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Nineteenth-Century Photography
by John L. Silva
Date: 4/2/2008

Photography is first mentioned in the Philippines in 1841, just three years after the invention of the daguerreotype. That year, Don Sinibaldo de Más, a spy for the Spanish King, arrived in the colony to record conditions there and to make recommendations. But he received a cold welcome from wary officials and, running short of funds, became an itinerant photographer to keep himself alive. Unfortunately, none of his work has been found.

The earliest known photographs are stereoscopic pictures taken in 1860 of Tingguian tribeswomen in the northeastern island of Luzon. They were photographed by an unidentified Frenchman and formed part of a larger set featuring the peoples of Polynesia and sold as commercial views in Europe. As early as 1840, French photographers were taking daguerreotypes of South Pacific inhabitants.

Photography had early uses as a documentary tool. In 1863, when a severe earthquake hit Manila, numerous photographs were taken of half-crumbled church bell towers, collapsed roofs and shattered stone walls. Other photographs from the same period show the extent of damage inflicted by typhoons.

By the 1860s, three known photo studios were operating in Manila, all of them bearing their owners’ names. W.W. Wood, Albert Honiss and Pedro Picon photographed, and produced on cartes-des-visites format, various laboring Filipinos (then called indios) with their wares. Painted Italianate and English garden backdrops provided comical incongruence.

In 1865, Honiss was commissioned to photograph the operations of Russel & Sturgis Company, then the largest American hemp and sugar trader in the country. Honiss’s photographs of hemp factories, godowns and regional offices in Albay, Iloilo, Cebu, and the architectural vistas of Manila remain the most extensive collection of nineteenth-century Philippines by one photographer.

In the 1870s, anthropologists arrived in the Philippines carrying cameras to document indigenous life. Most notable of these expeditions were those by the Germans Dr. A. Schadenberg and A.B. Meyer (1872), The Frenchmen M.J. Montano, Paul Rey, and Edward Marche (1879), and the Americans Dr. J.B. Steere and Dean C. Worcester (1887). Hundreds of pounds of chemicals, fragile glass plates, and bulky cameras were transported over mountains and across islands to photograph tribal groups. Schadenberg’s findings, published in 1885 as Album de Tipos Filipinos Luzon Norte, included over 600 photos of Negritos, Tingguianes, Banaos, Guinaanes, Silipanes, Kalingas, Apayaos, Quianganes, Igorots, and Ilocanos. An even more prolific photographer was Worcester (he became secretary of the interior under the American colonial government) who took over 4,500 photographs of numerous tribes, particularly the Mountain Province peoples of North Luzon.

Although the photographs were ostensibly for research study, front- and side-view shots of tribal persons revealed a dated but vicious use of the medium. The exactness of photographs made the study of human body measurements possible. Varying skull and physique sizes proved the variety of biological types, which in turn was used to prove the superiority of some races to others. In more than a few cases, photographers arranged the pose, subtracted or added clothing (depending on the photographer’s virtues) and rearranged adornment and background décor. Still, the jewelry, utensils, clothing, artifacts, tools, and whole tribes captured on treated paper are now visual testimonies to a way of life that has all but vanished from Philippine society.

With the extensive expansion of the export crop trade in the last two decades of the nineteenth century came the growth of a wealthy Filipino class eager to show their new status on albumen print. On the Escolta and in the wealthy suburbs of Manila sprang up a profusion of photo studios with names like Fotografía Venus, Fotografía Artística, Fotografía La Paz, and La Fotografía Gustosa. Fotografía Enrique Schuen had for its advertising logo “By Appointment to His Majesty, King of Siam,” no doubt drew sitters desiring immortality via a photographer of royalty.

This period was marked by a growing photo aesthetic. Gone were the stiff poses and quizzical looks of earlier Filipino subjects; in their place, a casual charm and grace. Family portraits reveal less stinted and more affectionate poses. The photographer Francisco Van Camp gained renown for his ability to capture the sensual air of strikingly beautiful women.

As the century drew to a close, the most dramatic impact of photography was the introduction of photographic illustrations in local magazines. Until then there had been only Europeanized versions of indigenous Filipinos drawn by Spanish artists. La Ilustracíon Filipina, a weekly social magazine in the 1880s, contained drawings of Filipino peasants in stylized costumes with Western facial features. When the first foto-litografía appeared in the magazine in 1892, accurate representations of native peoples began. Filipino men and women swathed in indigenous fibers with elaborate embroidery were finally, and faithfully, reflected on paper. Churches, buildings, houses, and huts all bore architectural features unique from those of the mother country. Iberian forms and shadows may have been revealed at first glance, but on closer scrutiny a nascent but distinct national imprint emerged in the images.

Spain’s colonial grip on the Philippines began to slip in the latter half of the nineteenth century as the population urged reforms and later forcibly demanded complete independence. Manuel Arias Rodriguez, a wealthy Spanish book dealer and amateur photographer, was sympathetic to the revolutionary ferment. While selling Dr. Jose Rizal’s two novels on the sly, he undertook a personal odyssey: he photographed his comfortable surroundings and treks to distant provinces. When the Katipunan launched its revolution, Arias photographed the arrival in Manila of Spanish military reinforcements to counter the offensive. He followed Spaniards as they bombarded rebellious towns. His series on the Filipino-Spanish war constitutes the most important body of images surrounding that conflict and is precarious evidence of the ferocity and determination of a subjugated people. In December 1897, Arias followed Spanish negotiators to the mountain stronghold of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo and there documented the proceedings resulting in the cessation of hostilities and the exile of Aguinaldo. Inadvertently or by design, Arias photographed a dignified general resplendent in his uniform. It is the finest extant example of heroic portraiture.

In 1897, an original photograph of Rizal’s execution, very sharp and in fairly good condition, was found in a flea market in Pennsylvania, USA. Its discovery was an important find for Philippine historical photography, even though similar photographic illustrations have appeared in out-of-print books and several other photographs of the execution are reported to exist.

This particular photograph was taken only seconds before Rizal was shot and the crowd shouted “Viva España” and lingered a while to make sure the subversive was truly dead. For the viewer a hundred years, even a thousand years hence, the photograph suspends the impending death. Rizal is a diminutive figure accentuated by his black suit and bowler hat. He is facing the bay, his arms bound to his back. A row of light posts traces an imaginary line separating him from rows of soldiers; those on the first row have their rifles raised and aimed at him. There are two robed priests and a dog near the executioners. In the foreground, at the very center of the photograph, stands a tall, thin tree with no leaves or branches, apparently dead. We breathe Rizal’s ultimate sigh. We gaze at the ultimate morning view.

In this Centennial year, photography on Philippine history enables us to recollect our heroes. It will do the same for generations to come.

(Top Photo) Sun Studio: Two elegant young men posing at Sun Studio, located next door to then fashionable Binondo Church, 1920 (from A Philippine Album, page 34).

(Middle Photo) Escolta: Early 1900s photograph of Escolta, showing new development. (from The World of 1896, page 143)

(Bottom Photo) Van Camp: Servant and water carrier, Manila, 1875, photograph attributed to Francisco Van Camp. (from The World of 1896, page 140)

Source: From The World of 1896, Bookmark Inc., 1998, pp. 138-143


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