Book of the Week: Selected by Arista Slater-Sandoval
Lines and Lineage
Photographs by Tomas van Houtryve
Radius Books, Santa Fe, USA, 2019. 10×12″
When parents and grandparents share stories with us that have been passed down from generation to generation, it illuminates and connects the past with the present. The act of photography collapses time in a similar manner. Preserving an image places the index in the past; conversely, creating an image enables the viewer to conceptualize it in the perceived present. Lines and Lineage, by Tomas van Houtryve, examines the reverberations of history through the present via families, land, and notions of identity.
Van Houtryve uses a historical photographic process from the mid-1800s, allowing the annexation of the present moment by an American history whose people and land issues are anything but antiquated. Photographed using the wet plate collodion process, we are greeted with highly detailed, stark portraits juxtaposed by landscapes of the US / Mexico border from the early 1800s. Location and identity are immediately important, as each image is accompanied by a descriptive caption that hints to history and genealogy. Requisite essays on subject matter further educate the viewer on the history of border disputes between the United States and Mexico.
The images illuminate the lives of the people who inherited this history and land. The included timeline places the conquest, colonization, and independence of Mexico opposite similar points in American history. This transforms the still landscapes into haunting memorials. Like a macabre scavenger hunt, we look for remnants of the past in the present: Does the land remember the battles that took place on its back? Do the ghosts of people killed show themselves in the whisper of the collodion ripple?
The violent seizure of Mexican land under the doctrine of Manifest Destiny created a forced coexistence between disparate people. A photograph of the Mission San Xavier del Bac (founded in 1692 by Jesuit missionaries on the homeland of the Tohono O’odham) is a salient depiction of critically opposite ways of life. The contrast between the stark, white Moorish-inspired exterior and the surrounding, organic desert is like two voices speaking at once. Only those who are of the faith, may enter this ethereal white oasis. But it’s an oasis to—and from—what? Encircling fences and bars create a chasm. The physical division of space is a further reminder of the border issues prevalent throughout the book, separated tribal lands, families and migratory paths, which continue to corrode daily life.
The inclusion of excerpts from interviews provides further insight into the people photographed and their connection to the history of the American West and the larger project. In the interviews, van Houtryve simply asks, “How do you describe your identity?” Reading the different responses supports and encourages notions about complex personal identities. Attempting to understand and answer the question can be all consuming, especially in the current political climate of highly policed political correctness. While the act of wearing a t-shirt that proclaims an aspect of your hyper-individualized identity is empowering, it can also single the wearer out for personal attacks both physical and virtual.
As a person of mixed racial decent, identity is a question that is ever present on the lips of others and never far from my thoughts. People ask: What am I? Where am I from? What is my tribal affiliation? To this, I identify with Anita Otila Rodríguez, one of van Houtryve’s models: “I belong to a group of people that bureaucracy has never been able to pin down.” Long standing issues with trying to understand which category to fit into, which box to check, creates a sense of instability when it comes to understanding one’s self. Check one or all that apply, we exist on a spectrum. To claim just one ethnicity creates a hierarchy detrimental to the appreciation of every part of one’s collective identity. As Lines and Lineage illustrates, we are the historical sum of our families, the land, and our complex identities.
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Arista Slater-Sandoval was born and raised in Grand Rapids Michigan and moved in 2007 to Washington D.C. to pursue a BFA in photography at the Corcoran College of Art and Design. While there she completed a 5 months Teachers Assistance and residency program in New York City at the Center for Alternative Photography. After completing a BFA, she moved to Cambridge MA, and attend the College of Art and Design at Lesley University where she obtained a MFA in Fine Art Photography in 2013. While in grad school she pursued issues in communication, identity, love and romance, and taught alternative photographic processes.