Grace, Minnesota

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American states are a weird assembly of riotous traditions, laws, and items. Pumpkin pie is the official state pie in Illinois, Oregon has an official state nut, and New Mexico an official state question. Oklahoma, deep in the Bible Belt and contrarian, insists that watermelon is its state vegetable. In Missouri, the official state dessert was ice cream cone, in Nebraska, Kool-Aid is the official soft drink. Vermont declared maple as its official flavor.

By these standards, Minnesota declaring the photo above the official state photograph didn’t seem that unusual. More unusual was the photo’s journey — from being poorly received at the Minnesota Photographer’s Association in 1918 to being printed millions of copies and sold across the country, a photographic equivalent of Whistler’s Mother. On Amazon, you can buy 22 different versions of the colorized version of photo (by the photographer’s daughter).

The original was taken by Eric Enstorm in Bovey, Minnesota. The man featured was a local peddler named Charles Wilden, who lived in a sod house and disappeared into obscurity immediately after the photo was taken. While the photograph would later come to symbolize penitence, piety, and the ministry of ‘Our Daily Bread’, Enstorm’s intentions were less clear. While he had Wilden clasp his hands and bow his head and arranged household objects around him (he also scratched the glass negative so that the picture frame on the left appeared as an open window through which divine light shone), the book on the table was not a Bible but a dictionary. Wilden himself was a town drunk, and Enstrom later reflected that his thoughts were about the First World War, rationing, and privations faced by his fellow Minnesotans on the home front.

In a 1961 interview, Enstrom recalled that he wanted an image that would inspire thankfulness. He noted, “I saw that he had a kind face… there weren’t any harsh lines in it … this man doesn’t have much of earthly goods, but he has more than most people because he has a thankful heart.”

This thankfulness was again in short supply during the Great Depression of the late 1920s, and local churches began using the photo. Enstorm and his daughter would obsessively paint over the original prints (and even producing a matching image with an elderly lady) to give it the appearance of oil paintings. Eventually, when demand outstripped their ability to produce handpainted prints, the Enstorms sold the photo rights to a Minneapolis publishing house affiliated with the American Lutheran Church. After this, the photo found its way to churches, restaurants, homes, and boats around the United States.

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Death by a Thousand Cuts

Business of photography is largely the business of death, destruction, and misery. Humans are naturally drawn to images that underscore the fragility and the impermanence of their existence, and this blog’s history chronicled that obsession. But sometimes there are images which were so grim, so brutal, and so devoid of humanity that even Iconic Photos hesitate to feature them.

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There had been a few cases in the past that we had given such treatment to, and today’s post certainty qualified. If you click on the links above, you will be see the images of lingchi (or leng-t’che), commonly known as the Death by a Thousand Cuts. There was a time when the Western imagination was gripped by the Orientalist fears – fears embodied by characters such as Fu Manchu or Dr. No, and fears perhaps dating back to the Second Opium War, when a British prisoner-of-war refused to kneel to his Chinese captors and was summarily executed. Such fears were not helped by the notoriety of practices such as lingchi.

Lingchi involved tying a prisoner to a wooden frame and slowly slicing off body parts. Under the Confucianism, where to alter or cut one’s body was a spiritual sin, lingchi was the ultimate punishment, for this life and the next, reserved for major crimes, such as high treason, mass murder, or patricide/matricide. The man in the photos, Fou-tchou-li, was sentenced to lingchi for an equally important crime: he had been a guard killed his employer, a royal princeling from the Inner Mongolia.

Fou was one of the last to be officially executed in China by lingchi. Indeed, his execution, on 10th April 1905, was brought forward because lingchi was to be abolished two weeks later, although unofficial lingchis continued until 1920s and 1930s as China descended into civil war and public executions as acts of humiliation went on even longer to Maoist days. Ironically, Fou was one of the most famous victims of lingchi, as the photos above, taken by a French soldier stationed in Peking, were widely reprinted by Georges Bataille in his posthumous work Les Larmes d’Eros (1961), to ruminate on eroticism, ecstasy, and sexuality behind rituals and sacrifices.

