- Portraits in the Andes: Photography and Agency 1900–1950 by Jorge Coronado
While working on another project, Jorge Coronado discovered a portrait of two Andean miners that immediately struck him as evidence of both "the imitation of observed behavior" and "an act of self-fabrication" (2–3). Following this instinct, he argues in this work that while most literature on photography in Latin American culture has taken a top-down approach in viewing photography as a tool imposed on the population by the elite, there is ample evidence that subaltern communities expressed desire and agency to use photography to claim their place in modernity and project their own image of self. Therefore, he proposes that photography, and especially the practice of portrait-making, should be understood as a "directed visual practice" that demonstrates "social subjects' active and agential engagement with the world" (14).
The author engages with the Latin American concept of the "letrados," or lettered elite, arguing that visual texts such as photographs are a vital component of literacy, a literacy that can and does include the unlettered rural and indigenous populations of the Andean region. A particular trait of photography in the first half of the twentieth century was its accessibility, which in turn offered agency to subaltern and marginalized groups in ways that traditional literacy and the valorization of lettered elites did not. In other words, photography presented an opportunity for the non-lettered to make their own contribution to the social understanding of modernity, which "stands in stark contrast to writing's tendency to ostracize while actively representing the marginalized" (62).
Coronado distinguishes theoretical differences between photographs made for identification purposes, such as mug shots, which strip identity by rendering individuals as members of a serial set, and those made as true portraits, which typically include markers such as specific clothing, setting, and props in order to perform the desired identity. As befitting societies in the process of transitioning to modern capitalism, the relationship of the subject to the practice of portrait-making is a relationship of consumption. Photography and portraiture became commodities that could be acquired for a price, reproduced, and displayed or distributed among private social networks. Finally, photography could even act as a means by which individuals could negotiate and escape the constraints of social and ethnic hierarchies.
Coronado has unearthed a trove of Andean portraits using library and museum archives and various private collections, including individual photographs from family albums and archives inherited by the grandchildren of photographers discussed in the text. He has also conducted interviews with descendants of photographers and others who participated in [End Page 462] the practice of making portraits during this period. Nevertheless, much of the argument rests on the author's own subjective interpretations of photographic subjects' facial expressions, posture, props, and clothing.
Coronado's background in literature and cultural studies is apparent, as he references classics of Latin American literature and offers extended commentary on numerous cultural theories and concepts ranging from alterity, hybridity, and modernity to consumption, indigenismo, and social differentiation. In fact, a good deal of the text spends more time on these theoretical underpinnings than on the concrete and physical practice of photographing and being photographed. The chapter on consumption, for example, contains almost no specific examples of the cited theories other than a postcard and the fact that Cuzco photographers had steady business.
This work may be too theoretical for lower-level undergraduate courses, but more advanced students and researchers of visual culture, and of the subaltern in general, will appreciate that Coronado situates portrait photography within the larger discussion of lettered practices, representation, agency, modernity, and consumption. Furthermore, his insistence that photography, far from being a rote or mechanical process devoid of meaning, implies a rich and symbolic engagement with the world is a refreshing take on the social significance of photographic practices. [End Page 463]