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Tuesday , June 19, 2018

Tibaldo: Remembering Eduardo Masferré - The father of Philippine photography

AT A time when America was at the height of the great depression and Charlie Chaplin was filming his slapstick black and white movies to cheer his nation, a half Spanish and Kankanaey was attempting to record the rich culture and lifestyles of the mountain people with a crude film camera. What was truly amazing during this period is that roll films and photographic equipments were still a rare commodity in the Philippines especially to a place where electricity does not exist.

Born in Sagada on April 18, 1909 to a family by Spaniard soldier-turned farmer father and a Kankana-ey mother, Eduardo Masferré will be remembered for his images that chronicled Igorot life in the old mountain provinces. Impressed at the National Geographic published images of tribal people from other continents, Masferré took the initiative to learn photography from all possible means and went on to record revealing images of the upland people’s culture and customary practices and rituals. Through his mail ordered camera and makeshift daylight darkroom that he made, he was able to open a window to the world showing the wonderful people in his community and its cloud kissed mountainous landscape.

As a child, Eduardo Masferré began his early studies in Catalonia Spain when his catholic father brought him home but when his family decided to settle in Sagada to do farming and missionary work for the Philippine Episcopal Church, he finished his schooling in the Philippines. He is today considered the Father of Philippine Photography for initiating a craft or art form that documented
the lifestyle of the upland people in the 1930s up to the 1950s using an old Kodak Graplex and large format view cameras that accepts only one wet film at a time.

He taught himself the complicated art of science and film photography, and over time, he learned to process films and developed them into photographs using his contraption of a daylight darkroom. I have been developing films myself using a studio enlarger and commercially available chemicals including photo papers and I simply could not imagine how Masferré managed to print without electricity.

After his mother's death in 1935 which I believe introduced him to village culture, Masferré became concerned with the decline of traditional and customary practices of the village folks in the uplands brought about by the influence of lowland cultures and growing presence of modernized center that are common in metropolitan areas.

Foreigners and local visitors who had the chance to travel to Sagada and Bontoc, Mountain Province must have bought some of his darkroom printed postcards and sent to friends as a souvenir or memento of the place. I have in my collection about thirty Masferré darkroom-developed postcards that my father must have acquired in the early 80s when I was doing the research component of my thesis, a mural painting about the Igorots of Northern Philippines.

Masferre's photographic works were exhibited in Manila and other places outside the country. He also held exhibits in Copenhagen and Tokyo. Mobil Philippines funded a book project “E. Masferre: People of the Philippine Cordillera” and provided 1,500 copies to schools, museums and libraries. I have a copy of his book and it is one of my treasured resource material placed next to a hardbound copy of Ansel Adam’s famous book on Yosemite.

Now that I am working on a book project myself about the origins and introduction of coffee in the Philippines and in the Cordilleras, I came across Eduardo’s father Jaime who together with two other Spaniards introduced citrus and coffee farming in Sagada by the turn of the 20th century. During a forum on investments at the Baguio Country Club, I chanced upon Nena Masferre Aleo, who heads a local exporting organization and had a chat with her father Eduardo and grandfather Jaime.

First, we talked about his dad being the acclaimed father of Philippine Photography and I asked up to what year did his old man worked with films inside his darkroom. With her recollection, I was convinced that the prints in my collection were his father’s or his brother Pancho’s who later served as his apprentice. According to Mrs. Aleo whom I address as Manang Nena, her father who died in June 24 1995 developed and produced prints up to around 1985. About the early farming of coffee in the uplands, I haven’t known from Manang Nena the names of the two other Spanish farmers who introduced coffee to their place but she advised me to see her mother who despite her nearing the centenary mark is still strong and able to communicate. My brief chat with the daughter of the Philippine’s Father of Photography in fact made me feel like I had fulfilled my earlier wish to meet the person who documented the rituals of the mountain provinces that was the visual subject of my mural painting.


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