Ahead of his upcoming talk at the Palo Alto Photo Forum, Tomas van Houtryve discusses how his latest work takes aim at the “collective amnesia” of U.S. history
The American West has never been short on mythology.
Blame that on Hollywood or Manifest Destiny, the Marlboro Man, moonshine or every John Wayne movie ever made. Regardless of one source or another, there is simply no shortage of hyperbole when it comes to popular perceptions of “the Wild West.”
A bit less obvious within the equation of Western mythmaking is the general lack of visual documentation from the era prior to the Gold Rush. Although photography had just arrived as a new medium, it had yet to be fully applied from sea to shining sea, leaving a notable gap within the historical record during a formative moment in the West.
Award-winning photographer (and California native) Tomas van Houtryve picked up on this visual vacuum at a time when issues of borders and national security had migrated to the forefront of current debate. Intent on giving the region’s pre-American history some exposure, he began compiling his latest photo project, Lines and Lineage, in an attempt to visualize the people and places from this unseen era.
The result is a stirring (large format) black and white photo series which showcases portraits of individuals with family roots dating back to the continent’s Hispanic-era borders. Juxtaposed against landscapes of the region, these images work as a launching point into an increasingly untold history, and combating what van Houtyve characterizes as a “collective amnesia” within the West.
Ahead of his upcoming lecture with the Palo Alto Photo Forum, Tomas spoke with us about his latest project, the history of the US/Mexico border and the problem with fourth graders making models of Spanish Missions out of popsicle sticks.
So how did you initially come to this project and what was your impulse for pursuing it?
A couple of different things had come together. One, was that I got interested in the history of photography because I live in France and it was invented here back in 1839, so I started looking at the oldest photos that I could find of where I live in France. And then I got curious about what were the oldest photographers for where I grew up in California, as well. I’ve been living in France for over ten years, but I grew up in California and what I realized through my research is that photography took a little while to get to California. Even though it was invented during the era which was the Mexican rule period of California, it didn’t really arrive until the United States conquered what we call the American West. So, as far as I can tell, there is very little photographic record of that [pre-American] period, which I feel piles upon other tendencies of not talking about that period.
Fourth grade is when they teach you about early California history in California. It’s the one and only time they teach you any California history [about the time period] before the United States annexed California. And what they make most students do is a project about one of the Spanish Colonial missions. The most common thing you would have to do is build a mission, adobe style, using sugar cubes and popsicle sticks. And then that’s basically all you’ve learned about early California history. From there, they move on and you never hear about it again, unless you decide in college to specialize in it. So most people have a very limited sense for what happened in California before 1849 and the Gold Rush.
Borders and national identity are such a big topic now all around the world — to what degree did that factor into your perspective on making this project?
Well, it absolutely did, thought I’ve been fascinated with borders for many years now. For example, back in 2012 I did a photographic project about the borders of North Korea. So I followed the whole border between North Korea and China. And then the DMZ between North and South Korea. My father is from Belgium (which is my European link), and the country is split in two by a language border, where one side speaks French and the other side speaks Dutch, and so several years ago I walked along this language border, sleeping in a Dutch-speaking house one night and a French-speaking house another.
But I think I was definitely compelled to do something about the US/Mexico border now at this time because of how it came up in politics: that it was the main campaign pitch of Trump when he was a candidate, and his ideas of reinforcing the border. And I felt that that conversation was just lacking in so much perspective and history, as well as being based on very easy, superficial thinking that was more on fear, patriotism and national security. Whereas if you speak to a Mexican or a legacy Hispanic family that’s been here, they don’t say, “we crossed the border,” they say “the border crossed us.” And this just seems completely forgotten in the run up to the 2016 elections, which was around the time I started thinking about this project.
But what solidified it for me was that I do a lot of high school visits, working with a foundation called the Pulitzer Center which gives grants to photographers. So I was teaching in high school classes right after the 2016 elections and I remember the Hispanic high school kids were just terrified about bullying and deportation. And I thought, I really want to come back to these schools with a project that would make them feel like they belong in this country in a way that reflects the true history of the West.
So this has become one of my favorite projects because it brings together my love of photography, where I grew up and then these overlooked but really deep thoughts about the current border debate.
I’ve always found it fascinating that the field of history doesn’t embrace photography more as a medium for conveying information, and I was wondering if that was on your radar while you working on this?
I think that of all the artistic mediums out there, photography is the best one for the purposes of memory. Like if you show people a movie, they are less likely to remember it than if you show them a still photo. So I think photos hit above their weight, they have an outsized impact upon our memories, and in this sense they should be used for teaching history.
And the more I did research the more I realized that there was this really strong photographic archive of the West that had a huge impact on pop culture. So once the US took over California there are tons of pictures of the Gold Rush, of railroads arriving, of cowboys, and all over the West basically. If you looked today and did a Google search on Western movies, you can tell that the leading actors were very directly inspired by this early photography of the West. So it’s incredible that this seed of photography that was planted in the West spread out, but it just missed the Hispanic period, which I feel gets swept under the rug for numerous reasons: first is the missing photographic archive, and the other reason is that winners write the history, so it was Anglo settlers rather than defeated Hispanics who wrote the history. And then there is racism and patriotism rolled in there too. So you put it all together and you get this collective amnesia that almost no one in California remembers what this period was like. So I thought, “Wow, here’s a hole that I can fill with this photographic project.”
