Friday, October 30, 2015


During a recent visit to a local used books shop I came across a copy of Life in Mexico by Frances Calderón de la Barca.  The book takes the form of a long series of letters written by the author to her family in New York from Mexico.

The story of travel and adventures in 19th Century Mexico begins with the marriage of Frances Inglis to Ángel Calderón de la Barca in 1838 at about the time the Argentine-born aristocrat was appointed to be the first Spanish Ambassador to Mexico following that country's establishment of independence from the Spanish Empire.  They make an arduous trip from New York to Vera Cruz by sailing ship and then travel overland by horse-drawn carriages to the Mexican capital which becomes their base for exploring central Mexico.  Given the author's social position and her husband's diplomatic status, the judgments exhibited regarding Mexican life are not without racial and class biases, but the author nevertheless shows herself to be a keen observer of Mexican society in the troubled times following independence.

Warring creole-led factions contested control of the capital city.  Bandit gangs often ruled large parts of the rural countryside, so that travel was only marginally safe even with armed escort.  In spite of these hazards, Don Calderón and his wife, during the two years of their residence in the country,  managed to navigate the complicated social and political scene with aplomb, and they undertook epic tours of Central Mexico's historic landscapes, often involving many days on horseback over treacherous roads.

In addition to writing letters home to her family about her adventures, Frances and Ángel also maintained a correspondence with the historian, William Prescott, and undertook the acquisition of information crucial to the development of his ground-breaking History of the Conquest of Mexico.  Prescott at one point even sent the couple a complete Daguerreotype outfit for the purpose of recording images of some of the country's historic sites.  That effort, using the recently-invented photographic process, apparently met with little or no success, but the couple was able to provide significant documentation supporting Prescott's quest.  The historian was later able to reciprocate by aiding Frances in the publication of her book, and providing a preface to the first edition.

The importance and difficulties of mail communications is alluded to many times throughout Life in Mexico.  Letters, packages and commercial goods commonly spent a couple months in transit, and each successful arrival was a cause for celebration.  Frances' straight-forward, unadorned writing style was well suited to communicating a good word-based approximation of her adventures and the exotic places she visited.  At the same time, she was clearly conscious of the limitations of the written word and she tried in several ways to communicate a fuller representation of her experience through non-verbal means -- an idea which today would be subsumed by the concept of multimedia.

Daguerreotypy was too new in 1840 to offer any real chance of success to a couple enthusiastic amateurs.  Frances, however, had better luck with a much older, better developed non-verbal communications form, music and musical notation.  In her sixteenth letter Frances recounts a trip by coach which passed the great pyramids of Teotihuacan on the way to the country estate of a friend.  Writing from the hacienda she reports that :

"In the evening here, all assemble in a large hall, the Señora de _____ playing the piano; while the whole party, agents, dependientes, major-domo, coachmen, matadors, picadors, and women-servants assemble, and perform the dances of the country: jarabes, aforrados, enanos, palomos, zapateros, etc., etc."

Frances includes in her letter the verses of three of the popular songs played at the gathering and says: "The music married to the "immortal verse," I have learned by ear, and shall send you."  In the twenty-sixth letter, the scores of three of the pieces played at the hacienda appear as Frances wrote them out.

These episodes of the book which focused on 19th Century Mexican popular music were the most vivid parts of the story for me.  As someone with no musical talent or education, I had never given much thought to scores and notation, thinking of them always to be little more than recipes for reproducing compositions.  What was clear from the stories told by Frances, however, was that musical notation could be used to communicate the sounds of a specific performance, one that took place at a great remove of time and place.  This may seem a trivial observation to those who are musically literate, but I think it is an idea still worthy of some reflection.

The resources which Frances Calderón de la Baca had for reproducing and transmitting sounds involved processes which are identical in fundamental ways to modern sound recording and production.  She had a method for encoding and decoding sounds, a transmission channel, and technical instrumentation for reproducing the recorded sound patterns.  The great difference between then and now, of course, is that a very high level of operator skill in both recording and  performance was required to achieve fidelity in reproduction.

