March 28: Photographs may serve as margin notes at the edge of official histories.
On this date in 1934 Benjamin de la Calle (*1869) died of bladder cancer in his studio that was also his home in Colombia.
Active in Medellin in the 1880s, a collection of 7000 of his glass plate negatives is held by the The Biblioteca Pública Piloto de Medellín para América Latina in Columbia.
He was born in Yarumal (Antioquia) and in 1889 studied photography with Gonzalo Gaviria and then Emiliano Restrepo Mejia, photographer and painter. That same year de la Calle opened his photographic studio in Yarumal with his brother Eduardo, where he worked until 1897.
In 1903, after participating in the Thousand Days’ War, he settled in the Alhambra to make his career in what is now Carrera Carabobo, a street at the commercial and residential epicenter of Medellin.
He followed the latest technical advances in photography and had the first panoramic camera, and five backdrops, studio furniture and props brought from Europe. The hand-colouring of his portraits is often especially vivid.
A workaday portraitist, he had no pretensions of being an artist, but incidentally he recorded the customs, fashion and racial types of Medellin and Antioquia making him a rare and valuable witness of the early twentieth century in Columbia.
Outside his study also he photographed the city and its newsworthy events such as the fire at the Berrio Park, the inauguration of the tramline, the last shot on the Guayaquil Bridge, tributes to Rafael Uribe Uribe arrivals of important personages, meetings of traders and diplomats, political demonstrations in Parque Berrio, the religious processions in the Parque Bolivar, among others.
Homosexual, he was obliged to live a very private life, and left very little of his personal history, though his empathy with marginalised communities is evident in his portrait (1927, left) of Álvaro Echavarría, a famous cross-dresser of Cúcuta. It is often cited as ‘the first picture of a transvestite in Columbia’, but his interest in ‘the excluded’ dates to at least fifteen years earlier.
Progreso magazine in 1912 reported on the case of Rosa Emilia Restrepo, who allegedly “stole during the day and drank like a man at night,” whom police discovered wearing a woman’s clothes: “His features, manners, speech,” they wrote,
were almost impossible to distinguish as that of a male. He had come under suspicion only because things were disappearing from households in which he worked as a maidservant. He was taken to the police station, where a physician confirmed he was male. Under interrogation, Restrepo said he called himself Rosa Emilia because as a child his mother always dressed him as a girl, an impression supported by his fine features, beardless, pale skin, and hair cut like a woman’s. When taken to his prison cell in the garments of a village woman he was made to remove them, but given man’s clothing, he refused it.
Whether Benjamin de la Calle produced these portraits of Rosa Emilia Restrepo/Roberto Durán for Progreso or whether they were undertaken for his own interest is not known, but they were made in his studio against one of distinctive backdrops that he owned, and which features in his self-portrait below.
The apparent sexual transformation of the subject is wittily conveyed in this pair. Though the poses are similar, they are not identical; in one the subject stands apart from the chair, assertively owning it with a planted fist, hand inserted into his belt with outthrust thumb, and left foot advanced toward the camera; in the other portrait the subject caresses the balloon-backed chair, the hand on the hip and tilt of the head are slightly coquettish, and the figure draws defensively, or more intimately, closer to the chair. The facial expression remains unchanged. With everything else in the shot identical, these are fascinating insights into ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ body language and the gendered projection of public personae.
Benjamin de la Calle made numbers of touching, beautifully arranged, but tragic post-mortem photographs.
These pictures of the dead include his record of the more disturbing result of the last execution held in public in Antioquia, although the use of the firing squad continued. The postures of the young fusileros standing at attention beside this barefoot corpse, its wounds hastily covered with its coat, and its open coffin, is telling; one maintains a stern military rigidity while the other appears about to faint.
With such a vast archive of his imagery resting in the Biblioteca Pública Piloto de Medellín para América Latina, it is remarkable that there are no scholarly articles on Benjamin de la Calle, at least none that I can find, in English or in Spanish. This is a photographer worthy of more attention, especially amongst those who contribute to histories of gender diversity.