Ann Parker: The Itinerant Photographers of Guatemala
Words: Larry Lytle
This is one of the memories Ann Parker shared with me when we spoke about her life as a fine art photographer. Parker is best known for her documentation of little-known folk art, and through her images has raised our awareness of and appreciation for it. This quote is an important one, explaining the beginnings of her wanderlust and of her dedication to expose these arts and artists to the greater world.
After college Parker lived for awhile in Italy and then volunteered to teach in Mexico for the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker assistance organization. Though not a Quaker herself, it was a way to test her pacifist convictions while living in one place, allowing her to understand the lives of others. Assigned to a small village, she enlisted the help of a famous Mexican puppeteer to show her how to use puppets to more effectively connect to her students. Listening to Parker’s story, one is struck by her drive to understand the human condition through the making of art.
It wasn’t surprising to learn that she met her future husband—the well-regarded poet, writer and artist Avon Neal (1922 – 2003)—while living in San Miguel de Allende, the Mexican city famed for its arts enclave of American expats. Neal shared his wife’s love for and interest in other cultures, which in turn began a rich 40-year collaboration researching and bringing forth a large body of work featuring overlooked folk art. This research resulted in numerous photographs, magazine articles, contributing essays, talks and museum exhibitions.
However, it was the six books they produced together that captured their love of specific folk art veins and gave its art makers and their work the widest public exposure. The subjects were notably varied: early New England gravestone carvings; the intricate fabric molas (a textile art form) made by the Cuna Indians of Panama’s San Blas Islands; Egyptian Hajj paintings, depicting the religious pilgrimage to Mecca; and the subject of this essay, the classic book Los Ambulantes: The Itinerant Photographers of Guatemala. They were the perfect couple for this venture: Neal wrote the story of the art and its cultural significance, Parker photographed the art, the surroundings and the people who made it.
Parker was a long-practicing art photographer before she began the Los Ambulantes project. She first attended the Rhode Island School of Design in the 1950s, finishing her Bachelor’s in Fine Art at Yale prior to studying with Minor White. Neal received a BA at Long Beach College and an MFA from the Instituto Allende, San Miguel de Allende, Guanajuato, Mexico. This was done under the GI Bill, as Avon had been in the U.S. Navy. He also studied with the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros.
It was through her time spent with Minor White that Parker came to use a 4 × 5 camera; he also instilled in her a commitment to black-and-white photography and darkroom work. Yet even with the most influential of teachers, gifted students like Parker map out their own way of seeing. The images that comprise Los Ambulantes offer proof of her visual aesthetic and printmaking prowess that flowered under White’s tutelage.
The photographs and text in Los Ambulantes are a testament to Parker and Neal’s commitment to this project. Parker explained that they pursued this book with little money or support. It was begun in 1971 and finished a decade later as they traveled with the itinerant photographers from festival to festival in the out-of-the-way villages of Guatemala.
The project unfolded in intervallic fashion, a few months at a time, interspersed with work done back home and on other projects simultaneously underway. This was also due to the fact that the indigenous photographers were for the most part farmers, spending part of the year working their land; the fallow times they used for making extra money as photographers.
The festivals were seasonal, and usually honored a saint; Parker and Neal would then return to Guatemala when the farmers-cum-photographers began their treks. Their work was undertaken under the country’s ruling military junta, which actively oppressed Guatemala’s indigenous population.
Parker recalls, “We didn’t really look American, and there were Peace Corps people in some of the villages we went to. Avon always had a beard and wore a beret and he didn’t exactly look like the typical American. We traveled as friends of the itinerant photographers; we rode on third-class buses to remote villages, where few Americans had been. And although we traveled with them, we never discussed politics, as it would have been dangerous for them as well as us. There were rough periods when the bus would be stopped and we would have to show soldiers our passports. Sometimes the villagers pointed at me, as I was beside the photographer taking my own photographs, and they would ask, ‘Who is she?’ And the photographer would say, ‘Don’t worry about her, she’s my assistant.’”
Parker’s photographs show none of this externalized tension. Instead, what we see are people who interact with a camera much like any person from the 19th century. The itinerant photographers of that era also faced people who rarely, if ever, had their picture taken. The nervousness apparent in sitters in Los Ambulantes comes from shyness and uncertainty. Neal describes this dynamic in the book’s sharply observed essay:
“Those fairgoers who are most traditional in costume and manner consult the photographers far less often than do the townsfolk, for whom the photograph plays a more familiar role in daily life. This is partly because Indians in traje (indigenous dress) have less money to spend on such vanities. It is also due to their underlying fear and apprehension at being photographed. However, once the decision has been made, Indians accept it with a kind of fatalistic resignation and sit composed and dignified until the ordeal is behind them.” (Neal also points out that oftentimes the portraits were made for official documents, and not always as keepsakes.)
Parker reveals this unease before the camera in such candid images as “A pensive onlooker,” “Curious bystander at photographer’s booth, Tecpán,” and “Itinerant photographer Luis Maxia Felon and prospective clients, Chimaltenango.”
