During the MA study trip to New York that I co-ordinated in December, I was able to sneak away one afternoon to work on some of my own research in the conservation facility of the New York Public Library, which is located in Queens. I wanted to take a closer look at a bound photographic travel album that I had read about, entitled Views of the Estrada de Ferro Madeira e Mamoré, Amazonas & Matto Grosso, Brazi , which documented the construction of the Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil (1907-1912). Designed between 1909 and 1912 by Dana B. Merrill, an American photographer, and containing over 250 photographs and 16 poems, the album documents the tropical flora and fauna, diverse architectural and industrial structures in varying stages of completion, as well as the multifarious clothing of the various individuals who are subject to Merrill’s roaming gaze: U.S. engineers; Brazilian officials; workers on the track who had travelled from all over the world; and diverse indigenous groups within Brazil. Between 1909 and 1912, Merrill was governmentally employed to document the construction of the 367-kilometre Madeira-Mamoré railway in Brazil. The project, which cost $33,000,000, would aid the worldwide exportation of rubber from landlocked Bolivia by providing an outlet to the Atlantic Ocean. It was overseen by the U.S. engineer and businessman Percival Farquhar, who was contracted by the Brazilian government to construct a line from Porto Velho, a shipping point on the Madeira River in the State of Amazonas, to Guajara-Mirim on the Mamoré River in the state of Mato Grosso, situated at the border between Brazil and Bolivia. Such transnational contracts were not uncommon in the early decades of the 20th century, a period of increased Pan-Americanism as North America actively sought to expand its commercial, social, political, economic and military ties with South America, exploiting the commercial opportunities that existed in Brazil, whilst assisting Brazilian aspirations to be recognised as a regional power. The railway became known in the U.S. and Brazilian press as the ‘Devil’s Railroad’, due to the thousands of workers who died from tropical diseases and disaster during its construction. Through detailed examination of the album as a visual and material object, I’m interested in how images of clothing communicated these interconnected narratives of distance between North and South America in the early 20th century.
I’m concerned primarily with the centrality of materiality as a formative element in understanding images of clothing within the photographic travel album. I want to develop a more nuanced understanding of U.S. and Brazilian modernity at the start of the 20th century, by recognising the distinctiveness of particular modes of dressing, as well as the complexities of the relations between local, regional, national and global influences that are embodied within clothing as well as the material qualities of the album. In order to achieve this, I’m interested not only in the different modes of dressing that are captured by the camera, but also the new meanings that are generated through the arrangement of images on the album page, their display in a particular sequence, and the interpretative possibilities that arise from the synthesis of image and text (in the form of Merrill’s handwritten captions). I plan to evaluate the connections to be made between clothing, body, object and image, as well as the collaborative processes of looking, seeing, being, feeling and wearing – on the part of the subject, photographer and viewer – that are entangled within the album and evident only through careful and close-up analysis. By acknowledging the centrality of materiality, images become active and reciprocal objects, operating across time and through space in altogether more complex ways than as merely passive documentations of authority and control. This is what particularly fascinates me about Views of the Estrada de Ferro Madeira e Mamoré, Amazonas & Matto Grosso, Brazil.