What about the region as a whole, because it’s not just limited to California? I was wondering how your experiences differed from one region to the next, because it’s a diverse area in a variety of ways.
Yeah, first, I was shocked by how diverse the landscape was, because we do see a lot of photos today of the current US/Mexico border, and those reinforce this idea we have about it being a very arid desert place (like if you imagine the US/Mexico border, the average person will think of a fence running through a desert landscape with sage brush or something like that).
But if you look at the old border, it is going through areas that had glaciers and redwood trees. So it is some of the most diverse and majestic land that you have in what’s now the United States. And the [current] border doesn’t go through any national parks, so it’s a wild area that is off the beaten path. So to follow this line made me discover the land in a new way and I was shocked by the level of beauty and diversity along the way. And from a human point of view, the people that I met were very, very different.
One of the things that was very fascinating was going to Santa Fe, New Mexico, and learning about the history there, which turned on its head what I had learned about the United States while growing up. I think that often when we are told about the history of the United States it is told from an East Coast point of view. So we celebrate Thanksgiving and every kid knows about the Mayflower, the landing at Plymouth Rock, how the pilgrims dressed and things like that. But actually, Santa Fe, New Mexico, was settled before any of that happened. There was actually a church built in Santa Fe in 1610 which predates Plymouth or Jamestown or any of these English speaking colonies that popped up on the East Coast. So I thought, “History was taught to me backwards,” which, if a big turning point in this land was when European people met with indigenous people, then we should be talking about Santa Fe and New Mexico before we should be talking about the East Coast. When you go to Santa Fe, more people are conscious of that than in California, you don’t have the same kind of collective amnesia, and people are quite proud of their history there.
All the photos seem instantly rich with stories in terms of the people and the landscapes that they portray. So for instance, the images of Anastacio Bonnie Sanchez and the site of San Geronimo Church Massacre immediately jumps out as a launching point into that particular history.
It completely is. This was something that I didn’t know about — the San Geronimo Church Massacre — until I did research for this project and went to New Mexico. And it is a really important photograph for the project, because the church that you see is actually a ruin from the Mexican-American War, which had started in Texas but then U.S. troops very quickly rolled into New Mexico, and then they almost immediately named a governor. And that governor was then assassinated by pueblo warriors, so the United States army came up to Santa Fe from Taos for revenge. And the people there knew they were coming, so 150 women and children hid inside this church and the U.S. army surrounded and bombarded it, killing all these people inside of it. And so they decided to keep the ruins up as a monument to that massacre. You would think that this is something that we would know about. It really anchors this piece because the destruction happens in the historical period that I’m trying to speak about.
And then for each person I did a long sit-down interview with them. I only accepted people whose first relative came to America before 1848, and then I asked how far back they can remember photos in their family, and then I asked them about family identity (“What do you call yourself?”). So I tried to see how they forged their identity.
What I think is interesting of that photo of Anastacio is that he’s wearing a cowboy hat. And here’s another thing I hadn’t really put thought into before this project: The whole cowboying [aesthetic] (and cowboy hats in particular) have become these icons of the American West through movies and later through things like Marlboro commercials and things like that. But this didn’t come from Anglo-American culture at all, right? When settlers came from the East Coast they were wearing top hats and bowler hats. It was the Hispanic vaqueros who first brought horses into what is the Americas now, and started out with this great horsemanship and things like that. So this is completely Hispanic culture which, without as much of a footnote, has been taken over wholesale and seen as iconic American culture.
Can you tell me a bit about your photographic process? Because you’re working in a much older, slower photographic process, and here we are in the age of iPhones and Instagram, so I’m just curious about your approach.
Seeing it from an outside point of view, this project looks like a huge pain in the ass because you have to start with cut pieces of glass, polish them down, pour chemicals, set up your camera and develop it all before your chemicals are dry. So if I can take ten glass plate photos in a day, that would be a marathon picture taking day. Just three or four would be a normal day.
But from a personal point of view, it’s like I rediscovered the joy in photography. Because I started out working in the dark room as a photo student around 1997, where I first learned a little bit of black and white photography. Then over time with the technology I went digital too (around 2001), and I felt like a lot of the magic of the process was lost along the way. At the end of the day I was just spending tons of time staring at my computer screen editing pictures, which seemed like losing the physical nature of the process, of actually dealing with objects; and also, the satisfaction of trying something that is a difficult craft and actually getting it to turn out right, rather than just outsourcing that to algorithms, computer processes and filters.
So this process has brought me this amazing sense of joy. And the other thing that I think helps from a photographer’s point of view is that you have to put a lot more thought into a shot before you actually do it. Which is a very different process where you shoot everything and then weed out the bad stuff and find something good among the thousands of pictures, rather than the process of looking at all kinds of situations and deciding where you want to spend your next hour, because you’ll probably only get one glass plate out of an hour of photography. So I think that reversal was really helpful and satisfying for me as well.
Tomas van Houtryve will be discussing his imagery in conjunction with the Palo Alto Photo Forum on Friday, May 4th, at 7.30pm at the Mitchell Park Community Center in Palo Alto. Buy tickets for the event here.
Follow Tomas on Instagram @tomasvh
See more of his work at www.tomasvh.com