We often forget that the boundary between the United States and Mexico was not always where it is today. It used to be seven hundred miles farther north, following what is now the state line between Oregon and California and running east to Wyoming before zagging southeast to Louisiana. Originally home to the indigenous peoples of the region, much of this land was Spanish and then Mexican territory for centuries before becoming what we now think of as the American West.
Spanish colonists and missionaries settled here beginning in 1598. In 1821, Mexico won independence from Spain, and by the middle of the century, it was in some ways far more advanced than its neighbor to the northeast. It abolished slavery shortly after independence; black Mexicans soon gained prominent positions, and indigenous people were given the right to vote. All this came to an end in 1848, when the United States seized half of Mexico’s land and created the border that we know today.
The well-known visual record of the American West — dominated by photos of cowboys and white settlers, the Gold Rush and the arrival of the railroads — was created after 1848. Images from the Mexican era, on the other hand, were never fixed in our memory: Mexican administration ended before photographic technology, revealed in Paris in 1839, arrived in the region. Using glass plates and a nineteenth-century camera to photograph landscapes along the original border and create portraits of descendants of early inhabitants, this project imagines what that history might look like.
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Tomas van Houtryve is a photographer based in Paris.
More from Tomas van Houtryve:
Art, Monday Gallery — October 10, 2016, 8:00 am
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Marie Cosindas, who was born in Boston in September 1923 and who died in the same city in May of this year at age 93, made photographs of such potency that they seem magical, dependent on something beyond mere sleight of hand for their mesmerizing effects and unified mood, so that the experience of looking at a selection of them is like watching a single sentence unfurl over several pages, driven along by an invisible inner consistency, not unlike the atmosphere of imaginative abundance that Gabriel García Márquez evoked in his novel “One Hundred Years of Solitude,” an atmosphere he used as the backdrop for the dense saga of the Buendía family in the mythical town of Macondo, and especially in his account of the magician Melquíades, a “heavy Gypsy with an untamed beard and sparrow hands,” a bearer of dazzling and arcane knowledge, including visions of the present and the future, as well as the secrets of optics, telescopes and magnetism, so that many different kinds of insight seem to find a natural unity inside him, and whose work re-emerges in the final pages of the novel in Sanskrit parchments, with “the even lines in the private cipher of the Emperor Augustus and the odd ones in a Lacedaemonian military code,” the inscrutabilities layered on one another to arrive at a startling lucidity of the kind that might be experienced by someone whose tangled dreams, regardless of their wildness or relentlessness, give way to a pure vision of wakefulness, though not the uninflected wakefulness of one who rises in early morning to a hot and innocent white light but rather the shadowed knowingness of one who has slept all day and awakes to the infinitesimally graded colors of a deepening evening, a moodiness recognizable to any viewer of Cosindas’s photographs, which make the most of small, dark spaces, a talent that perhaps originated in her being the eighth of 10 children raised by Greek immigrant parents in a small apartment in Boston’s South End, just as her experience as a child attending her parents’ Greek Orthodox church, with its gilded Byzantine icons and busy walls, was possibly the origin of her luminous sense of color and the suggestion of incense even when there is no smoke to be seen, a dimension of her work which certainly did not arrive instantaneously, though it did finally arrive, after she had worked as a painter and also as a photographer in black and white, including time spent in the workshop of Ansel Adams, whose grayscale lessons she abandoned in order to take up color with an alchemical force that is reminiscent of the great Amsterdam painter Rachel Ruysch, a widely celebrated artist in the very first rank of still-life painters of the Dutch golden age, who was active from the final quarter of the 17th century until shortly before her death in 1750 at age 86, and who, moreover, was one of very few women to be feted in that profession, and who outgrew both her botanist father and painter husband, outshining them in reputation as she consolidated both botanical and artistic knowledge, while raising 10 children, to produce ferociously accurate bouquets of flowers, some of which were literal works of fiction that showed in a single vase blooms that would have been seen in life only in different seasons but which through the magical art of painting could permanently be brought together, each precisely painted and often accompanied by equally fine depictions of marble plinths, tabletops, vases and insects, the entire arrangement set against a dark background, as was the vogue during the maturity of Dutch floral painting, a branch of art that was the elevation of the most modest and domestic material into an intensity that approached the sublime, a gift given to only a few: to leverage the ordinary into the glorious, to turn the soft petals of flowers into a flamelike radiance,