The full set of photos are here: (link)

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Cathedral In The Desert

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In 1956, when the American government approved the Colorado River Storage Project Act, it was considered a significant achievement towards taming the Colorado River and powering to the southwest. The region, however, was laden with beautiful landscapes, which would be flooded by the project’s proposed dams.

To protect Dinosaur National Monument, a compromise site was chosen in a remote region between Arizona and Utah, 20 miles upriver from the Grand Canyon — a decision the environmentalists would come to regret immediately afterwards. David Brower, the executive director of The Sierra Club, who initially supported the dam, visited the area before it was flooded and reversed his position. He would partner with photographer Eliot Porter to publish the book The Place No One Knew, a photographic documentation of Glen Canyon which would be submerged.

Porter traveled through Glen Canyon eleven times, but his photos failed to convince President Johnson to halt the dam. The environmentalists also faced a formidable opponent in Floyd Dominy, who would went on to become the the longest-serving head of the Bureau of Reclamation. Directing the bureau’s funds to local districts, Dominy managed to influence the lawmakers, and insisted that, “there was nothing there,” in Glen Canyon. Dominy calling a Colorado River without dams “useless to anyone,” adding, “I’ve seen all the wild rivers I ever want to see.”

Brower got another photographer Philip Hyde, whose photograph above, “Cathedral In The Desert, Glen Canyon, Utah, 1964” was considered one of the top 100 photographs of the 20th century by American Photo Magazine. Yet, these were the early days of the environmental movement, and The Sierra Club was unable to sway the public opinion against the Glen Canyon Dam. For the next 17 years, the dam slowly filled the 186-mile long reservoir behind it, submerging Hyde’s Cathedral in the Desert and other landmarks, and prompting Edward Abbey to write his cult novel about an attempt to blow up the dam, The Monkey Wrench Gang.

 

Love on the Left Bank

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There is a book called The Café of Lost Youth by Patrick Modiano, French novelist and the recipient of the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature, which chronicles lives and anxieties of Parisians in the 1950s. At the center of the book is enigmatic and waiflike figure of Louki who passes through this dimly-lit world of writers, criminals, bon vivants, and drifters, without others fully understanding her.

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Modiano was inspired by the photographs of Ed van der Elsken, whose camera followed an equally elusive and ephemeral girl named Ann through the bohemian left bank of Paris in the early 1950s. This work, published in 1954, under the title Love on the Left Bank was one of the first photographic works to record the birth of rebellious youth culture in Europe. Ann was fictional (van der Elsken used an Australian artist named Vali Myers as his model), but the world she occupied was real enough — the circle around notorious and charismatic Guy Debord, a group known as Situationist International, whose interests were mainly focused on avant-garde art, urban planning, cinema, and Marxist theory, and whose ideas were later recycled into punk and cyberpunk movements.

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van der Elsken’s photos were a window into the world of anxiety and uncertainty. Due to war and influx of foreign refuge writers, “for the last time—Paris was the capital of Europe,” as historian Tony Judt put it, but France had gone through a humiliating occupation by the Nazis and was fighting attritionary colonial wars in Africa and Indochina. In 1944, a French policy paper grimly observed, “If France should have to submit to a third assault during the next generation, it will succumb forever.” For young people in van der Elsken’s photos, like Jean Michel Mension (seen in the photos teaching a girl to how to smoke hashish property and later to become famous during the 1968 student uprising), this Paris was stifling, full of ennui, and unbearable.

Ascent of Denali/Mt. McKinley

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Seeing is believing, they used to say. With the advent of digital technology, that has been a harder statement make, in any field from politics to pornography. Yet, even without technology, people did manage to fake photos — just through simple cropping.

We were in Alaska, a century ago. As twentieth century dawned and the age of exploration came to its final stretches, a holy grail remained at the very top of the Americas. The successful summit of North America’s highest peak. The peak (which the Native Americans called Denali) had only recently been named Mount McKinley, after the sitting president — by a gold prospector who admired McKinley’s stance towards gold standard.

