Tomas van Houtryve: Lines and Lineage

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Radius Books (here). Clothbound hardcover with four different cover images (shown: “Dorothy”), 160 pages, with 80 black-and-white plates, 12×10 inches. Includes interview excerpts in English and Spanish, and essays by Carrie Gibson and the photographer. Editing and proofreading by Megan Mulry and Chelsea Weathers. Translation by Alexia Veytia-Rubio. Design by David Chickey and Montana Currie. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: To describe the photographs of Tomas van Houtryve’s Lines and Lineage, one must begin where all stories begin – with a sense of place. Place not merely as location or locality, as feeling or perception, but as an enduring moment, in which present and past collide.

Picture a lonely spot in the sierra of Arizona, somewhere between the towns of Douglas and Nogales. Facing east, you’ll see the typical landscape of the high desert, with scrubby bushes, solitary trees, and skinny dirt roads winding like serpents, parting ways. It is an ordinary landscape of extraordinary magnitude, unfolding within the mysterious rhythms of mesas and plains. If you look south, these rhythms are suddenly pierced by a single dark line, running stiff and unforgiving as far as the eye can see – a barrier, as corroded and arbitrary as the politics that placed it there, separating one land and two countries, the United States and Mexico. That’s the present.

In 1540, somewhere along that same lonely spot between Douglas and Nogales, the Spanish explorer and conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado stepped beyond the limits of what was then known as Nueva España (New Spain), and into uncharted, indigenous territory. Accompanied by hundreds of soldiers, horses, and other livestock, Coronado’s expedition set out to find the treasures of the Seven Cities of Cíbola (also known as the Seven Cities of Gold), but ultimately failed (the treasures remain a myth). What it led to, instead, was the northern expansion of the Spanish colonial reign, initiating “centuries of Hispanic ascendancy”, as van Houtryve writes, in an area that is now commonly known as the American West. That’s the past – and most of it is forgotten. More forgotten, however, is that this area, stretching from today’s East Texas to Northern California, only became part of the United States in 1848. First stolen from the continent’s native people, it subsequently belonged to Mexico, which gained independence from Spanish rule in 1821, and lost half of its territory during an atrocious, two-year war with the United States. Fractured like this memory itself, Tomas van Houtryve photographed his book’s opening landscape, “Coronado Entrada and Border Wall”, as three individual pictures that together form a triptych of colliding histories. It is here, in this very place, where Lines and Lineage begins.

Preceded by long and laborious research, van Houtryve’s book is an homage to a forgotten time and its enduring people. Unfolding as a series of contemplative single- and double-page spreads, we see the faces of men and women, young and old, of children and teenagers, all of whom are direct descendants from Hispanic and Indigenous families that have lived on the previously Mexican territory long before the first American settlers arrived. Photographed with a 19thcentury camera, all of these portraits emerge from dark, non-descriptive backgrounds and bear the signature marks, streaks, and scratches of the wet-plate collodion process. Their resemblance with images from historic archives and photo albums is inescapable, and intended. While some of these eerie portraits stand on their own, most of them are paired with photographs of landscapes and historic sites – the latter either depicting remnant architectures, such as the 1827 Custom House in Monterey, California, or the Jesuit Mission San Xavier del Bac from 1692 – or places in which atrocities were committed. Most haunting is, perhaps, the telltale ruin of the San Geronimo Church in Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, where one hundred and fifty Hispanic and indigenous people, mostly women and children, died in an attack by US troops, hiding while resisting their annexation in 1847.

Equally somber, although less explicit, are van Houtryve’s landscapes – a group of sumptuous images that retrace the course of Mexico’s historic border. If you look at them long enough, they feel like the moody, muted cousins of Ansel Adams’s iconic photographs. To find, and then navigate, these hidden lands for two years, van Houtryve used a map from 1839 – the same year that photography was introduced in Paris. Reproduced on the first pages of Lines and Lineage, a shaded line runs between what is now the state line of Oregon and California, to then head east to Wyoming, and zigzag towards Louisiana – as if quietly exemplifying the book’s underlying query: Borders not as lines for people to cross, but as lines that cross people instead.

As a photographer and conceptual artist, van Houtryve has held an interest in borders for years. Interrogating their arbitrary nature and impact on people, identities, and landscapes, his previous works explore borders as physical manifestations – between China and North Korea, North and South Korea – as well as linguistic barriers, such as the Franco-Flemish division of Belgium. Lines and Lineage continues van Houtryve’s inquisitive practice but arises from a more personal motivation. The child of Belgian-American parents, van Houtryve – who now lives in France – was born and raised in California. As such, he went to American schools and was taught history from a US perspective. Within this educational system, he learned that the first encounter between Europeans and the continent’s native people did not occur with Coronado’s expedition, but the arrival of the Mayflower in 1620. Another subject was the exploration of the American West.

