Book Review: Welcome to the Jungle–Maya Ruins Revisited, by William Frej

Rephotography—projects that seek out the tripod holes of past photographers to reshoot the same images of the same thing, in the same place, maybe at the same time—have their fascinations but, in the end, impart lessons on the same general theme: Man is bad.

Man is bad because man tears down nature to build ugliness. Man is bad because what man builds changes the air and thus the weather and thus the climate. Man is bad because man is bad, and getting worse, and man was less bad in earlier times, despite the ugliness, or perhaps the bad in man is unchanging and it is technology that magnifies his sorrowful destruction.

Done well, a rephotography project will enter in all manner of subtleties having to do with geologic and environmental change, the changing nature of the photographer and the viewer, even the changing expectations one brings to projects such as these.

Done poorly and you have a tourist book, sold on sidewalks and poorly printed, inexpensive, never to be looked at again.

No one does landscape rephotography better than Mark Klett and his team, who over the years have in many ways come to define rephotography, at least in the art world. Following the paths of the early photographers who traveled the American West, Klett has gone to tremendous lengths to create a mimic of the old photograph, paying attention to the camera’s location—within inches of the original, if possible–its field of view, its framing, the day and time of day of the original exposure, and on and on.

I say “mimic” but that really isn’t the right word. The result doesn’t confuse the reader and the intent is not to confuse the reader which photograph is which. Instead, the intent is to minimize or even completely do away with every possible difference between the two images save one, that of time. What you see in one photo but not in the other is due to the passage of time and the format of the project brings that passage to the front, making it its subject from which all else follows. It’s scientific, in a way.

It’s an extraordinary body of work and not only seems to be ongoing since the 1970s but has inspired many others to develop their own rephotography programs.

This is not to say that all rephotography projects share the same aims as Klett’s nor even that they have been inspired by Klett.

A new book, Maya Ruins Revisited: In the Footsteps of Teobert Maler, is a rephotography project but its effect is altogether different, illuminating the work of a photographer no one has heard of with new images that augment the older ones without placing the “then and now” aspect of the project at its center. This book is about the Mayan culture, about the architecture they left behind, and about the man who, in the late 1800s trekked through tropical forests often discovering–and photographing–ruins known only to the locals, if to anyone at all.

That man was the Teobert Maler of the subtitle, a German though born in Rome who then worked in Vienna who then, perhaps bored with his life, enlisted with Emperor Maximilian to fight as a soldier in the war in Mexico, only to be defeated. Despite that defeat, Maler stayed in Mexico and eventually found his way to the Mayan ruins.

He wasn’t the first archeologist or the first photographer to explore and record the region’s ruins.

Juan Galindo, though born in Ireland, turns up in his mid-20s working for the British Consulate in Honduras. Galindo wasn’t a photographer himself but played a role in the short-lived Federal Republic of Central America and during this time undertook two exploratory trips where he wrote about and sketched the Mayan ruins that he found.

These reports spurred the imaginations of John Loyd Stephens and Frederick Catherwood, the first an American travel writer and the second a British artist and explorer. Though both had been to Egypt and the surrounding areas on their travels they probably met in New York and realized their mutual interest in Central America. Building on Galindo’s work, Stephens and Catherwood visited forty-four sites, cutting their way through dense growth, their accounts and drawings eventually made into a bestselling book, Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan, two years later.

The pair made a second trip soon after the first resulting in more discoveries and a second book. But something was very different about this second trip: Photography had been invented.

The daguerreotype spread rapidly after it was announced and the first photographs of Mayan ruins were made by Emanuel von Friedrichsthal in 1840, inspired by the first of Stephens’ and Catherwood’s books. Friedrichsthal’s fame for this work, however, was not to be, as he died of malaria two years later, caught during his travels.

On Stephens’ and Catherwood’s second trip in 1841 they brought along their own daguerreotype outfit and successfully documented their discoveries on the trip, using the images later to augment their memory and to correct Catherwood’s sketches, the daguerreotype proving more accurate than the hand. Though Stephens’ and Catherwood’s work would garner them widespread fame their daguerreotypes would not be part of that fame. Apparently never exhibited or reproduced, and all (or almost all) were destroyed weeks after their return from Central America when Catherwood’s exhibition hall, which he had built to showcase his Egyptian large-scale, panoramic paintings, caught on fire. Also destroyed were the Mayan artifacts he had brought back and many of his drawings.

