Art & Art History ETDs

Publication Date



Desire Charnay, born in France in 1828, was a traveler, explorer, author and photographer best known for his studies of the Pre-Columbian ruins in Mexico. Educated and well-read, Charnay taught school in New Orleans before embarking on his 1857-61 expedition to Mexico. Using the cumbersome wet collodion process, he made the first successful photographs of the ruined monuments of Mitla, Chichen-Itza, Palenque, Izamal and Uxmal. These were published in a large folio of original photo­graphic prints, entited Cites et ruines americaines, in Paris in 1862. Charnay returned to these and other Mexican sites in 1880-82 and 1886, and published many books and articles over the next several years. He also traveled to Madagascar in 1863 as the photographer and writer for an official French expedition, and to Java and Australia in 1878 to collect items of ethnographic and scientific interest.

This thesis is a biographical study of Charnay, placing his photographic work within the context of his career and times. A biographical sketch is followed by a chapter on his role as an archaeologist, examining his theories concerning the origin and age of the Mexican cities. The politics and science of 19th century expeditionary work is discussed in the next chapter; here the relationship between French imperialism and Charnay's expeditions, as well as the meaning of "types," or persons photographed and studied as archetypes of racial characteristics, is described. With this background, his career as a photographer is described.

Appendices contain detailed chronologies of his various travels, a list of his numerous publications, and a condensed catalogue of his negatives in the Musee de l'Homme (Paris) collection.



Document Type


Degree Name


Level of Degree


Department Name

UNM Department of Art and Art History

First Committee Member (Chair)

Van Deren Coke

Second Committee Member

Douglas Roland George

Third Committee Member

Beaumont Newhall