How an ingenious former fashion photographer managed to capture on film the mind and spirit of the ancient Maya.
This article first appeared in Archaeology, Volume 56, no. 6 .
In a cluttered studio in New York's Flatiron district, a thousand-year old Maya vase spins slowly on a turntable. On its painted surface is a puzzling scene: a ruler sitting on a bearded dragon gazes down at a baby in the hands of a black-eyed death god.
This could be a kidnapping, a sacrifice, or the offering of an unsettling gift. But it's hard to tell for certain, because this ten-inch vase is so narrow that its figures are only visible one at a time.
An arm's length away Justin Kerr is staring down into the viewfinder of his renowned rollout camera, watching the rotating vase's surface slide past. When he presses the shutter release, the film winds past the lens at a speed matched to that of the rotating vase. With a single exposure it turns the cylindrical vase into a flat panorama, all of its enigmatic characters visible at once, like players interacting on a stage. Kerr will scan this image, print it, and post it on the web for all to see.
For more than a hundred years photographers have opened the world's eyes to the Maya. At the turn of the century, explorers and adventurers took wet-plate cameras into Mexico and Guatemala's jungles and emerged with marvelous pictures of ruins, sculpture, and fantastic glyphs. Now, this Bronx-born ex-fashion photographer is helping Mayanists make new discoveries with his books, journals, symposia, and thousands of images he distributes for free.
Kerr's photographs chart a personal odyssey he has taken with his wife and creative partner Barbara as they have imbibed the wonders of the Precolumbian world. Kerr is a tall, dark-haired, broad-shouldered man with a keen gaze and an endless supply of stories, and Barbara is a petite, blond presence at his side, prompting him with forgotten details. Their apartment, down the hall from Kerr's Manhattan studio, is steeped in Mesoamericana-cut tin lamp shades, Spanish colonial tiles, ancient textiles, scores of Mexican folk retablos, and shelves of stunning Precolumbian pottery and sculpture. The couple's voices thrill when they describe Maya art, whether it is a collection that Kerr photographed in the New York City suburbs last week or a masterpiece they saw thirty years ago in the jungle.
The Kerrs' enthusiasm for all things Precolumbian has inspired Justin to become a teacher, epigrapher, publisher, and inventor, Barbara a restorer of damaged pots and sculptures. From the beginning, their goal, Kerr says, has been “to reach back through the centuries and capture today on film something of the mind and spirit of the great Maya people.” And the journey they have taken has changed the way we see the past.
When the Kerrs took their first vacation to Mexico in 1959, they knew nothing about Precolumbian America or the Classic Maya civilization that would come to dominate their lives. They were just tourists looking to take a break from their busy Manhattan studio. Successful New York City commercial photographers, the Kerrs were experts at making their subjects sparkle, whether it was in catalogues for Japanese camera parts, clothing in fashion ads, models in Good Housekeeping, Young Miss, and Ingenue, or the thirty-six covers in a row they shot for Teen Magazine and American Girl. Their specialty was “makeovers,” before-and-after stories of plain Janes who flowered in Barbara's expert make-up and Kerr's carefully placed lights.
Their first stop was the Yucatán, and on Christmas morning, they entered Chichén Itzá. “We walked in and both of us just went `This is it!'” recalls Kerr. The mute buildings, with their bewitching mix of the macabre and the beautiful, their sculpture's sinuous lines, perplexing glyphs, carved skulls, snakes, and warriors, instantly changed their lives. At their next stop, Mexico City, they rushed to the pyramids at Teotihuacan, then detoured to Oaxaca and the old city of Monte Albán. “We were ruin-happy,” says Barbara.
The following years took them back to Mexico and all over Central and South America. At home in New York City they took courses in archaeology, joined museums, attended lectures, and took pictures of every Precolumbian object they could find. Kerr kept the copyrights to the pictures he took, but gave prints to the archaeologists he befriended. Many of these objects had never appeared before in print, but the images from Kerr's darkroom were unique for another reason.
“At the time the academic concept of photographing archaeological material was to make it as flat and as uninteresting as possible,” Kerr says. But the photographer infused his pictures with life. Inspired by Hollywood portraitist Nicholas Muray and photographer Lee Bolton, who depicted Precolumbian objects with drama, even flamboyance, Kerr brought out the objects' three-dimensionality, their beauty, sobriety, menace, or wit. “From the very beginning I treated the objects in the same way that I treated the portraits of people,” Kerr says.
