A photographic reconstruction of the Stephens and Catherwood expeditions.
(1985-1995, reopened 2001)
hundred and fifty years ago, John L. Stephens and Frederick Catherwood undertook
a series of expeditions into the Maya area of Yucatan, Chiapas, Guatemala
and Honduras, uncovering ancient monuments that rivaled the famous ruins
of Egypt. Stephens and Catherwood were the first English- speaking travelers
to explore the regions originally settled by the Maya.
John L. Stephens (l805-l852) practiced law in New York before he took up his work as a writer and 'antiquarian.' Because of ill health, he began traveling in the Near East, Greece and Egypt, and his first essays concern the ruins and artifacts of ancient civilizations there. On a visit to London, he met Catherwood, whose drawings of digs in Egypt and famous map of Jerusalem he had already admired.
Frederick Catherwood (l799-l854) was an Englishman who had been trained as an architect but whose real talent lay in his ability to render views of ancient monuments with great accuracy and insight. With the aid of a camera lucida - an optical device that preceded the invention of photography - he developed a technique of drawing that he used while documenting Robert Hay's expeditions in Egypt, drawings which became a marvel of the period.
The first collaboration of Stephens and Catherwood, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, was published in l84l and ran to l2 editions in its first year. In l843, they brought out Incidents of Travel in Yucatan, the result of a subsequent trip to that part of Mexico. Both of these books are composed of detailed descriptions of their extensive findings and many steel engravings made from Catherwood's drawings, so excellent that even today they are frequently referred to as perfectly accurate records of the objects they document. In l844, Catherwood published his Views of Ancient Monuments in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, a book of 25 color lithographs, reprinted in Mexico in l978.
My appreciation of the drawings of Frederick Catherwood and the paradoxical elements that appear when these drawings are observed next to the restored monuments became a main area of concern in my work. During the summer of l984, I had the opportunity to work in the Yucatan area, photographing the Maya sites drawn by Catherwood from the same vantage points that he used when making his camera lucida drawings. In this way, I started to compile the elements of a work-in-progress called The Catherwood Project, a visual reconstruction of Stephens and Catherwood's expeditions. I continued this project in the summers of l985 and l986, covering other sites in Yucatan and the Chiapas region in Mexico. During December and January of 1987/88 I completed the itineraries of the two expeditions, photographing the sites of Quiriguá in Guatemala, and Copán in Honduras.
My intention when starting The Catherwood Project, which resulted in nearly 4,000 black-and-white photographs and l,800 color, was not only to reappropriate these images from the colonial period, but also to visually verify the results of archaeological restorations, the passage of time, and the changes in the environment. In this 'truth effect' process, issues having to do with colonialist/neocolonialist representation became more central, particularly during the last section of the project.
Three different approaches are used to produce the works in this project:
The first approach attempts to adopt as closely as possible the same points of view used by Catherwood, which at times included lower or elevated perspectives. Each print in this method juxtaposes a reproduction of Catherwood's published engraving side by side with my final photograph.
The second approach incorporates a view of my hand holding Catherwood's published engraving in front of the documented monument, making the comparison the subject of a single photograph.
.Uxmal, Casa de las Palomas (1993) - Gelatine silver print, 16x20 inches
third approach obviates the visual evidence of Catherwood's point of view
and it follows his vision of the site directly and without visual quotation.
At this stage, although the original structure is still being followed,
the conceptual rigor of the project becomes more abstract.
In the process of covering the itinerary of the two expeditions, I became aware of Catherwood's struggle to depart from his eurocentric style. It has been well documented that previous explorers could only manage to document the sites by merely reproducing the style and the vision of the Romantic period. The line in their drawings was wrong, their final results a fiction. In Catherwood's work, because of his Piranesi School training, or perhaps due to the aid of the camera lucida, the artist managed to enter the mind of the Maya architects, challenging his own Western hegemony.
During January of 1993 I completed my work with the monuments and their documentations by Catherwood, emphasizing the issue of architectural rendering of which Catherwood's work presents an extraordinary example. While Catherwood's vantage point became the main reflexive aspect of my approach to the work produced in the first phase of the project, it became clear upon its completion that I should work further on the architectural aspect of the monuments.
Stephens describes Catherwood as standing on top of a crudely made scaffolding or standing in mud, veiled with a net and with gloves on to protect his hands from mosquitoes, having great difficulty in depicting the designs on the Maya monuments because they were so complex and their subjects so entirely new and unintelligible. Catherwood rendered these sculptures and buildings -so different from anything he had seen before- with such skill and openmindedness that his drawings are still useful today. He did not see in them vestiges of other cultures; he saw them as something new. And as much as his works manifest a clinical, profound accuracy, they also reveal moments of slippage and subjectivity, the result of malaria seizures perhaps, or of working in difficult locations to later reconstruct the views from sketches and memory. All these contradictions make his work even more fascinating.
Since Catherwood had platforms and scaffolding built for his vantage points, I went back to a few of the sites in the Puuc Hills of Yucatan with equipment that allowed me to get very close to architectural details and adopt a parallax-free perspective. I also concentrated on working in very dark internal chambers using a portable lighting technique that I had developed in the later part of the project in Honduras. The Institutes of History and Anthropology in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras had previously facilitated the work on the sites, and since The Catherwood Project had already received serious recognition, access to the ruins during night hours was facilitated. This allowed me to control the light needed to record specific details in Maya architecture, and to use an 'open flash' technique, lighting huge monuments in sections with a single flash unit.
One of the most complete shows of this project was presented at El Museo del Barrio in New York, 1996, as part of the exhibition Two Projects / A Decade, curated by Julia P. Herzberg.
The Catherwood Project is a work about Time.
of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan, Harper & Bros.