Finding the first Filipino photographer

Iloilo City, Iloilo - A late 19th century panoramic picture of Iloilo City's Plaza Libertad at an archive in Spain sparked the initiative to document the biography of Felix Laureano, widely believed to be the first Filipino photographer.

"I saw the picture and I was told he may have been from Panay Island. That's what prodded me (to write the biography)," said Frank G. Villanueva, a guest lecturer of cultural history at the University of the Philippines (UP Visayas) in Iloilo.

Villanueva, an Ilonggo who is based in Canada but who spends summers in Iloilo, summer, said his trip to Spain in 2010 on an annual pilgrimage where he stumbled upon Laureano's period photographs has subsequently brought him to three different continents in the past three years researching on Laureano's life.

He did not stop even when he already had concrete proof that Laureano was indeed a native of Panay Island.

A recent trip to Spain yielded Laureano's marriage certificate. The document indicated that Laureano was born on November 20, 1860 in Patnongon, Antique province.

"I wanted to know his background; no one really knew who he was," Villanueva said citing the lack of any scholarly publication on Laureano's life.

Previously, the subject of Villanueva's research was believed to have been a Spaniard living in the Philippines.

His (Villanueva's) technical research took off from Laureano's own photography book.

Originally published in Spain in 1895, such book, entitled "Recuerdos de Filipinas (Memories of the Philippines)," was comprised of a collection of old photographs of Iloilo, Panay Island, Manila, and other parts of Luzon during the last decade of the Spanish colonial period. The pictures were accompanied with descriptive essays of landmarks and the people's way of life.

The captions, written in Spanish and translated into English by Felice Rodriguez, was published in 2001 and Villanueva used those as a guide in searching for further possible information on Laureano.

Villanueva describes his work akin to that of a detective's who has to weave together facts on the bases of clues.

Aside from establishing that Laureano got married in Spain, Villanueva was also able to establish that Laureano belonged to a family of four. He had two brothers and a sister and one of his brothers settled in the town of Oton, in Iloilo province.

For Villanueva, the series of published photographs on Iloilo was strong evidence that Laureano lived and worked in Iloilo for a long time.

However, much of Laureano's life remains a mystery.

"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 related.

More ironically, no picture of Laureano as a photographer has been found.

"We don't even know how he looks like," Villanueva added.

Laureano's photography book, published in 1895, also leads to more questions.

It was published in Spain and not in the Philippines, and it came out a year before the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution.

Laureano also dedicated the book to painter Juan Luna. While there was confirmation that Laureano and Luna knew each other, Villanueva also wants to find out if Laureano was involved in the Reform Movement or if he knew Jose Rizal.

"Why was he in Spain at almost the same time period that Filipino members of the so-called Reformist movement were," Villanueva wondered.

These unanswered questions is only proving to whet Villanueva' appetite in digging deeper into Laureano's life.

Villanueva believes Laureano is a source of pride not only for Antique and Iloilo folks, but for Filipinos in general, particularly those with a passion for photography.