To put those ideas into context, imagine the receipt of the letter containing the musical scores.  It seems very likely that the Frances' New York family would have gone into the music room after dinner.  A relative or friend who was the most skilled pianist, or perhaps the most familiar with Frances' playing style would sit down at the piano, smooth out the letter's paper, prop it on the music holder and play the tunes that Frances and learned and recorded in a far-away place.  I picture her mother closing her eyes briefly and imagining Frances there at the piano.  I propose this scenario with some degree of confidence because I was able to re-enact that scene shortly after finishing the book.  I am not able to play the piano we have in the house, but when Margaret's accomplished piano teacher came by one evening she played the three tunes for me.  So I closed my eyes too for a moment, and Frances was there in the room.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Remembering and Forgetting

John Collier Jr.
I went to a lecture recently which was sponsored by the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology.  The announcements had indicated the presentation would be about the museums photo archives.  As it turned out, the presenter used some photos from the archives, but mostly as illustrations for discussing theories of photography advanced by European philosophers.  At the end of the talk I asked about the museum's holdings related to the work of John Collier Jr.  The lecturer, currently a curator at the museum, replied that the Maxwell had a very large collection of works by Collier, but that no one had worked with the material.  She said she did not know if anyone in the Anthropology or Education departments at UNM was familar with Collier's work or making use of his techniques in regard to photo analysis and education.

The lecturer's answers to my questions left me discouraged about the state of knowledge about one of Twentieth Century America's photo greats.  John Collier Jr. made a lot of great pictures in the early 1940s while working under Roy Stryker at the Farm Security Administration.  Collier continued making photographs in a similar vein for many more years all over the western hemisphere.  At the same time he also began to develop the concepts of Visual Anthropology and applied those concepts to analyzing teaching and learning processes.  Collier taught photography classes as a full professor for many years at San Francisco State.  His accomplishments as a photographer, researcher and teacher seem all the more extraordinary when you consider that he had very limited formal schooling, due in a large part to injuries sustained as a child which left him with physical impairments, dyslexia, hearing loss and impaired speech.

As it turns out, academic engagement with Collier's work was not as dismally scant as the lecturer had averred.  While browsing the web for information about Collier I stumbled on an interactive presentation about Collier's war-time work with the FSA.  The web pages were the product of a grant project conducted under the auspices of the Maxwell Museum and The College of Education's Technology & Education Center (TEC) at UNM in 2006.  The project's director was Catherine Baudoin, who at the time was the Maxwell's Photographic Collections Curator.  The on line presentation was organized as an interactive lesson plan enabling exercises in interpretation of war-time photo uses by the U.S. government using posters, photo archives and video resources.  To support the lesson plan activities, Baudoin uploaded about 400 of Collier's FSA images to the Flickr photo sharing site where they are still available for viewing.

Unfortunately, Baudoin's web pages had become detached from the Maxwell web site over the years; there is no link there now to the Collier work; the Photo Curator position seems to have evaporated, and Baudoin's name is nowhere to be found.  My guess would be that the skimpy and rather disorganized Maxwell web site is symptomatic of budgetary deficiencies which have focused the institution's efforts more on conservation of holdings rather than on sustaining a coherent educational mission incorporating up-to-date technological communications resources.

Luckily, modern search engine technology compensates for a lot of academic entropy.  Here are some useful  links to information I have come across on the web and elsewhere:

Far from Main Street:Three Photographers in Depression-Era New Mexico (link to Amazon)
A very fine collection of photos along with essays about the FSA/OWI work of  Russell Lee, John Collier Jr. and Jack Delano.  The cover photo is by Collier.  "All photographs are selected from the Pinewood Collection of New Mexico FSA Photographs, in the Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Fe, New Mexico ... Prints were made from original negatives generously loaned by the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division."

Oral History Interview with John Collier, 1965 January 18 Conducted by Richard K. Doud
Amazing insights into the personalities and operations of the FSA/OWI under Stryker.  The first part of the interview is accessible as an on line audio clip, and it gives a good idea of the expressive challenge which Collier over-came and even turned to an advantage during his long career as a photographer, researcher and educator.

John Collier, Jr.: Anthropology, Education and the Quest for Diversity
by Ray Barnhardt, Center for Cross-Cultural Studies, University of Alaska Fairbanks.
An authoritative, first-person appreciation of Collier's work with Eskimo and Navajo students and teachers as well as with a diverse urban school system in San Francisco.

Photographing Navajos: John Collier Jr. on the Reservation, 1948-1953
by C. Stewart Doty, Dale Sperry Mudge, and Herbert John Benally Photographs by John Collier Jr.
(link to Amazon)

The authors tracked down photo archives of Collier's Navajo work in Pennsylvania and Nova Scotia and then interviewed family members of the people depicted by Collier in the Four Corners area.  The photos in the book illustrate the techniques developed by Collier to elicit social and cultural information by showing photographs to informants depicting their own social and physical environments.  The text and illustrations provide a nice followup to the study of the Navajo conducted by Clyde Kluckhohn and Dorothea Leighton in the 1930s and 1940s.  Right after the publication of Photographing Navajos the Collier family made the decision to donate their collection of Collier's work to the Maxwell Museum.  The book's introduction notes that "The collection includes fifty years of photographs, film and video, field notes, daybooks, and correspondence."

