Maya Color

A portfolio of images from Jeffrey Becom's extraordinary new photo book, celebrating the colorful world of the Maya, past and present.

Published December 4, 1997 8:00PM (EST)

"Color -- and the symbolic ways that the Maya of Mexico and Central America use painted color on their homes, places of worship, and dwellings for their dead -- has been my obsession for the past eight years. What began with simple curiosity -- Why are so many Maya tombs painted jade green? -- evolved into a long and intricate journey undertaken with my wife, Sally. Together we explored ancient Maya color traditions and their fruit, the painted villages of today's living Maya."

So writes Jeffrey Becom in the introduction to his extraordinary new photography book, "Maya Color."

"As we scratched beneath the surface of their paint," Becom continues, "Maya voices carried us forward in our search. 'My house is blue, the color of water and the heavens. Without these the world would end,' said Eliseo Uk as he gathered herbs near the Uxmal ruins in the state of Yucatan, Mexico. Ten-year-old Angel of San Andres Xecul, Guatemala, proudly declared, 'Many visit our yellow church. They leave contented.' And while weeding around her mother's turquoise headstone in the La Palma, El Salvador, cemetery, Dona Candelaria explained, 'We paint to honor the souls of our ancestors. One day my children will shelter my soul with color.'"

"I come to 'Maya Color,'" Becom adds, "as a photographer and painter with formal training as an architect. These three pursuits inspire one passion: painted walls. As a boy growing up in rural Indiana, I remember painting local scenes in oil on canvas and wondering why my neighbors' barns were nearly always red. Investigating this color custom, I learned that frugal farmers simply chose the least expensive pigment around -- rust red -- to best hide barnyard grime. To this day I remain fascinated by what colors a building wears and why. For the past two decades I have immersed myself in the study of painted traditional architecture and how its cloaks of color are embraced, altered, or abandoned over time. Painted facades offer me subject and palette from which to derive my own artwork as I , in turn, document their brilliance and power."

This combination of passion and practicality, humility and humanity, infuses every page of Becom's glorious portfolio. Focusing on the ancestral world of the Maya -- encompassing southern Mexico, Guatemala and portions of Belize, Honduras and El Salvador -- Becom shows how color is an intricate embodiment and revelation of everyday Maya needs and beliefs, one that powerfully and profoundly links the past to the present. In many of his photos, Becom isolates and celebrates great blocks of pure color; other images strikingly juxtapose colors, textures and lines -- a stark doorway, a simple broom or chair leaning against a wall. The text accompanying the photos, written by Becom with his wife, poignantly recounts their travels and the colorful lessons they have learned through the years, layer by layer.

The portfolio of photographs we offer here represents just a small sampling of the book's 160 images -- and of its sumptuous, illuminating glory.

By Don George

Don George is the editor of Salon Travel.

MORE FROM Don George

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Latin America Mexico