by Jesse Lerner
In a modest, largely immigrant neighborhood north of downtown Los Angeles, the city's first museum, now financially strapped and largely forgotten, sits perched upon a hilltop like an adobe neo-colonial presidio. The Southwest Museum, a Spanish Revival structure, is approached from the bottom of the hill, where the visitor enters a long tunnel, evocative of a West Mexican shaft tomb, through neo-Maya/Zapotec archway. The tunnel is lined with miniature dioramas depicting scenes of indigenous American life: a ballgame at Chichen Itza, a group of Southern Californian hunter and gathering Indians gathered around a campfire, daily life at Machu Picchu. This passageway leads to an elevator that then takes the visitor up to the Museum itself, home of one of the largest collections of Native American objects in the United States. The Museum's Braun Research Library is repository for a collection well over a hundred thousand photographs, including extensive holdings of C. B. Waite, William Henry Jackson, Karl Moon, Adam Clark Vroman, and those of one of the Museum's founders, the colorful Charles Fletcher Lummis.
Lummis was a man who wore many hats. Author of nearly twenty books, champion of reforms in the government's treatment of Native Americans, crusader for the preservation of the California's Franciscan missions, newspaper reporter, ethnomusicologist, magazine editor, Los Angeles booster, amateur ethnographer and one-time city librarian, nearly all of his tireless activities aimed to promote the Hispanic and Native heritage of the southwestern part of the United States. One of Lummis’ multiple roles was that of a photographer, documenting ruins, landscapes, folklore and architecture as he traveled through the Southwestern US, the Andes, Mexico and Central America. He shot five-by-eight glass dry-plate negatives on these travels, and then later printed cyanotype for retail sale. When necessary he would create as many as eight hundred and fifty of these blue prints in a single day.1 The Southwest Museum's Braun Library holds these negatives, many of the cyanotype positives that he made from them, as well as latter-day silver gelatin prints done after his death, perhaps in the 1930s.
Lummis taught himself the cyanotype process while convalescing in New Mexico in 1888.2 It should not be surprising that, in spite of the convenience of pre-packaged photographic papers, which were soon to make silver gelatin prints increasingly dominant, that Lummis stayed true to the cyanotype throughout his photographic career. In part this was a pragmatic decision. Cyanotype was well suited to field conditions, and Lummis often printed while traveling in a less-than-light-tight adobe structure with no running water. Additionally, his was a sensibility deeply committed to the anachronism and the archaic. When he relocated from Ohio to California in 1884, he walked across the continent rather than taking the train, in what became a highly successful and widely publicized media event. In turn of the century Los Angeles, he always dressed a frontiersman, and used flint and steel rather than matches to light his cigarettes. It is difficult to imagine how Lummis, who suffered from partial paralysis and a myriad of other health problems for much of his life, managed to transport the forty pound large-format view camera with him in what were often extrememly rugged conditions, but he wrote that even if a lightweight 35mm camera been available when he started photography, he “wouldn’t have used one anyhow.”3
Among the Lummis photographs in the Museum's collection are those from his 1896 journey to Mexico. Lummis traveled through Chihuahua, Guanajuato, Leon, Zacatecas to Mexico City, and then onward to Puebla and Oaxaca. His writings from these travels were published in three installments in the popular Harper's Magazine. These were later gathered along with additional writings on Mexico in a book entitled The Awakening of a Nation. The added materials include some minimal elaborations on his travelogue, though he as much as apologizes in the volume’s introduction for not having done more of this. There are some new chapters as well, such as one devoted to an extended meditation, at once Victorian and lustful, on the charms of Latin American women. Lummis, a notorious 'mujeriego,' writes that the Latinas’ “perfect brown is so transparent, so fine, so soft, so richly warmed with the very dawn of a flush, as no other cheek that is worn of woman.”4 Other additions to the book include his observations from an early trip by boat along the Pacific Coast of Mexico, and a section on Spanish words that have entered the English language.
Both the Harper’s articles and "The Awakening of a Nation"5 are generously illustrated with engravings derived from Lummis’ photographs. Additional texts based on these travels appeared in periodicals including The Outlook, the New York Evening Post, and Harper's Round Table.6 The Harper's and Post articles as well as the later book are, to a great extent, at heart both paeans to Porfirio Díaz, who is depicted as the most benevolent and forward-thinking of rulers. The Braun Research Library also holds one of Lummis' scrapbooks, identified as “Studies Further South,” containing materials related to Mexican travels--clippings, more cyanotypes, a pair of albumen carte-de-visite portraits of Maximilian and Carlota that he must have purchased on his trip, and so on—which adds some further glimpses into his relationship with Díaz. Included in this scrapbook is a letter from Díaz to Lummis, thanking him for the Harper's clippings which the latter sent after their publication. The dictator points out three minor errors in his own biography, as reported by Lummis, but graciously praises the text.
