The Photographs and Archive of Thomas Baillie MacDougall

by Catherine Phillips on

Library News

Juan Ramírez Vigueño, MacDougall's closest guide beside Agave guiengola Juan Ramírez Vigueño, MacDougall's closest guide beside Agave guiengola at the type locality on the East Pyramid, Cerro Guiengola in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, December 11, 1948. Research Library - Image no. TBM_9_2_7
MacDougall, Thomas (photographer)
In May 1974, Emmanuel Shemin arrived at the AMNH with boxes of letters, commonplace books, maps, article drafts, over 100 field notebooks and close to 5000 photographs. It was the legacy of words and images, carefully accumulated and meticulously preserved, of a gaunt, diminutive expatriate Scot with a beaked nose, prominent ears and gentle manner. He had lived for half the year in the basement of the Shemin’s Victorian house attached to their nursery in the Bronx, where he worked through the summer tending rhododendron cuttings. In the winter he left for Mexico.

Thomas Baillie MacDougall (1895-1973) shared none of the flamboyant, extrovert confidence of a Carl Lumholz or Roy Chapman Andrews, nor did he have their intellectual bent and background. Rather his education had been among the cold winds on the Island of Bute, Scotland, and the rolling Weald and stark chalk South Downs of Sussex (UK). There, in fields and along rivers, he taught himself to become a naturalist. He studied birds, plants, and fish, reading the books of Charles Darwin, John Muir, Gilbert White, and ornithologist W.H. Hudson (for whom there is an atmospheric diorama of the pampas near Buenos Aires in the Hall of Birds). Perhaps it was the adventures of these naturalists, or perhaps it was the harrowing experience of being gassed and injured by shrapnel in the battles in northern France during WWI, but when the war ended, he fled Europe for the New World. In New York he studied forestry and became a nurseryman in the Shemin’s Bronx greenhouses. Every winter, from 1931 until his death in 1973, when the nursery was quiet, he left New York to find his way by steamship and train to the small steamy town of Tehuantepec, in the Isthmus of the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, then renowned, through magazines such as the National Geographic and paintings of Diego Rivera, for the Tehuanas—their beauty, their embroidered huipiles, their formidable mercantile proficiency in a society believed to be a matriarchy. But for his mission as a naturalist, MacDougall chose the Isthmus for the diversity in this transition zone between the Pacific and Atlantic watersheds and a natural biological corridor for species distribution.

For the next forty years, he traveled back and forth between the Bronx and Tehuantepec. He ranged in all directions, collecting and recording plants, animals, textiles and artifacts, along the wind beaten desert and sand of the Pacific coast, into the rainforest of the mysterious, undisturbed Chimalapas wilderness, through the cloud forests of Chiapas, across the arid fragmented peaks and valleys of the eastern Sierra Madre del Sur, where, as well as being a fearless fieldworker, he taught himself ethnography, recording and translating the ritual texts, songs, fables of the Chontales de Oaxaca.

Socorro holding the cone of the now endangered cycad Ceratozamia norstogii, Monserrate, Chiapas, March 10, 1952
Socorro holding the cone of the now endangered cycad Ceratozamia norstogii, Monserrate, Chiapas, March 10, 1952. Research Library - Image no. TBM_12_19_1
MacDougall, Thomas (photographer)

What Shemin had brought to the AMNH that day in 1974, was the memory of this remarkable life of Don Tomás (as his friends in Mexico called him). The cacti, orchids, bromeliads and begonias he found were sent to nurserymen and botanical gardens across the US, but from 1932 he returned with herpetological specimens and archaeological artifacts for the AMNH. His relationship with the AMNH would be one of longevity. Woven servilletas went to Junius Bird, dusty tripod bowls and figurines to George Vaillant and Gordon Ekholm, coral snakes to Charles Bogert, over 3000 mammal specimens—coatis, agoutis, kinkajous, bats, ocelots, spiny pocket mice—went to Harold Anthony and George Goodwin. In his quiet way MacDougall’s presence is woven through every department of the AMNH.

My own interest in MacDougall began with brief notations on the botanical label of a sprawling specimen of the nocturnal flowering epiphytic cactus Selenicereus chrysocardium, growing under the shade of slatted benches in the nursery of the Huntington Botanical Gardens in southern California where I was working. This plant from the only known clone ever collected could be traced back to 1951 and to an expedition by MacDougall to the rain forests of northern Chiapas. It led me to his archive at the AMNH where, one day, then Museum Archivist, Barbara Mathé, brought a cart with seven shoe boxes: “You might like to see these,” she said.