Stephens and Catherwood’s work also inspired Désiré Charnay, a French archeologist and photographer, to travel to Central America. Charnay was a rival to Alfred Maudslay, now famous for his life’s work in exploring and documenting the Mayan ruins, and Maudslay, in turn, was a rival to Teobert Maler, who outdid them all.

Maler wasn’t the first outsider to visit the ruins nor was he the first to record the ruins, but he visited more of them and recorded more of them than anyone else. This body of work remains at the foundation of studies of pre-Columbian American cultures, creating and preserving an incomparable record of a still-mysterious civilization.

You might expect, in a time when scholars and the public craved new developments in such discoveries and stories of their exploration, that Maler could stand amongst the Mayan ruins and look forward to a comfortable life of fame and social standing, people stopping him on the street to thank him for his achievements.

…Let me stop right here, jump ahead, and tell you how it ends.

It ends with Maler hawking his photographs to tourists, giving a few lectures, the publication of his discoveries unknown to an international audience, his dreams of a full accounting of his work unfulfilled due to the cost of publishing without a sponsor and there was no sponsor to be found. He had a plan to publish a large-format volume of his photographs, and drawings and maps, and all the rest, selling them in an unusual way, one page at a time. A few pages may have been made. Or maybe not.

It ends with Maler a forgotten man. Forgotten in his time, forgotten in our time, and largely forgotten even within the field of archeology.

William Frej has visited many if not all of the sites that Maler visited over a century earlier–often the first recorded visit since Maler–and Frej photographed the ruins, too. His images, made with digital cameras but developed as chemical-based prints, are processed in a manner that might be called Kodalithic—high contrast but with loads of micro-detail, augmented by dark skies, sometimes black skies. The result is a look that allows the viewer to clearly see the ornamentation and hieroglyphics of the Mayan structures—and there is so much to see—even when they must have been photographed in gloomy conditions, and there is a sense of pervading light throughout. The images look otherworldly and at the same time as accurate representations of what the ruins must look like, and they correspond well with the Maler images.

But unlike Klett’s projects, the central topic here is not time. Certainly, time has passed—some of the ruins are worse, having fallen prey to scavengers and prize-hunters, some are better, having been restored to one degree or another, and some are just as forgotten today as they were when Maler and his workers cleared the trees and brush from around them. Frej doesn’t photograph the ruins in the same way Maler did and I think this is quite intentional, done in order to avoid making time itself the subject. He avoids making the before-and-after comparison because you must inevitably then ask before and after what and it’s the ruins he is really after, not time, and he is following Maler to get there and to make it all make sense.

What Frej has achieved is both unexpected and thrilling. Unexpected because he is not coming to the viewer from the art world, makes no mention of Klett or any of the other standard forefathers, and insists that this book isn’t a rephotography project at all. It’s thrilling in a primal way, thrilling in its sense of discovery (for the viewer if not for the archeologist) of these structures, these intricately ornate structures, just sitting there, in many cases unremarked by the outside world even to this day, thrilling in the shadows of the Mayan people, just out of historical sight, so close you can see yourself amongst them.

There are few photo books that I’ve seen of late where I’ve involuntarily exclaimed “my god” as I turned a page. This is one such book.

The book itself is art-book-large and heavy, too, with luxuriously thick pages, luminous printing, and an attractive design that doesn’t crowd the images with text, printing both Maler’s images and Frej’s large on the page, cleanly varnished and set against the uncoated white surround, with the text for several images or even several spreads gathered together, sharing a page. Not even page numbers clutter those pages with full-sized images.

Like all two-image spreads in Maya Ruins Revisited, the Maler photograph is on the left, the Frej photograph on the right. This is an archway in Labna, its purpose not clear and situated near a larger, two-story structure, a four hundred foot long building now called The Palace.

In the Maler photograph you can see in the foreground a mass of branches and leaves which upon close inspection reveals that all of this was cut down immediately before the making of the photograph. Trees are growing straight out of the top of the arch, the forest pressing in from all sides. There is a rawness in the photograph, a faint oppressiveness, and you can imagine the pleasant whiff of cooler, fresher air coming in now that the canopy has been cleared.

The part of the structure above the arch is failing, building stones falling into white rubble in the walkway beneath the arch. Look again at that rubble and you will see a man sitting there, his white clothes looking at first like white rocks, his dark head accidentally positioned to blend into the dark background.

This is in 1886 and in Frej’s 1996 image we see the arch again. The area around the structure is now more cleared and maintained, the trees on top removed and the stonework repaired, probably using those same white rocks seen in Maler’s image. The arch is not entirely free of plants growing from it, however. Look carefully and you will see a half dozen examples of the forest coming to reclaim the ruin, the job of the caretakers never-ending.

