Thirty-four years since the publication of Ann Parker’s Los Ambulantes (MIT Press, 1982), the photographs have returned to New York. In the 1970s, the artist followed itinerant photographers in Guatemala as they traveled through rural indigenous towns. Deborah Bell’s cozy midtown gallery has been filled with small, nuanced prints depicting these photographers in action, taking everything from ID photographs to ceremonial family portraits. Focusing on the significance of the photographers’ rare visits, Parker aimed to unearth the old excitement of studio photography.
Photographer directing pose, Santa Cruz Del Quiché (1970s) shows a boy sitting anxiously with a magnificent drawing of a modern city as his backdrop. The boy, wearing a buttoned-up suit and oversized tie, is dwarfed by the large-format camera in front of him. Hiding behind the camera, with only his cowboy hat and his commanding hand visible, the photographer poses the boy, who stares into the lens with awe.
The small, carefully curated selection of photographs, on view through April 30, reveals new aspects of Parker’s work that transcends the romantic interest in the exotic. Today the work is contextualized as part of Guatemala’s modern history—the brutal military regime backed by the American government and its injustices towards the indigenous majority. In her layered portraits, Parker—who was trained by masters like Minor White and Lisette Model—has encapsulated a number of nuanced interactions: the subjugated natives; the traveling photographers, in their Western attire, directing the interaction; and herself as the outside observer.
In Recently married couple, Barillas (1970s) all these aspects are present. The indigenous couple’s apparent age difference, their clothing, and even their posture points to their socioeconomic struggle. Everything is unhinged. The man’s western button-down collar is at odds with the beautiful native design of the woman’s dress. His rain boots mock the woman’s bare feet. Even the floral backdrop is challenged by the hard rocky ground. With their fierce glance—looking outside the frame and into the invisible lens of the itinerant photographer—they challenge any conventional expectation of naivety. Filled with such captivating characters, Los Ambulantes signifies not only the forgotten thrill of the now-extinct photographic practice, but also documents the individuality of the photographers and their subjects.