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With the arrival of the daguerreotype in Río de la Plata, in 1840, the photography industry was immediately monopolized by portrait photographers. By 1850 there were already more than ten daguerreotype photographers in both Buenos Aires and Montevideo, the two main cities on either side of the river. The majority were traveling foreigners, who frequently moved their studios between the two banks. Local society welcomed this new technology with enthusiasm and praised its representational perfection and its powerful verisimilitude. However, the high cost of the first daguerreotypes made portraiture an item of prestige and social differentiation, reserved only for those who were well-to-do. Far from the instantaneous photography of the early 21st century, daguerreotype portraits involved lengthy exposure times. This meant that they were highly staged, according to the attitudes, expectations, and motivations (conscious or unconscious), of the photographer, the subject, and the society in which these works were created. Through expertly arranged costumes, scenery, and poses, the bourgeoisie of Río de la Plata communicated and immortalized the prejudices, behaviors, and opinions specific to their class. With the emergence of paper photography and the growth of standardized formats, such as the carte de visite, c. 1855, photography transcended class boundaries for the first time. In this period the portrait acquired a commemorative function associated with the consolidation of new genres, such as post-mortem portraits, wedding portraits, and First Communion portraits, pictures meant to immortalize important family events. During this time large photography studios appeared, with new and luxurious facilities, in which the photographic compositions would become much more sophisticated and theatrical. For the local elite the decision to have their portraits taken was an act of expressing their identity; for certain social subjects, however, being photographed, invariably through the imposition of the operator, and with no agency in the representation of their own image, photography functioned as an instrument of privilege used to construct otherness. During this period the development of disciplines such as anthropology, criminology, and psychiatry, which sought to record and classify everything that did not conform with the normalized homogeneity of the time, made photography the ideal tool to identify those “others” for whom there was no space in respectable society or who fulfilled a negative role in it.

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For historians of the Spanish Americas indigenous portraits and casta paintings offer two distinctive lenses for understanding the relationships between indigeneity and colonialism. Both genres of painting anchor indigenous bodies and subjectivities in the racialized practices that were constitutive of, and crucial to, colonialism in the Americas. Indigenous portraits record individual biographies and family histories, offering scholars of the present insights into the lives of people whose desires rarely surface in prose sources. Indigenous portraits also document the economic and material investments people were willing to make in preserving images of lives well lived. In the colonial past, as in the present, indigenous portraits therefore speak to the ways social ambitions fueled identity formation. Cuadros de castas, or casta paintings, are a genre of painting invented and painted in the Spanish Americas in the late 17th and 18th centuries. Casta paintings, like indigenous portraits, describe status and economic wealth; their main aim, however, was to portray the ethnic mixing and concomitant racialized thinking in colonial society. According to the iconography and composition of casta paintings, the mixing of people from Europe, Africa, and the Americas could be ordered and organized such that everyone seemed to have a place and appropriate ethnic designation. Today, casta paintings are understood as persuasive works of art that presented an idealized, hierarchical view of urban life. The painters and patrons of indigenous portraits and casta paintings participated in networks formed by habits of material exchange, patterns of urban mobility, and practices linked to Catholic religious beliefs. Some of these networks stretched across the Americas; others were bound to trade and travel across the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The histories referenced in indigenous portraits and casta paintings should be understood, then, as tethered to local concerns, global economies, and cosmopolitan ambitions.