Uxmal was a significant Mayan city and still has its large stone pyramid, rising steeply to over one hundred and forty feet, towering over the Nunnery Complex, of which the building pictured here is part.

On the left, in Maler’s image, the structure is more out-in-the-open the earlier one and there has been some clearing of small trees in the foreground, one tree’s branches hacked at and just left pointing downwards. It’s a big building, over one hundred and fifty feet long, and its decoration complicated-looking and, as I said, this is just but one part of the complex.

The righthand image, made one hundred and twenty years later, shows the restored building, the facade replaced, the detail in the structure now so clear, with what seem to be drainage holes along the base to the stairs and plaza now revealed. Look at the corners of the building and at the decorative column in the center of the upper story and you will see stacked masks, frightening-looking and worrisome to any visitor and perhaps to any citizen.

In both photographs there is an illusion. The temple or superstructure rising from the top of the horizontal Nunnery building isn’t part of that building at all. What you see is the upper portion of the pyramid, the Pyramid of the Magician, situated a little in the distance, rising up there, visible from everywhere, it would seem.

Not every Frej photograph has a corresponding Maler photograph. Most do, some don’t. Here Frej is showing us the Palace of the Governor, also in Uxmal. Frej, in his caption, suggests that this may have been the last building built in Uxmal before it was abandoned in around the year 900. It’s an impressive structure, with an impressive staircase leading up to the platform, and, if you have the book and look closely, impressive detail all along the upper facade.

At least one Maler image exists of this view. Why didn’t Frej include it? I have two theories. One is that it was simply a matter of cost. Books are made of pages and pages are made from larger sheets of paper which are then folded and cut and sewn into the book in what is called a signature. Look at the edge of the book, near the spine, and you will see groups of pages–those are the signatures. The key point is that you can’t just add one or two pages, you have to add pages in signatures and that has ramifications to the budget.

A more likely theory is that Frej didn’t think the Maler photo, if the one I found is the only such photo, a successful one. It is reproduced in The New World’s Old Order: Photographic Views of Ancient America, edited by May Castleberry, a survey of photographs made on the two American continents from Catherwood’s day up to our own (a lot of time to cover and a lot of ground). The book mentions Maler in only two paragraphs and includes only this image from his work:

Which is indeed not satisfying. The strong vignette is distracting to the modern eye, of course, but the image is weak in other ways. The cut trees in the foreground dominate the bottom third of the image and the central portion of the picture is focused on two men standing next to a white stone pedestal of some sort. There may or may not be markings along the top edge but otherwise the stone is smooth. In the background, a little like an afterthought or a scene-setting element, is the Governor’s Palace, the geometric patterns of the upper story evident even in this book’s less rich printing.

The images from Mayan Ruins Revisited we’ve looked at thus far may give the impression that all the Mayan archeological sites are being preserved and restored but that is not the case. The largest, most dramatic sites are indeed the focus of preservation efforts but there are many sites–thousands of them–which are experiencing little or no preservation effort at all, other than that provided by the jungle. To photograph many of the images in the book Frej didn’t just bop out of the car at the parking lot and snap a few shots, he cut his way through dense underbrush with his own team of workers, assistants and researchers, summoning his inner Maler, his inner Stephens and Catherwood, although I’m sure this all sounds so much more romantic than the reality, given the heat, the rain, the mud, the hard labor, and the biting insects.

This structure, way out on someone’s land in Xlotsal, is much the same as when Maler photographed it. The brush around the structure is a little less dense but there are the trees growing out of the roof, the broken column at the corner and what looks like layers of dirt and stone packed into the corner. In the foreground is a short statue-like structure made of stacked stones, the stones originally fallen from the building most likely and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they were stacked by Maler’s team. Unexpectedly, in Frej’s image those stones are still here, now in a slightly collapsed formation in the foreground.

Closer inspection of Rej’s photo shows that the rear of the building has largely fallen in, or the stones have been taken for reuse elsewhere, which is a common practice all over the world.

One if the reasons I purchased this book, I suspect, is that I had just finished reading The History of the Conquest of New Spain by Bernal Díaz del Castillo, a soldier with Cortez during the Spanish arrival in Central America and the defeat of the Aztecs. The version I read was a new translation by Davíd Carrasco and the language is almost conversational, easy to follow and graphic in detail.

Graphic, indeed. Although we are looking at Mayan structures here from a half-century before the Spanish arrival and we are talking about Mayan structures here and not Aztec ones, we seem to be looking at similar things, and these pyramids with temples at the top figure in Diaz’s descriptions at his most graphic.