The pictures included here, which are but a small selection from the book and the even larger body of photographs, show Parker as a documentarian of a bypassed folk art as well as an informal ethnographer. We see not just the villagers posing for pictures, and the photographers taking those pictures, but also a people who dress according to their traditions, in a little-understood place that exists in a singular slice of time, observing the culture-bound interactions of merchants with their clients. More importantly, Parker’s photographs reveal a culture not probable in the latter part of the 20th century; one that is unaware of photography’s importance to world culture and is, at that point, uncomfortable with the idea of being photographed.
The photographs are from Parker’s point of view as well as that of the itinerant photographers. She sometimes shoots over their shoulder, showing us the pose that ends up on the small print that the sitter takes away, and sometimes at an angle, or before the sitter assumes their pose, which becomes a candid document of that person’s first encounter with a camera. Over-the-shoulder examples include “Man with the fancy sombrero, Guatemala City,” and most spectacularly with “Portrait of a woman on her 84th birthday, Chimaltenango”; while the candid, angled perspective can be seen in “Betrothed couple before posing, Barillas.”
Parker doesn’t just introduce us to the itinerant photographers depicted in the act of shooting; she also foregrounds their image-making contraptions. We see the men concentrating on their jobs in “Itinerant photographer Rosalio Elias” and “Itinerant photographer Estanislas Gonzalez,” and we see an example of an amazing cobbled-together camera in “Itinerant’s dilapidated camera.”
These cameras are a marvel, and are themselves authentic folk art. Neal in his essay explained that the cameras were made by the photographers from parts of old cameras, and were all constructed along the same lines and same size—12 inches high, 10 inches wide by 16 inches long. Attached to the camera was a long black sleeve that allowed the photographer to reach inside and process the paper negative, a routine done by feel. The small trays of developer, stop bath and fix were accommodated inside the capacious box. Once the paper negative was fixed it was removed from inside the camera, inspected and washed. The damp negative was then fitted into a bracket that held it upright in front of the camera to be re-photographed. The new, now-positive print, was processed like the negative inside the camera, then washed in a bucket beside the camera, wiped with a well-used cloth and given to the sitter. Neal noted that wandering chickens would often drink from the bucket as the prints floated on the surface of the water. All this was performed while the sitter watched the procedure unfold, unless they chose to return later to retrieve their magical likeness after a day’s festivities.
This limitation and consolidation of equipment made sense, as the photographers had to haul all of it onto packed buses and store it wherever they stayed in town. Photography has always been a labor-intensive art, and this ingenious way to make quick, affordable photographs was an inventive practicality. Yet with all this work, the photographer charged only the equivalent of 50 cents to a dollar for the small photograph. (See “Framed board showing photographer’s samples.”)
Perhaps the largest piece of equipment making up the photographer’s kit was his backdrop. These ranged from a plain cloth twisted into a simple shape to create an accented texture, to those elaborately painted with a church in a landscape, or a city scene complete with a jet flying overhead. Neal’s descriptions of these hand-painted pieces of folk art and their use were quite detailed. They were usually six to eight feet square and were sometimes painted by the photographer, but mostly made by the village artist, who created varied depictions of places and settings. When the time came for replacement, the well-worn backdrops were sold at a discount to the photographer’s apprentice.
However, it’s Parker’s thoughts on the backdrops that are most intriguing. “I was fascinated to see a backdrop with the person in front of it. They [would] take home the photograph, which wasn’t properly washed, and not always in focus, and put it up in their house. I saw the backdrop and the people, especially if they were in indigenous clothing, become like one. A lot of them, particularly young men, would choose backdrops with cities; sometimes the women would want something more flowery, or like the one with the angel. A lot of the men had never been to a city; in fact, the majority of the people hadn’t been to a city. I feel, when they looked at this picture, in their house, they could almost believe or intimate to their friends that they had been to a city, even though it was a painted backdrop.”
It’s here in the blend of indigenous people bedecked in their beautiful, intricately woven handmade clothes, set against the stylized hand-painted replicas of places they have never been, that a unique and surprising type of folk art was made. The photographs may have been poorly fixed, washed and slightly out of focus, but they documented the scene in the way that they were meant to capture this intersection of various forms of folk art craft. Weaving, painting and photography came together to make not just portraits, but a recuerdo of people, their crafts and their way of life that has since passed; the resulting photographic keepsake is folk art.
The day of the itinerant photographer is over. Parker and Neal lost contact with the photographers with whom they traveled the back-road villages of Guatemala. She has heard that the itinerants’ journeys are done, and that that form of photography is gone. Parker’s photographs in Los Ambuantes, though, are still with us, allowing us to hold onto a unique and wonderful moment in time, which is all we can ask of any treasured memory.
Ann Parker is represented by Deborah Bell Photographs in New York (deborahbellphotographs.com) and Paul M. Hertzmann, Inc. in San Francisco (hertzmann.net).