* * *
John Collier Jr., Bureau with Portraits and Mementos
(and self portrait), Picuris Pueblo, NM, ca. 1945

Friday, October 23, 2015

what now?

Webb and Chafee are out of the running. O'Malley will likely hang in through the Iowa and New Hampshire debates.  That leaves mostly Clinton and Sanders to duke it out five more times, with a possible sixth encounter at the the MoveOn forum.  There is some pressure from the non-Clinton wing to expand the number of debates, but it is a little hard to imagine that the Dems could gain enough of a national media audience to support additional debates unless they moved to the carnival freak show format that the Republicans have opted for.

Clinton's debate objective will be to undercut Sanders by cherry-picking issues that help her to shore up her credentials with the party's left wing.  She will continue to hammer him on gun control until -- if and when -- she gets the nomination, and then she'll evolve to a more moderate position.  Clinton will likely make references to the Supreme Court's money in politics position, but she'll say nothing which will seriously  irritate her big bucks backers.  Neither Clinton nor Sanders will have anything substantive to say about the Israel-Palestine confrontation.

Sanders' task now is to counter the Clinton/big-media story line that the race is already over before the first primaries.  His email campaign is presently focused on showing his consistent civil rights stance over a period of many years with an eye toward gaining more traction with blacks, hispanics and the LGBT communities.  Those efforts are no doubt based on accurate perceptions of the lay of the land, but Sanders will also need to come up with better answers than he had available in the first debate regarding his economic analysis and specific and credible remedies.  To is credit, Sanders is the only one in the race who consistently alludes to the fact that achieving the presidency does not translate to leading the way to real changes without the support of millions of Americans -- that is, the achievement of a progressive majority in Congress.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Who won the debate?

The Big Media conclusion is summed up by the latest Washington Post headline: "Clinton, judged winner of debate, holds big national lead over Sanders".

The second portion of that headline is a non-starter; Clinton had a big lead in the polls over Sanders going into the debate and there seems to have been no change in their relative positions afterward.  As for Clinton's being judged "winner of debate" that depends very much on who is doing the judging and what the criteria are.

My impression regarding Clinton's performance was that much of what she said in this first debate was a response to the Sanders challenge.  Bernie has moved the discussion off center to the left, and Hillary is adopting talking points that appeal to that portion of the electorate that Sanders has invigorated.

The questions that must be asked are: does Clinton really believe in the issues she now seems to be championing and even if she does, what are the chances that the positions she are advocating will result in major changes if she takes the presidency?

Clinton's statements about gun control are usefully illustrative.  A clear objective in this instance was to undercut Sanders by adopting a stance on the issue to his left.  In the short run, she probably did gain some ground in regard to the primary election.  What about the general election?  Would her position on gun control evolve?  And, if she gets in office, what are the chances that she will lead the way to substantial changes in regard to gun violence?

In my opinion, Clinton did nothing in the debate to bolster her credibility or to change the perception that she would be unlikely to rock the establishment's boat if elected.  She certainly did not advance seriously strong support for getting big money out of the election process.

Bernie Sanders, in contrast, clearly believes in the positions he has advocated over a lifetime in politics.  He brought those convictions to a national stage in the debate and he forced the Democratic establishment and the country to confront the real issues of election financing reform,  rising economic inequality, inadequate health care, diminishing educational opportunity, and endless wars.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Backing Bernie

I have made some small donations in the past to environmental causes, but this is the first time that I have contributed money to an individual political candidate.  My thirty bucks went to support the presidential candidacy of Bernie Sanders.

I like Sanders' focus on wealth and income inequality and his proposed remedies.  His proposals for reforming health care and education if enacted would put the U.S. back into a position of leadership in the developed world rather than bringing up the rear as is now the case..

Of equal importance to all the other policy proposals is Sanders' demand that the distortions of the democratic process caused by big money be eliminated.  Sanders is the only major party candidate who has turned away super pacs in favor of small donors, and he has mounted a credible challenge to all the rest who have not found the courage to follow his lead.

While it is widely agreed that the Supreme Court decision on campaign financing has undermined popular democracy, it should also be recognized that the decision does not require any candidate to accept super pac support.  There are clearly great hurdles to turning back the lure of big money to campaigns via legislative channels, but it seems given Sanders' example that it would be much more productive to simply demand of any candidates for office that they reject super pac funding.