Juan Brenner, Tonatiuh

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Editorial RM (here). Hardcover, 160 pages, with 84 color reproductions. Includes text fragments from the letters of Pedro de Alvarado, thumbnail images with captions/background explanations, a map, and an artist interview with Christian Michael Filardo. Design by Ambush. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Like many countries in the New World, Guatemala bears the long standing marks of its 16th century colonization by Spain, so much so that the layers of history, myth, influence, and cultural imperialism that surround the original conquest have been repeated so often and have been ingrained so deeply that their meanings have become muddied by time.

So in trying to understand and unpack the roots of life in contemporary Guatemala, Juan Brenner went all the way back to to the accounts of Pedro de Alvarado, the Spanish conquistador who subjugated the indigenous populations in much of Central America. In 2017, Brenner unearthed and retraced Alvarado’s path through the Guatemalan highlands via conquest chronicles, letters, and other documents, and ultimately spent eight months visiting some fifty towns and villages following Alvarado’s movements. His photographic (and archival) results take the form of the incisive photobook Tonatiuh, titled after Alvarado’s indigenous name.

Part of the success of Tonatiuh lies in the consistent intellectual complexity of its images – virtually every photograph in the book can be read as an image of today’s Guatemala as well as a symbol of the constant presence and remixing of history, the past nested inside the present, that is if we know what to look for or are provided some context (often via the captions at the back of the photobook). Brenner’s landscapes show us thick forests, muddy rivers, rolling valleys, and scrubby dry deserts, giving us a sense for the range of landforms and associated lifestyles. But each is also something more – the site of a battle or the passage of an invasion, the former site of an ancient city, or the place where drugs and human traffickers now cross the border with Mexico. One battle site is now a theme park with a garishly fake Mayan temple; another more humble spot marks the place where local lords were burned alive by Alvarado. And many images document smaller, unnamed shrines made recently, where clusters of wilted flowers are tied to a tree, a Madonna sits by the roadside, and gravestones and bulky rocks are painted or decorated, each silently honoring the now unknown. It seems almost every place has a mysterious story to tell – stone stairs lead nowhere or disappear into the jungle, puzzling concrete formations rise from riverbeds, dark caves bore into hillsides, pillars rise from weedy lots, and wooden fences are now only fallen slats. For Brenner, the haunted echoes of history are seemingly everywhere.

Interspersed among the pictures are fragments from Alvarado’s letters and journals, where he recounts his observations of the locals, and these snippets help anchor Brenner’s choice of subjects. Alvarado was obsessed with finding (and confiscating) gold, and Brenner discovers this theme in present day culture, in the form of gold dental decorations that signal power or wealth, even among the poorest citizens. Alvarado also mentions how soldiers riding horses were particularly effective in both scaring and fighting with the locals (who had never seen a mounted force), and Brenner’s horse images are deliberately spooky and unsettling. Brenner similarly follows the trail of other Spanish intrusions and interventions that date back to the first conquest – domesticated animals, the clash of Catholicism with local pagan rituals, new diseases, even metal implements like scissors – finding modern hybrids and faint remnants of those first, but surprisingly durable, cultural disruptions.

Brenner’s portraits of the local indigenous population strongly highlight this cultural mixing, and while Brenner is always respectful, he clearly is dissatisfied with the way these people are being treated. Up in the highlands, even bare necessities like electricity, natural gas, and running water are often scarce or unreliable – carrying firewood on backs, as has been done in the same way for thousands of years, still prevails and most of the residents are poor. Cultural signifiers from the West have grafted themselves onto these struggling lives, with Yankees baseball caps, Barcelona FC jerseys, and Mickey Mouse logos mixed together with weary faces, weathered hands, and dirty boots in ways that verge on the darkly and depressingly comic. Brenner then steps in and walks us back to the indigenous woman forced into sex work, the tuktuk driver forced by local gangs to carry drugs, the hot springs crowded with foreign tourists but now avoided by locals, and the once ferocious jaguar now stuck behind a chain link fence, and we get a fuller view into his disheartened view of globalization and its effects on the local ethnic identity.

The design of Tonatiuh is elegantly straightforward – its choices point toward featuring the photographs and making sure we see the deliberate pacing of the pairings and overall sequencing. The images are given plenty of white space to breathe, and informative texts and supporting materials are gathered at the end to provide a reference resource for those that want to dig deeper into Brenner’s resonances. And the cover is wrapped in bright orange, giving the photobook an eye-catching presence.

Tonatiuh is the kind of photobook that gets smarter and more richly challenging each time I look at it. Brenner’s approach to the entrenched legacy of colonialism in Guatemala is thoughtful and multi-faceted – his extensive research offers a variety of entry points and overlooked findings and his photographs are formally crisp, understated, and pointedly engaging. He teaches us about history while making a sophisticated visual argument about the contemporary reverberations of that past, which is no easy trick. In the end, it’s an impressively executed project, and certainly one of the most durably memorable photobooks of the year.

Collectors POV: Juan Brenner does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar.)

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  1. Sean Davey /

    Looks great.

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