His subtle backgrounds and precise shadows highlight details important to scholars, such as the fabric on a carved figure's skirt. This was a new way of showing ancient artifacts, as both works of art and as archaeological data. Photographers around the world have since adopted his style and techniques.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a new generation of art historians, artists, and linguists turned fresh eyes on Maya monuments and ceramics. Tatania Proskouriakoff proved that carved inscriptions commemorated historical events, and excavations showed that Maya society was larger and far more complex than had been imagined. As the pace of discovery quickened, the Kerrs met an ever-widening circle of scholars.
In 1971, Yale anthropologist Michael Coe asked Kerr to shoot the catalog photographs for an exhibit he had assembled about Maya writing at New York City's Grolier Club. On display would be a newly discovered codex and seventy-one pots from museums and private collections. “I don't think there had been seventy-one Maya pots together in one room since the eighth century,” says Gillett Griffin, curator of Precolumbian Art at the Princeton University Art Museum, who helped organize the show.
The exhibit itself challenged the thinking of most of the era's Mayanists. Under the influence of the Carnegie Institution's J. Eric S. Thompson, archaeologists pooh-poohed the glyphs on vases as illiterate nonsense. They were deceived in part by Maya art's ornate style and the painted vases' narrow profiles, which reveal only a few glyphs and figures at a time. “Maya art has this fantastically Byzantine quality to it, and it requires a lot of `eye sweat,' to coin a term, to make sense of it,” says Steve Houston, a Mayanist at Brigham Young University. The dozens of pots in the Grolier show offered Coe a critical mass.
At Coe's request, Kerr took a dozen photographs around the periphery of every vase. Artist Diane Peck then drew the pictures, combining them to make a “rollout” of each pot's scene. The rollout drawings allowed Coe to see the vase's surface all at once, but each rollout, so essential to Coe's progress, took Peck at least a week to paint. “Those methods were very, very unsatisfactory," Kerr says. "There had to be a better way.”
Coe told Kerr that the British Museum once owned a peripheral camera that took a continuous photograph of the surface of Greek vases. “It was a fairly simple concept,” says Kerr. “You rotate the vase in front of the camera, and you move the film past the shutter in conjunction with the vase.” Kerr decided to build his own. For years his hobby had been machining and assembling miniature steam engines with his own lathes, drills, and grinding wheels. After eighteen months of planning, he built a frame for the camera, cannibalized a Hasselblad he had in the studio, replaced its magazine and shutter, and slaved its motor-drive to a phonographic turntable.
In early 1974, “the first tests were made with a coffee can, then a perfume bottle, then anything that could turn in front of the camera, and finally, a carved Maya vase,” Kerr wrote in one exhibition catalogue. “When the film from that first test dripped its way into the light, my hands were shaking with anticipation. When I saw that I actually had the image of a rollout on the negative, I whooped with joy.”
As Kerr was assembling his camera, a handful of Mayanists made the most important archaeological breakthrough in a generation: they deciphered the carved glyphs on the ruins at Palenque, Mexico. For the first time they were able to translate full texts and identify the specific rulers - Pakal, Chan Bahlum, Animal Skull - who had built the ancient city and memorialized themselves in stone. As Mayanists looked anew at sites and ceramics, the camera became Kerr's obsession. He revisited vases in private collections and shot rollouts for galleries and museums. He developed a portable version which he and Barbara took to Belize, Guatemala, and Honduras. Rollouts appeared for the first time in book form in Coe's The Lords of the Underworld, the catalogue for a landmark Princeton University exhibition, and more publications followed in rapid succession.
Unlike the monuments, whose royal proclamations were intended for public view, “the ceramic vessels are often very anecdotal and are where the ancient Maya, in a sense, really let down their hair,” says Mayanist Karl Taube, of the University of California, Riverside. And with each rollout a new facet of the Maya sprang to life. Kerr unveiled a world of warriors, gods, magic animals, and bloody sacrifice, prancing skeletons, rabbits scribbling in jaguar skin books, and bizarre customs, such as scenes of the Maya elite indulging in hallucinogenic enemas.
