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Young Deaths: Interview with Gutierre Aceves

by Francisco Barred

Tell us what the tradition of photographing deceased children means to you.
If you don't mind, I'd like to answer that by first telling you about a debt I owe to Mario Collignon, rest in peace. As I'm sure many will remember, don Mario had a shop on Bernardo de Balbuena street, just a few blocks from the current Sunday flea market on Av. Mexico, in Guadalajara, Jalisco. He was actually the founding father of this market. Mario was quite a character. He auctioned, marketed and collected everything from junk to high-end. My affliction for collecting can actually can be blamed on his antiques shop.
Years ago I used to frequent his place for vintage books and a lot of other things. I remember he used to have a great collection of Compania de Indias porcelain, which curiously enough wasn't for sale, as well as Mexican folk art pieces by Candelario Medrano and the like. He also had a good collection of old photographs. One afternoon I was making a run through his place, but nothing caught my interest. I was half way out the door when I noticed a box behind the front gate. Inside were six photos of deceased children. That was the first time I had ever seen this type of photography.
What year are we talking about?
I was living in Mexico City then, so it was 1985. These photos just blew me away. Like any good collector, I tried to maintain my cool. You know how it is, show too much excitement and the price starts going up. Luckily, Mario wasn't in the shop that day. I say luckily,' because the photos had a little tag on them that read NFS (not for sale). The girl, I think she must have been a new employee, couldn't figure out what the letters stood for, so we dickered for a while and I finally walked out with them.
I got back to Mexico City and couldn't stop thinking about the images and the whole tradition of funerals for infants. As a child, in my home town of San Francisco del Rincon, Guanajuato, I'd seen funerals with the music and children dressed in white and all that, but I'd never made the connection between the ritual and what was being depicted in these old photographs. It really is a tradition that has been lost over the years. I vaguely remember seeing one of these ceremonies back in the 1980s in Xochimilco that may be one of the only places where the tradition has lasted into modern times.
What happened after your find of the century' at Collignon's store?
Well, about a year later I was back in Guadalajara, so I decided to stop by Mario's shop to see what he had. No sooner than I walked in the front door, than lady who attended me the last time I was there comes charging around the counter shouting, That's him, that's him!' Mario gets up from behind his desk and in that big voice of his said, Ah! The fellow who took the sampler.'
I answered back that if those photos were the sampler,' where were the rest? Very slowly, he moved towards his desk and pulled out a folder full of photos. I started getting nervous and asked if they were for sale. He pushed the file towards me, saying, pick out what you want.'
I went through them timidly, looking each one over with tremendous care, slowly putting together my pile. It took me a really long time. I kept going over them again and again, knowing full well that he was going to let me have it after tricking his employee into selling something that he and I both knew hadn't been for sale.
Finally, at around three o'clock, and a Saturday to boot when everyone closes early he said that his friends would be arriving soon for drinks. Time to settle up. I waited for him to execute me on the price.
Imagine my surprise when his price was even better than the one his employee had given me for the famous sampler kit.' Then he said I should buy the whole lot, there were close to 80, except for one of twin babies that he refused to sell. That one, he said, was to keep the nest warm. I asked him, What do you mean?' He replied, That's right, my man, you have to keep one egg in the basket. That one will bring in more.'
He then mentioned that Fernando Juarez Frias had bought another lot of 80 similar photos, which he had in turn sold to Victor Arauz. Victor was kind enough to loan me those, along with some others, including a few from the 19th century.
So, is that how you started collecting and investigating this theme?
Definitely. Every time I visited Mario's shop he'd have another three, four or six photographs for me. One time he gave me a tip that the first lot I bought had been found inside a desk near Ameca, Jalisco. I went out to the little town to further investigate and actually came back with the photographer's name Juan de Dios Machain.
Are these photos signed?
These were never signed, but sometimes the photographer can be identified by the little stamp they would use. Others can often be identified by the style, like with images by Machain. He almost always included the family of the deceased in his portraits.
This custom of photographing deceased children, or "little angels," is it exclusive of Jalisco?
No. It was common throughout Mexico, but was a stronger tradition in the Bajio region (around the San Miguel de Allende area) and in Jalisco. These images were also from the northern part of the country, Veracruz and from Oaxaca. Actually, those from Oaxaca are spectacular. They would build a tall alter and hang a mirror above it from the ceiling so that the "little angel" could be seen. It appears that the whole ritual and ceremony surrounding the death of a child is based in European Christian practices of the Mediterranean region. We still aren't sure if they incorporated images, be they paintings or photographs, in the ceremony.
Was this custom mainly one of lower class people?
Well, photographing the departed child was more common among the lower class because it was a relatively inexpensive medium. The more well-to-do would often hire an artist to paint a portrait of the deceased child. Fernando Juarez Frias, who is a very knowledgeable person and an important collector, helped me considerably with my research in that particular area.
What other aspects did you discover about this tradition during your investigations?
I'd like to really stress that the whole ritual surrounding the "niño muerto" is very similar to the iconology seen in the ceremonies celebrating the funeral of the Virgin Mary the crown, the dove of peace, the songs, etcetera. I believe that the ritual originated with her.
I would like to add that thanks to dealers, antiquarians on both the large and small scale, one can find untapped veins which really can lead to new discoveries. The "eye" that someone has when they are buying to resell is very important. Mario Collignon had that "eye." He was able to "see" value in an area the was pretty much unexplored by both collectors and scholars, even though he personally never studied the topic. He was an intuitive and sensible man. I think an antiquarian's personality is much more complicated than that of any other type of business person.