PHOTO ALBUMS OF CHILE: LANDSCAPES OF IDEALIZATION AND MISFORTUNE
(1) Álbum Gráfico del Terremoto del norte (Graphic Album of the Northern Earthquake) Santiago: G. Miranda, 1923, P. 105 – © Portal Memoria Chilena
Since the end of the 19th century, photographic albums have been one of the most important sources of territorial information and at the same time a letter of introduction for a nation and its situation. Although most albums were intended to build a representation capable of functioning as a “beautified” reflection for society, there were certain albums that were completely dedicated to exposing news of areas of catastrophe. One example of this was the Álbum Gráfico del Terremoto del Norte (1923) (The Graphic Album of the Northern Earthquake) in which graphic and written information was collected about the catastrophe that struck the northern part of Chile on November 10, 1922. In this type of albums, photography transcended its role of artistic expression and was used as a necessary service for the State of Chile, to represent the landscape as a means to create it and understand it, so as to transform it and not to merely describe it.
Photography is a historical and cultural phenomenon, and infinitely versatile. We appreciate photographs in books, newspapers, magazines, ad campaigns, advertising, albums, social networks and art galleries, observing how meanings vary depending on the context, distorting meaning and establishing, consequently, a widespread feeling of distrust of true content. However, since the first use of this technique in 1839, its objective was clear: photography “is” a way of certifying reality despite its permanent manipulation, either when it is executed or developed.
One of the functions that photography had in Chile from approximately 1860 was to commemorate the achievements introduced in the country as a result of industrialization, elucidating − and often criticizing − the so-called progress. The action of registering information as a means of advertising led authors and compilers − who were both photographers and editors, national or foreign, independent or associated with private enterprise or the Government − to put photographic albums at the service of society. The main objective was to create, through a conscious and deliberate attempt, a clear and coherent identity of the country, one that would be disseminated both outside and inside Chile, leading to albums fulfilling a fundamental function in society: to become sources of territorial information and at the same time a letter of introduction regarding a nation and its current status.
Common themes were the railroad, the means that would ensure national communication and the creation of an incipient tourism industry; the labor force in mining, agriculture or livestock sectors; settlements, whether remote villages or regional capitals; characteristic geographical elements such as views of the central valley and the Andes Mountains; and more extreme, unknown and inaccessible conditions in northern or southern Chile. The albums thus became true artifacts of local culture and living witnesses of history and through these an idea or portrait of the national landscape of Chile was established. The albums captured the reality of the country in images that, once collected and selected, were intended to build a representation capable of functioning as an “embellished” reflection for society. The sense of the information collected, therefore, was not purely or strictly documentary, but was also ideological.
This notion can be taken to the extreme by seeing how certain albums were completely dedicated to exposing news of disaster areas: the Album Images of the Earthquake of 1906, made between 1899 and 1906, by an unknown author; August 6 Earthquake Album, by author and photographer Félix Leblanc (1906); the Album Valdivia before the Great Fire of Rodolfo Knittel (1913) and the Graphic Album of the Northern Earthquake, prepared by the editor Gustavo Miranda (1923), among others, recorded in their pages images of earthquakes, tidal waves and fires and with it, of devastated cities, towns and roads.
In this type of albums, photography transcended its role of artistic expression incorporating, among other things, its function as a communication tool at the service of the State. One example of this was the Álbum Gráfico del Terremoto del Norte (1923) (The Graphic Album of the Northern Earthquake) in which Miranda collected graphic and written information about the catastrophe that struck the northern part of Chile on November 10, 1922.
In an effort to reliably record the scope of the tragedy, the album included written stories such as that from the Editor of the newspaper Las Ultimas Noticias, MJ Ortiz, aka “Bergerac”, about the historical importance of this type of publications to make natural catastrophes emotionally visible both inside and outside the country. Documents were also added on the impressions and actions to be taken by President Arturo Alessandri, who recounts both his regret and his committed action, which led him to set out for the disaster zone along with a committee of Deputies and Ministers of State. Subsequently, pages of condolences from foreign representatives and political, religious, journalistic, artistic and sports circles were added, followed by a transparent detail of all the foreign donations received, until, finally, culminating with a sequence of photographic images organized from the Presidential trip to the north, interspersed with advertising and catastrophic records of Coquimbo, La Serena, Huasco, Freirina, Copiapó, Vallenar and Chañaral.
In this sense, the structure and tone of the album is defined based on a strategic order and protocol of information that expresses both a register and a means of publicity regarding the official version of the State in the face of such a crisis. This is demonstrated, for example, with images of children’s bodies piled atop each other, rescued after the earthquake, images that show a desolate territory offering a tabula rasa for reconstruction. As a result, representation is understood here from the perspective of to present again. The landscape becomes the reduplication of the image that precedes it. And, before emerging as a noun, the term landscape appears in glory and majesty as a verb, as the medium that accounts for the construction of the Chilean territory from experiences and events rather than by stylistic models or movements. This leads to presuppose that this representation of the landscape was ultimately the means to create it and to establish an understanding of it in order to transform it. Consequently, more than a description, the narrative developed in albums of territorial emergencies contributes, as a whole, to the construction of a Chilean landscape characterized by events and, although some are avoidable and others the result of unpredictable natural processes, those emergencies continue to modify how the nation is inhabited.