Through the 1980s, the hundreds of rollouts and thousands of pictures in the Kerrs' files helped another wave of young epigraphers and iconographers make more discoveries. They identified verbs, possessives, familial relationships, and the identity of gods. They reconstructed long-lost religious narratives and found the vases often record the owner of the vessel, the cocoa or corn drink it contained, even the parentage and signature of the artist who made it.
The scenes and glyphs on vases and ruins revealed a new picture of the Maya. They were warriors who practiced not only art and astronomy, but human sacrifice and self-mutilation. The Kerrs played an important role in these discoveries but saw themselves as nothing more than photographers who had stumbled upon a subject they loved. Kerr had served as an army medic in Japan after World War II and left premed studies at New York University to study photography. Justin and Barbara lived across the street from each other in the Bronx, married, and built their commercial studio business. They had looked closely at thousands of artifacts, but it was only trained archaeologists, they thought, who were qualified to do the real thinking.
Then they met Linda Schele.
Schele, a charismatic art teacher from Tennessee, was one of the world's most important and innovative Mayanists until her death from cancer in 1998. Schele felt Maya archaeology was an adventure and that anyone with enough passion, curiosity, and information could make valuable discoveries. She insisted that scholars should share archaeological data freely with each other and with amateurs. Says Kerr, “When Linda Schele was alive there was a real feeling that the archaeologists, the art historians, the epigraphers - all of the people involved - would work together and pool their information. It was a warm time.”
Schele's sense of teamwork struck a chord with the Kerrs, who had grown up during the Depression. Hard times bankrupted Justin's pharmacist father, and Barbara's father worked as a motion picture projectionist after his business failed. Both became dedicated union men, and bequeathed a deep sense of fair play to their families - Barbara remembers walking picket lines with her mother when she was only five years old.
In 1983 Schele and Yale art historian Mary Miller began to prepare “The Blood of Kings,” the first exhibition to champion the new paradigm of the Maya as competitive and warlike for the Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. They chose Kerr to photograph the catalogue. Justin and Barbara loaded up nine cases of photographic gear and hopscotched the country from museum to museum, then traveled to London and set up shop in the British Museum's crowded storerooms.
Here were some of the finest Maya carvings and sculpture, much of it wrested from the jungle in the nineteenth century by archaeologist and photographer Alfred Maudsley himself. The Kerrs photographed treasure after treasure, many not seen for decades. Then they asked to photograph Maudsley's Lintel 24, taken from a temple door at Yaxchilán, Mexico.
“They roll this thing out with a piece of old canvas over it,” says Kerr. “I flipped it back and started to tremble.” The nine square foot limestone panel is one of the finest-and most chilling - of all Maya carvings. It depicts king Shield Jaguar, holding a torch aloft as his kneeling wife Lady Xoc pulls a thorn-studded rope through her tongue. Blood smears her lips and spills onto sacred paper, which she will burn to sustain the gods. Kerr painstakingly set his lights to show the glyphs, the royals' faces, and their astonishing ritual.
When “The Blood of Kings” finally opened three years later, it was a smash. The show and its catalogue - featuring Lady Xoc on its cover - explored Maya art, texts, and iconography through the lens of art history for the first time. It was an archaeological, aesthetic, and intellectual triumph. “After the opening, we were all so high," says Kerr. “This was the greatest Maya show that had ever been put on.” At a private museum reception, giddy in their gowns and tuxedos, some of the curators and their colleagues marked the event with an ancient ceremony. “David Freidel, a Mayanist at Southern Methodist University, had brought a bowl and a bunch of obsidian and some paper, and we actually sat around that table and we let blood, because that's what Lady Xoc on the lintel is doing! We were crazy!” Kerr says, laughing. “We've done other catalogues since, but nothing that equaled the emotion of that project."
Schele was a compassionate mentor, but also outspoken and headstrong, a mix that jibed perfectly with the Kerrs' generosity and New York gumption. She became their close friend and encouraged Kerr to learn to read glyphs, then to teach his own workshop on Maya iconography at her Maya Meeting in Austin, Texas, an annual conference attended by both amateurs and leading scholars. Kerr now speaks at museums and conferences across the country and he and Barbara publish papers in academic journals. In 1989, they published The Maya Vase Book, a collection of rollouts and essays by leading Mayanists. Printed at their own expense, the series now numbers six volumes. Says Coe, “There's few people who can beat Justin out on Maya scholarship now.”
