Photographs and memories

- John L. Silva () - July 28, 2009 - 12:00am

MANILA, Philippines - Collecting photographs appeals to people who love history, are curious about the past and who like photography. Photographs are mirror images of a moment in time. Written or verbal descriptions simply cannot match a photograph’s exactitude.

My own love for photographs arose from my interest in history. In my high school days, history textbooks contained few photographs, usually muddy-looking. Captions were often lacking and even erroneous. When I first found in an antique store a clear albumen image of President Emilio Aguinaldo, in full uniform and signed by him, I was hooked on old photographs. I became even more enthralled with history. Images substantiated words. Images embellished and rounded our rich past.

I was drawn to and was curious about the Filipino sitters who first posed for a photograph. They had never seen such a strange device and were probably fearful of the camera lens’ near approximation to a barrel of a gun or small cannon. They probably had never seen their images captured on paper and so they looked quite apprehensive or downright sullen. If they did see their images, they may have attributed it to sorcery, thus increasing their hostility to a box that captured their spirits.

I collect photographs that document the Filipino-American War because this part of history was not discussed in textbooks. For many years after the war, there were few accounts about Aguinaldo’s fledgling republic fighting the American government for control of the country. My first inkling of such a war was when I read early anti-imperialist documents. When I first saw photographs of Filipino revolucionarios in military gear crouched behind fortifications, the historical fact became real — human forms that revealed in their faces aspirations and love of freedom. It would not be exaggeration to say I became more Filipino when I discovered these photographs.

I collect photographs of Philippine cultural communities for their inherent beauty and honesty — a sort of re-envisioning after being told at a young age to fear them, discriminate against them, and to be contemptuous of their way of life. Time and progress have altered their lives. They no longer live in the same cultural milieu. Their environment has dramatically changed, deteriorated. Early photographs show ancestors with personal adornment, utensils and household artifacts no longer in use today. For the amateur anthropologist in us, these old photographs become invaluable archival resource material.

I have been collecting studio-taken photographs of people, from their inception as cartes-de-visite in the mid-19th century to studio photography of the late 1950s. In such a short period, there has been a whirl of changes in fashion, in poses and even in physiognomy that are of sustaining interest to me and provides answers to norms and customs still practiced today or lost forever. I am reminded of beautiful Filipina circa 1870s posed seated with half-open fan on her bosom revealing her unmarried status. This as well as many other symbolic gestures have disappeared but reveal much about propriety and nuances of the past.

Photographs of native and colonial architecture are also important to our generation. I have seen in my own lifetime the disappearance of the native thatched hut in its various regional forms. They have been replaced with concrete blocks and corrugated roofs completely alien to the landscape. If the trend is for native architecture to disappear in the next few decades, these photographs become important recollections of indigenous construction.

Those are my preferences and my reasons for collecting Philippine photographs. You might be interested in the history of your family and in tracing your ancestry through photographs. Or you might take an interest in photography solely about your province. You may even wish to collect old photographs of other countries. Whatever subject it may be, choose that which you find interesting and you will sustain your interest over the long haul. I started collecting photographs in 1972 and have not stopped.

Be open to changes because your interests may evolve in the course of time. I’ve become more interested recently in finding and collecting photographs of Philippine buildings of the Spanish and American colonial period because we are losing these structures by the day. Photographs are visual documentaries of vanished buildings. Since I am now involved in preserving old buildings, these photographs help me strengthen the argument that old buildings are worth saving. Many times, these buildings were photographed when they were just completed, gleaming and majestic.

Choosing a photograph to collect is an acquired practice. I first chose photographs willy-nilly, anything and everything, as long as it had to do with the Philippines. I am more finicky now that prices of photographs have soared. Aside from cost, it also makes sense to choose photographs that are in good condition, that are clear, and that are significant in content.

When cheap Kodak cameras came into existence, everyone took pictures. Most of them were snapshots of inconsequential subjects and little effort was made to make the picture pleasing. I have several albums of photographs taken in the Philippines by American soldiers at the turn of the 20th century. The greater number of these photographs are of soldiers posed, their quarters revealed and their daily lives captured. I have since refrained from automatically purchasing soldier albums unless there are important Philippine views interspersed in them.

