Charnay, Désiré 1828-1915

Alternative names

Hide Profile

Claude-Joseph-Désiré Charnay was a French photographer, archaeologist, and writer, best known for his travels and photographs of early South and Central American sites. Born in Fleurie, he travelled to New Orleans, where he became a teacher. He travelled extensively throughout Mexico and Central and South America, pioneering the use of photography to document his journeys and discoveries. He made several important finds, and published numerous books about his discoveries, as well as translations and a romance.

From the description of Désiré Charnay's The ruins of Central America with notes by Augustus Le Plongeon, and letter of transmittal from Frederick A. Ober to the American Antiquarian Society, 1880-1895. (Pennsylvania State University Libraries). WorldCat record id: 166922869

A traveler, archaeologist, and photographer, Désiré Charnay (1828-1915) was born in Fleur-sur-l'Arbesle, France, on May 2, 1828. After completing his education at the Lycée Charlemagne in Paris in 1850, Charnay accepted a teaching position in New Orleans, and it was there that he first encountered John Lloyd Stephen's enormously popular Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas, and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843), which included some of the earliest photographic illustrations (woodcuts based on daguerreotypes) of the famous Mayan archaeological sites in Yucatan.

Inspired by Stephens, and tired of teaching, Charnay returned to France, and in April 1857, secured a commission from the Ministry of Public Instruction to travel to Yucatan and document its archaeological riches. Surprised, he wrote, by the incomplete manner in which previous explorers had dealt with the ruins, he stated that he intended to take it upon himself to make a deeper and more detailed study. Convinced that he could use the precision of scientific photography to allay public doubts about the accuracy of his findings, Charnay undertook a crash course in Paris to learn the rudiments of photography. After acquiring a basic proficiency in the difficult wet plate collodion process, he made a test run, taking a brief photographic tour of the Saint Lawrence River during which he photographed Montmorency, Quebec, and Niagara Falls. Yet it was not until he arrived in Oaxaca that he put himself to the full test as a photographer.

Although hampered by the civil war in Mexico, Charnay visited and photographed a number of significant sites in the Yucatan, Chiapas, and Oaxaca between September 1858 and the late summer 1860, including Mitla, Palenque, Izamal, Chichen Itza, and Uxmal. Dodging rebels and noxious insects, he brought with him a team of as many as 40 Indians to clear the encroaching jungle, yet despite the size of his crew, he was unable to carry out any significant excavations during this trip, and he managed to make only rough maps of the sites. These archaeological limitations, however, were more than compensated for by the documentary and artistic quality of his photographs. Despite the hardships of jungle travel and the technical difficulties of wet plate photography, Charnay managed to take dozens of technically-accomplished images that provide the first scientific documentation of the sites, and any of the best images convey an artistic sense of the grandeur of place, reflecting an awe and wonder in Charnay that resonated with the educated public at home.

Although not the first photographs of Meso-American archaeological sites, the images that Charnay took between 1858 and 1860 had an extraordinary impact due to their timing, extent, and quality. The results of Charnay's labors and his experiences in Mexico formed the basis for two books, the Album Fotográfico Mexicano (Mexico City, 1860), which was enthusiastically received despite a very short print run, and Cités et Ruines Américaines (Paris, 1862), an elaborate and extraordinarily expensive work (500F) which was illustrated with 47 photographic prints and two photolithographs.

Charnay's books made the case that the Mayan and other early cultures of Mexico were the equals of the great cultures of the Old World, and he treated his subjects with a characteristically mid-Victorian fascination with the origins and nature of racial diversity. This theme became even more prevalent during his a brief tour of Madagascar in 1863. In addition to taking a suite of images of cities, villages, and landscapes, Charnay turned his scientific attention on the Malagasy natives, focusing on physical appearance, dress, and occupation as a means of illustrating representative "racial types." He continued to refine his skills as an expeditionary and ethnographic photographer during a tour of Java and Australia fifteen years later, when he once again mixed landscapes and cityscapes with racial types, all the while experimenting with the dry plate process.

In his last photographic expeditions, 1880-1882 and 1886, Charnay returned to Mexico, funded by a wealthy New Yorker, Pierre Lorillard. Visiting and excavating sites at Tula and Teotihuacán, among others, and producing another stirring series of archaeological photographs, Charnay made some unusual images of his camp sites at Yaxchilán and Palenque and of villages and cities in Yucatan. During these trips, he also continued to his ethnographic interests, producing an extensive series of racial types of Lacandon, Mayan, and Mixtec Indians. A few of these images deviate from the usual stiff, scientific formality of the genre, particularly a series of images taken of Lacandons posed in their village (images 10, 15-17).

Charnay appears to have abandoned photography altogether after 1886, even as archaeologists like Alfred Percival Maudslay began to use the camera as an essential element of their expeditionary gear. Charnay returned to Paris, and continued to lecture and write on Mexican antiquities and his travels. He was awarded the Logerot Prize by the French Geographic Society in 1884 and was made an officer in the Legion of Honor, 1888. Among his other books are Le Mexique: Souvenirs et Impressions de Voyage (1863) and Les Anciens Villes du Nouveau Monde (1885), which enjoyed a popular audience when translated into English. Charnay died in Paris on October 24, 1915.

From the guide to the Abbot-Charnay Photograph Collection, 1859-1882, (American Philosophical Society)

Direct Relationships
Relation Name
associatedWith Abbot, Griffith Evans, 1850-1927 person
associatedWith American Antiquarian Society, corporateBody
associatedWith Camacho, J. F. person
associatedWith Courret, E. person
associatedWith Courret Hermanos person
associatedWith Establecimiento fotografico person
correspondedWith Frederic Ward Putnam, 1813-1915 person
associatedWith Garreaud, E. y cia. person
associatedWith Le Plongeon, Augustus, 1826-1908. person
associatedWith Michaud, Julio. person
associatedWith Museo Nacional de Mexico corporateBody
associatedWith Ober, Frederick A. (Frederick Albion), 1849-1913, person
associatedWith Ord, Edward Otho Cresap, 1818-1883. person
associatedWith Unidentified photographer person
associatedWith Vicente person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Chichen Itza Site (Mexico)
Yucatan (Mexico)
Mitla Site (Mexico)
Uxmal Site (Mexico)
Teotihuacan Site (San Juan Teotihuacan, Mexico)
Mexico City (Mexico)
Palenque (Chiapas, Mexico)
Central America
Comalcalco Site (Mexico)
Tula Site (Tula de Allende, Mexico)
Madeira (Madeira Islands)
Kabah Site (Mexico)
Oaxaca (Mexico)
Southwest Indians
Maya Indians--Photographs
Indians of Central America--Antiquities
Indians of Mexico--Photographs
Lacandon Indians--Photographs
Mixtec Indians--Photographs
Archaeologists--19th century


Birth 1828-05-02

Death 1915-10-24






Ark ID: w62826f8

SNAC ID: 26096841