much as Cosindas carefully selected subject matter and, through technical know-how and visual intelligence — a skillful deployment of lighting, filters, exposure times, developing times and ambient temperature for florals but also other genres, including portraits and assemblages of objects of all kinds for which she disliked the term “still life,” rightly rejecting any connotation of stasis, and for which she preferred “arrangement” — turned it into indelible statements about what photography could achieve more than half a century after pictorialism’s heyday, with a use of color that was more soulful, by being somehow both freer and more disciplined, than what was generally seen in commercial color of the 1960s, and that came into the world earlier than the work of some other great color photography pioneers like William Eggleston, whose style was more deadpan, less arranged, less obviously artful and more in keeping with the preference of critics and curators, once they acquired a taste for it, for what art photography in color should look like, though the louche and antiquarian work that Cosindas made did result in considerable fame for her in the ’60s and ’70s, with solo exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art (before Eggleston), the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Art Institute of Chicago, but did not win her glory in most standard histories of photography, in which other artists, mostly younger than she and almost all male, are credited as the true pioneers of color, so that she came to be seen as an anomaly, neither modern nor contemporary, in part because her particular contribution to photography was mystical, sensuous, unashamed of beauty and grounded in the combination of everyday objects with exotic ones, an earnestness that fit awkwardly with the ironic and occasionally cynical tastes that dominated the last half-century but put her firmly in the line of many artists in history who were revolutionary not by founding a new school of thought but by discovering unexpected life in old approaches, not in keeping with the times but rather timeless,
committing to the idea that magic is not a question of abandoning past knowledge but instead of marshaling a vast trove of elements into a hypnotic flow, which in Cosindas’s case meant the discovery of the emotional impact that could result from making dye-diffusion transfer prints with a view camera and the way that, over time, a world of props, references and cues could be constructed into a singular artistic voice, an ensorcelled world that included flowers, vases, dolls, lace, fur, rugs, porcelain, books, chairs, oranges, asparagus, posters, ornaments, statues, dancers, dandies, sailors, tarot cards, masks and puppets, but also those portals into other worlds — paintings, mirrors and windows — that collectively constituted a highly personal vision of reality enamored of theatrical effects and attuned to the inner life of inanimate things, to the animism they harbor, a receptivity rather like that of Rainer Maria Rilke’s narrator in “The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge,” a young boy in Denmark who discovers wardrobes in which generations of costumes are kept, and who, trying them on, begins to experience their uncanny transformational power, so that even as he looks at himself in the mirror, arrayed in these strange clothes, the mirror seems to him to not quite believe its eyes and, to the boy, what is there is now “something very astonishing, strange, totally different” from what he had imagined, “something sudden, independent,” an experience that only intensifies with further episodes of dressing up until one day he disguises himself so thoroughly that he spooks himself and flees screaming from the mirror, though it should be said that a connection between the alchemy in Cosindas’s photographs and the weirdness registered by other artists is not a simple question of influence or imitation, or even a claim that magic of this kind always works in the same way, but rather that there are often similar intuitions between practitioners in this shamanic mode, all of whose work seems to be a bewitching murmur, always placid but glimmering with the possibility of ensnaring the viewer,
a paradox that is true of Cosindas’s densely woven pictures, the assemblages that she spent days putting together and that evoke spaces redolent of complexity like the kitchens of great cooks or the laboratories of ancient perfumers, spaces in which unexplained things happen, exemplified in her “Floral With Marie Cosindas Painting, Boston” (1965), “Masks, Boston” (1966) and “Memories II” (1976), grand dreams faintly fringed by nightmare, so that you no longer think only of “Marie Cosindas,” the photographer, but of “the Great Cosindas,” a Melquíades-like Magus whose photographs put you under a spell with their dashes of color and pointillist passages, their areas of deep shadow and hints at secret meaning, their winelike darkness, robust, intoxicating and dangerous, their quiet watchfulness and brooding air of enchantment, their perfect stillness and readiness to pounce, like mirrors so full of life that you could plunge right into them and only with great difficulty find a way out.Continue reading the main story
An article on Sept. 10 about the photographer Marie Cosindas misidentified the neighborhood in which she was raised. It is Boston’s South End, not South Boston.