From 1995 through 2002, photographer Carol Yarrow spent long stretches of time in Chiapas, Mexico, living among Lacandon Mayan villagers in a town called Nahá. There, deep within mahogany forests that have subsequently been clear-cut, she got to know Mayan families as tourism, technology, logging and religious evangelism encroached on their way of life. One Mahogany Left Standing, the series of silver-gelatin prints that record those seven years, is both historically significant and aesthetically rapturous. In images such as Gravesite, Yarrow captures the blending of Mayan and Christian religions as villagers attend church services led by Pentecostal missionaries. In Yaxchilán, a boy plays among ancient ruins in the jungles near Guatemala, a reminder that the ghosts and gods of past civilizations linger in this place.
Like photographer Jock Sturges, who has chronicled generations of families in Northern California and southern France, Yarrow shows the poignant transition of children into young adults. Through her lens, we come to see children growing up as a metaphor for the loss of an entire people's innocence. In the print Morning Fog, a boy named Chan K'in pilots a wooden canoe, the landscape behind him disappearing in rising mists. Chan K'in reappears in the image Brothers in Cayuco (Chan K'in, Kayum) and again two years later in Boy With Aunt. He's grown up a lot in this image, but there's still an arresting naiveté and wonderment in his wide-set eyes and regal cheekbones. As is traditional with Lacandon boys, he wears his hair long in back with bangs up front, a style that, coupled with his dresslike garment, imparts a look of ethereal androgyny. His smooth face contrasts with his aunt's lined brow and crow's feet, heightening our awareness of the tenuousness of youth.
Yarrow frames this striking double portrait with luminous vertical slats in the background alternating with inky darkness: a nimbus of silver, black and white, that seems to sanctify the boy, whom we imagine as a Christ-like martyr fated to die at the hands of a powerful, far-away empire. The symbolism is even more direct in the still life Chan Bor Will With Cat. That print shows a child in shadow, contemplating a kitten and a flower that are bathed in a dramatic shaft of light. The cat's fur and delicate limbs are thrown into immaculate relief, as are the flower's petals. What could be more unspeakably vulnerable than a child, a kitten, a flower? Nothing, Yarrow implies, except perhaps for an entire culture on the cusp of extinction.
SEE IT: One Mahogany Left Standing is at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Ave., 225-0210. Through Nov. 2.