It would be safe to call Macduff Everton’s photographic work among the Mayan people of the Yucatan his life’s great achievement. It took 20 years for him to produce his first book on the Maya and another 20 before he published his recently released follow-up volume, The Modern Maya: Incidents of Travel and Friendship(University of Texas Press).
I am hard put to think of another photographic project of such scope. Having spent four decades documenting the lives of several generations of Mayan families, Everton’s perseverance is perhaps equaled only by another magnum opus much in the news recently: writerRobert Caro’s acclaimed multi-volume biography of President Lyndon Johnson. Except that Caro has spent a mere 36 years writing his series.
“I was talking with my wife not long ago, trying to figure out how much time in total I’ve spent in the Yucatan,” Everton told me during a recent conversation, “and she said, ‘Look, you’ve spent 40 years on this, whether you were down there or not. And everything you did was aimed at working on this. It shaped your life.”
It is true that during the years he worked on the Yucatan project Everton also carved out an enviable career as an editorial and commercial travel photographer, his pictures appearing in magazines like Conde Nast Traveler, Islands, Smithsonian,andOutside, and in advertising for Delta Airlines, Rolex, and Patagonia. Freelance photographers are often preternaturally skillful at bending commercial work to their own artful needs, however. Many of Everton’s magazine assignments took him to the Yucatan to photograph the hotels springing up along the so-called Riviera Maya in the 1990s. He would often stay on to continue his personal work.
“To some extent, this explosion of growth was exactly what I was documenting in my Maya project—how their lives and culture were changing,” Everton said.
In the book, Everton tells the story of these changes by following the course of history as experienced by a number of Mayan families. In that sense, the work is akin to visual anthropology, complete with about 180,000 words of Everton’s own text to put the images into context. In an opening chapter he tells the story of the ancient race whose culture seemed to disappear in the 9th century. “The so-called collapse took place over 400 years, and many of the explanations that have been put forward for why it happened really don’t hold up,” he said. “But of course the bigger point is that they Maya really didn’t disappear.”
When he started the work in 1967, Everton was 19 and already a veteran traveler, having just returned to the US after hitchhiking around the world. “It was still possible then to go somewhere and shift centuries or even millenniums,” he said. “I was in the desert in Afghanistan once, watching a camel caravan, and I knew that somewhere overhead there were astronauts looking down at us. It was amazing. You heard the term ‘culture shock’ a lot then. Today, with KFC and McDonald’s everywhere on the globe, it’s harder to have that experience.”
He had taken pictures during his travels and thought about doing a book, but instead he took a job with a company that made educational films. He was promptly sent to work on a project in the Yuacatan—a place, he says, that did not seem particularly attractive when he first saw it: “The landscape was flat, and of course you couldn’t see much from the jungle floor, other than jungle.” But he found the people of the area to be warm and open and began thinking of telling their story with pictures.
“My first idea was to do something like Eugene Smith’s famous ‘Country Doctor’ photo essay—to tell a kind of day-in-the-life story,” said Everton. He soon gave up on the idea: There was simply too much story to tell, too much to explain about the lives of people like the chicleros who bleed chicozapote trees for the stuff chewing gum is made of.
Instead, he thought about telling the story of a season in the life of the modern Maya. “Then I thought it would make more sense to take a year, and do the story that way,” he said. “And the more I got into it, the more I understood how little I knew.”
About five years later, Everton thought he finally had enough material for a book. Publishers, however, had a hard time grasping what he was doing. “At the time, the ‘Don Juan’ books by Carlos Castaneda were very popular, so they all wanted to know if I had a drug-taking shaman showing me around in the story,” Everton says.
In 1992 the University of New Mexico Press published Everton’s The Modern Maya: A Culture in Transition. His project might have ended there, but around that time the indigenous culture of the Yucatan began to face another seismic disruption. The North American Free Trade Agreement, says Everton, put almost three million Mexican farmers out of business: “The US began dumping subsidized grain there, and they simply couldn’t compete. That’s also when you saw the rise of the Zapatista rebels in Chiapas.”
Macduff Everton, holding his goddaughter, Cecilia, with his comadre Alba, Valladolid, 1974
It has taken another two decades to tell the rest of the story. In the end, it isn’t the historic sweep of Everton’s project that captures the imagination, but the individuals he met and befriended. The pictures are filled with intimacy.
There is a reason for that—an entirely reasonable explanation that underlies what might seem to many the unreasonable arc of Everton’s adult life.
“When I first went down, the Maya had no concept of a Kodak moment. Nobody owned a camera, and people might have one or two pictures of them taken over the course of their lifetimes, and that would be to commemorate a sacred event like a baptism, or a visit to a sacred site,” Everton told me. “So when I came in with my camera saying I want to take pictures of you, it was completely outside of the realm of their culture. The people I ended up working with—they let me into their lives, and I promised them I was going to document their lives, and I just took that to heart.”