Despite his contributions, Kerr has come under some criticism. In the 1980s, as looting in Mexican and Central American jungles intensified, some field archaeologists said the Kerrs' photographs were partly to blame. The pictures, they said, were bringing prestige to private collections, raising art market prices, and encouraging more theft. But the Kerrs' work proved indispensable to the art historians and epigraphers at the forefront of Maya studies. “I would defy you to find any active student of Maya art or writing who isn't looking at and using these images,” says Houston. “In the best of all possible worlds we would completely ignore all looted material and hope that it went away. But it's not going away, and one has to be a little more pragmatic about it.” In recent years the controversy has quieted. Now virtually every new publication about the Maya contains at least one of Kerr's pictures.
In 1991 Kerr and Schele were making rollouts of vases at a museum near the Maya ruins at Copán, Honduras, when archaeologist Ricardo Agurcia offered them a tour of his excavations of Rosalila, an elaborate Early Classic temple perfectly preserved within a pyramid known as Structure 16. Agurcia led them through the gloomy narrow tunnels that wind between Rosalila and Structure 16, showing them the painted yellow, green, and blood red sculptures that crowd the temple's walls. At one point a workman came over, Kerr recalls, and whispered into Agurcias's ear.
“Agurcia said, `He's just found something. Let's go take a look.'” The crew had discovered a hidden compartment in a stone wall at one end of the tunnel. “Linda looked in with a flashlight, and she turned and said to me, `I see a blue ribbon.' My heart went patter, patter because all I could think of was a vase I had photographed where an individual is tying a sacred bundle with a ribbon. Linda handed me the flashlight and said, `Take a look in.'”
Sure enough, the blue ribbon encircled a fabric bundle. Untied, it revealed nine exquisitely carved eccentric flints - thin obsidian scepters that the Maya used in sacred ceremonies. They were huge, two-foot long, carefully chipped silhouettes of deities wearing elaborate headdresses, along with knives and stingray spines. “I turned to Agurcia and said, `I'll put a fresh roll of film in my camera. I think it should be photographed immediately before anybody touches it.'”
Over the next three years, Kerr spent weeks inside the structure making a photomosaic of every inch of the exposed carvings, taking “hundreds and hundreds” of photographs, “roll after roll.” The Copán Archaeological Acropolis Project used the images, along with archaeological drawings, to construct a full-scale replica of Rosalila that is on display in the Copán museum.
On glowing computer screens around the world, an e-mail recently appeared from Justin Kerr: “Dear Friends” it began, “I have posted a vase with some interesting text.” The message, sent to scholars and amateurs alike, was an invitation to join in an internet discussion of a vase that depicts a ruler on a jaguar throne and his court. From time to time, Kerr tosses out these challenges, invitations to look, think, and visit the Kerr Archives, his searchable internet database of more than a thousand vases.
The database is just part of what may be Kerr's most far-reaching achievement. In 1993 he met Lewis Ranieri, an investment banker. Ranieri told Kerr that he wanted to set up a foundation to promote Precolumbian scholarship. The Kerrs helped him recruit a staff and a board of advisors. Later that year, under the guidance of executive director Sandra Noble, the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies (FAMSI) opened its doors in Crystal River, Florida.
FAMSI has distributed almost $2 million in research grants. To promote open distribution of archaeological discovery, grant recipients must post their final reports on FAMSI's website within twelve months. The website features a searchable archive of over 1,000 of Schele's drawings, galleries of glyphs and Maya art, an online Mesoamerican bibliography, translations of important colonial texts, and a dictionary of Maya hieroglyphs. Kerr has deposited over 1,600 rollouts and one thousand images of Precolumbian artifacts in the Kerr Archives at FAMSI, and he continues to add to it. Maya vase study now takes place around the clock and around the globe. “There are still as many mysteries as there were twenty years ago,” Kerr says with a smile. “Because as you discover the possible answers to one mystery, it only opens the door to two more.”
Copyright © 2003 Tom Gidwitz