In my grandparents’ fairly new home in Batangas hangs a sepia-toned photograph mounted on a wooden block. As an 8R print, it is quite small to notice yet it is the only photograph on display, lost to the oddly partnered stiff wooden couch, cold white tiles, and bright yellow curtains with sunflower prints. It’s their wedding photograph taken back in 1955. It was displayed only when they moved to the new house, having been kept in a baul with the aras, veil, and other memorabilias of the wedding. My grandfather looks proud as he holds the hand of my grandmother at the bottom of a stairway of the church’s altar. I point to the photograph and my grandfather shares with me its story.
My grandparents got married at the San Sebastian Cathedral, in Lipa City, a growing commercial city since its inauguration in late 1940s. Adjacent to the church, the entire stretch of Gen. Luna St. was lined with photography studios. They went inside one named United Studios, my grandfather’s trusted photo studio. As a wedding photograph, their photographer staged their setting similar to that of the interior of the church – complex patterned tile flooring, a three-tier platform mimicking the steps towards the altar of the church, and a painted backdrop blurred through camera work. It took a week for the processing of the photograph. I had more questions to ask my grandfather but that’s all he remembers. As much as I would like to ask United Studios, they have been out of business for a long time. In fact, not one photography studio along that street remains today.
In the hand of Spanish and American colonizers, photography was used to document the land and subjugate the people. Studies of how photographs were used as colonial instruments are well established in the writings of Juan Guardiola (The Colonial Imaginary), Nerissa Balce (Body Parts of an Empire: Visual Abjection, Filipino Images, and the American Archive), and Mark Rice (Dean Worcester’s Fantasy Islands: Photography, Film, and the Colonial Philippines) to name a few. What came after the colonizers left is still a blur. I would like to believe that in the hands of Filipino photographers, photography allowed for the flourishing of our own ways of documenting our lives. Yet, I search in vain for writings similar to the grandfather’s narratives.
In The Value of Pictures, part of the Art Fair Philippines Talks 2019, Wawi Navarroza used the term “Lost Records, Some Pioneers” to label a period marking the loss of historical records pertaining to photography in between the American Colonization, and the Post-War Period and Martial Law Years. As an artist using photography as her medium, she recognized her limited knowledge of the medium’s history in the Philippines. In her brief research, she identified a missing link between the Arrival of Photography in the Philippines and the Golden Age of Photojournalism and Simultaneous use in Conceptual Artistic Practices [Navarroza’s periodization].
Poor archiving and lack of scholarship seem to be the culprit. This was reinforced indirectly by the positions made by Jay Javier, founder of Fotofabrik, and Katya Guerrero, founder of Philippine photography archive LUZVIMINDA, in sharing their experiences with archiving in the talk.
“Photographs are artifacts.” Javier said in his presentation about the restoration and archiving of Teodulo Protomartir’s recovered negatives. “An art object has to be permanent. Pictures [then] are made from filmsy materials.” Javier narrated the challenges that came along with archiving the negatives of Protomartir. Heat, light, humidity and dryness, atmospheric pollution, and the process of storage are environmental factors that contribute to the degradation of photographic materials. But he stressed that “the worst enemy of photograph is ourselves” in the sense that we “discount certain pictures based on their value.” When we do not recognize the subject of a photograph, they serve no value for us. We follow a tendency when we cannot identify who or what it is, when or where it was taken, we disregard the photograph. Thus it becomes easy to simply throw them away.
Alongside this haphazard practice of archiving, Guerrero and Javier agreed that scholarship on photography is scarce. A well-developed study and archive of photographic materials should allow for photographers today to maneuver the contemporary art scene with a knowledge of the cultural heritage of the medium in the Philippines. The lack thereof is definitely a challenge. Add to this predicament the “sorry state” of the found negatives due to old age and environmental factors, and you get not only a struggling scholarship of photography, but also struggling photographers lost without a cultural and photographic heritage.
Despite the fact that the Philippines has all the enemies of photographic archiving compounded by the bad practice in taking care of photographic records, I believe we still have a wealth of materials that can be studied, not only of the past (similar to the narrative my grandfather has shared with me), but also of the present. This is precisely my takeaway from the talk. The importance of The Value of Pictures lay in its recognition of the struggles in the scholarship of Philippine photography. While there is a continuous reiteration of this lack, we must not allow it arrest us into inaction. Rather, we must look at it as an opportunity to explore and become pioneers in researching the field. This essay is my attempt to respond to this recognition.
I look at the wedding photograph again and I try to imagine how the entire Gen. Luna St. would have looked like. Questions have started to plague me since I pointed at my grandparents’ wedding image. What happened to the industry of photography studios? What made them go out of business? What other types of photographs were produced during that time? How much did a photograph cost? These are only a few of the many. Now I have motivated myself, I must end this essay and research on my grandfather’s narrative.
The Value of Pictures is a talk conducted at Art Fair Philippines 2019, held at The Link, Ayala Ave., Makati City last Feb 23, 2019. The talks provided a glimpse into contemporary photographic practice in the Philippines. This talk is a continuation of the previous year’s initiative to allow photography to integrate into Art Fair Philippines. Last year, Neil Oshima, RJ Fernandez, Jes Aznar, Carlo Gabuco, Marta Lovina, and Veejay Villafranca were gathered as a panel to share their insight on the contemporary Philippine photography scene. On another talk, Preserving the History of Photojournalism, Raffy Lerma shared his experience of documenting the Drug War. Outside the the forum venue, a space dedicated for photographs was curated by Silverlens Galleries as part of the Art Fair Philippines Exhibitions.