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Melítón Rodríguez, Carolina Carballo, Medellín Colombia, 1899

Meliton Rodriguez (1875-1942)
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.

During his 50-year career, Melitón Rodríguez made portraits of the leading figures of Medellín society and documented the economic development of the city. Born in Medellín, he grew up in a cultured household frequented by engineers, artists and businessmen. At the age of sixteen, he was introduced to photography through books and a camera brought to him from Paris.

He went to Paris to study medicine in the early 1890s and found himself fascinated by the world of photography.  In 1892, Melitón Rodríguez returned to Medellín to set himself up as a professional photographer. He did extensive documentation of the building of the new city - its streets, public buildings, the new railroad, factories and mines. He socialized with the city’s intelligentsia and he became well known for his portraits of the new bourgeoisie and their families.

At his death, Melitón Rodríguez left behind a well-organized archive of approximately 80,000 negatives. The archive is now part of the collection of the Biblioteca Pública Piloto in Medellín. With the re-discovery of his work in the early 1990’s, he has had numerous one-person exhibitions in Colombia.