The Art of (not) Finding: El Archivo Fotográfico Manuel Toussaint

Posted by Jason Ahlenius – Ph.D. student in Spanish and Portuguese at NYU

Un facsímile del Códice Azteca del Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas

I have begun to see a pattern in my “explorations” of Mexico’s archives: I arrive at the archive, and spend several days figuring out how to gain access to the archive, or searching through the catalog, only to have someone tell me that they have digitalized most of their collection, and that I could have done this work without leaving NYC. I leave disheartened that I was denied the chance to do the “sexy” work of digging through a physical archive with my latex gloves and a mask. This was more or less my experience at my first visit to the Archivo Fotográfico Manuel Toussaint, located in the Instituto de Investigaciones Estéticas (IIE) of the UNAM in Mexico City.

I began, rather idealistically, with an idea of archival research similar to that of a treasure map: I have a more or less clear idea of what I am looking for, and I follow a series of instructions to arrive at the “X” on the map, where my archive is hidden. My actual experience is often more akin to being dropped in the middle of a forest, not knowing exactly what I will find, while I am trying to make a map of my surroundings as I am trying to arrive at a city of whose whereabouts I am oblivious.

My research involves the visual culture of empire and the transformations it wrought in landscapes and social relations in late nineteenth-century Mexico. I came here looking for photography from that period that documented such changes as monocrop agriculture, the construction of Mexico’s railroads, and, particularly, the representations of the people who built them. The approximately thirty railroad photos I found don’t exactly give me what I wanted them to give me. They are fairly straightforward photos of Mexico’s railways and locomotives. A few people dot the scenes, but it’s hard to tell how they relate to the railways, other than the coincidence of being nearby when the photo was taken. Where is spectacle of oppression or resistance my treasure map of theory told me I would find? I can’t see how or if these images fit into my project.

My “adventure” was not fruitless. For one, I happened to arrive the day before “El día internacional de los archivos” [International Archive Day] on June 7. The next day, the IIE gave a tour of their archives and facilities, including the photo archive I came to search. On my second day of photo archive research, I was able to get an extensive introduction to the technology, regulations, operations, and people that make such photo archives run.

El laboratorio de restauración fotográfica del Archivo Manuel Toussaint

From this tour, I was able to find several other sources (likewise digitized) that I would not have found otherwise, and which are relevant to my project. Chief among them were a lithographic album of Mexican railroads by Antonio García Cubas, one of the main figures in the development of geographical studies of nineteenth-century Mexico. I will see how or if this fits into my project.

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