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Getty Research Institute acquires rare, early photos of Mayan archeological sites
Désiré Charnay (1828-1915), Ruines américaines, 1858. Photographed between 1858 and 1860, printed 1862. Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles.

LOS ANGELES, CA.- The Getty Research Institute announced today the acquisition of an album comprising 45 photographs of Mayan sites as well as a single image of the iconic Aztec calendar stone taken in the late 1850s by Désiré Charnay (French, 1828-1915). The prints represent some of the earliest extensive documentation of pre-Columbian architecture.

“These visual records of Mesoamerican architecture are an invaluable resource for scholars investigating the history of Mayan sites and the manner in which they were documented by 19th-century Europeans using the then new technology of photography,” said Thomas W. Gaehtgens, director of the Getty Research Institute.

In 1857, under the sponsorship of the French Ministry of Public Education, Désiré Charnay arrived in Southern Mexico in the midst of a civil war and set out to document the culture of the Mayan civilization. He photographed the principal sites of Uxmal, Mitla, Izamel, Chichen Itza, and Palenque. His images of palace façades, bas reliefs, gates, and interiors provide detailed accounts of the condition of Mayan monuments at the time. And his general views of the sites suggest how they were integrated into the contemporary landscape of Mexico.

Following in the footsteps of artist-travelers such as John Lloyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, who made daguerreotypes and drawings based on camera lucida images, which were then translated into engravings, Charnay was among the first to use photography to document pre-Columbian architecture. He is primarily known for two bodies of work resulting from his travels – Voyage au Mexique (1857- 1860) and Cit é s et ruines am é rica i nes (1862).

Likely a private presentation copy given by Charnay to a close associate, this folio album (60 x 50 cm) contains 45 albumen prints from these travels, including some of the earliest photographs from Charnay’s Ruines américaines series. The photographs include detailed captions written in pencil that provide information on the dimensions of certain monuments. In many cases, the sites depicted in these mid-19th-century photographs have changed dramatically in the last 150 years, making Charnay’s prints distinctly important as archeological documentation.

This unique album is a notable addition to the GRI’s primary materials concerning Mesoamerican architecture and art, as well as a contribution to research on archaeology and early photography of the Americas. Before this acquisition, the GRI owned 21 photographs by Charnay taken from 1880-1882 as well as a separate collection of 35 early prints. The GRI also has a text-only version of the Paris edition of Cités et ruines américa i nes. The J. Paul Getty Museum holds eight photographs by Charnay as well as his 1885 publication Les anciennes villes du Nouveau Monde.

“Photography from and of Mexico is a cornerstone of the GRI’s Latin American collections which already house a number of Charnay’s photographs printed in Mexico City,” said Frances Terpak, curator of photographs at the Getty Research Institute. “Beyond its value as documentation of Mexican cultural landmarks, this new acquisition of Charnay’s photographs printed in Paris when compared with the GRI’s current holdings will provide conservators the opportunity to study early printing techniques practiced in both Mexico City and Paris.”

In addition to being made available to scholars, the Charnay album is digitized and available online through the Getty Research Library website.

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