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Book Review: One Mahogany Left Standing


Book Review One Mahogany Left Standing By Carol Yarrow Reviewed by Blake Andrews When a photograph is made it becomes immediately joined to a moment that recedes, and that recession continues indefinitely. It's an inescapable component of photography and part of its magic spell.

One Mahogany Left Standing. By Carol Yarrow.
Self-Published, 2014.
 
One Mahogany Left Standing
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

One Mahogany Left Standing
By Carol Yarrow
Self-published, Portland, 2014. 84 pp., 31 duotones with spot varnish, 9¾x8¾".


When a photograph is made it becomes immediately joined to a moment that recedes, and that recession continues indefinitely. It's an inescapable component of photography and part of its magic spell.

This means that all photographers operate in the past. But some seem to enjoy time travel more than others. For Carol Yarrow it's a central motivation. Her recently self-published monograph, One Mahogany Left Standing, is a timepiece in virtually every way, from subject matter to project execution to book design. The title itself drives home the point: This is a document of a rapidly receding world.

One Mahogany Left Standing. By Carol Yarrow. Self-Published, 2014.

One Mahogany Left Standing collects photographs made by Yarrow during several trips to southern Mexico in the mid-1990s. During early tourist visits Yarrow became interested in the Lacandón, a loosely descended tribe of Mayan natives living traditionally the forested Chiapas region. She camped near the Lacandón settlement of Naha, gradually befriended some of them, extended her stays, and over the course of several years became more involved in their lives. The thirty-one pictures in the book were made on many trips from roughly 1993-2002. These photos are interspersed with excerpts of Yarrow's journal entries from the same period. Selections from this series were shown at Blue Sky Gallery in Portland last year, and this book was published in conjunction with the show.

One Mahogany Left Standing. By Carol Yarrow. Self-Published, 2014.

Yarrow's visits to the Lacandón coincided with a time of rapid change in their culture, as the homogenizing impact of outside intrusions accelerated. The changes were perhaps most noticeable on a physical level — the title refers directly to local deforestation as mahogany is the traditional wood for their canoes — but also in all sorts of more subtle ways. Beginning in the mid-20th Century when the Lacandón had little contact with the outer world, the pace of cultural intermingling with Mexican nationals and visiting tourists has continued unabated to the present day. They are still a distinct tribe of roughly 500 members, but one wonders for how long. "The adolescents are susceptible to the temptations of the future," warned Yarrow in the book's Kickstarter video, and that perceived threat was clearly an impetus for the book. Yarrow wanted to root this project firmly in the past, while creating an historical document that would survive into the future.

One Mahogany Left Standing. By Carol Yarrow. Self-Published, 2014.

Yarrow's found her tribe and it's under threat. Can you blame her for the urge to preserve some token memory, if not in amber then within the pages of a book? Fortunately the book focuses less on the pressures faced by the Lacandón than on serene everyday moments and candid portraits. It's mostly folks standing around the village, smiling warmly, caught in various daily tasks.

From an ethnographic perspective you can probably see the potential problem here. The myth of the Noble Savage runs deep in Western Culture. It goes hand in hand with the modern white explorer coming to study and/or save the situation. Earlier photographers like Edward Curtis fell under its spell, and One Mahogany Left Standing might fit into a similar category.

There is certainly an aspect of romantic primitivism here, and I don't want to excuse it entirely. But in this case it's mostly overshadowed by Yarrow's obvious fondness for her subject. She's immersed deeply in the culture, created lifetime friendships, and the resulting photographs have the tender, intimate, and candid quality of family snapshots. The book's sensibility owes as much to outright love as it does to exotic wonder.

One Mahogany Left Standing. By Carol Yarrow. Self-Published, 2014.

The book's design supports its nostalgic tone. The modern world hasn't yet invaded this book's production, and it's a throwback to yesteryear, before odd layouts and meta-photos came to dominate photography books. The sequence is simple, a series of monochrome photographs one or two to a spread, printed at modest uniform size. The journal excerpts might feel hokey in a more contemporary design. But in this context they help root the photos in personal narrative, and — along with Laura Moya's well-written afterword — explain the lifestyle of the Maya Lacandón. All in all it's a compelling portrait of a culture facing enormous outside pressure. They may be unable to push the STOP button but one can dream of it.—BLAKE ANDREWS

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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1 comment:

  1. It is facile to conflate the Western "myth of the Noble Savage" with ethnographic colonialism, and Andrews expresses the appropriate apologia: "There is certainly an aspect of romantic primitivism here, and I don't want to excuse it entirely." Be that as it may, Carol Yarrow's work is reminiscent of Pierre Verger's expansive study of the African diaspora in Brazil. Like Yarrow, Pierre Verger expresses his "outright love" for his subjects in his photographs. Like Verger, Carol Yarrow leaves "exotic wonder" to the viewer's fantasy.

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