Tzintzuntzan, Mexico: Photographs by George Foster

Past Exhibition

About George M. Foster

George M. Foster—professor of anthropology at UC Berkeley from 1953 to 1979—is well known for his half-century of ethnographic fieldwork in Tzintzuntzan, a town on Lake Pátzcuaro, in Michoacán, Mexico. This work has formed the basis for important contributions to the study of peasant societies and to the subfields of medical and applied anthropology. Underlying it all has been his development of methodologies for long-term research. Until now, however, his extensive use of photography has remained largely hidden. 

Like many anthropologists of his generation, George Foster was taught that "all forms of behavior, all data, have meaning, and that they are relevant to interpretation and explanation, even if this relevance is not apparent at the time they are noted or recorded." Consequently, he tried to record as much ethnographic data as possible. "Whenever I go to the field, I always take a camera. When I would go around calling on informants, whether I was there for a long interview or just a few words, I always carried a camera with me." Returning home, he used photographs for lectures (in undergraduate courses) and for illustrating books and articles on material culture (especially pottery), dances, and fiestas. Yet because of publishing constraints, he was not able to reproduce many of these pictures and never in their original color. Professor Foster's approach to long-term fieldwork and the place of photography in it is evident from his comment, "When, in 1960, I found that quite unconsciously I was putting our Tzintzuntzan photographs in the family photograph album, I knew that our ties with the village would be permanent."

About the Exhibition

This exhibition is based on nearly 4,000 photographs in black and white, color, and 16 mm. film formats, shot by George Foster over more than half a century (1945-99). In his first study of Tzintzuntzan, 1944-46, he used both Kodachrome color and black and white film. Returning in 1958, he used color slides almost exclusively until the 1970s, when he frequently supplemented color slides with color print film. Professor Foster curated the exhibition in collaboration with Ira Jacknis (visual anthropology curator) and Barbara Takiguchi (exhibition coordinator). Selecting from thousands of pictures was a difficult task, but they strove to highlight Foster's major subjects and consultants over his five decades of research.

All label copy has been taken from edited selections of George Foster's publications, principally his two monographs on Tzintzuntzan— Empire's Children: The People of Tzintzuntzan (1948) and the three editions of Tzintzuntzan: Mexican Peasants in a Changing World (1967, 1979a, 1988); as well as his summary essay, "Fieldwork in Tzintzuntzan: The First Thirty Years" (1979b). For this exhibition, Professor Foster has written a summary statement on his fieldwork from 1988 through 2000. To underscore the importance of long-term change in his Tzintzuntzan research, the dates of the excerpts are given in parenthesis. In many ways, this exhibit is an inversion of normal practice; instead of finding pictures to illustrate an already written text, the curators matched up the words with the selected images. The result is an engrossing portrait of a Mexican peasant community in the twentieth century.

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For more information on George Foster's publications visit:

For more information on George Foster and his research visit:

Visit the The George and Mary Foster Anthropology Library