Earliest Philippine photographs?

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Ma. Isabel Ongpin

LAST week I mentioned the Hispanic Society of New York, a 100-year-old institution that is a museum cum research library of Hispanic studies i.e. material from Spain, Portugal and their colonies, including the Philippines, dating from the colonial times of these countries.

In 2007, fairly recently for a more-than-hundred-year-old institution, photographs were discovered in a cabinet on the seventh floor of the Hispanic Society Beaux Arts building on 155th Street and Broadway that could be the earliest photographs of the Philippines. They are 18 rare daguerreotypes (early photographs) of Manila from the 1840s. Since the earliest known photographs of Philippine subjects date from the 1860s, these photographs may be the oldest photographic record of the Philippines.

They were found by Luisa Casella and Rosina Herrera, who were at the time Andrew W. Mellon Fellows from the Advanced Residency Program in Photographic Conservation (ARP). Casella and Herrera were rummaging through the photographic collection of the Hispanic Society and found the daguerreotypes in a cardboard box. There were 13 whole plates and five half plates. A daguerreotype is the precursor of the modern photograph (named after the Frenchman Louis Daguerre, who took the first photo of a person in 1838). The daguerreotype camera required long exposure, at least 15 minutes. But daguerreotypes had already been taken of inanimate subjects. Daguerre’s partner Niepce (Joseph Nicephore Niepce) had earlier taken a photograph of an upstairs window in his Burgundy estate. Daguerreotypes are made of a system of particulates of silver, mercury and gold framed on a silvered copper plate. They are very sensitive and any surface contact permanently damages them. Once the photograph/daguerreotype is made, it is instantly placed in tightly sealed housings. In fact, that is how a daguerreotype is identified, by its housings. Briefly, there were two types of daguerreotype housings – the French and the British-American. The Philippine photographs daguerreotypes have French-style housing consisting of cover glass, window mat, backing board bound together by sealing tape, typical 19th century French daguerreotype housing. They were in great need of conservation, for which Casella and Herrera took them to Carolina Barcella of the Conservation Department at the George Eastman (founder of Kodak film company) House. Barcella worked closely with different conservation scientists to painstakingly ensure the photographs themselves and the housings were restored to tiptop shape.

The photographs have four classifications: Manila District, Manila Proper, Marikina (spelled Mariquina), and Provinces along Laguna Lake.


The Marikina photographs show the Marikina River and the Casa Hacienda of Marikina (probably the one of the Dela Paz-Tuason Estate). The Manila photographs feature the Customs House of Manila with the Pasig River with cascos (riverboats) in the forefront. Included here are various Manila churches and I am guessing one of them is the Sta. Cruz Church in downtown Manila. The Manila District has a photograph of the “View from the Sturgis Residence),” a country home of one of the first American families in the Philippines who traded in hemp and sugar till 1875. There is also a photograph of a “Great Bridge” from Mr. Dyce’s (probably a view from the property of this person).

Who took the photographs is the subject of detective work. Since the housings of the daguerreotypes are French with a logo of a six-pointed star of a particular platemaker, traced from an exhibition of “Paris et le daguerreotypes,” dated 1842, to a certain Jules Alphonse Eugene Itier (1802-1877), he is suspected to have been the photographer. Itier served as an attaché at the French Embassy in Peking (now Beijing) between 1842 and 1846 and in-between visited Asian countries where he took photographs of people and places. The earliest photographs of Singapore, Borneo and Manila are attributed to him. He described Filipinos as “peaceful and meek.” At the back of the daguerreotype housings are inscriptions made by at least five persons, indicating the exact location where the photographs were taken. The photographer who took them seems to have been fluent in English. And perhaps the others who placed the inscriptions may have been people through whom these photographs passed. A copy of the photograph of the Manila Customs House was sold by the French auction house, Drouot, some years ago.

These earliest Philippine photographs were donated to the Hispanic Society in 1921 by a New Yorker, a civil engineer named Charles Massa. The photographs came with a historical handbook for travelers in the Philippines. How Massa got them is not known. He had a business related to design in New York.

This collection of what would seem to be the earliest discovered photographs of the Philippines is a fascinating tale not only of a historical first but of who, how and where.

I have to thank Christian Perez, longtime Manila resident for alerting me to the above, giving the website, FilipiKnow, with the information about it. FilipiKnow is a Filipino website that offers everything Filipino, whether trivia or information on history, culture, entertainment, personalities, etc. It is an internet portal that started in 2013. One can see the daguerreotypes here.

And last but not least, credit must go to the Hispanic Society of New York for collecting these early Philippine photographs in keeping with their mission of being a museum cum library of Iberian history and its fascinating ramifications.

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