La Fototeca Nacional (Pachuca, Hidalgo)

Posted by Jason Ahlenius — PhD Student of Spanish and Portuguese at NYU

Examining photo negatives at the Fototeca Nacional in Pachuca

She grew impatient when I did it for the second time. «¡Ay! Por favor, no hagas eso». Please don’t do that. But I did it. I broke the rules. I touched the photographic originals. I desecrated Mexico’s visual patrimony.

I have finally before me a physical object from the archive, a national relic, and it is as if the object itself is reaching out to me to connect with it, to make an affective connection through the body. Yet like the disciplinary-religious space of the art museum, however, there is an invisible barrier between my unclean hands and the sacred object. I retract my hands. I can only make the connection through the visual field.

Lo siento. Sorry. I reply.

The Fototeca National was established in 1976 and contains the largest archive of Mexico’s visual patrimony in the country. Like the Archivo Manuel Toussaint, they are working to digitize their acervo for public access, and currently have 60% of their collection available online. Unlike the former archive, they collect and preserve all originals in positive and negatives. Yet the difference in quality between the originals and the digital copies online is remarkable. The distant white specks I hardly noticed online come into sharp focus as people scattered through the landscape under a magnifying glass. I can also appreciate the dimensions of the photograph, the different materials and technical processes that produced them.

A coffee nursery on the Isthmus, ca. 1900, Oaxaca, in the Fototeca Nacional, Colección C.B. Waite

I found an impressive repository of photos of Mexico’s monocrop agricultural production and the representation of labor. Up close, I can even see the bigote of the white overseer in a suit, looking down on the notably dark-skinned laborers dressed in white. This is part of the Colección C.B. Waite, a U.S. photographer who produced and circulated over 3,000 images of Mexico’s railroads, commercial agriculture, and cities to produce an image of a “modern” nation. There are numerous collections with similar photographic representations of the Mexican countryside.

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