Gomes Casseres y su Banana Series (1907-1920): Imaginación fotográfica en postales de Costa Rica [Gomes Casseres and his Banana Series (1907-1920): The Photographic Imaginary of Costa Rica Postcards]

Gomes Casseres y su Banana Series (1907-1920): Imaginación fotográfica en postales de Costa Rica [Gomes Casseres and his Banana Series (1907-1920): The Photographic Imaginary of Costa Rica Postcards]
Enrique Camacho Navarro

Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Centro de Investigaciones sobre América Latine y el Caribe, Mexico City, 2020
442 pp.
ISBN: 978-607-30-3509-5.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
September 2021

For all those who read Spanish, Gomes Casseres y su Banana Series (1907-1920) is the perfect book to put on the reading list of any beginning PhD student, but senior researchers will no less take great benefit from it. It is an inspiring and perfectly didactic work on how to investigate an object that at first sight resists any “real” research, while gradually appearing as a fascinating topic, first written in invisible ink and then slowly making itself known as a crucial document and testimony. At the beginning, the corpus in question is no more than this: a single image belonging to a larger set of 12 postcards documenting but probably also advertising the banana trade, made by an unknown amateur photographer (Gomes Casseres), working on behalf of a company that has changed name for quite some time (the United Fruit Company, now Chiquita Brands International) and centered on a currently somewhat neglected place and time (Costa Rica in the first decades of the 20th century). At the end, the picture will have changed dramatically, with the reconstruction of the whole series (including the still materially missing gap of post card number 11, only available as an internet image), the biography of its author (although the authorship of the images themselves remains a very tricky issue), and a fine-grained analysis of both the images and the context (the larger context being that of a pseudo-independent “banana republic”).

Camacho Navarro’s take on this material, on which he has been working for more than a decade, closely follows the theoretical methodological claims and hypothesis of social cultural history, as presented for instance in Peter Burke’s Eye witnessing: The Uses of Images as Historical Evidence (2001), although there is an equally strong input from John Berger’s Another Way of Telling (1982) and Naomi Schor’s Reading in Detail (1987). What makes this book so stunning and useful is however not only its results (the rediscovery of a lost archive, which can be interpreted as a remediation in postcard format of the drawn object lesson genre, as well as the contemporary, that is postcolonial reading of these images) but also the way in which it reports on the very process of its research, a fascinating mix of one the one hand traditional scholarship and on the other hand all the things you cannot learn at school but which are key to any success: patience, luck, serendipity, networking, and above all unfathomable curiosity (the dreamt of Indiana Jones dimension of much work in the humanities). It is the fusion of these two attitudes that helped Camacho Navarro to solve the many problems that might have discouraged any type of research at the encounter with the first image: What to think of the photographer (credited as copyright holder only)? How to find the other images (nowhere listed or archived or documented)? How to make sense of their meaning (apparently somewhat banal)? How to contextualize them (and where to start with this difficult exercise, knowing that, to quote literary critic Jonathan Culler, “meaning is context bound, but context is boundless”)?

Gomes Casseres y su Banana Series (1907-1920) does not pretend to give definitive answers to all these questions. With sincere modesty, the author admits that many interpretations remain open to debate, even after having carefully conducted close-reading and contextualization. What he does, however, is to give us a very precise description of the what, how and why of his investigations, which almost reads like a detective novel.

What Camacho Navarro does is gathering three threads and interweaving three stories. First of all, one finds a “making of” story: the author explains step by step how he managed to recompose the vanished collection, thus giving a charming insight in the sometimes unconventional and often surprising ways in which researchers have to build their own research object (what happens for instance when one buys a “unique” postcard with an antiquarian abroad that is then lost by the local postal service?). Second, there is also the story of the reading of the pictures themselves: What do they show? What do they hide? How and why are they doing what they do, etc.? Here, the author makes very clear how reading and interpreting can never be reduced to the application of a method or a theory, for each answer modifies the initial question, and the challenges raised by the reading of supplementary documents (pictures by the same photographer, images of other postcard series, all kind of historical documents) are both very helpful and extremely dangerous. Each new discovery may contribute to the disclosure of the way in which photographs perform another task than just leaving a trace of “what has been” (the book contains inspirational pages on the approach of this kind of photography as a blend of realism and advertisement and thus as the representation of an ideal or not yet existing future), yet at the same they also open new avenues that can divert from the chosen focus. Third and finally, Camacho Navarro offers also a reading of the postcard series as a narrative composition, which he deciphers as the sequential staging and arrangement of the various stages of the banana trade (beginning from “Planting Bananas”, postcard 1, to “U.F.Co’s Steamer carrying Bananas to U.S.A. Sixaola”, postcard 12) and, beyond this “superficial” representation, as the propagandistic retelling, for customers and tourists as well as for possible investors, of the colonial enterprise.

Multiple concerns and questions crisscross in Camacho Navarro’s study, which seamlessly knits together the progress of material research and historical understanding. This is a heart-warming publication, not in the least for its great clarity and modesty, but above all a great model for all those trying to find their way when having to address a kind of visual UFO whose meaning will not be fully disclosed when replaced in the larger archive.