Above the clouds among the pines of the Sierra Mixe, Oaxaca. On an expedition from Ixcuintepec to Mazatlán, December 9, 1953
Above the clouds among the pines of the Sierra Mixe, Oaxaca. On an expedition from Ixcuintepec to Mazatlán, December 9, 1953. Research Library - Image no. TBM_14_5_9
MacDougall, Thomas (photographer)

In each box were creased envelopes, remnants of old correspondence. Each was numbered, each tied with red librarian’s tape and inside were twelve negatives in glassine pockets with the same of loose 2 by 2 black and white prints. Some were faded, a few curling, some missing, some scratched or marked up for publication in his 80 plus articles, but mostly their condition was pristine. Those from the 1930 and 40s, before MacDougall used Kodak Safety Film, were possibly volatile. I recognized the numbering system from MacDougall’s “Rolleiflex Notebooks” (after the twin lens reflex camera he used), one book for every year, listing each roll, each frame, each subject and date. From the mid 1940s he had embedded a record of these images in his field notes, making possible accurate identifications of each one. It was not easy to unwrap such personal documents and the delicate private system that contained them. But with the guidance of Barbara, Rebecca Morgan and Kendra Meyer they have been transferred to acid free envelopes, numbered and catalogued on an Excel digital file, a transcription holding all of MacDougall’s associated data and current nomenclature—this preliminary to the now-completed scanning and processing. In the next few months, the metadata will be linked to the images and the process will be complete.

Three quarters of these beautiful photographs were taken sequentially on MacDougall’s path through the field. If read in tandem with the rich detail in his field notes, they compose a narrative of his expeditions away from Tehuantepec. Over half are of plants, either individual specimens or in habitat. Many others trace, through multiple panoramas, the remote defined areas he returned to and collected in so methodically. He photographed wayside crosses, textiles, markets, isolated pueblos, their churches, casitas, and the families living there. He sought out details of a threatened ecology, an elfin forest, a cochineal plantation, coastal caracol dyeing, a mountainside burnt for maize. He also humanized the convention used by 19th century archaeologists and botanists exploring Mesoamerica, of photographing guides standing beside a plant or pyramid for comparative measurement and scale. MacDougall believed his guides to be equals in the field and in life, frequently portraying them holding a plant at the moment of its discovery, attaching their name, the plant’s vernacular name, insisting on context rooted in local meaning, myth, subsistence, collaboration and obligation. Some prints missing in the archive were given to these guides, to the families in the pueblos he passed through. Others were sent to nurserymen, taxonomists, zoologists and ethnologists for conjecture, interpretation and research. Among them is a remarkable group of the ancient Zapotec ruins on Cerro Guiengola. Ultimately, what is sealed into these 4826 squares of gelatin and nitrate, is the map of MacDougall’s life.

Río Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, January 19, 1940
Río Tehuantepec, Oaxaca, January 19, 1940. The mountain in the distance is Cerro de las Flores (Flower Mountain) of Santiago Lachiguiri. This isolated sky island in the Isthmus was the type locality for the Oaxaca Pygmy Shrew, a sedum, an epiphytic cactus, MacDougall's Tropical Night Lizard and a begonia. Research Library - Image no. TBM_1_5_7
MacDougall, Thomas (photographer)

Barbara Mathé once remarked to me of the intense journey that might be possible through immersion in one individual archive. And, for more years than I care to name, I have been spending days head down, sometimes at a library desk sometimes scanning in a dark room, following the life of a man I know very well but not at all. With a vocation caring for and writing about plants, my knowledge of computers was basic when I started and familiarity with libraries was as a researcher, a consumer. But opening the shoe boxes years ago, turned into a personal passage, new friendships, new skills, new field expeditions softly in MacDougall’s footsteps on trails in southern Mexico. In a matter of months, the project will be accomplished and these photographs of memory and evidence will become a public experience of this very rare life.

This is the thirteenth post in a series about how the Library's staff is working remotely and enriching its digital collections to enhance access to researchers and the public during the COVID-19 pandemic. This entry was written by Catherine Phillips, Library Volunteer and Researcher.