“The way they teach history in the US,” he said in a recent conversation with curator Sally Martin Katz, “is that the Gold Rush of the 49ers is the year zero – and that everything important happened after that date – and the things [that happened] before are sort of brushed over. Like, there was this semi-wild period with all the native tribes, and then, suddenly, these pioneers arrived and brought progress and industry, and things like that. […] There is this incredibly rich history that was there for centuries before any Anglo-Americans showed-up in the region, but it’s gotten brushed under the rug.”

While his parents “planted a few early seeds of doubt” and created awareness of indigenous perspectives (his mother worked as psychotherapist in a small Native American clinic), it was only after college that van Houtryve began to read about the Mexican-American War (1846-1848) and the significance of the Mexican rule: Beginning with the resistance movements from various native groups against the Spanish colonizers, strives for equality that the Mexican Revolution had brought to the area, including the abolition of slavery in 1824, non-discriminatory citizenship, the right to vote, and for women the right to own land. Likely as influential was one of his photojournalism professors at the University of Colorado. Originally from New Mexico and a legacy Hispanic – meaning a direct descendant of the people who had lived in the area centuries before the US conquest – his professor shared further insights into this complex history. Yet, the idea for a project only took off after Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign. Frustrated by Trump’s polemic rants about the US-Mexican border and the media’s lack of will to provide an informed point of view, van Houtryve felt that fundamental questions continued to be ignored.

“I thought that people should be able to access this history and feel it in a way that I never did in school. And, of course, the way I access history and what really moves me [are] archives and images.” Looking for visual records of the country’s Mexican period, he tapped into a photographic void, as photography only arrived in the Far West in 1848, after the Mexican rule had ended. “That’s what sparked the idea. What if I could create, after the fact, this historical archive? I sort of ran from there.”

With the help of a genealogist and other people and organizations, van Houtryve managed to find fifty individuals, who were willing to participate in the project – most of them not only agreeing to be photographed, but also to be interviewed. Excerpts of these conversations are included in final section of Lines and Lineage. Along with a timeline confronting Northern American history from a Hispanic and US perspective of events, and two beautifully written essays by Carrie Gibson and van Houtryve that contextualize the shifting border and the scope of the project – these texts make for a profound and powerful reading. It is here were we learn that the city of Los Angeles was originally founded by a group of fourteen settlers, most of them of African ancestry; that a significant number of New Mexico natives are linked to Sephardic Jews that first arrived in the region after fleeing persecution in 16th-century Spain; and of people’s continued efforts to uncover, claim, and celebrate their origins, while governments kept renaming, re-schooling, or neglecting them – stories that van Houtryve’s photographs alone could never have unlocked.

Lines and Lineage is a remarkable book for many reasons. One of them being van Houtryve’s thoughtful use of the wet-plate collodion process. Browsing his website, you’ll quickly understand that photography is not merely a tool, but a technology, whether old or new, to serve a considered aesthetic purpose – that can range from analogue and digital photographs to drone imagery. In the case of Lines and Lineage, van Houtryve’s photographic choice seems driven by a desire to match his historical research with the photographic means of the period. And while his images surely convey an old, tactile feel, they are not old-timey or crafty, they don’t glorify in hindsight. They are functional, in the best and original sense of the term. What is so striking about these photographs, the portraits in particular, is the way in which they recognize their subjects without ever revealing them, without giving them away. Think, for instance, of Nadar or Edward Sheriff Curtis. At first glance, they seem to relate to van Houtryve’s work – the former in terms of postures; the latter, occasionally, in terms of expressions as well as sartorial attributes and culturally coded adornments. All three photographers collaborated with their subjects in various ways, which is partly due to the slow process of taking photographs with a 19th century camera. Looking at van Houtryve’s photographs, however, you notice that his portraits don’t perform or dramatize personalities, nor do they project romanticized notions of identity. They aren’t explicit because the photographer and the photographed don’t know or pretend to know one another. Instead, they acknowledge their innate strangeness, their being friendly but unfamiliar, which is tangible in their portrayed gazes.

Take, for instance, the photograph of Anita Otila Rodríguez. Turning towards the camera, her beautifully weathered face rests carefully in the palm of her hand, her forehead slightly frowned. And even though her lips might indicate a little smile, her eyes remain impenetrable – open, but enigmatic, reflecting little more than glimpses of flash-light. Or, the portrait of Bernadette Therese Ortiz Peña, who, while facing the camera, directs her eyes toward the sky – allowing us to look at her, but on her terms. It is details like these – small gestures – through which van Houtryve maintains a respectful distance, as if protecting his subjects from an exploitative, patronizing gaze.

It is a difficult task, this reconsideration of history, especially in a country where the power of Western mythology is joined by a plethora of images that continues to portray Mexicans as impoverished criminals trying to cross borders. What is impressive is the vigor and kindness, the cohesiveness, of van Houtryve’s pursuit. And while nothing can replace an archive that was lost or never made, Lines and Lineage opens a space, similar to what John Berger once described as “the field of memory”. A place, in which different narratives co-exist – moments of revelation that withstand the flow of time.

Collector’s POV: Tomas van Houtryve is represented by Anastasia Photo in New York (here) and Baudoin Lebon Gallery in Paris (here). Van Houtryve’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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