Land Use Change Over the Twentieth-Century in Central Mexico: Modern Photographs and Landscape Paintings From Jose´ Maria Velasco

A. Townsend Peterson, Ecology & Evolutionary Biology

Luke Jordan, Visual Art; Stephen Egbert, Geography; et al.

A view of Citlaltépetl from outside the town of Coscomatepec de Bravo

After Velasco: ​Volcán de Orizaba [A view of Citlaltépetl from outside the town of Coscomatepec de Bravo]
Photo by: Luke Jordan

funded Spring 2012

José María Velasco (1840-1912) was a scientific illustrator for Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Historia Natural, as well as a renowned landscape painter in his time. His style was almost photographic in nature, such that he replicated landscapes in minute detail; he developed a series of paintings of landscapes that included detailed views of the Valley of Mexico from most prominent vantage points along the circle of high volcanic peaks that surround the Valley, as well as many famous vistas across Mexico. With Commons funding, we relocated and revisited 15 of his vantage points, and developed detailed, high-quality photographs from each; the goal of the initial re-visit was be to replicate Velasco’s original view as exactly as possible, to provide an initial check on the degree of realism versus creative license in Velasco’s landscapes.

The result is a detailed, century-long view of land use change at sites across the Valley of Mexico and across the country as a whole. The Valley of Mexico was once a biodiversity hotspot in Mesoamerica, and is now one of the most anthropogenically affected regions on Earth. The project team includes expertise in photography, geography, environmental history, history of science, and biodiversity science, so project results are interpreted and explored from a variety of perspectives, ranging from biodiversity conservation to viewscape evolution.

In April 2014, the researchers hosted a symposium, gathering researchers from the United States and Mexico in the fields of Art History, Biology, Geography, and Photography. In concert with this symposium, they created and installed an exhibition of Luke Jordan’s photographs from the Velasco sites alongside reproductions of the original paintings by José María Velasco. The team is presently seeking funding to complete the re-photography efforts (about 30 landscapes more), and to publish the images side-by-side with reproductions of Velasco’s paintings in a book format.