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Federico Bossert and Diego Villar, Hijos de la selva. La fotografía etnográfica de Max Schmidt / Sons of the forest. The Ethnographic Photography of Max Schmidt. Ed. Viggo Mortensen, Santa Mónica, Perceval Press, 2013, 136 p.

María Agustina Morando

Texte intégral

1Written both in English and in Spanish by the Argentinean anthropologists Federico Bossert and Diego Villar, this bilingual volume recounts the life and work of Max Schmidt, an underrated early XXth century German ethnologist who conducted several studies of indigenous languages, material cultures and technologies in the regions of Mato Grosso (Brazil) and Chaco (Paraguay). The goal is achieved not only by means of narration but also with the original photographs taken by Schmidt, which were retrieved from the Ethnographic Museum Andrés Barbero in Asunción, Paraguay. The sequence of 82 images depicting the life of indigenous peoples of Mato Grosso and Chaco remained as undeveloped negatives until their recovery in 2009.

2The authors initiate by describing Schmidt´s early life in Altona. Born on December 16th 1874, the son of a protestant jurist, he began studying Medicine but soon turned to Law and Economics at the Universities of Berlin, Tübingen and Kiel. Following his graduation, he took up a job in the provincial court of Blankenese, while, at the same time, he wrote a thesis on the jural rationale behind Roman law.

3In 1899, after obtaining his PhD, he abandoned his post at Blankenese and started a course in philosophy in Berlin. During that same year, he enrolled as volunteer in the local Ethnology Museum where he met his future mentor, the famous ethnologist Karl von den Steinen. This encounter sparked his interest in intensive research in the Mato Grosso region, which had long been a favoured destination for German scientific and missionary explorations since the early colonial times.

4The book provides the ideological Zeitgeist, necessary for the understanding of the spirit behind Schmidt’s work. During the last years of the XIXth Century, Berlinese ethnology experienced a period of active unrest. Until the outbreak of the WWII, the concept of Volkgeist or “national character” remained central to nearly all German schools of thought. The origins of this notion can be attributed to Johann Gottfried von Herder and Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, and it may be summarized in the following way: any given human group is the result of a particular history, embodying a particular “spirit”.

5In this context, and among the major figures of late XIX­th Century German ethnology, Adolf Bastian was one of Schmidt’s most important influences. He proposed a “psychic unity” of humankind, implying a common psychological and cognitive make-up shared by all human beings, irrespective of cultural or ethnical background. Another highlight of Bastian’s works was his pioneering advance in “cultural salvage”. Concerned by the vulnerability of indigenous cultures in the face of the vast extent of European influences, he encouraged his students to register myths, economical and political systems, and material culture of indigenous peoples all around the world. Bastian´s line of research stood out for its insistence on empirical and purely inductive ethnology.

6Influenced by Bastian´s ideas and Von den Steinen´s work on the Mato Grosso region, this region was naturally where Schmidt set out to carry on his fieldwork. Prior to crossing the Atlantic towards Buenos Aires, where he took a ship to Asunción, Schmidt´s intended itinerary was to descend the Curisevo River to reach the Kamaiurá territory, where he planned to stay for several months. With very limited means, he continued his trip up the Paraguay River towards the city of Cuiabá, following Steinen’s footsteps while visiting various indigenous settlements in the way. There he planned several expeditions to reach Bacairí, Nahukuá and Aweti territories. The records of these trips, including both notes and photographs, were unfortunately lost during the journey back to Cuiabá, when Schmidt’s canoe capsized. Unexpectedly, however, part of the material arrived in Berlin three years later, carried by foot by a Bacairí friend who had found it on the side of the river and taken to Corumbá, where the German consul eventually acquired it.

7Back in Germany, in 1910, the opportunity arose to return to the Mato Grosso when Schmidt was invited to the International Congress of Americanists held in Buenos Aires. During this second expedition to the Mato Grosso, once again he visited the Guató territories and traveled up the Paraguay River towards Paresí territories. He also explored the mounds on the Caracará River –which he had already noticed in his first fieldtrip– and reached the indigenous populations in Jaurú, Guaporé and Juruena Rivers.

8Schmidt´s third and last trip to the Mato Grosso took place in 1927. He began by visiting the Bacairí in Cuiabá and Paranatinga. During this stay, he also had the opportunity to observe the Kaiabi, which he had planned on meeting from the beginning of the journey. Owing to a new episode of malaria, Schmidt was forced to cease his fieldwork shortly. However, once fully recovered, he set out to visit Paresí and Umotina territories in order to carry on with his fieldtrip.

