Who Was Félix Laureano, the First Filipino Photographer?
Photography art can be distinguished as a series of images that makes use of the medium for the artist's own expression. Today, we know Filipino photographers like Ezra Acayan or Hannah Reyes Morales who elevate the usual still images into true works of art.
But the man who started it all, Félix Laureano, doesn't get enough recognition. The 19th-century photographer is considered by many as the first professional Filipino photographer and the first Filipino artist to "consciously use photography as a medium for art."
Unfortunately, he is still a relative obscurity to most of us. But historians have, at the very least, mapped out his history through Laureano's photography book Recuerdos de Filipinas, or Memories of the Philippines. It was the first of its kind about the Philippines in Barcelona back in 1895.
The book cover for Recuerdos de Filipinas.
He was known for photography series like En el baño (In the Bathroom) and Cuadrilleros (Laborers).
The book's 2001 English version, which was translated and edited by Felice Rodriguez, Ramon Sunico, and Renan Prado gave modern Filipino photographers an opportunity to revisit his works with a fresher lens. Laureano dedicated the book to Juan Luna y Novicio.
How did he end up publishing what could possibly be the first coffeetable book by a Filipino? Let's look further Laureano's background.
The Jaro Cathedral in Iloilo with a bamboo Eiffel Tower behind it.
On November 20, 1866, Laureano was born in Patnongon, Antique and grew up in the neighboring town of Bugasong. According to history professor Francisco G. Villanueva of the University of the Philippines Visayas, the photographer was the son of Spanish-born Augustinian friar Manuel Asensio and Norverta Laureano de los Santos.
"We don't know where he went to school or where he learned photography. We know he had a photography studio in Barcelona, but we don't know when he first traveled there from Iloilo. We don't know if he actually ever came back to the Philippines. We don't know if he had any children. We don't know when or how he died," Villanueva stressed in an interview with Manila Bulletin in 2013.
After studying at the Ateneo Municipal de Manila in 1883, he would find himself going to Europe, as with many of his contemporaries at the time. At the age of 21, he held his first exhibit in Madrid, presenting 40 images at the 1887 Exposicion General de Filipinas, a colonial showcase that was meant to strengthen relations between the Philippines and Spain. His works had made the 1888 Exposicion Universal de Barcelona, too.
The poster for the controversial 1887 Exposicion General de Filipinas.
A modern copy of "Senoritas Toreras De La Cuadrilla del apodera armengol" by Felix Laureano at a 2015 exhibit at UP Visayas.
Laureano was said to have studied photography in Paris, where he even attended the 1889 Universal Exposicion (when the Eiffel Tower was launched). He then came back to Barcelona, establishing a photography studio in the Las Ramblas area, the city's urban center. Laureano came to Iloilo for a quick visit in 1892 but opted to go back to Barcelona soon after. Still, he ended up establishing another studio at Calle Iznart in Iloilo City.
Back in Barcelona, Laureano had been cited at the Exposicion National de Industrias Artisticas and was recognized by papers like La Solidaridad and La Vanguardia. The lengths of his associations with the Philippines' Reform Movement have not been confirmed, but it is very telling that La Solidaridad congratulated him on his studio opening in 1893. Perhaps it was just a nod to a fellow Filipino making it in Spain. Nobody can say for sure.
This brings us back to Recuerdos de Filipinas in 1895. For this collection, Laureano photographed life in the final decade of the Spanish Colonial period in the country, specifically people and places in Iloilo, Panay Island, Manila, as well as various parts of Luzon. Each of the 37 photos in the folio came with its own essay, as well.
Laureano's photo of the San Agustin Church in Manila.
Filipino men in the countryside.
Sinulong Moro-Moro dance ritual.
He describes Calle Iznard (Iznart) beautifully, saying: “…With its magnificent houses of wooden board and galvanized iron, the grand house of the French Vice Consul, Vicente Gay, its many establishments, Chinese-owned stores on the ground floor, and the French commercial house of Levi Hermanos…”
In 1896, more of his works were exhibited at La Ilustracion Artistica, La Ilustracion Espanola y Americana, and Panorama Nacional. Publishers had also put his works on front page covers and he became one of the most sought-after photographers in Spain. The first Spanish illustrated color magazine, Album Salon, published some of his colored photos, too.
Some might argue that he could have been the first Filipino photojournalist for his commissioned photos of Spanish warships during the Spanish-American War in Cuba, although many would say that that distinction goes to Marcial S. Valenzuela.
There are many questions about Laureano's life after this prolific period. It is said that his last coverage was at an 1899 banquet honoring the 32 survivors of the defense of Baler in Tayabas. Did he ever come back to the Philippines? Who were his children? What did he do in retirement? We can only hope that we get more answers in the near future.