A 14-year photography project comes home to Cañar

Dear Friends: Someone commenting on my last chronicle asked where I was in the story.  So this one is mainly about me. However, later on, you’ll get a glimpse of Michael with his giant langoustine and soup recipe.

As seen above, the book Cañar: Desde la Mirada de Rigoberto Navas, 1940-1960 (“From the View of Rigoberto Navas, 1940-1960”) will be launched in Cañar on June 28, one day before we return to Portland. Five hundred books are being printed right now in Cuenca and won’t be ready until one day before the big event. Eeek! After the usual slow and complicated buildup, everything happens at the last minute. But the print job is gorgeous, and I couldn’t be happier to see this project come home.

The Navas project goes back to 2010, when two members of the family approached me to ask if I could print some of their father’s glass plate negatives in my darkroom. Although I didn’t have an enlarger adequate for 4″ x 5″ negatives, I was happy to make contact prints – where I laid the negatives directly onto photographic paper, exposed them to light. and developed the paper in my chemicals. Here’s an example of a contact sheet:

You can imagine my excitement when I saw the quality of the images. Rigoberto Navas (1911-2001) was the Cañar town photographer for over 50 years, and also a professor at the technical high school. Over the years I’d been curious about the Estudio Navas sign hanging outside the family home in town, but I knew nothing more. When I returned the first batch of glass plates to Marta and Paul Navas I asked if I could come to the studio and look at more negatives. They said of course. Truth is, I was looking for images of the Indigenous Cañari communities  – people, places and events of a culture that was hardly documented during the 20th century. In my next few darkroom sessions with the negatives, very few Cañari images turned up, but something else happened. Here, from my essay included in the book:

It was the portrait of a young couple that had me hooked. Posed in Navas’ studio in what may have been a wedding portrait, given the seriousness of her gaze into the camera, the woman was barefoot, while the man wore ashotas– rubber sandals. His arm is around her shoulders, and next to them on the studio wall is a cardboard advertisement for a 1951 Ford car. Who were they? Where were they from?  Why doesn’t she have shoes? Why the cardboard on the wall? As a documentary photographer, my curiosity was piqued. I wanted to know more.

I realized that the Navas negatives—images of schools, sports, baptisms, buildings, civic events, studio portraits, and more—offered a window into daily life in a small market town in the southern Andes of Ecuador. Who could resist? Thus began a slow cycle of printing a stack of glass negatives and returning them to the Navas studio (really just a large dusty closet) in the home where Rigoberto’s wife, Luz Maria, still lived with three of their fourteen adult children. I’d have afternoon coffee with the family—other Navas siblings from around town usually showed up—and take home another box of glass plates. (Photo: my darkroom circa 2018 below)

This went on, hit and miss, over several years during the six months I lived here. At one point I tried to create metadata system to record names and dates, consulting with Marta, my main contact in the family, but it was nearly impossible. Señor Navas left no records and, in fact, almost no photos except in family albums around town – only thousands of negatives!

One day in 2020, confined by the pandemic and in a burst of activity, I printed around 150 photos on my home printer, and with paper, scissors, and glue I spent several days assembling a sample book. Very crude. I used an existing photo book I liked and simply pasted in the photos and created a mock cover. I took to carrying it around in my backpack whenever I had meetings with municipal or cultural authorities. Everyone loved the idea of the book but no public institution had money to publish it.

Finally, a couple of years ago, I met a woman from the Catholic University in Cuenca at a meeting at the Casa de la Cultura in Azogues. At an opportune moment, I pulled out the sample book. She looked at it and said, “Hmmm, we have a new Culture Department at our university; I’d like to show this to them.” The rest, as they say, is history. Well, perhaps a rather rocky history, with personnel changes at the university and lots of delays. In the meantime, I was determined to find the names of the few Cañari folks appearing in the book. While it was easy to identify townsfolk – Marta would take one look and say, “That’s family so-and-so; the grandson is the pharmacist down the street,” it was harder to locate Cañari names from faces of seventy years ago.

I turned to an old friend, Tayta José Pichizaca, who came to look at photos on my computer and was able to give me a few names for photo captions in the book.

Once I returned to Ecuador this May, the culture folks at the Catholic University finally puse las pilas, as they say here (literally, “put in the batteries”). They hired a talented designer and a copyeditor, I loaded and edited the photos, and we all worked non-stop to get the book ready to print.