Chihuahua in the 1890s, as Lummis portrays it, was the bastion of enlightened development. All around the visitor saw signs of the “swift uprising of Chihuahua by the pasts of progress.” The schools he visited are characterized as “cheerful, commodious, well-ventilated” and populated with students “so alert” that they “were fit to make the blood tingle.”7 Likewise he reports that the alamedas, parks, and paseos “are being improved handsomely,” that a “first-class” water system had been recently completed, and that hospitals and public buildings were similarly newly improved. All of this remarkable progress in Chihuahua, like that witnessed elsewhere in Mexico, is taken as a reflection of the vision of Díaz, “the creator of a new factor in American destiny.”8 Lummis predicted erroneously that the issue of presidential succession not a cause for concern, for Díaz had “set the feet of his people in the paths of progress. He has given them to know, after fever, how good is the draught of peace. He has bound them not more to himself than to one another.”9
The Chihuahua photos themselves are only of moderate interest: a few views of the cathedral and of a monument to Hidalgo, shots of the aqueduct and the boy's school he describes in his writings, and images of soldiers in uniform. They confirm that his is in the end a minor photographic talent, eclipsed by his superhuman force of personality, gift of gab and indefatigable energy. Little evidence of the progressive new Chihuahua that Lummis describes is visible in these images. The great distances, usually more than eight meters, which separate the camera from the closest human subjects suggest his interactions with the local residents may have perhaps been limited. Nor are there, aside from Díaz, any individuals singled out for description in the text. Could Lummis’ irrepressible charm and exceptional interpersonal skills have failed him here? Nothing in the scrapbooks suggests an answer to this puzzle, and his diaries from his Mexican trip are missing from the Braun Research Library. Perhaps these are the volumes his second wife took as evidence during their acrimonious divorce; in his diaries Lummis had indiscreetly annotated some twenty to fifty extramarital affairs. Without this supplemental information, we have little record of Lummis’ Mexican travels other than his published accounts and his photographs.
A few short blocks from the Southwest Museum's decaying and neglected acropolis, through a working-class neighborhood peppered with pupuserias and taco trucks, sits Lummis' home and gardens, the latter significantly reduced in size by the 110 Freeway, which runs along the property’s eastern edge. Lummis built the house himself, and dubbed El Alisal. The living room features a large picture window, which looks out onto the native and drought resistant plants and the courtyard, scene of innumerable banquets and festivities. Set in the smaller frames that surround the three main windows, Lummis placed glass plate positives, contact prints of the photographic negatives from his travels, to function as windowpanes. One window is surrounded by views of Peru, another with views of the North American Southwest, and the center window features Lummis' best photographs of Mexico. This unusual display format allows the visitor to view at the out of doors through the transparencies of landscape and architectural photographs. It is an apt metaphor for Lummis’ project of regional promotion. In his mind’s eye, California and, more generally, the North American West always looked more picturesque, more folkloric and more romantic when filtered through his peculiar vision of Latin American history and culture.
1 Mark Thompson, American Character: The Curious Life of Charles Fletcher Lummis and the Rediscovery of the Southwest, (New York: Arcade, 2001), p. 178.
2 Turbesé Lummis Fiske and Keith Lummis, Charles F. Lummis: The Man and his West (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1975), p. 43.
3 ibid., p. 43.
4 These articles appeared in Harper’s Magazine (Vol. XCIV, nos. DLXI-DLXIII) and subsequently in Charles F. Lummis, The Awakening of a Nation, (New York: Harper, 1898).
5 ibid., p 117.
6 Two of these are also works of non-fiction: another celebration of Díaz, "The Man of Mexico" The Outlook, 2 November 1901, pp. 537-545, and a celebration of Mexico's triumphant entry into modernity, "The Transformation of Mexico," New York Evening Post, 12 January 1901, Section 3, p. 1. The other is a work of short fiction, set in Guanajuato, "The Silver Omelet," Harper's Round Table, vol. XVIII, no. 97 (21 September 1897), pp. 1129-1132.
7 Charles F. Lummis, The Awakening of a Nation, (New York: Harper, 1898), p. 18, 15, 16.
8 ibid., p. 104.
9 ibid., p. 134-35.