In 1906, Dr. Frederick Albert Cook claimed that he had reached the summit of Mt. McKinley. As proof, he produced the photo above of Ed Barrill standing on the peak. Barrill was a horse packer and sole member of Cook’s expedition who remained with him after Cook had sent back the rest of the party home when he failed to find a route up the south side of the mountain.  Other members of his expedition expressed doubts whether Cook had made it to the top, but the explorer was widely hailed as a hero. After all, Cook had led an earlier expedition to the mountain in 1903, which successfully circumnavigated the peak and scaled up to 11,000 feet.

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It took a few years for the truth to catch up with Cook.  Two members of the team, Belmore Browne and Hershel Parker, who were immediately suspicious of Cook (noting that Cook could not have made it back from the summit in just 12 days), led their own expedition in 1910, using Cook’s notes, maps, and photos and found discrepancies. By this time, Cook was already a discredited man, due to another outrageous lie that he was the first man to reach the North Pole, which was debunked by a Danish commission.  Browne and Parker discovered that Cook simply cropped a photograph of a tiny peak 20 miles away and 15,000-feet below to make it look like the summit.

Romania | Mike Abrahams

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This week we saw a glimpse of North Korea’s Kim Jong-Un, who traveled to Singapore with his own personal toilet (to prevent others from assessing his diet). There had always been crazy dictators like him, and his own grandfather Kim II Sung was frequently compared to the erstwhile Romanian dictator Nikolae Ceauşescu.

Ceauşescu was plain bizarre in many of his obsessions — in order to increase the population, he banned abortion for women under forty (later forty-five) with fewer than four children. There were compulsory monthly medical examinations for all women of childbearing age to prevent abortions and doctors in low birth rate districts had their salaries reduced. He only wore new clothes to prevent himself from being poisoned, and traveled with his own bedsheets, even to the Buckingham Palace. He granted his wife Elena who had flunked out of school due to plagiarism a PhD and made her the nation’s chief scientist. His British dog Corbu was made a colonel in the Romanian Army, and enjoyed rides around the Romanian capital Bucharest in his own limousine and dog biscuits flown from London in a diplomatic bag.

The West was always blind to such faults, mostly because Ceauşescu ruled his country rather independently from Moscow. After Romania formally recognized West Germany in January 1967, Nixon became the first American president to visit a Communist country when he went to Romania. Further boons followed, when Romania became the first Warsaw Pact state to enter GATT, the World Bank and the IMF, and to receive trading preferences from US and European Community. The Economist even called him, “the De Gaulle of Eastern Europe.”

Meanwhile, internally, the country was faltering. His natalist policies led to back alley abortions, and deaths from abortions rose. In 23 years following the ban, at least ten thousand women died from abortion, and infant mortality rate was so high that births were not officially recorded until the child had survived its fourth week. State orphanages turned into dumping grounds for 100,000 unwanted children, many of them disabled. After Ceausescu was overthrown in a bloody revolt in 1989, British photographer Mike Abrahams traveled across Romania to record the toll that the dictator’s policies took.

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pixelHe was at the Mental Hospital at Cula (above), where there were 2 doctors, 7 assistants and 15 nurses for 220 beds, and patients had to share beds, medicine and a single syringe. He went to the Carbosin Plant at Copsa Mica, responsible for industrial pollution and poisoning of local communities. He documented the Gradinari hospital for the disabled, near Bucharest (below), and institutions and orphanages (topmost) in which there were upward of 100,000 children. His photos, published in the Independent magazine, caused an uproar and moved hundreds of western families to adopt orphans and the new Romanian authorities to reform (albeit slowly).

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Roswell Memo

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Perhaps no other photo has been scrutinized as much as the one above. Books have been written about it, and the University of Texas even has a $10,000 reward for the first person who could provide a ‘definitive read’ of the photo. The object at the center of this scrutiny was the telegram General Roger M. Ramey (right) was holding in his hand. Some saw the phrase “victims of the wreck” on the telegram, while others claimed it read “turn out to be weather balloons”.

