In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Photography in the History of Race and Nation

  • Introduction
  • Photography as Historical Document
  • Archives and Collections
  • History of Photography in Latin America
  • National Photographies
  • Portraiture and Race
  • Outside Perspectives
  • Photographic Avant-Gardes and the Quest for Modernity
  • Photography and the State
  • Photography and Revolution
  • Construction of Ethnic and Class Identity
  • Indigeneity
  • Racial Photographies
  • Violence and Memory
  • Restoring Agency, Undoing Race

Latin American Studies Photography in the History of Race and Nation
Deborah Poole
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0084


Within months of Daguerre’s announcement of the invention of photography in France in 1839, photographers were setting up studios in Lima, Mexico, Buenos Aires, and Rio de Janeiro. At first, these commercial studios found clients among the urban elites who could afford to pay for individual and family portraits. By the beginning of the 20th century, rural indigenous families, Afro-Latino peasants, new immigrant workers, miners, union leaders, anarchists, maids, and street vendors were posing for their own portraits. As a counterpoint to this popular embrace of photography as a democratizing technology, Latin American states were quick to embrace the camera as a tool through which they could further deepen their surveillance of the bandits, criminals, vagrants, itinerant vendors, miners, union leaders, and unruly African and indigenous subjects who dared to challenge official, state-driven ideologies of capitalist economic growth and cultural homogeneity. The works cited here explore the multiplicity of political and cultural projects that inform the history of photography in Latin America and the challenges this complex history presents to historians who want to explore the photographic archive. It begins with a cautionary note regarding the use of photographs as “objective” documents and moves on to consider how historians and anthropologists have studied the formation of the photographic archive. The bibliography’s specific focus on race and nation speaks to this history. Works cited here provide insight into the early uses of photography as a medium that seemed to provide material evidence for the existence of discrete racial and ethnic “types.” This affinity between racial ideology and photographic form is reflected as much in the early anthropological and expeditionary photographs that show Indians posed next to skin color charts and measuring rods, as it is in the millions of studio portraits through which Latin American elites sought to document their moral character, “whiteness,” and cultural superiority over their countries’ indigenous or “popular” classes. As “objective” transcriptions of the world, photographs seemed to provide transparent evidence for the existence of race as both biological and social fact. This affinity with ideologies of racial and cultural distinction also made photographs useful for advancing the idea that ethnic and cultural differences were anathema to the forms of cultural and political unity demanded by the modern nation-state. Later, photographers and intellectuals turned their cameras back on the state to document the racialized exclusion, violence, and exploitation that underwrite nationalism in Latin American.

Photography as Historical Document

Historians have long relied on photographs as documentary evidence and as sources of objective information on the individuals, social groups, places, and events that have shaped Latin American history. As visual images, photographs enable us to imagine more fully what daily life was like in the past, what material conditions contributed to the outcomes of historical events such as battles or elections, or what sorts of people attended the parades, strikes, and civic celebrations that make up public life. During the mid-19th century, as cameras became more portable, the archive deepened as photographers begin to move out of the confines of their photographic studios. This is also the time when national governments began to be interested in preserving and, at times, compiling their own photographic registries of “type” photographs showing workers, indigenous peoples, and urban street vendors. Standard reference works listed in this section provide surveys of the visual archive and a sampling of the general themes and topics that attracted the attention of 19th- and early-20th-century photographers (Gutierrez 2004, Levine 1989, Museo Nacional 1978). Pioneering works from the 1970s and 1980s (Hoffenberg 1982) were meant to provide historians with an idea of the range of information that is contained in the photographic archives. These works approach photographs as pictorial sources that can be rallied to support, complement, or illustrate text-based accounts of historical processes and events. More recent work on photographic documents offers critical perspectives on the limitations of photographs as historical evidence (Castillo Troncoso 2007, Kossoy 2001).

  • Castillo Troncoso, Alberto del. “La frontera imaginaria: Usos y manipulaciones de la fotografía en la investigación histórica en México.” Cuicuilco 14.41 (2007): 193–215.

    Explores the role of photography in the creation of political-cultural imaginaries and myths in 20th-century Mexican history, focusing on the debates generated around two photographs: one from the Mexican Revolution, and another from the 1968 student movement. Describes the editorial strategies, such as recording, partiality, and fiction, involved in the use of photography.

  • Gutierrez, Jorge Luis. Fotografía latinoamericana del siglo XIX: La historia no contada. Seville, Spain: Universidad Internacional de Andalucia y Biblioteca Nacional de Venezuela, 2004.

    Photographs from the National Library of Venezuela

  • Hoffenberg, H. L. Nineteenth-Century South America in Photographs. New York: Dover, 1982.

    Pictorial synthesis of historical photography in Latin America with emphasis on Peru, Brazil, and Argentina. Provides representative overview of most important early photographers including Boote (Argentina), Courret and Garreaud (Peru), Ferrez (Brazil), Leblanc (Tierra del Fuego), and Stahl (Recife). Chapters organized around principal themes of 19th-century photography including urban life, ports, transportation, military, rural life, leisure, Indians, and natural wonders.

  • Kossoy, Boris. Fotografia e historia. Buenos Aires, Argentina: La Marca, Colección biblioteca de la Mirada, 2001.

    Comprehensive theoretical and methodological study of photography as a historical object that has been particularly influential in the creation of Latin America’s own historiography. It proposes a phenomenological approach to photographic images, stressing the multiple relations between the photographic document and the visual worlds in which it is inscribed.

  • Levine, Robert. Images of History: Nineteenth and Twentieth Century Latin American Photographs as Documents. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1989.

    Outlines an approach to reading photographs as historical evidence, and an interpretive overview of the history of photography in Latin America. Includes information on the archives of provincial photographers such as the early-20th-century Peruvians Martín Chambi and Sebastián Rodríguez.

  • Museo Nacional de Historia, and Museo Nacional de Antropología. Imágen histórica de la fotografía en México: Museo Nacional de Historia, Museo Nacional de Antropología, mayo/augusto de 1978. Mexico City: Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, Fondo Nacional para Actividades Sociales, 1978.

    Catalogue from a 1978 exhibition in Mexico City featuring selections from the photographic archive of the National Institute of Anthropology and History. A rich source of visual documentation of the history of anthropology and state governance of indigenous populations in the postrevolutionary period.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.