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Macduff, the Maya, and 40 years of photographs

September 26, 2012|By Christopher Reynolds
  • Jacinta Chi Tun, in doorway of her house, with her children. Monte Cristo, Yucatan, 1971.
Jacinta Chi Tun, in doorway of her house, with her children. Monte Cristo,… (Macduff Everton )

Macduff Everton is a Santa Barbara-based photographer with a wide reputation for wide pictures — often-staggering landscapes he creates using a panoramic camera in locations from Patagonia to Paris. (In fact, an exhibition of his Patagonia images will hang through Oct. 27 at the PYO Gallery LA in downtown Los Angeles.) But Everton’s latest project is different. It’s a set of intimate black-and-white images of Maya people on Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula.

It’s called “The Modern Maya: Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatán” (University of Texas Press, 2012). And it’s been gestating for four decades. In this edited email Q&A, Everton explains why ditched the big pictures for this project,  offers shrewd advice on how to buy a Yucatecan hammock, and remembers what happened down there one time after a long night of drinking. Here is a gallery of photographs from the book.

Q: You’re best known for panoramic images that verge on the epic. And the Maya are known for ruins that are fairly epic themselves. Yet your most recent Maya pictures are black and white, and much more intimate. Why?

It all began when I first visited Yucatán in 1967. At that time documentary photography was traditionally black and white. Since this book has always been about my Maya friends and their lives over time, I didn’t want readers to be seduced and distracted by the vibrant colors of the tropics. I wanted the Maya to become real for the reader rather than pretty pictures.

As for my other work, I started using a panoramic camera when images with my regular camera weren’t providing the viewer a sense of place. I could be off living in a campamento in the jungles of Quintana Roo and people would ask what hotel I stayed at. It would have been easy to blame the viewer for not “getting it,” but I knew that it was up to me to rectify this. I bought a panoramic camera with a moving lens. It covers nearly 150 degrees — what the eye sees with peripheral vision. At that time, in order to support my Maya project, I was working as a muleskinner for a pack station in Golden Trout Wilderness [in California’s Sierra Nevada] and then as a whitewater river guide in California and Oregon, living in the backcountry. I was using my peripheral vision, and when I picked up the camera there was no learning curve.

How did your relationship with the Maya and their territory start?

 I took off for Yucatán when I was 19. I was hired by an educational film company to create anthropological and archaeological filmstrips for the college level and they put me in charge of their Latin American division. I was supposed to go to South America. We figured I could be through Mexico in a matter of weeks. I was so naïve. I fell in love with Mexico. It is an unbelievable country with nearly 300 languages and tens of thousands of archaeological sites. I couldn’t leave… The Maya seduced me. Even though I was a stranger, the Maya invited me into their homes and made me comfortable and welcome. I felt that Yucatán’s real treasure was its people. I decided I wanted to work on a book project portraying the living Maya. When I asked to photograph them they had no idea what I was talking about. No one in a village had a camera, so the few photographs that people had commemorated special events such as weddings and baptisms. Villagers went to the nearest city that had a photo studio.  They stood at attention in front of the camera in their best clothes, stiff as soldiers with nary a smile nor a twinkle. No one owned snapshots. The idea of making a photographic recording of their lives didn’t make sense to them on several levels. Not only had they not seen anything like this among their family and friends, they also hadn’t seen Maya appear in movies, commercials or advertisements.

At first, when I went around with my camera, they treated me as if I were the village idiot. Tolerated, indulged, and humored. But in many ways, being the village idiot was a great entrée into village life as no one considered me a threat. So they let me photograph them.

And I learned that asking people if I could photograph them often opened up so many unforeseen opportunities. The hard part was overcoming my shyness. It forced me to interact with my subjects.

Everything changed when I came back and gave them photos. Over the years my friends became increasingly sophisticated in their critical appreciation of photography and began to understand what I was doing. They started to suggest photos. They would invite me to photograph not only ceremonies or special occasions, but also daily occurrences. For my part, I learned that they were uncomfortable with silhouettes of themselves, or any photograph that made their skin color appear dark, so I tried to give them lighter prints.

What were you aiming for with the new book?

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