In 1947, Ramey was the Commanding General of the Eighth Air Force in Fort Worth, Texas when he was called upon to oversee a freak incident in New Mexico. While the incident was initially just a local news story, later many conspiracy theorists claimed that an unidentified foreign object (UFO) had been spotted and shot down over Roswell, NM. Ramey and the army brass maintained that it was a weather balloon, and much of their suspicious behavior surrounding the incident could have been explained by the fact that the incident was probably caused by the crash of a nuclear test monitoring balloon.

The photo above was taken by a photographer from the Fort Worth Star Telegram newspaper during Ramey’s press conference, where he showed the debris from a ‘weather balloon’. No copies of the original document survives. The photographer, a man named James Bond Johnson had forgotten about his photos until he saw them on a TV documentary, and subsequently  became a celebrity on the UFO circuit, giving talks about the day he was ushered into Ramey’s office to take pictures of the debris. He maintains that it was of alien origin.

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The Ink Flag

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In 1947, when Britain conceded that it would accept the United Nations-sponsored plan to partition its mandate in Palestine into two states, one Jewish and one Arab, but would not put its forces to enforce the plan, it was yet another sign of Britain’s retreat from empire.

By the day the mandate expired — 15 May 1948 — the Jewish community had declared the establishment of the State of Israel, and four Arab armies were marching towards its borders. As Syrian, Iraqi, Egyptian, and Transjordanian troops (along with battalions from Lebanon, Morocco, Sudan, and Saudi Arabia, as well as a few British officers who commended some of these battalions) entered the mandate, the first Arab–Israeli War began.

The result was not a swift decisive victory hoped by the Arabs. The 10 months of fighting followed, interrupted by several truces, at the end of which Israel controlled all the areas for the proposed Jewish state as well as almost 60% of the area for the Arab state. Jordan managed to hold on to the West Bank and Egypt the Gaza Strip, but their victory was Pyrrhic. Around 700,000 Palestinians were expelled by the conflict and became refuges across the Arab world.

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The photo above was taken at the very last campaign of the war, as the Israelis pressed on into the southern Negev desert. Outside the abandoned British police post at Umm Al-Rashrash, on the west side of the Gulf of Aqaba (the biblical Elath), the Israelis raised a makeshift flag which would soon be immortalized as the Ink Flag; it said something about the state of Israeli army in 1949 that the brigade did not even have a flag, and the soldiers used a sheet, drew two ink stripes, and sewed on a Star of David torn off a first-aid kit.  The photo — reminiscent of the flag raising on Iwo Jima just a few years earlier — was taken by the soldier Micha Perry.

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Guzmán Arrest | Peru

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Crude though it was, the moment above told the Peruvians that their long national nightmare was coming to an end. As police and prosecutors showed off Abimael Guzmán as their trophy, from his cage, Guzmán ranted and swore like a wounded animal. Elsewhere, his Maoist terrorist group, Sendero Luminoso (“Shining Path”) unraveled.

Sendero was perhaps the strangest and the most radical leftist insurgency in the Americas.  Guzmán — a philosophy professor — formed Sendero in the 1960s, as a fundamentalist Maoist party, and in 1980, as China embarked upon its capitalist reforms, lashed out by launching the “People’s War” to disrupt Peru’s first democratic elections in sixteen years.

The ensuing 12-year conflict, which brought the Peruvian state to a standstill, destroyed $22 billion worth of property and nearly 70,000 people died or “disappeared” , three quarters of them, the impoverished indigenous peoples of the high Andes. Shining Path also turned its Andean headquarters in Ayacucho and the Upper Huallaga Valley into a place of violence and cocaine production.

Three successive administrations, ending with the autocratic Alberto Fujimori responded to the rebellion with the dangerous mixture of ineptitude and violence until Guzman was captured in a bloodless raid on a modest apartment above a dance studio in the Surquillo district of Lima, hidden — in a fitting touch for such a strange organization — by the prima ballerina of the national ballet.

