In the early part of the 20th century photographer Edward Curtis was funded by American businessman J. P. Morgan to undertake the extensive task of making a photographic record of Native Americans across the United States. While some of these photos are undeniably powerful and poignant, the motivation behind them of creating a portrait of “a vanishing people” resulted in him either doctoring the photos or dressing them up in “costumes” in order to eliminate any traces of so called civilized influences. While this does nothing to diminish the quality or scope of his work, when compared to the work of genuine cultural anthropologists or ethnographers, it does call into question their historical authenticity.
This becomes especially obvious when comparing his work his contemporary, the German ethnographer Max Schmidt. While Schmidt’s work has languished in obscurity for years, its now been brought to light again through the publication of Hijos de la Selva/Sons of the Forest by Perceval Press. Edited by Viggo Mortensen and with text provided by scholars Federico Bossert and Diego Villar, this book not only reproduces many of the photos Schmidt took among the people of Paraguay and Brazil, it also goes into detail about his background, the philosophy upon which his work was grounded and how this differed from the more Eurocentric (or Amerocentric) approach taken by others working in his field at the time.
The book is divided into two parts; Bossert and Villar’s essay on Schmidt, his work and its philosophical and academic underpinnings and a selection of digital reproductions of his original glass plate photographs taken of the peoples of the Brazilian and Paraguayan Amazon basin. Mortensen, Bossert and Villar, with help from people at the Museo Etnogafico Andres Barbero of Asuncion, Paraguay where Schmidt’s original photographs are archived, began work on this collection back in 2009. In his introduction to the book Mortensen explains how after they had made their initial selection the original glass plates were shipped to California for digitalization and that the book’s objective was to be a mixture of an academic appraisal of his work and an artistic appreciation of his photography.
I have to admit the academic part of the equation gave me some concerns as I’ve been removed from the world of academia for close to thirty years and have memories of reading works which sucked the life out art. So I was pleasantly surprised upon reading the essay composed by Bossert and Villar to find it informative but not the dry as dust type of thing I had grown accustomed to reading years ago. Firstly, and most importantly, they placed his work in its proper historical and cultural context by going into both his background and the academic environment surrounding ethnography in his native Germany in the late 19th and early 20 centuries.
After they established a context within which to place Schmidt’s work, they proceed to delve into his actual explorations and study. We learn about his first trips into the Amazon basin and his initial contacts with the indigenous peoples of the region. Here the author’s have gone right to the source for their information as they quote substantially from Schmidt’s extensive and exhaustive diaries. Unlike what was usual for the times Schmidt travelled simply, accompanied only by two guides and a mule. While this left him more at the mercy of the environment than was usual the impression I received from reading was it made him far less threatening a presence then any of his predecessors.
While the writing and descriptions of Schmidt’s life and work were fascinating my understanding suffered from a lack of knowledge of South American geography. This is not a complaint directed towards the work’s authors, rather a warning to anybody reading this they should make sure they have a good atlas or map of the region to hand. In fact reading Bossert and Villar’s essay make one wish there were more written about this fascinating man who took it upon himself to make a record of the isolated people of the regions. For after 1929, he retired from his position at the Berlin Museum of Ethnography, and moved to South America where he continued his work independently.
While the academic part of the book makes for interesting reading, and gives us knowledge of the person behind the lens, for me it was the pictures making up the second half of the book which were most intriguing. For not only have the photos been reproduced, so have Schmidt’s original captions and explanations. Unlike other photos of this type I’ve seen, most obviously Curtis’, Schmidt’s images not only tell you who the subject is and where they were taken, they often give you details of the person or the situation depicted. As a result these are real people, not some idealized, romantic version of the “noble savage”.
Even more intriguing is how Schmidt makes no effort to disguise any modifications his subjects might have made in their behaviour or dress due to contact with the outside world. As a result we see the rather odd juxtaposition of an image showing children in uniforms attending school next to images of naked adults going about their business. While they might have been taken among different people, it shows us their’s was a world in transition. To our eyes the pictures might depict a life minus the comforts of civilization we can’t imagine living without; primitive and deprived. However, when compared to images shot on the reservations and tribal lands of North America at the same time, these people don’t have the same aura of defeat or loss about them as their northern counterparts.
Which isn’t to say they weren’t under threat from civilization. As the text points out even in the 1920s and 1930s industrial expansion in the form of rubber tree tappers were making inroads into indigenous territories and killing anyone in their way. However, the images in the book also show people who still hadn’t been defeated or overwhelmed. We also see from the photos how their geographical location made it far easier for them to avoid the advance of civilization than people in North America. Schmidt’s accounts of the difficulties involved in travelling to where most of these people lived confirm the isolation depicted in the images.
However, all other considerations aside, the images are also a testament to Schmidt’s skill and artistry as a photographer. He seems to have had some sort of innate ability to put his subjects at ease as the photos come across as a mixture of those one would see in a family album and documentary style shots of people going about their daily business. While that might not seem like a great accomplishment to us today with digital cameras, remember he was shooting glass plates which required a great deal of preparation and set up. It was very hard to be unobtrusive with the kind of equipment required for taking these kind of photographs, yet even in the obviously posed pictures there is very little of the formality we’ve come to expect from this era of photography.
Before reading Hijos de la Selva I knew nothing of the life and work of Max Schmidt, little of the study of ethnography and almost nothing about the people of the Amazon Basin. While one book can’t, and this one doesn’t claim to be, a definitive work on these subjects, it introduces the reader to them with intelligence and compassion. The carefully prepared essay gives us both an academic and personal history of Schmidt and places his body of work in its proper context so we can fully appreciate the significance of the accompanying photographs. Even more important, as far as I’m concerned, the book makes clear how Schmidt, unlike so many of his contemporaries in the same field, saw his subjects as fellow human beings, not just objects of interest to be studied. An example many of us could stand to learn from even today as indigenous people the world over still struggle against various types of stereotyping.