GRAPH BOOKS: PRINTED MATTER FROM RADICAL ART AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS. FEMINIST HISTORIANS OF MATERIAL CULTURE.
Rays of Sunlight from South America
Alexander Gardner [and Henry De Witt Moulton], 1865
Gardner, Alexander [and Henry De Witt Moulton]. Rays of Sunlight from South America. Washington, D.C.: Philp and Solomons, 1865. Oblong folio with 68 of the 70 original plates. Each with albumen print mounted recto, image approx. 17.2 x 22.5 cm, with letterpress caption and credits (Gardener for the “positive”; Moulton for the “negative”) on mount. Some mounts with minor soiling or damp stain to edges, not affecting images. Lacking front album cover, title page, preface and 2 plates (nos.  and ).
Monumental photographic album printed by famed Civil War photographer Alexander Gardner from negatives by an itinerant American photographer, Henry De Witt Moulton. Moulton’s photos of Lima and the Chincha Islands were taken while he was living in Peru, sometime between 1860 and mid-1863, when he returned to the US. The size of the edition is unknown, though it was printed around the same time as Gardner’s Photographic Sketch Book of the War (and advertised with it in early 1866), copies are exceedingly rare.
The album’s significance has been chronically underestimated. It provides fascinating transnational and bibliographic context for the better known Photographic Sketch Book, and comprises the most comprehensive photographic evidence of the historic guano deposits and the laborers who worked them. Gardener’s selection of 38 (36 in the present copy) views of Lima and Callao for the opening section of Rays of Sunlight largely follow other contemporary images of the capital’s major monuments. The extraordinary nature of the album lies instead in Gardner’s addition of 32 of Moulton’s unique “views of those celebrated Islands situated within the rainless region of the Peruvian Coast, and which furnish the richest fertilizing material known to agriculture.”*
In the early 1860s the Chincha Islands’ guano heaps were the world’s most important source of fertilizer. Revenues from the nationalized deposits paid for much of Peru’s public works from 1840-1870, including construction of the railways that crossed the Andes. Even more importantly, guano income was used by the state to free its black slaves and to abolish poll taxes on indigenous citizens.
Despite these progressive measures, the Chincha Islands’ guano piles were worked by prisoners and indentured Chinese laborers who were brought to Peru in large numbers under a policy known as Ley China to replace freed slaves in all aspects of industry and agriculture. Nearly half died from ill-treatment and overwork in one of the lesser-known and grim episodes of British Imperial human trafficking. Moulton’s “most interesting images concerned the soon to be depleted guano itself and the process used to exploit it.” His dramatic photos are the primary source for nearly all the existing photographic evidence of the Islands and the people who worked there, including scenes of the “Great Heap” with workmen loading rail cars, others of craft transporting the cargo to ships and piers, and poignant images of the laborers who Moulton seems to have seen as victims of exploitation. A small church for the workers appears three times; in one the prisoner-laborers are surrounded by armed soldiers while they kneel outside during Sunday services. Gardner’s rich contact prints preserve these minute details and the subtle value transitions captured in Moulton’s negatives.
In April 1864, just before Gardner assembled the album, the Chincha Islands became an object of great concern for the US when Spain seized them “as part of European efforts to re-establish colonial rule in South America while the United States was preoccupied with its Civil War.” He foresaw the historical value of the work when he wrote in his preface “In after times, these sketches of the Chincha Islands will have a peculiar interest [...] The original estimate of the length of time—one thousand years—that this deposit of the Chincha Islands would suffice for the wants of the world, is destined to prove fallacious. So great has become the demand for it that half the deposit of the largest island has been removed already; and the probabilities are, that in twenty years the supply will be exhausted.”
Four copies are recorded in three public collections: the Library of Congress, the New York Public Library, and the Public Library of Cincinnati. Two other copies have come to auction in the last 30 years. The most recent, a complete copy offered at Swann, sold for $35,000 in 2012.
Isabelle Lausent-Herrera (2009). Tusans (tusheng) and the Changing Chinese Community in Peru. Journal of Chinese Overseas 5: 116.
Keith McElroy (1984). Henry De Witt Moulton: Rays of sunlight from South America. History of Photography, 8:1, 7-21.