Eduardo Masferré: artist-chronicler of the Philippine Cordillera


It is good he was here.”

I was browsing through my Facebook homepage last Sunday afternoon when I came across a photo of an old Ifugao man in ceremonial hunter-warrior raiment, with a segment of the ancient Banaue rice terraces in the background.  Posted by my FB friend Chito Malabanan and captioned “A good photo should not require explanation…,” the photo reminded me of the late Eduardo Masferré and his photography.

Widely regarded as the “father of Philippine photography,” Masferré was born in Sagada, Mountain Province to a Spanish soldier-turned-farmer and his Filipina kankana-ey wife.  His father brought him to Spain at the age of five where the young Eduardo began his early studies but finished school in the Philippines after his father resettled his family back to Sagada to farm and do missionary work for the Philippine Episcopal Church.

Masferré launched his career in photography when he bought his first camera in 1933, a Kodak Graplex which his family has reportedly preserved to this day.  He painstakingly taught himself the complicated art and science of analog photography and, over time, learned to develop and hand paint his own prints with simple equipment and materials available to him at the time, half a century before the advent of the computer, digital camera and digital printer.

By 1934 Masferré was “documenting” the Cordillera and its tribal peoples in earnest, capturing in beautiful black-and-white or hand-painted prints the landscape, architecture and village life of the tribal communities in the area.  He had no illusion of earning a good living from his photography and had in fact turned to farming to support his growing family.  But he persevered with his craft and endeavored hard to capture on film and preserve in print the land of his birth and the simplicity and magnificence of its tribal customs and traditions before they eventually vanish in time.

He was also driven by the desire to make pictures that are not only beautiful to hang on the wall but also convey the humanity and dignity of the indigenous peoples of the Cordillera region.

I could picture him trekking deep into inhospitable mountains (with heavy equipment and provisions lugged on his shoulders) to reach and photograph the isolated communities of the Ifugaos, Igorots, Bontoks, Gaddangs, Kalingas, Apayaos and the other tribal enclaves scattered in the rugged expanse of the Cordillera mountain range.  Each of those photo sessions in the 1930s and late 1940s must have been sort of a mountain expedition for him.

Masferré’s photographs are not only visual records in anthropology but also pieces of art in the medium of photography.  His meticulous choice and artistic blending of subject, choreography, environment (or background) and texture or tint of print transform his photographs into works of art.  In technical construction and tonal quality, his hand-painted photographs are in essence paintings executed in print. 

The techniques (and genres) of photo-based painting and, inversely, painting-based photography practiced by many renowned painters and photographers today owe their existence to the pioneering works of Masferré and his contemporary artists.

There are good photographers and there are artists in photography like Masferré.

Masferré’s work was not fully appreciated until late in his career, partly because his photographs were not publicized until the early 1980s, fifty years after he took his first snapshots of the Cordillera and its tribal peoples.

Masferré’s photographs were first exhited in Manila in 1982 through the sponsorship of Mobil Philippines.  This was followed by a touring exhibit of his works (also funded by Mobil) in the major cities of Baguio, Cebu, Bacolod, Cagayan de Oro and Davao.  In 1988 a compilation of his work — E. Masferré:  People of the Philippine Cordillera — was published and released by Mobil, of which more than a thousand copies were distributed to Philippine schools, museums and libraries. 

His photographs have since been exhibited in Denmark, Japan, Spain, USA, and at Les Rencontres Internationales de la Photographie — he was the first and only Filipino (thus far) whose works were exhibited at that prestigious photography festival and exposition in France. 

The prestigious and venerable Smithsonian Institution in the USA and the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra have sizeable collections of the original prints of Masferré’s photographs.  The Bontoc Museum in Mountain Province and the National Museum of the Philippines in Manila also hold collections of some of his photographs, so does his family of course.

Reproductions of Masferré’s photographs circulate on the Internet, grace postcards, and adorn the walls of many homes and tourist-oriented establishments in the Cordillera region where he is regarded as a cultural hero and a local legend.

Masferré passed away in 1995 at the age of 86, but he left behind a treasure trove of irreplaceable anthropological legacy and works of art in more than 1,000 images taken from 1934 to 1956.  His work preserved for future generations the customs and rituals of a vanished period in the history of the indigenous peoples of the Philippine Cordillera. 

Masferré’s greatness, to me, lies not only in the beauty and contributions of his work but also in his life long vision and pursuit of what his photography ought to be

Years before his death, a biographer asked him how he would like to be remembered by future generations of photographers.  Masferré responded with these simple words: “It is good he was here.”  And I couldn’t agree more with him. 

Author:  Rene “RC” Catacutan
Published 28 April 2012


Author’s Note (11 April 2014) :  The header photo of Eduardo Masferré was taken by Mr. Thomas  Murray on the last day of 1980 in Bontoc.  Mr. Murray’s comment at the bottom of this page gives us a glimpse of his ties with the late “maestro”.


           Some images of photography by Eduardo Masferré

Respected elder Lakay Kabayo, wearing his Buaya (ceremonial necklace) with boar, dog and crocodile teeth in woven rattan.  Sagada, Mountain Province, 1950.  (Photo credit: World Press Photo.)

Rice terraces near Bontok.  Malegokong, Bontok, Mountain Province, 1948.  (Photo credit:  National Gallery of Australia.) 





Investigating a camera.  Butbut, Tinglayan, Kalinga, 1948.  (Photo credit:  National Gallery of Australia.)





At the Papatayan (sacred grave).  Malegokong, Bontok, Mountain Province, 1949.  (Photo credit:  National Gallery of Australia.)





Woman with her pipe.  Butbut, Tinglayan, Kalinga, 1953.  (Photo credit:  National Gallery of Australia.)




Portrait of Bontok man.  Hand tinted, signed and dated 1949.  (Photo credit:  Thomas Murray Asiatica-Ethnographica.)




Harrowing a field accessible to carabao (water buffalo).  Sagada, Mountain Province, 1948.  (Photo credit: National Gallery of Australia.)




Making a pot.  Hand tinted, signed and dated 1946.  (Photo credit:  Thomas Murray Asiatica-Ethnographica.) 





Potter and her grandchild.  Bangad, Kalinga, 1946.  (Photo credit:  National Gallery of Australia.)





Ambabwi of Dap-ay Malingeb beating his gaklab (shield), Dantay ceremony.  Sagada, Mountain Province, 1937.  (Photo credit:  National Gallery of Australia.)




Portrait of a Bontok maiden.  Hand tinted, signed and dated 1947.  (Photo credit:  Thomas Murray Asiatica-Ethnographica.)




Portrait of a Bontok maiden.  Hand tinted, signed and dated 1947.  (Photo credit:  Thomas Murray Asiatica-Ethnographica.)




Gaddang man in his finery.  Calaccad, Natorin, Mountain Province, 1952.  (Photo credit:  Ananascollection.)




Lady planting rice.  Hand tinted, signed and dated 1935.  (Photo credit:  Thomas Murray Asiatica-Ethnographica.)





View of rice terraces of Sagada.  Hand tinted, signed and dated 1949.  (Photo credit:  Thomas Murray Asiatica-Ethnographica.)




Unknown title and date.  (Photo credit:  ABC-of-HIKING.)