ceramics, chemicals, and foodstuffs. An influx of businessmen and laborers came to build the new city. European entrepreneurs mingled with Colombian campesinos whose racial diversity was as complex as the geography of the land itself.

Together the works of Benjamín de la Calle and Melítón Rodríguez form a remarkable social panorama of industrialization in Latin America. The contemporaneous and in-depth portrayal of both the entrepreneurial upper classes and lower income working people is unusual in the early history of photography.

Benjamín de la Calle was one of the few early portrait photographers whose work focused on workers and campesinos. He portrayed the men and women who were coming from the countryside to work in Medellín. His images show a remarkable intimacy between the artist and the people he photographed - an empathy and respect for his often barefoot, plain-clothed subjects that give them a special aura of strength and grace.  

Born in Yarumal, Colombia in the rural mountainous region of Antioquía, Benjamín de la Calle began studying photography with two painters in his home town when he was 20 years old.  In 1897, he moved to Medellín to study with the photographer Emiliano Mejía.  After returning to his home to work as a portrait photographer in Yarumal, he moved back to Medellín in 1903 to open his own studio near the city’s main railroad station.

The railroad station gave him access to merchants and traders departing for Europe, but most importantly to laborers coming to work in the new factories of Medellín.

He photographed wealthy and idiosyncratic characters in Medellín, but the main focus of his attention were the laborers coming from the rural areas of Antioquia and other parts of Colombia.  The accoutrements of his studio and the quality of its painted backdrops were not as ornate as those of other urban portrait studios, but few other photographers matched his ability to use light to such dramatic effect and his ability to reveal the internal character of his subjects.