MeerKamp Van Embden Photo Albums of late 19th Century Philippines
For lovers of Philippine visual history who still haven’t decided what to give themselves for Christmas, Otto Van Den Muijzenberg’s “The Philippines Through European Lenses. Late 19th century Photographs from the Meerkamp Van Embden Collection” published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press may just be the missing gift.
Otto, who visited the house of the curator of the Museo Santisima Trinidad while doing follow-up research on fieldwork he has done in Balic-balic during the late 1960’s, has gifted Filipinos with an outstanding glimpse of life in the Philippines as seen through his “lucky find” of twelve albums of photographs and other documents. Otto’s lucky find started with his desire to get a portrait of Meerkamp van Embden, a Dutch businessman who worked as a cigar manufacturer and import-export trader in Manila for more than forty years and was honorary consul of the Netherlands from 1889 to 1927. The photographs, unique in that they provide a “family album” perspective on the life of an expatriate in Manila (family with yayas, hunting in San Mateo, friends relaxing in their pajamas, expat children in their costume party attire) were carefully chosen by Otto and generously reproduced in black & white in the book some in double spread. Aside from standard commercial photographs available during the time, Meerkamp’s collection includes photographs taken by himself and some of his friends. One finds an interesting photo of a Spanish officer on horseback secretly taken by Meerkamp. Meerkamp lived in Ermita and Paco and thus we are provided with some interesting photos of the Meerkamp residences and environs. Those with particular interest outside of Manila will not be disappointed as the book contains photographs of various regions of the Cordilleras, Southern Philippines (Romblon, Cebu, Samar, Surigao, Camiguin, Cagayan de Misamis, Iligan, Bohol,Marinduque) as well as the “distant” mountains of San Mateo.
While the photographs remain the heart and soul of this book, Otto has done greater service to the readers by providing the necessary textual story linking the albums to the life of Meerkamp and the context of Filipino culture and history. He has the scholar’s keen eye for details without burdening the reader with too much detail, a critical but very warm interpretative perspective of someone who has been a frequent visitor of the Philippines, and the providential luck of finding archival materials to augment his already great “Meerkamp find.”Surely we can’t wait for the whole album collection to be placed online and available for researchers and Filipinos as a whole to appreciate. We can’t wait as well for other private collectors and other institutions to follow Otto’s work and publish their treasured, and often hidden, collection of Philippine photographs.
In the meantime, hurry to your favorite Filipiniana bookstore and gift yourself and your friends (yes, your expat friends) with a family heirloom.