Many photos were taken at Guzman’s perp-walk, but photographers mainly focused on the cage and Guzman. Two exceptions were Ana Cecilia Gonzales-Vigil (above) and Wesley Bocxe (below), whose photos captured the intense security  and media circus surrounding the arrest, with secret service agents, snipers, and prosecutors guarding the courtyard. Gonzales-Vigil won a mention in World Press Photo (1993) for her photo and Bocxe’s photo was chosen as one of the most iconic images of the century.

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Rafael Wollmann | Falklands

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Taking an iconic photo is sometimes about being at the right place, at the right time. No one could attest to that more than Rafael Wollmann.

The Argentine photographer had taken an assignment from a French photo agency Gamma to take a “geographical” photo-essay on a remote series of islands in the South Atlantic Ocean, about 300 miles east of Patagonia. He arrived there on his 23rd birthday, on March 23 1982 and spent the next week documenting the island life.

On the afternoon of April Fool’s Day, 1982, Wollmann was greeted by the grave voice, coming from the radio, of the island’s British governor, Sir Rex Hunt — whom he had interviewed earlier. “We have apparently reliable evidence that an Argentine task force could be assembling off Stanley at dawn tomorrow. You will wish to make your dispositions accordingly,” Hunt repeated in verbatim a telegram he received from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Wollmann stood in the middle of a pub, where everyone turned around to look at him — the only Argentinian in the pub. The Falklands War had begun.

Accused by Hunt of having being ‘planted’ by the Argentine junta (two days earlier, he had sent some of his films back to Argentina with air mail), Wollmann was detained briefly in Hunt’s chauffeur’s house, from inside which he took pictures. An unknown solider shot at him, mistaking his lens with some weapon, and missed Wollmann by only a few centimeters.

After Hunt had surrendered — in the full ostrich-plumed uniform befitting a British governor — and was bundled off to exile in Uruguay, Wollmann got out into the courtyard and took the photo above of British Marines being forced to surrender. He remembered:

“They were marching towards the courtyard of the governor’s house where they were delivering arms, then they went to the garden and were seated. They were already prisoners of war. I took a lot of caution, and I did not want to be imprisoned or they taking my camera, so I shot a picture and left the scene, not knowing what I was going to find when it was revealed.”

On April 3rd, Wollmann returned to Argentina, where a bidding war for his photos ensued. “I was able to pay for my house overnight” joked Wollmann.  Editorial Atlántida, an Argentine publishing house which had fired him four months earlier, put a private jet at his disposal to return to the islands. Wollmann gave his film to Gamma, which had initially hired him, and in France, another bidding war broke out between Paris Match and VSD magazines, which the latter won. It ran the photo with a deliciously schadenfreude caption: ‘England Humiliated’. In Italy’s L’Espresso, the title was “Hands up, England!”. Some would later argue that these images and captions prompted Margaret Thatcher to act decisively in dispatching troops to retake the islands.

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Saving Madidi

On this blog, we have discussed earlier about conservation of nature and economic reasons to develop them. Last week, I stood in the middle of one such frontline, in the middle of the Bolivian Amazon.

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In 1995, the country agreed to establish 1.8 million hectares of cloud and tropical forest, lowlands and savannah as Madidi National Park. It was part of a Debt-for-Nature Swap (where Third World countries’ debt were reduced in exchange for the promise not to develop rain forests and other natural areas). The Madidi is one of the most remote places in the world, straddling the foothills of the Andes and the Amazon basin, drained by vast rivers and pristine lakes. Reportedly, it holds 1,000 bird species and almost half of the new world’s mammals.

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Controversy began almost immediately after the Madidi was declared a national park. Various Bolivian governments have tried to build a dam at the park’s southeastern border: a dam which would flood over 2500 sq-km (14% of the park), including the Chalalan Lake. As far back as the 1950s, engineers proposed building a hydroelectric dam there, in the El Bala Narrows just north of Rurrenabaque, where the Rio Beni bursts through the last ridge of the Andes in a narrow defile. Bolivia does not need all the hydroelectric power the dam would generate, but it hopes to export to Brazil.