In the photos below, from just last Friday, we are getting a first look at the proof printed book. Pictured are the book designer Sebastian Egas; the head of the Culture Department Gemma Rosas; the in-house print technician; and two of the Navas sisters.

The book is gorgeous!  I’ll admit I was surprised that the university print shop could do such a fantastic job. (Technical note: it’s laser printed using a four-color process but making it duotone using only yellow and black – creating a rich sepia tone.)

All my materials from this 14-year project will go back to the Navas family, who propose to create a Navas museum that would include their father’s photos, darkroom equipment, cameras, even a 16mm film projector (he brought the first cinema to Cañar).

OK, Michael’s been patiently waiting in the wings to show you his giant langoustine. A couple of weeks ago he bought a pound of shrimp with heads on at the Sunday market for $5. (Well, I’ve exaggerated in the drawing – but this one was 10 inches – we measured!)

Mike’s Monster Langoustine Soup

  • Pull off heads and shells and put in stock of plain water or fish stock with a little white wine. Simmer up to one hour on low heat with lid on pot.
  • Meanwhile, finely dice a small purple onion, 5-6 garlic cloves, and add 2 T of tomato paste.
  • With a slotted spoon remove all heads and shells from the stock and add all above ingredientes.
  • Add two medium-sized potatoes, cubed, to the stock. Cook about 15 minutes. Meanwhile cut shrimp into bite-sized pieces, and add to soup at the last minute. Cook for about 2 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste and serve!

C a ñ a r  B o o k  C l u b

At last! We come to books, and I have a bonanza of recommendations this month. Thanks to all our faithful members who responded after May’s meeting.

  • Annie in Portland:  “I’m reading Mighty Bad Land: A Perilous Expedition to Antarctica Reveals Clues to an Eighth Continent by Bruce Luyendyke, a geologist and friend of my husband Steve Tucker, who died two years ago.  It’s about the author’s first trip to Antartica when Steve was along as a mountaineer. I haven’t had the courage to read it until now. He mentions Steve a lot who I think helped keep a level-head when they faced adversity such as storms that delayed plane-drops of equipment. Bruce does a nice job of painting both the team’s work and the day-to-day life living on ice. His group went on to discover a large submarine  plateau resulting  from two tectonic plates colliding, a discovery that led to a mountain being named after him.”
  • Pat in Oregon: I join the consensus with Hisham Matar’s last part of the triptych which includes In the Country of Men and The Return. A Month in Sienna is a meditation on Sienese art in the 1600’s and is elegant, as usual. Also, I read The Salt Path by Raynor Winn. A couple in their 50’s lose their farm and the husband receives a terminal diagnosis. They decide to walk the South West Coast Path, from Somerset to Dorset, a path of some 630 miles. In the end they make their way to peace and reconciliation. (Comment from Judy: I also read this and enjoyed this immensely. Based on the fame of the first book, Winn wrote a second (not quite as engaging) memoir, The Wild Silence.)
  • Richard in Oslo: I am reading Mikael Niemi’s latest (a Swedish writer from the Finn-Swede border region in the northern forest, where his very funny first book Popular Music from Vittula was set. His previous book is called To Cook a Bear, and the latest, and best in my eyes and ears, is not yet in English but will probably be The Stone in Silk, or Silk-wrapped Stone. (Comment from Judy: I downloaded both these books and have just finished To Cook A Bear – a rather misleading title. It takes place in the far north of Sweden in 1852….”following a runaway Sami boy and his mentor, the famous pastor Laestadius, as they investigate a murder in their village along with the mysteries of life.” Be warned that what appears to be an innocent story turns dark and violent and sad.)
  • Claire in London: I’m late to Colm Toibin. and am utterly enchanted by his writing. I’d read The Magician (the one based on the life of Thomas Mann) and really liked it. Next, I read The South (set largely in post-civil war Spain to which an unhappy Irish woman has fled and where she falls in love with an ex-communist fighter). I was blown away by the writing and was completely immersed in the characters and place (extraordinary to learn it’s his first novel!). I went straight on to another one – The Heather Blazing which I found utterly compelling even though I didn’t particularly like the main character. But as a study of small-town and rural Irish life in the mid-20th century, it was brilliant. (Judy’s comment: I also love Colm Toibin and can recommend The Master (about Henry James), Nora Webster and Brooklyn. Now everyone – including me – is on the wait list for his new book, Long Island, said to be a continuation of Brooklyn.)
  • Claire continues: So after my Toibin-fest, I read An Officer and a Spy by Robert Harris. Harris is a masterful storyteller though his prose is fairly pedestrian. But An Officer and a Spy is Harris at his best. It’s the story of the Dreyfuss Affair in France, something I’ve always “known” about but not really understood. He writes it like a thriller while also highlighting the complex relationship between Army, State and Catholic church, and the deeply rooted anti-semitism in all three. I could not put it down. 
  • Joanne in Portland: Long Island by Colm Toibin is a great read. Straightforward language and dialogue but psychologically complex portraits. I’m glad I read Kairos, by Jenny Erpenbeck. At times, the characters seemed more allegorical than real, but the backdrop of a changing Germany is fascinating. I more admired than enjoyed it.
  • Jeffrey Ashe, one of the first Peace Corps volunteers in Cañar in the 1960’s and later a pioneer in microfinance, recommends: We are Not Able to Live in the Sky: The Seductive Promise of Microfinance by Mara Kardas-Nelson.

