In the past two decades, Latin Americans have discovered the historical photograph. Their bookstores display the results of the discovery: a burgeoning inventory of books reproducing those photographs is appearing on their shelves. They promise to enrich our study of the Latin American past.
In the United States, no one has searched for photographic evidence of the Latin American past more diligently than Robert M. Levine. He reveals to the viewer the delights of his discoveries in Imágenes de Reinos, a technically well-executed videotape. The excellent narration introduces the major themes of nineteenth-century Latin America, proceeds to give a history of photography there during that time period, and concludes with an analysis of what was photographed and why. The documentary ends on the cautious note that while the photographs concentrate on the visual presence of order, tranquility, and progress, they tell only one part of the tale. While the first part of the narration is “old hat” to scholars, the second and third parts will introduce many to the medium of photography in the last century in Latin America, and some of its possible uses for scholarship.
Obviously, the photographs appearing on the screen are the main attraction. Levine emphasizes, and the photos corroborate, that “Europeanization” and “progress” caught and held the eye of the photographers. Through their photos, they sent an ideological message. Much to Levine’s credit, he has tried to balance his visual display by including a generous assortment of photos of “ordinary” people, some portraits, others showing them within their environment. The narration concedes that the numerous photographic archives Levine consulted throughout Latin America and the United States are not as well balanced in their depiction of society as his documentary is.
Viewers will find that few of the myriad photos have been identified by location and time. The scene is Latin America; the time ranges across the last half of the nineteenth and into the first decade of the twentieth century. The lack of more precise time/space locations raises problems of viewer orientation. The logical defense for Levine’s approach is that he provides an “impressionistic” visual introduction to the nineteenth century. He accomplishes that goal magnificently. But a methodological problem persists, to be resolved, I am sure, as historians gain further experience with compilation documentaries.
The conclusions these photographs drove home to me were the great racial variety of the people; the prosperity characteristic of those people who looked most European; and the importance attributed to the cities and modernization. While the message is not news to scholars, the medium transmitting it may be. The documentary is introductory, and students may well find both message and medium innovative. In the videotape I watched, the narrator spoke Spanish.
As a visual introduction to nineteenth-century Latin America and its history, Imágenes de Reinos boasts excellent photos and a concise, informative, interpretive narration. I salute Levine as a pioneer who literally broadens our vision.