Reflections on a Getty Intern “Study Trip” to Photography Archives in Mexico

By: Charisma Lee, Getty Research Institute Graduate Intern, Vocabulary Program

From this past September through May, I had the privilege of working as a graduate intern in the Getty Vocabularies, at the Getty Research Institute at J. Paul Getty Trust. In addition to regular duties, interns are allowed time off for educational travel. The “study trip,” as it’s more informally known, encourages individuals to pursue their professional and personal research interests at a location of their choice. Some have used this opportunity to make advances in dissertation research, broaden their networks, or simply visit institutions and collections which for various reasons would be more difficult to access without Getty support.

I took my cue from the Getty initiatives Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA and Connecting Art Histories to craft a project that would explore visual heritage documentation in Mexico. Unsure of where to start, I contacted Natalie Baur at Colegio de México. Natalie suggested possible contacts and became a guide through the process. Karen Heller, an assistant curator in the Getty’s Department of Photographs, was kind enough to discuss my project and suggest additional collections, both in Mexico City and beyond. For reasons of length, in this blog post I am focusing on my visits with two different kinds of organizations: federally-supported and community based.

The Fototeca Nacional in Pachuca and the Chiapas Photography Project in San Cristóbal de las Casas provide an interesting comparison between a federally-supported institution and a community-based collection. First, The Fototeca Nacional is best known as the home of the Casasola Archives, the foundational collection comprising photographs taken and collected by Agustín Casasola and his descendants. The founder of one of the world’s first photographic agencies, Casasola saw it as his mission to document the history of Mexico, whether through his lens or others’. By the time the collection arrived in state custody in the 1970s, it included photographs by nearly 500 photographers.

Sign for Casasola Archives at Fototeca Nacional in Pachuca, Hidalgo, México

The Casasola archives provide visual records of events from the late 19th century onwards, witnessed by the likes of Hugo Brehme, Antonio Garduño, and the Mayo brothers. Many more photographers were uncredited, and the Fototeca Nacional continues to work at identifying these individuals. The Casasola archives and the rest of the Fototeca’s collections can be combed through online via simple search by keyword. Typing “Casasola,” for instance, will yield more than 2000 photos as well as associated search terms that metadata technicians have captured. For more advanced inputs—e.g. photographic process and image format— the user has to create an account.

Given my interest in cataloging and discoverability, I spoke at length with the cataloging team. It was especially interesting to discover that the Fototeca maintains its own thesaurus. While similar in function to the Getty’s Art & Architecture Thesaurus, the Fototeca’s thesaurus is a monolingual resource for internal use only. It does not appear online, although the vocabulary terms are used in the metadata for each digitized photograph. The Fototeca’s website does provide a list of the types of descriptive and technical information that staff try to record when processing collections. Relationships between terms and concepts is reflected only in a list of searches by previous users, whether or not immediately relevant.

Screenshot of search term “Casasola” on the Fototeca website. Note the “people also searched for” and “most frequent searches” sections.


The second institution I want to discuss is the Chiapas Photography Project (CPP). One can glimpse samples of work done on its website, but its complete inventory is offline. Founder Carlota Duarte maintains a three-ring binder, with texts outlining CPP history and activities since the project’s inception in 1992. There is an overview of the collection, and a complete list of works by participants, most of whom are Ts’eltal or Tzotzil Maya. Digitization activities are in another section; in some cases, the reasons for digitizing a photograph is given (e.g. for publication or an exhibition). The binder also includes press clippings about exhibits and excerpts from dissertations and theses, names of past staff and volunteers, and lists of CPP collaborations with other projects.

Some of the first zines, or fotonovelas, as CPP calls them, of CPP work, at the Chiapas Photography Project in San Cristóbal de las Casas, Chiapas, México

I discovered CPP as I was leafing through a catalog of modern photography in Latin America. The blurb accompanying a piece by Maruch Santíz Goméz mentioned the artist’s involvement with CPP. Later I learned that the project uses photography to center the perspectives of local community members from various ethnicities and faith practices. For instance, when support for the CPP’s Archivo Fotográfico Indígena ended in 2012 (until then housed at the local social research institute), the participating photographers collectively decided that the original works would be returned to their creators. The CPP staff, themselves photographers, continue to assist community members with developing photography skills and exhibiting and publishing their work.

At the moment it is unclear where the holdings of this decidedly community-oriented project will find a permanent home. Whether this home will be in the U.S. or in Mexico is also undecided. Underlying this issue of affiliation are intersecting considerations of value and sustainability. Where might collections like those of the CPP find the optimal conditions for scholarly and financial support? Where might staff and users be located so such resources can be properly be cared for, promoted, and most importantly, utilized?

These concerns are central to the information professions, and I continue to reflect on them more deeply with time and distance. Truthfully, the photography fan in me was more immediately enamored with the mere existence of these resources, rather than academic questions. Still, speaking with individuals who are similarly excited was refreshing. Though at times I’ve questioned my involvement in libraries and archives, exchanges like those I had in Mexico assure me that I’m on the right path.


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