Eventually, after having reviewed tens of thousands of photographs, one develops an aesthetic for images. I can glean, among the many photos, a work that stands out because there were serious aesthetic considerations applied by the photographer. You can sense it in the composition, in the subject matter, and in the technical quality of the image.

In late 19th-century photography, the most distinguished photographer was Francisco Van Kamp, a foreigner with a Manila studio. His portraits of Filipina women are unsurpassed. It helped that he selected very beautiful women, but he also was able to put them at ease, coaxing them to a moment where they revealed a confidence and a sensuality not seen in any other studio work of that era. In addition, the photographs are superior technically so that they survive today in fairly good condition without having faded or corrupted.

The most common 19th-century photographs you will find are albumen prints, often referred to as sepia prints. Invented by Louis-Desire Blanquart in 1850, the print is made by floating paper in a mixture of albumen (egg white) and salt and then light-sensitive silver or as stereographic photographs which, when viewed through a stereoscope, produce three-dimensional pictures.

Cartes-de-visite were portable photographs to be given as visual mementos to friends and acquaintances. The backing usually had the name of the photographer and the address. Some of the earliest known photography studios were shoe of W.W. Wood, Albert Honiss and Francisco Van Kamp. Aside from cares-de-visite, Honiss and Van Kamp produced large album-size photographs of local scenes and portraits that are superior both in technical process and aesthetic rendering.

Stereographic photographs or “stereos” were often sold as sets featuring different countries. There are sterios of late 19th century Philippines that featured some tribal groups, earthquake devastation and rural scenes, but these are difficult to find. More numerous are photographs of the Philippines taken at the turn of the century and during the Philippine-American War. Taken by James Ricalton and sold by Underwood & Underwood, the largest purveyor of stereoptic photographs, the Philippine set was sold in the tens of thousands and introduced the new colony to the American people.

There are photographs that have been color-tinted by hand, a precursor to color photography. And, if you collect photographs that can be dated after 1912, they will very likely be gelatin silver prints. The process results in a paler silvery tone and dominates black-and-white photographic processing until today.

Finding photographs is a satisfying adventure in and of itself. In the Philippines, there are antique and second-hand stores that have old photographs in stock. If you develop a relationship with these dealers, you can tell them about your particular interests and they will be on the lookout for what you collect. There are numismatic associations that occasionally hold fairs and auctions and will have photographs included in their sales. You will also meet other photograph collectors and you can exchange information and trade.

Abroad, there are stores specializing only in old photographs. But do not bypass the regular antique stores that will often have a box of photos. There are collectibles also in trade fairs where there is usually a section devoted to old photographs and postcards. Antiquarian bookstores occasionally have photographs to sell. Old and rare books on the Philippines often have good photo illustrations and sometimes identify a photo you might possess.

Closer to home you may actually come into a large number of photographs just by asking your parents, grandparents and other relatives. Oftentimes they have no interest in such things and would gladly part with them if they know you will care for the heirlooms. I have gotten a significant number of photographs from relatives and friends and have been able to piece a pictorial history of my Iloilo and Negros relatives and their lives. In so doing I have developed a greater interest in these two provinces and my ancestry.

In the quarter of a century that I have been collecting photographs, I feel like I have actually lived longer than my own lifetime. I look down present-day Escolta and see, aside from the present scene, a street with two-story stone and wooden buildings complete with horse-drawn carriages and people of another era. I look at a suburban landscape and see not only sprouting buildings but also lush rice fields. I meet a person and visually connect him to his great-great-grandfather whose image I know. A photograph, a momentary image, has ironically extended my ability to recall more than my expected lifespan.

Old photographs have given me greater confidence and courage in saving our architectural heritage and old customs. I have had the good fortune to see thousands of photographs of old Manila and other Philippine cities and marvel at their architectural charm. War, natural and man-made disasters have bludgeoned many of these cities into their present squalid appearance. The remaining edifices, though deteriorated and worn, conceal their splendor and there is a natural instinct in me to protect them. Photography has made me, and others like me, become stewards of our nation’s heritage. This endeavor began with a simple love for old photographs.

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Reprinted from Consuming Passions: Philippine Collectibles, edited by Jaime C. Laya, and published by Anvil Publishing Inc., 2003.

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