Written by Susan Toomey Frost
"Wish you were here" is a universal greeting on picture postcards -- those little pieces of heavy paper that we send to family and friends so that they can see where we've been.
A lot of information is packed on a postcard, particularly one that was sent a century ago. What is printed or written on a card, or attached to it, adds layers of interest and significance. Who sent it and to whom? What was it like back then? If the card was mailed and the postage stamp is intact, what do the stamp and cancellation tell us? Who took the photograph or drew the picture that appears on the card? Who was the printer or distributor? How and where was it made and sold? How much did it cost? Does the card promote or advertise something? Was it part of a set or series?
For countries like Great Britain and the United States, decades of collecting and research have answered many of these questions. But for smaller countries like Guatemala, little or nothing has been documented. Given its comparative isolation and long history of devastating earthquakes and political unrest, Guatemala was never a major tourist destination. Armchair travelers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, however, were eager to see the strange and exotic, and Mayan pyramids and artifacts were veiled in mystery that excited their imagination. They delighted in placing images of foreign peoples and places in their albums. Photographers fanned out from the developed world to capture those images during what is now known as the Golden Age of Postcards. Publications like National Geographic, founded in 1889, helped meet the demand of a public fascinated with pictures of people who appeared very different from themselves. No doubt the photographs encouraged some Europeans and Americans to feel superior to such people and to exploit them.
From the Spanish conquest forward, foreigners went to Guatemala to make their fortunes. Beneath Guatemala's natural beauty were resources that attracted foreign interests. A docile population acquiesced while Guatemala's riches spread east to Europe and north to the United States. Foreigners established coffee and banana plantations, electrical power networks, and transportation systems. Indigenous peoples planted and harvested the crops, built power plants, railroads and ports, and transported the products to the sea. Cities became showcases of broad avenues and stylish architecture that reflected the success of these ventures. Many of the early postcards were likely products of boosterism. Pictures of what was being accomplished were proudly mailed, encouraging more investment and immigration. All of this -- and more -- is reflected in the postcards.
Guatemala has a rich history of photography beginning in the mid-1850s and influenced by Eadweard Muybridge, who lived there in 1875. The earliest known picture postcards in Guatemala, however, date from the turn of the century. Postcards may have been thought to have little value and were discarded, for relatively few prior to World War II have survived. Although many photographs were taken by foreigners whose view of their subjects was ethnocentric, what is seen on those postcards is precious and often poignant today. Early postcards document a people in transition and cultural legacies evolving into different forms. The images -- and this is especially true for real photo postcards -- may be the only visual and historic record that has survived!
Centuries of foreign influence had left Guatemala ill-equipped to maintain a stable society amidst political turmoil. Particularly culpable was the CIA, which on behalf of United Fruit and in the name of anti-Communism, overthrew Guatemala's democratically elected government in 1954 and installed a harsh military regime. Guatemala has suffered five decades of civil war and genocide. With the exception of the work of artist-photographer Daniel Hernández-Salazar, nothing of this brutal period is recorded on postcards.
Often we are lucky to know who took a particular picture, and too often, the name is all we know. Although various publishers issued standard view cards, this web site features only the work of photographers whose work has been documented. Collecting, archiving and analyzing such information is relatively new in Central America. The effort to gather and preserve as much evidence as possible is vital because vintage photographs capture an era that is vanishing, and in many cases, is already gone forever.
Click on the following links to learn more about renowned Guatemalan photographers and view samples of their work.