BEYOND THE MOUNTAINSBy Gill Gale de Villa (A reprint from The Philippines Starweek The Sunday Magazine of the Philippine Star, July 2, 1995)
Eduardo Masferre, father of Philippine photography, self-motivated documenter of this people's life ways, passed away peacefully early in the morning of June 24, 1995. He was 86 years old. He left behind his family: including his wife Nena Ogues, who has been so supportive of Eduardo's photography; his children Roland, Jaime, Nena, Pancho, Leonor, Eivira; their spouses, 16 grandchildren, his three living sisters and many relatives.
To them, to the mountain people, to the Filipinos, and to all mankind, he has left a body of work that will endure to show the ancestral life ways of the people of the Central Cordillera, so that we may visualize how the Cordilleran forebears lived and worked, painstakingly carving vast areas of rice terraces into steep mountainsides, using rudimentary tools to fit billions of rocks neatly together to make thousands of kilometers of walls; know that they discovered and used highly advanced principles of hydraulics to accomplish the job; realize that they had intricate cultures that provided appropriate activities for all stages of life, from prebirth to beyond the transition of the next world.
As news of Masferre's passing began to circulate, people gathered at his house. An old woman spoke ardently of his mortal remains, knowing that his spirit was there and should be properly addressed, for this is just another transition, not a finality.
Seven years ago, a biographer asked Masferre what he would like the next generation of photographers to think of him. Masferre, who expressed himself poignantly through his remarkable photographs, was a man of few carefully chosen words. He responded: "It is good he was here."
Eduardo Masferre's legacy is irreplaceable: to read about the mountain peoples' cultures (which have inexorably changed since Masferre first took up his camera in the 1930s) is one thing. To really feel that culture one needs to see Masfere's photographs.
And think about them, and the man who was laid to rest last week, whose life was dedicated to the preservation of the memory of the ways of his ancestors, and the ancestors of all Filipinos.
He did not do his work in expectation of profit. He had hoped to make a living as a portrait photographer, from his studio in Bontoc, but found that he had to turn to farming to feed a growing family. Thus, of economic necessity, photography became secondary to his farming, yet he kept working at it. Why? Perhaps, part of the reason is, in hiswords, "The terrain here is hard. These terraces that the people made, that is because of their industry and the need to grow rice in order to live. In all that there (is) something to be admired.
Recognition of Masferre's works came slowly, and very late. While many Filipinos were loathe to be associated with images of people they thought of as "primitive", many foreigners admired his work. Until recently it was they who purchased most of his prints, and who most appreciated his efforts and skill. But toward the end of the 80s, Filipinos began to evolve a heightened sense of national pride, a desire to know more about their noncolonial roots, and so have come to appreciate his works.
Masferre's first exhibit was held in Manila in 1982. After a second exhibit in Manila the next year, his work traveled to Copenhagen (1984) and Tokyo (1986). In 1988, his third Manila exhibit was mounted, and the book of his works, E. Masferre: People of the Philippine Cordillera, was produced. Funding from Mobil Philippines provided 1,500 copies to Philippine schools, museums, and libraries. Mobil also funded the touring exhibit of Masferre's works to Baguio, Cebu, Cagayan de Oro, Davao and Bacolod.
In 1989 he was invited to exhibit his works at the world's most prestigious photographic exhibition: Les Recontres International de La Photographie, in Arles, southern France. He is the only Filipino to have been accorded this honor. In 1990, again with Mobil support, the Smithsonian Institution purchased 120 of Masferre's original prints, and exhibited them for six months in the main rotunda of the Americcan National Museum of Natural History, in Washington DC. The original prints are now carefully archived in the world's premier facility for their preservation, while superb replicas travel. The traveling exhibit first went to the University of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia, and is now at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. There are plans for it to continue to California, Spain, and other venues, and it can always come to the Philippines when needed. Thus, Masferre's photographs are available for Filipinos and others the world over to experience a legacy that we should not forget. His work carries on, and we must agree: Yes, it certainly is good that he was here.
Masferre's mortal remains have been moved from his house in the town where he was born to the cemetery nearby, to rest with his mother, uncle, and other relatives. (His father was interred in Baguio, where he died at the close of World War II). The cemetery is behind the church that his Spanish father served as a missionary, that his brother served as one of the first three (Igorot) Filipinos to be ordained to the priesthood of the Philippine Episcopal Church. And the cemetery is beside Echo Valley, where coffins of more relatives nestle in crevices, buried in age-old Sagada fashion, in the tradition of the people of Eduardo Masferre's Kankana-ey mother.