Here is Díaz describing his first experience inside the structure at the top of the Great Cue in Tenochtitlan, the Aztec capital (and a note to the reader: these passages are brutal):

There were some braziers with incense they call copal, and in them were burning the hearts of the three Indians whom they had sacrificed that day, and they had made the sacrifice with smoke and copal. All the walls of the oratory were so splashed and encrusted with blood that they were black, the floor was the same and the whole place stank vilely. Then we saw on the other side on the left hand there stood the other great image the same height as Huichilobos [the Aztec god of war], and it had a face like a bear and eyes that shone, made of their mirrors which they call Tezcat, and the body was plastered with precious stones like that of Huichilobos, for they say that the two are brothers; and this Tezcatepuca was the god of Hell and had charge of the souls of the Mexicans, and his body was girt with figures like little devils with snakes’ tails. The walls were so clotted with blood and the soil so bathed with it that in the slaughterhouses of Spain there is not such another stench.

A little later Díaz describes the priests he encountered:

In that place there were other Idols, and in every house or Cue or oratory that I have mentioned there were priests with long robes of black cloth and long hoods like those of the Dominicans and slightly resembling the of the Canons. The hair of these priests was very long and so matted that it could not be separated or disentangled, and most of them had their ears scarified, and their hair was clotted with blood.

That certainly colors what we are looking at in Maler’s and Frej’s photographs.

But there is more. In the first passage above, Cortés, accompanied by Díaz and others, is being given a tour of the building by the leader of the Aztecs, Montezuma. The second passage may have been describing a different day in a nearby cue. Things were quite different later on when the Spaniards were attacking the city. In the middle of what amounts to medieval urban warfare, the Spanish have suffered a setback and Díaz and his men are separated from Cortés.

When we had retreated near to our quarters and had already crossed a great opening where there was much water the arrows, javelins and stones could no longer reach us. Sandoval, Francisco de Lugo and Andrés de Tápia were standing with Pedro de Alvarado each one relating what had happened to him and what Cortés had ordered, when again there was sounded the dismal drum of Huichilobos and many other shells and horns and things like trumpets and the sound of them all was terrifying, and we all looked towards the lofty Cue where they were being sounded, and saw that our comrades whom they had captured when they defeated Cortés were being carried by force up the steps, and they were taking them to be sacrificed. When they got them up to a small square in front of the oratory, where their accursed idols are kept, we saw them place plumes on the heads of many of them and with things like fans in their hands they forced them to dance before Huichilobos, and after they had danced they immediately placed them on their backs on some rather narrow stones which has been prepared as places of sacrifice, and with stone knives they sawed open their chests and drew out their palpitating hearts and offered them to the idols that were there, and they kicked the bodies down the steps, and the Indian butchers who were waiting below cut off the arms and feet and flayed the skin off the faces, and prepared it afterwards like glove leather with the beards on, and kept those for the festivals when the celebrated drunken orgies, and the flesh they ate in chilmole. In the same way they sacrificed all the others and ate the legs and arms and offered the hearts and blood to their idols, as I have said, and the bodies, that is the entrails and the feet, they threw to the tigers and lions which they kept in the house of the carnivores which I have spoken about in an earlier chapter.

Human sacrifice is encountered throughout Díaz’s book, all through the territories of the various satellite cities leading to the Aztec capital. Is there a connection to a period of rapid population growth–to put it bluntly, an oversupply of people?? Was there more human sacrifice taking place than in earlier times in reaction to the fear and chaos caused by the appearance of Cortés, the Guns, Germs, and Steel plight of the local inhabitants quite clear to them judging by Díaz’s account.

In any event, the horrific practice was institutionalized and deeply embedded in their culture and religion, obvious from the size and lavishness and central position of the structures.

This particular temple was abandoned long, long before Cortés’s arrival and long before any Spanish soldiers made their way this far south into Guatemala. Frej notes that the Mayan city “Tikal was a major ceremonial, economic, and political center that controlled a wide area in the Maya Lowlands…” And that the last inscription at the site dates to 869, which probably approximates the outer limit of the city’s time in history.

This temple, the Temple of the Grand Jaguar, is one hundred and fifty feet high and in Maler’s image it is obvious that when he encountered it it was barely visible at all. It must have taken weeks of work to clear most of the vegetation from its sides, revealing the pyramidical shape. It looks as if one tree was inexplicably left standing on the right flank, from our vantage point. If you look at the temple opening you can see inside a bit. I wonder what Maler was thinking as he climbed up that mud embankment, climbed and climbed, and entered that chamber. Was he thinking of the blood?

