Tomas van Houtryve

BY Elisabeth Biondi, January 4, 2019

In his latest work, Tomas van Houtryve set himself a difficult task: to create photographs that reflect on a period in American history from which no photographs exist. 

There is no photographic record of the southwestern United States before 1848, the end of the Mexican-American War. Daguerreotypes had been invented in Paris in 1839 but did not become popular in America until several years later. The end of the war terminated Mexico’s rule of more than 500,000 square miles of territory in the southwestern United States, bringing an end to the rich culture that had flourished in the region for 27 years, a culture not reflected in American history textbooks. This gap in the history books propelled van Houtryve to document that culture retroactively. 

He did extensive research before beginning, in 2017, to photograph south of the original Mexican border, which today includes California, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas, as well as parts of Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, and Oklahoma.  What he found only increased his interest in the history of the region: native people were granted citizenship and voting rights by Mexico 100 years before the U.S. passed the Indian Citizenship Act of 1924, and slavery was abolished in Mexico 41 years before it ended in the U.S. Under Mexican rule, people with African ancestry held prominent positions, including the governorship of California. 

Van Houtryve used a large-format, vintage 19th-century field camera, which imposes the formality of portraits from another era. The camera, and his use of the wet-collodion glass-plate process, reinforce a sense history.

His portraits are carefully researched and historically relevant – all of his subjects are descendants of the area’s original Mexican inhabitants. Quiet and dignified, the images pay tribute to Nadar, whose powerful portraits van Houtryve admires, and he focuses on his subjects’ eyes, conveying a sense of their interior life. He presents the work in diptychs that juxtapose portraits with romantic landscapes, reflecting an intimate connection between humans and nature. 

Van Houtryve, who is Belgian, holds a philosophy degree from the University of Colorado, where he later studied photojournalism and fine art photography. A combination of historical research, journalistic rigor, and a commitment to truth allowed him to realize this exceptional project, which Radius Books will publish later this year. His pictures restore a part of history and create a more nuanced story of Mexicans in America than the divisive pictures we see in the news today.