The eye of the beholder

Though she eventually produced tens of thousands of photographs — some legendary — Gertrude Blom never sought the spotlight as an artist. The Swiss journalist simply didn’t have the time. Instead, it was the lives of the Lacandon people and the plight of their rain forest (in Mexico’s mountainous Chiapas region, near the Guatemalan border) that consumed her passion until her death, six years ago, at age 92.

In co-editor Alex Harris’ introduction to Bearing Witness, a compilation of essays about Blom published by The Center for Documentary Photography (University of North Carolina Press, 1984), this whirlwind of a woman (known simply as Trudi) revealed: “I am not a photographer. In fact, I am in every way a totally nontechnical person. If I look at the machine the wrong way, it will certainly break. To this day, I do not know what to say when people ask me what lens I use. I am just not interested in that part of photography.”

But this gentle statement belies Blom’s notoriously fiery nature, amply illustrated in Waynesville resident Sally E. Darling’s article “Chiapas: An Adventure,” published in Vogue. Darling traveled with Blom and a host of others into the dense Mayan high country in the ’70s, and memorably recalls the eve of her first expedition with the intrepid activist: “Neither the food nor the hacienda dominate the atmosphere, here. It is Trudi, who manages to infuse herself into every aspect of this place. She is not Mexican, she is Swiss, although one forgets that (even with her Teutonic accent and personality) while watching her deal warmly and sensitively with visiting Indians. She is neither anthropologist nor archeologist, yet she has had an important hand in discovering, recording, photographing and excavating many of the ancient ruins of this hemisphere. As she dominates the long, ranch table, she seems no less than a goddess … often benevolent … occasionally flying into a thunderous, fleeting rage. She speaks to each guest in his own language.”

In the ’30s, Blom was jailed in Europe for her involvement with anti-fascist groups. She fled to Mexico in 1940 and took permanent residence there, after swearing (as was demanded of all expatriates) never to become involved with Mexican politics.

But that pledge swiftly dissolved once Blom learned about the Lacandones — the only Mayan Indian group that never surrendered to the Spanish nor was converted by Christian missionaries. In 1950, the journalist and her husband purchased property in the city of San Cristobal de Las Casas and founded Na Bolom, a cultural and scientific research center.

Blom’s intense interest in the indigenous peoples of Mexico took powerful shape in all of her photographs. “Pedro K’ayum Cutting Down Ceiba Tree With Machete” is a work of deep contrasts: The sky is uniformly white, the tree bleak and startling, and the long-haired Lacandon boy standing high in the tree’s branches is caught, mid-action, like an actor in a play. What guards the picture from drama is the boy’s steady and incomprehensible countenance.

“It would be easy to misinterpret the expressions one finds on these faces,” notes Harris in Bearing Witness. “What might be taken as arrogance by an intrepid American tourist or construed as the anger of the proletariat by any well-intentioned Marxist scholar, is, quite simply, a quality of self-possession foreign to the experience of most Occidentals.”

Even with a subject as young as the child captured in “K’in Garcia In Dugout Canoe,” this truth becomes evident. Blom’s portraits of these individuals and families don’t record shattering events (she saved those for her later work) but, rather, document the everyday course of Mayan life: religious festivals, hunting expeditions, haircuts. Mothers hold their children; a husband and wife sit in near-identical poses and gaze intently at each other; a man with infinitesimally furrowed brow holds an armadillo by the tail. Outwardly vehement emotion is rare; an exception is “Religious Official, Tzotzil” — an aggressive panorama in which the official’s unlit cigarette appears curiously menacing, while his black wide-brimmed hat looms relentlessly, like an eclipse of the sun.

In her later years, Blom stopped photographing people altogether. By then, she was obsessed with chronicling the systematic annihilation of the Lacandon rain forest. In her 1983 article “The Jungle is Burning,” she notes that logging in the rain forest began as early as the 1940s (burning came later), and laments: “We have stood by and allowed all this to happen and haven’t looked for solutions to stop or change it; so the situation gets worse and worse. It is time to stand up and shout before we have no solutions left and our planet becomes a starving and miserable wasteland.”

Her photos from this era are as akin to one other as her earlier ones are vigorously individual: Blanched tree stumps collapse together like vandalized headstones, as far as the eye can see.

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