That’s it for now, dear friends. Keep your suggestions coming as I’m planning one more chronicle in July.


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16 thoughts on “A 14-year photography project comes home to Cañar

  1. Judy, What a wonderful project. Congratulations for your role in bringing this amazing collection of photos to life. Michael, the langostino stew looks fabulous. Just returned from El Salvador where I was seeing how many of the savings groups our partners trained survived thirteen years later.



  2. Glad to see the book got launched! Even more fun that I was there in March to be a witness to part of the process. The prints are amazing. It will be fun to hear how los gentes de Cañar receive it.

  3. Congrats, Judy on the completion of a long project! It was a trip to see the cover photo in its new square format.
    And well done both of you on getting back to Cañar yet again. I’m glad to see all’s well in the kitchen.

  4. Congratulations on seeing this through, Judy. What a contribution to Cañar! I’m glad to hear that all is well in your household and read the voices of Annie and Sally, both witnesses to the process.

  5. Congratulations Judy! I’m looking forward to seeing the book one day. Abrazos to you and Michael!

  6. Let me add my congratulations as well, Judy. Such perseverence! And we’re happy to see another of Michael’s recipes, though we envy the 10″ langoustine! Much love to you both.

  7. Wow! Once again you did it Judy! You have nurtured into being many book projects throughout your long career (I can see your own first book, a sociological study called Scenes from Life, poking out from my bookshelf next to the computer – the unwieldy odd shape of many progressive books produced in the 1970s). But this Navas project is a stunning testament to your dogged indefatigability and creativity. Who else would think to create a sample book of photo printouts to carry around for a couple of years in the hope you can “show and tell” it to entice a funder to take the project on? Bravo!
    Another book recommendation – blast from the past- Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Year 2000 Booker Prize winner. A layered narrative of 3 stories, packed with complex characters, acerbic social and labor commentary, and 3 mysterious deaths. Who could ask for more in a 500 page novel? Congratulations again, dear friend, your fan Nancy

  8. Judy, qué admiración tan grande siento por tu trabajo, el cariño y la dedicación que le ponés a los proyectos trascendentes es un ejemplo maravilloso. Felicitaciones y aplausos de pie

  9. just one word, dear big sister….BRAVO!!! The book is beautiful and I can’t wait to own a copy! Oh Michael, BRAVO!! on those langoustines! xoxo sherry

  10. Querida Judy, me alegra mucho que el libro está listo. Sos una mujer paciente y constante y es enorme tu amor por la memoria de los pueblos. Me alegra también que Michael ha tenido un buen tiempo en Cañar y en su cocina que siempre es una delicia. Un abrazo desde Costa Rica.

  11. The Navas Book looks spectacular! I would love to see it in person. Some day!

  12. Congrats on completing another monumental project. What an accomplishment! The pictures look astonishingly beautiful–like antiquity preserved in deep amber. I’m anxious to obtain a copy of the book and read the entirety of what you wrote. It’s time for you to rest on your laurels for a few minutes, imbibe a glass of white wine, and savor Michael’s latest culinary masterpiece. You’ve earned it!

  13. The delicious soup is long gone, so I won’t ask for a bowl.
    But the book is just arriving and I also want to obtain a copy!

  14. Pingback: Our Future in Cañar | Cañar Chronicles

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