9Schmidt returned to Germany in 1928. However, shortly after taking his retirement and renouncing to his academic posts, he set out once again to South America. The reasons behind Schmidt´s decision to quit Germany remain uncertain. It can be argued that he was driven by his strong yet at the time unfulfilled desire to dwell in the forest with the indigenous peoples. Other reasons can equally help to explain Schmidt´s decision. The interwar period of the Weimar Republic was a time of political agitation in Germany. The country was severely affected by the Great Depression of 1929. Moreover, the rise of the National Socialist party was to affect the academic institutions Schmidt had worked for. All branches of anthropology would soon undergo a politically imposed agenda. It is possible that Schmidt was aware of those tendencies, which distanced ethnology from the cherished Bastian and Steinen´s ideals. He first established himself in Cuiabá, but in 1931, in response to an invitation made by the Scientific Society of Paraguay on behalf of Andrés Barbero –something of a polymath of scientific life in Paraguay– he moved to Asunción. There he worked in the organization of the archaeological and ethnographic collections of the Asunción Ethnographic Museum.

10Later, when the Chaco War (1932-1935) between Paraguay and Bolivia for the possession of the northern Chaco ended, the Paraguayan Scientific Society invited Schmidt to spend a couple of months studying the recently established indigenous settlements, many of those situated near military emplacements. This was clearly a profitable opportunity to explore a region yet unknown to him. It was during this period of social turmoil that Schmidt traveled among different settlements, coming to know various ethnic groups, such as the Chané, Isoseño, Chiriguano, Wichí Guisnai, Tapiete, Nivaclé and Chorote. His fieldwork was fruitful, though brief, and resulted in the production of copious notes and lists, as well as the collection of numerous pictures and artifacts.

11During his last years, Schmidt consecrated himself to scientific and academic work in the Asunción Ethnographic Museum. He published a variety of articles, including but not limited to the results of and conclusions drawn from his archaeological studies of Guaraní culture and the accounts of his fieldtrips to the Mato Grosso. Finally, on October 26th 1950, Schmidt succumbed to his ailments, which had gone untreated for years, and passed away.

12Schmidt continued Bastian’s legacy of humanist ethnology, according to which indigenous life was a manifestation of the universal human spirit. The perception of indigenous life that permeated Schmidt´s ethnographic work is in a sense part of this conception of the “people of nature” (Naturvölker), which was largely in line with Germanic ethnological tradition. But Schmidt´s ethnographic approach was also singular, as evidenced by the characteristics of his expeditions. It stood out among previous expeditions due to the fact that they were undertaken by an extremely limited crew consisting only of himself and the smallest possible number of companions, and also because they tended to stay for a greater time with the indigenous societies. He thus paved the way for the genre of scientific ethnography, established decades later.

13The images presented in this book were taken during his expeditions to the Mato Grosso and the Gran Chaco. Therefore, a few more details could be added about photography as ethnographic method with specific reference to the place given by Schmidt to photography in his fieldwork, and to the image of indigenous life, he wanted to transmit. His commitment to achieving photographs of indigenous life regardless of circumstantial difficulties is worth noting as well. He regarded photography mainly as a means of keeping scientific records, even though he was not indifferent to the artistic value of the medium. His photographs tended to capture quotidian scenes, unlike other portraits typical of that time, in which the subject stood usually naked, in profile position. To Schmidt, the latter method failed to convey some of the most important and subtle nuances of indigenous life. From an ethnographic standpoint, the photographs depict a wide range of everyday scenes such as hunting, fishing, recreational activities for children, adults, and even schooling. Furthermore, Schmidt took several portraits while at the same time recording comments and references on their names and/or social roles. Finally, amidst this collection of pictures of quotidian indigenous life, we come across various photographs illustrating typical landscapes from the Mato Grosso and the Gran Chaco that help the reader contextualize the remainder of the gallery.

14Another remarkable aspect of Schmidt’s photographic records is the narrative force they contain; that is to say, the capacity of his images to conjure up a distinctive way of life, thus helping the reader put his work into proper perspective. They provide a visual ethnography presented with a contemplative eye on the historical and personal circumstances of Schmidt´s fieldwork. Consequently, not only does this book constitute an exploration of his photographs through his life and fieldwork but also an assessment of his talent as a photographer.

15Overall, the main purpose of the book is to bring to light a selection of Schmidt´s fieldwork photographs left unpublished until now. Within the scope of its objectives, this publication presents a valuable corpus of meaningful information not only in the form of text, but also graphic. In this sense, the detailed historical panorama of the introduction serves to guide and shape our understanding of the context and circumstances in which the pictures were taken. The thorough research that resulted in this volume has served to bring to light the function of photography in Schmidt´s ethnographic fieldwork while. As I have already commented, it also suggests ways in which photographic evidence can be intertwined with historical and ethnographic facts in order to provide a more complementary and therefore richer interpretation of Schmidt’s life and work.

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María Agustina Morando, « Federico Bossert and Diego Villar, Hijos de la selva. La fotografía etnográfica de Max Schmidt / Sons of the forest. The Ethnographic Photography of Max Schmidt. Ed. Viggo Mortensen, Santa Mónica, Perceval Press, 2013, 136 p. »Nuevo Mundo Mundos Nuevos [En ligne], Comptes rendus et essais historiographiques, mis en ligne le 10 juin 2014, consulté le 23 avril 2021. URL : ; DOI :

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María Agustina Morando

Universidad de Buenos Aires

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