The project was halted in 1998 due to local opposition and international studies, but remained in limbo. Enter Joel Sartore, a Nebraskan photographer for National Geographic. The park was so remote that he was in the flight for 36 hours, drove for a few more hours, and spent a day on a canoe, fighting of sweat bees. He spent days on the scaffolding to photograph macaws in flight and later had to undergo treatment for leishmaniasis, a flesh-eating parasite that he got from a sandfly bite. His photos of the park which were printed on March-2000 Spanish language version of the magazine with the heading “Madidi, Will Bolivia Drown its Spectacular New National Park?” A widespread public outcry followed. Sartore recalls, “[The issue] ends up on the president of Bolivia’s desk. What does he say? ‘Of course we won’t drown our spectacular new park’.” Twenty years later, today, the park is once more in jeopardy as the Bolivian government reconsiders the El Bala dam project.

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(More photos here)

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Bolivia, 1946

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It was now forgotten everywhere outside of Bolivia today, but in August 1946, the United States and the USSR co-sponsored a coup there against the dictator General Gualberto Villarroel. The mob stormed the presidential palace, and hurled the general from the balcony. His lifeless body was hung from a lamp post in the Plaza Murillo facing the palace, copying of the death of Mussolini.

The photo above shows Villarroel’s Chief of Information and editor of the newspaper Cumbre, Roberto Hinojosa who was hung in a similar fashion. Hinojosa was an organizer of the Partido Socialists Revolucionario in the 1920s and led an attempted insurrection in the frontier military post of Villazon in June 1930. He tried to rally working-class support for the Villarroel government and was often called a Creole Goebbels. Fittingly, he wrote the only contemporary Spanish language biography of Hitler.

Along with Villarroel and Hinojosa, two other men were hung on the plaza:  Luis Uría de la Oliva and Captain Waldo Ballivián, Villarroel’s private secretary and aide-de-camp respectively.

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For all his hideous qualities (Villarroel was a fascist and admirer of Mussolini and Hitler), the coup was “the last, perhaps most unworthy, Allied victory of the Second World War,” lamented The Cambridge History of Latin America. Villarroel was a reformist who recognized trade unions, created retirement and pension systems. He also tried to abolish pongueaje and mitaje (types of indentured servitude that existed in Bolivia since the Spanish times) and create an indigenous assembly. None of these reforms were welcomed by the Bolivian establishment, least of all by La Rosca.

La Rosca was a mining cartel of Bolivian tin magnates, led by Simón Patiño, then the fifth richest man in the world. In many ways, La Rosca was the Bolivian state: many officials held mining directorships and traditionally the foreign minister received a monthly salary from Patiño Mines. Villarroel’s suggestion that the mines pay higher taxes and wages chaffed the tin barons. Particularly, they hated an April 1945 decree that mandated all their export earnings to be deposited in the Central Bank. After all, Patiño paid less than fifty dollars in income tax to Bolivia annually.

La Rosca bankrolled the coup against Villarroel, but everyone happily participated: the teachers, the students, the pro-Soviet communist party (PIR) and its mirror the anarcho-Trotskyist party (POR), the U.S embassy, the Catholic Church, the League of Morality, the Association of Mothers of Priests, the War Widows. In his fascist ways, Villarroel had wanted to give equal rights to whites and indigenous Indians, legal wives and illegal mistresses, legitimate and illegitimate children, alienating all.

As for La Rosca, it was the last hurrah. Patiño died less than a year later in April 1947, having cemented his reputation as “the Andean Rockefeller”. He didn’t live to see his empire and most of La Rosca’s mines nationalized during the revolution of 1952.

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I have started a Patreon. In their words, “Patreon is an Internet-based platform that allows content creators to build their own subscription content service.” I had tremendous fun researching and writing Iconic Photos, and the Patreon is a way for this blog to be more sustainable and growth-focused. Readers who subscribe on Patreon might have access to a few blog posts early; chance to request this topic or that topic; or to participate in some polls.

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