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Archbishop Ricardo Estrada Casanova [Monseñor Ricardo Estrada Casanova], Guatemala, c. 1880-1916

Juan José de Jesús Yas (1844-1917)
Antigua, Gutaemala

In colonial Latin America and for most of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Spanish Catholicism was more than a religious presence. It constituted the backbone of the government and the basis of social and political culture. Alongside the military and landed interests, it remained one of the richest and most powerful forces in Latin America throughout the 1800s.

In the countries with predominantly indigenous populations, the Catholic Church and its clergy were important purveyors of European colonial values, ritual, and hierarchy.  Ornate religious ceremonies and artifacts, the elaborate dress of various levels of Catholic clergy, the elaborate Baroque facades and sheer size of church structures marked the presence of the colonial Catholicism in Latin America and its hold over indigenous peoples.

There are few photographic studies of the Catholic Church as haunting as the work of this Japanese-born photographer.  Juan José de Jesús Yas was born Kohei Yasu in Fujisawa, Japan. He converted to Catholicism after he went to Central America in 1877 with Francisco Díaz Covarrubias, a noted nineteenth-century Mexican astronomer for whom Mr. Yas worked as an interpreter. Through Mr. Díaz Covarrubias, he met a Mexican photographer Agustín Barroso and became fascinated with photography. When he later accompanied Mr. Díaz Covarrubias on a scientific trip to Guatemala, he began to study photography with two well-known Guatemalan photographers.

Mr. Yas set up his own studio, Fotografía Japonesa, in Guatemala City in 1890. After converting to Catholicism shortly thereafter, he moved to Antigua, where he opened a new portrait studio. He developed a lifelong passion for photographing the clergy, churches, and ritual objects. He became well known for his documentation of life in Antigua and for striking portraits of Catholicism in Guatemala.

Mr. Yas did his portraiture work primarily in his studio. He spent much time painting scenes for his studio backdrops and collecting rocks, plants, and ornaments to enhance the environment of his portraits. Today, the Yas archives are part of the Centro de Investigaciones Regionales de Mesoamérica in Antigua, Guatemala.