Macduff Everton’s recent book, The Modern Maya, Incidents of Travel and Friendship in Yucatán (University of Texas Press, 2012) is a work of visual anthropology, with images and text by Everton. The subject of the book is a culture in transition over a period of four decades, beginning in 1967.
Everton has earned much success in the fields of editorial, stock and fine art photography. His photographs are represented by Janet Borden Gallery in New York and Katherine Ewing Gallery in Washington, D.C. In addition, his images are in many private and museum collections and have been exhibited widely.
In addition, his work has been the subject of five photographic books. His first book on the Maya, The Modern Maya: A Culture in Transition, was published in 1991 by the University of New Mexico Press. In 2000, Abrams published The Western Horizon, color landscapes of the American West made with a panorama camera. Everton’s wife, Mary Heebner — a painter, handmade book artist and writer — provided the commentaries in The Western Horizon. The couple continues to collaborate on book projects; in the last year, they have self-published two books, The Book of Santa Barbara and Patagonia La Última Esperanza.
Everton’s commitment to the Maya of the Yucatán Peninsula is no passing piece of photojournalism. His original intention was to do a magazine-length photo essay in the style of W. Eugene Smith, a LIFE photographer in the 1950s and 60s. However, Everton’s evolving and enduring friendships with the Maya led him to a project that has lasted for over 40 years.
The Maya are perhaps the greatest culture the Americas have ever seen, emerging around 2000 B.C. and continuing unabated through today. Although the Spanish and Mexicans have tried to impose their culture and language, there are more than seven million Maya that speak Mayan as their first language and continue traditions and ceremonies that are thousands of years old.
In his drive to understand the history and culture of the Maya through the life histories of real people, Everton became a participant- observer who lived and worked with the Maya. He participated in their ceremonies. He was invited to be a godfather to a friend’s daughter. He slept in a hammock and ate their diet, which sometimes included barbecued pocket gophers and iguanas in addition to corn tortillas and black beans. To this day, his diet reflects his time spent with the Maya, as he nearly always has a pot of black beans on his stove.
Everton has always given photographs to the Maya. Previously, families only had photographs taken if an itinerant photographer, known as an ambulante, came to their village, or they traveled to a larger town with a photo studio. At a certain point, he no longer had to ask permission to photograph — villagers started asking him to photograph important events such as weddings, baptisms, quinceañeras and funerals.
Everton has lived with different Maya families over the years. In 1969, he met and later lived with Dario Tuz Caamal and his wife, Herculana Chi Pech, who grew vegetables, herbs, fruits and hardwoods. For three months during the rainy season, he lived in the jungle with Maya chicleros Diego Jimenez Chi and Cornelio Castro Salazar and their families; their job was to bleed chicozapote trees for the resin used to make chewing gum. (Everton climbed chicozapote trees to take photographs but never bled a tree himself.)
More of this article can be read in the Summer 2012 issue.