Frej’s image, from a somewhat closer vantage point, has a polarizer-dark sky and describes the details of the shape of the ruin much more clearly. You can’t see into the chamber at the top but you can see the steps, and the steep sides all around. There seems to have been a built area atop the white, smooth part of the temple (commonly called “combs”) and, looking closely at the image, I think I see an opening that suggests rooms of some sort.

In the foreground are two large stone objects. Judging by the grass I would guess the size of the rounded, tombstone-shaped object is about five feet tall–as tall or taller than a full-grown Mayan–and the circular platform must be four feet across. What these stones were used for is a mystery, though if I could read that information sign, the back of which is peaking up from behind the circular stone, the mystery might quickly be solved.

Frej and the various scholars who authored essays in Maya Ruins Revisited don’t talk much about human sacrifice–I can’t remember any mention of it at all, in fact. This is perfectly natural. Anyone who devotes their lives to the rich history of the Mayans must get a little weary of the singular focus of many readers on the dark caricature of human sacrifice.

I get it, I do. But look again at the temple in the photographs.

Earlier I made the case that Maya Ruins Revisited isn’t a “before and after” book, that time wasn’t the subject matter, the reason for placing Frej’s modern photographs next to Maler’s 1800s images. Then I turned around and offered several examples from the book talking about the differences (due to time) between the paired images.

Despite that, I still insist that the feeling of the book, the experience of the images, and I think the intent of the pairing in the first place, isn’t to explore time per se but more to augment Maler’s images with Frej’s. A better word than “augment” might be to say that Frej’s image’s extend Maler’s.

Why were all of these buildings built here in the first place? Why are the ruins of the structures still here all this time later? The answers are suggested by Tomás Gallareta Negrón in his preface–the buildings were built mostly during a boom in the population starting around 250 A.D. and running for about six or seven hundred years whereupon they were rapidly abandoned, probably due to drought. Later, when the Spanish had conquered the land, locals were encouraged to settle near the towns, near the Church and the fresh, reliable water. The structures survived due to the durable limestone of their construction and their generally high-quality workmanship.

But why am I here? Why is an artist with no training in architecture or archeology (although with a curiosity about most everything) here, why am I looking at and, indeed, reviewing this book?

Some of the attraction is no doubt a sort of nostalgia for a lost world. Not the lost world of the Maya but the lost world of the landscape photographer.

Not too many years ago you could imagine traveling to some place on the planet and discovering a new Yosemite, so to speak, some place of natural beauty or geologic astonishment that hadn’t already been photographed to the point where any new photograph you made would largely be in reaction to these earlier photographs.

I did a project on just this theme a few years back, using low-altitude images of the Moon’s surface, searching out landscape imagery that hadn’t yet been seen, outside of the research scientists processing the files, hadn’t yet been mentally paved over. You can do the same thing with the high-resolution imagery coming from the Mars orbiters, finding landscapes that pack an emotional punch even if you don’t really know what you are looking at or even how big a thing it is. Perhaps Alfred Stieglitz was on the right track with his Equivalents–photographs of ho-hum cloud cover over Lake George transformed into engaging statements of the power of art–that is to say, photography–where he made the point that photographs could communicate emotions regardless of subject matter (I did a project on that, too).

Maybe he was unconsciously saying something, even in the 1920s, about the difficulty of finding those fresh landscapes, ones unencumbered by earlier photographic incarnations and that, ultimately, it doesn’t matter if they are fresh or not.

Maybe it’s COVID? Of course, the virus is here with us in this review. It always with us in everything we do. I’m at home, not traveling and feeling very stuck, going a little crazy. I started a blog, after all! The photographs in Maya Ruins Revisited, both Maler’s and Frej’s, weave a hypnotic spell for someone like me, though my thing is cross-country road trips rather than flying off to remote jungle locations. It’s travel fantasy, escape-from-the-virus fantasy and yes, I’ve already looked into vacation rentals in Guatemala and the Yucatán.

But it’s more than that. If there really are no more new Yosemites to be found, if everything has already been photographed, then maybe stuff needs photographed again, not to compare the new with the old but to extend the old with the new.

If you want more, the place to start is Jungle of Stone by William Carlsen. This wonderful book, written by a former journalist, chronicles the explorations of Stephens and Catherwood, a few years before Maler, and will give a clear idea of the hardships and dangers all of these explorers faced in this chaotic land.


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