Latin American Anthropology and Digital Imaging Technologies

Julie Taylor


Photography provides realistic visual representations of its subjects, while anthropology is the study of humans, past and present. Photography has “assumed a documentary role in the field of anthropology, based on the premise that photographs are visual transcriptions of reality, which appear to contain fact, evidence, and truth in an objectivity that is the cornerstone of factual documentary reporting.” (Ohn) As a research tool, photography can be used as a “visual counterpoint to written observations, which merges direct observation with realistic representation.” Photographs provide a consistent, tangible record for analysis and recordkeeping, and are a means of storing, ordering, and interpreting visual information. Since its inception in 1839, photography has been used to aid anthropologists with their study of humans, and technological advances have been critical for documenting data in accordance with standard anthropological practices around the world.
Worldwide, the field of anthropology has been greatly enhanced with the development of digital imaging technologies. Countries of Latin American have especially benefitted with the development of digital technology, with thanks to FLAAR. the Foundation for Latin America Anthropological Research. The mission of FLAAR “includes research, education, and outreach of how digital imaging technologies can record our visual links to the past, present, and future, especially related to pre-Columbian cultures of Mesoamerica.” FLAAR is a non-profit institution dedicated to advancing scholarly knowledge of ancient civilizations of the Americans and explaining these facts and artifacts to the general public. One of their many goals is to improve the quantity and quality of professional photography of Maya artifacts to preserve this heritage for future generations of students.

FLAAR was originated by Hellmuth family, who all have a background in architecture, and specifically by Nicholas Hellmuth. Both Hellmuth and FLAAR are best known for the extremely precise photography of Maya bases, bowls, urns, and plates.

maya archaeology plate rollout
maya archaeology plate rollout

FLAAR was possibly the first to rollout the inside of a Mayan plate, which is a great challenge. The difference between rollout photographs done by FLAAR and rollouts done elsewhere is that the FLAAR Photo Archive rollouts are computer controlled. There is no guess work. The FLAAR rollouts are not tabulations made by hand, but are made entirely by a computer system. These images of Maya hieroglyphic writing should assist epigraphers and iconographers both.
The objective of this long range program is to rescue, through photography, the figural and symbolic art of an entire civilization, and to make this available for scholarship. FLAAR photographs are primarily in large format and use digital technology to achieve astounding results.
Nicholas Hellmuth 3D scanning archaeological artifact
Nicholas Hellmuth 3D scanning archaeological artifact

Nicholas Hellmuth at Museo Cultura Cotzumalhuapa, 3D scanning a precolumbian head sculpture.

FLAAR is beta tester for digital imaging technology, to include hardware and software. The results of testing are outlined in The FLAAR Reports. The FLAAR Reports evaluate digital cameras, digital photography software, wide-format inkjet printers, inkjet inks, substrates and media, and the entire workflow including color management and ICC color profiles. The Pre-Columbian anthropology and archaeology of Mesoamerica, especially of Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Belize, El Salvador, and Costa Rica has always been the focus of FLAAR, but their experience and knowledge of digital technology is now used to assist people around the world. One of their goals is to become a “leader in evaluation, reviews, publication, lectures, and promotion of 3D scanning, 3D rapid prototyping, 3D printers, along with selective laser sintering, stereo lithography, fused deposition and laminated object manufacturing, which is now known as additive manufacturing.
FLAAR is continually researching and testing new technologies and had now added coverage of 3D imaging technology. FLAAR is moving forward in the world of 3D modeling for architectural history and opened a 3D division. They partner with IB-ProCADD in Ljubljana, Slovenia, with association with the local university there. Students from that university assist as volunteers with FLAAR in Guatemala, along with an archaeology student from South America. Together they are working on a 3D scanning project to photograph the ancient pyramid-temple, palace, and sacred rubber-ballgame ball court architecture of Guatemala.
Durst Rho 351R printer reviews
Durst Rho 351R printer reviews

Dr Hellmuth at the Durst headquarters in Europe, evaluating UV-curing technology as a new and improved manner of printing large images. These test photographs result from FLAAR evaluations of advanced digital cameras such as the 22-megapixel Phase One P25+ and the 48-megapixel BetterLight.

Other examples of technological uses of digital imaging are the use of composite digital panoramic scans. The 120 degree panoramic photograph below is of the inside of a colonial Spanish church courtyard arcade of Santa Clara, Antigua Guatemala. This image consists of 29,000 individual photographs.

FLAAR has different divisions that focus on other anthropological or social areas. FLAAR Photo Archive tests and evaluates cameras studio lighting equipment, tripods and other professional photography equipment. FLAAR Photo Archives is devoted to professional photography of sculpture in jade, stone, ceramic, bone, and seashell of pre-Columbian art of Mesoamerica as well as wildlife photography of Central America. The FLAAR Digital Imaging Technology Center concentrates its experience on the evaluation and testing of high quality scanners (35mm slide scanners, flatbed scanners, drum scanners); 1200 dpi laser printers for graphics design and printing photographs; and large format printers of all kinds for limited editions of fine art and photo prints. They also evaluate printers for signs, posters, banners and are gradually moving into evaluations of printers for textiles.
FLAAR has continued to be a visionary with the use of digital imaging, with the results of their work expanding to other disciplines. They now consider themselves to be multi-disciplinary, not just noted for their anthropological and archaeological research. Their current long-range programs are dedicated to encouraging higher quality digital photographic recording and utilization of higher quality photographs in publication in all fields of anthropology by means of employing advanced digital imaging technology.
The field of anthropology has benefitted because of the visionary work of FLAAR and the use of digital imaging technologies that are providing very realistic visual representations of its subjects. The visual transcriptions of reality that digital imagining and 3D technology provide are extraordinary resources that aid in the study of humans, past and present.

Resources Used:

Ohn, Fergus-Jean. Anthropological Technology. Columbus College of Art and Design.

Foundation for Latin American Anthropological Resources

Maya Archeology

May Art Books