John Foster | Essays

Los Ambulantes

This is a story that had its beginnings in the 1970s, when photographer Ann Parker (American, b. 1934) and her husband, the writer Avon Neal (1922–2003), traveled to Guatemala to write, collect folk art, photograph, and explore. I was fortunate to be able to interview Ann first hand about her past trips into Guatemala, and she explained to me how this remarkable photo series came about.

“It was by happenchance that, during a local religious festival, my husband and I came upon numerous itinerant photographers with elaborate backdrops taking pictures of the local villagers. They were literally lined up, one after another in a long row, each hoping to capture the attention of the fairgoers.”

She learned that these photographers would haul their ancient view cameras and painted backdrops from marketplace to marketplace, photographing the villagers in their holiday best. Ann’s goal was to document this folk tradition—these photographers with their customers, something that is now lost to changing times.

But most interesting was her colorful life with husband Avon. I gleaned that the two of them were the quintessential art couple—traveling here and there and pursuing their passion for art. Neither wanted the traditional life that so many of their peers chose. Their life was devoted to their individual passions.

Parker, now eighty-two, told me that she and Avon would travel to Guatemala at different times of the year—always in sync with the fairs and festivals. “Eventually, we got to know the photographers by name—so much so that we would actually travel with them to the next festival. Because I always had a camera as well, many of these photographers would jokingly call me 'their assistant.’" 

Parker’s photographs not only feature the sitters being photographed, but also the itinerant photographers themselves who made portraits and processed the final prints on the spot. Parker’s series adds much to the history of photography, shining a light on one country’s relationship between photographer and subject.

“I had a kind of partnership with the itinerants. I acted as their photographic spokesman to record, in a more lasting way than they were able to, the essence of their world. I brought to the task my vision, my photographic knowledge and equipment, and my firm belief in the importance of recording this folk tradition.”

In the preface to her book, Los Ambulantes: The Itinerant Photographers of Guatemala (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1982), Parker describes her experience chronicling a practice that was quickly disappearing and is now rarely found:
“I am especially intrigued by the intensity with which Indians from highland villages react to being photographed […]. Their almost trancelike expressions, so reminiscent of the formal portraiture found on tintypes and daguerreotypes, clearly show that for them the camera still retains much of the powerful magic it had in its earliest years. In our society, where it is not uncommon for people to be photographed hundreds of times, the psychological impact of facing a camera is greatly diminished. Many of the people […] were typically appearing before a camera for the first and perhaps only time. The casual snapshot plays no part in their existence, and the rarity of coming before lens is reflected in the portraits.”
Gallerist Deborah Bell and her director Kat McElroy should be congratulated for revisiting this intriguing body of work that was first published and exhibited more than thirty years ago. While this masterful series focuses on an ethnographic itinerant folk tradition, it is more than just documentary photography. There is Ann Parker’s exceptional eye, coupled with her impeccable sense of timing and composition.


The first exhibition in New York since 1981 of Ann Parker's important series, Los Ambulantes will open March 4 at Deborah Bell Photographs. Her work is held in dozens of major museums and private collections, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art and The Whitney Museum of American Art.

Choosing the Backgrounds, Barillas, ca. 1970s
Vintage gelatin silver print on original mount

Rope and Basket Vendors, San Marcos, ca. 1970s
Vintage gelatin silver print on original mount

Sisters Dressed for Annual Fair, Barillas, ca. 1970s
Cibachrome print, printed late 1970s/early 1980s

Framed Board Showing Photographer’s Samples, ca. 1970s
Vintage gelatin silver print on original mount

Seven Daughters, Santa Cruz del Quiché, ca. 1970s
Vintage gelatin silver print on original mount

Rope and Basket Vendors Contemplated Being Photographed, ca. 1970s
Vintage gelatin silver print on original mount

Recently Married Couple, Barillas, ca. 1970s
Vintage gelatin silver print on original mount

Photographers’ Row at Annual Fair, Barillas, ca. 1970s
Gelatin silver print, printed 1982-1983

Photographer Directing Pose, Santa Cruz del Quiché, ca. 1970s
Vintage gelatin silver print on original mount

Juan Gonzalez, ca. 1970s]
Vintage gelatin silver print on original mount

Posted in: Accidental Mysteries, Arts + Culture

Comments [1]

Wonderful photography as always and great written. Thanks for sharing with us.
Taposy Rabeya

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