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Weekly Chat from About Archaeology

    Moderated by Pat Garrow and K. Kris Hirst

Transcript: April 8, 2001: Speaker Justin Kerr

Note: This transcript has been slightly edited for readability.

Information about Dr. Kerr's work has been stored here.

Printer-Friendly Chat Transcript


Pat Garrow Our guest tonight is Justin Kerr (Justin Kerr), who developed a type of roll out photography for recording Mayan vases. Welcome Justin!
Pat Garrow how about telling us a little about yourself. Where are you from?
Justin Kerr I am based in New York City.
Pat Garrow is that your original home?
Justin Kerr Yes, I was born in in the Bronx and went to school through college in New York
Pat Garrow how did you become interested in the Maya?
Justin Kerr I made photographs for Coe's The Maya Scribe: His Art and World
Justin Kerr That was in 1972
Justin Kerr I realized the need for a better way to record the images on Maya Vase
Pat Garrow I saw the book advertised, and it certainly looks interesting. Tell us about the book
Justin Kerr The book has been out of print for a long time. Only 1000 copies were printed
Pat Garrow I understand that peripheral photography or roll out photography had been around for a while. How did you modify the basic method?
Justin Kerr Yes, the technique was available, but the camera was not. I had to build my own
IreneH What is your technique?
Kris Hirst was Michael Coe one of your mentors, then?
Justin Kerr Yes Michael Coe is a dear friend
Pat Garrow the floor is open folks
Pat Garrow how does the earlier book differ from "The Art of the Maya Scribe", which was published in 1998?
Justin Kerr Yes, In the new book we explore many other facets of Maya writing
IreneH Is there a website where one can see some of your photos?
Justin Kerr http://www.mayavase.com   and www.famsi.org  are both portals to the Maya Vase Database and The Pre-Columbian Portfolio
Pat Garrow Check out the photograph of the Vase of the Eleven Gods on the FAMSI web site Irene
Justin Kerr The vase of the Eleven Gods is a square vase and not subject to rollouts
Pat Garrow yes indeed, but what an image!
Martha Justin, the Maya Vase books number six, now. Is there even more material? How will it be published?
Justin Kerr I doubt that we will produce more books in hard copy
Kris Hirst maybe you should talk a bit about the technology involved--you invented it, pretty much?
Justin Kerr No, I did not invent the technology
Justin Kerr I did have to invent the camera---Make that reinvent
Pat Garrow how did you modify the technology Justin?
Justin Kerr I am not sure that modify is the correct terminology
Pat Garrow how so Justin?
Justin Kerr However, there was no camera available in in 1972 to do the work
Justin Kerr It was necessary to build a camera from scratch
Justin Kerr I modified an existing camera to make it into a rollout camera. The original camera and its little brother are still in operation
IreneH Ah, I have the Eleven Gods up now, I see!
Pat Garrow I understand the secret to the whole thing is making the film advance at the same speed the turntable that contains the vase turns. how did you manage that?
Justin Kerr There is a diagram in the book Lords of the Underworld that explains the process
Justin Kerr You can also find on the FAMSI site "The History of Rollouts" which also explains the process
Justin Kerr Pat- trial and error
Kris Hirst one of my favorite things about your work is how useful it is. I just read Inomata and Houston's book "Royal courts of the Ancient Maya" and the chapters all rely on data from your books
Pat Garrow how did you access the Mayan vases you have photographed? they must be from many collections
Justin Kerr Vases have come from many sources
Justin Kerr Most are brought to the studio
Justin Kerr But we have also traveled over the world to record the vases
Pat Garrow I am sure it was much more difficult in the beginning. do people tend to come to you with vases now?
Justin Kerr sometimes
Kris Hirst you mentioned earlier that you intend to continue publishing your stuff on the web; could you talk a little about that?
Justin Kerr The Maya Vase Database is an ongoing project.
Justin Kerr We will continue to publish on the web as material becomes available
Pat Garrow how is the information from your roll out photography being used?
Justin Kerr Pat- You will have to attend one of the Maya meetings and see hoe the vases are being used for reinterpretation of Maya Society
Kris Hirst Tell us about your new project, the Pre-Columbian Portfolio
Justin Kerr The Portfolio project is present photographs of objects and sites that I have photographed over the years
Justin Kerr There are now 650 images on line
Justin Kerr I will be putting more images on line as fast as I can get them scanned and researched
Kris Hirst have you experimented with video, or stayed primarily with stills?
Justin Kerr I am a still photographer
Martha Are they copyrighted, Justin?
Justin Kerr All of our images are copyright
IreneH Did you start out a photographer or an archaeologist?
Justin Kerr A photographer
Pat Garrow can you tell us a little about the overall work of the Foundation for the Advancement of Mesoamerican Studies?
Justin Kerr FAMSI funds projects in Mesoamerica
Pat Garrow how are those projects chosen for funding?
Justin Kerr When you visit the FAMSI web site, you can find a list of all the projects that have been funded
Justin Kerr Most of the projects that have been funded have sent in reports of their work and those e reports are posted on http://www.famsi.org
Kris Hirst It is really a great resource for information about Mesoamerican research, for sure.
IreneH So you concentrate on Mesoamerica. Are there others who do the same thing in Europe/Middle East?
Justin Kerr I don't know, our work is based solely in Mesoamerica
Martha A question about vase styles; do the Codex Style vases (which look like pages from the codices) come from a particular area? or time? or type of grave?
Martha Are they late?
Justin Kerr Although some vase in Codex style have been found in major tombs many are also found in small house mounds
Justin Kerr I don't know if there are solid dates at this time
Martha House mounds! Not in burials?
Justin Kerr Burials under the floors of residential houses
IreneH I'm the lay person here, Martha. What is the Codex style?
Martha They look like pages from the Maya books -codices - black drawing on a light background.
Justin Kerr Codex style refers to vases where black or brown line is painted over a white or creme background
IreneH Aha! Thx!
Justin Kerr They are almost always mythological in nature with the exception of the so- called Dynasty series.
Justin Kerr Linda Schele and company give you a look at the dynasties of most of the important Maya sites
Kris Hirst are the non-mythical vases then records of dynastic events/
Justin Kerr It is possible that some of the vases record history
Justin Kerr However, the text on vases tends to be very short
IreneH How long does it take you approximately to make a roll out photograph, and do you do it all at once or in sections?
Justin Kerr A rollout photograph takes about 2 minutes and is done in one session
Kris Hirst is there a decorative differentiation between the mythological and dynastic? or is it just a selection of images thing?
Justin Kerr The dynastic series is all text they are published in Volume 5 of the the Maya Vase Book series
Justin Kerr A way to see the difference in style is to log onto the Vase Database and click on codex style
Justin Kerr Then click on polychrome and see the difference
Kris Hirst It's been only recently that they've deciphered the Maya script,yes? Linda Schele did a lot of that work, I understand
Justin Kerr Linda was one of the pioneers in the work.
Justin Kerr There were many other people such as Steve Houston, David Stuart
Justin Kerr Nicolia Grube, Barbara MacLeod and a host of others
Kris Hirst Hmm. I guess that's true about all decipherment; Ventris got the credit for Linear B but he always said it was a group effort
Martha Have you done any photos in other wavelengths IR, UV, to see detail that is faded?
Justin Kerr The Bonampak project under the direction of Dr. Mary Miller of Yale used IR to examine the painted walls. This work was done by Dr. Gene Ware of BYU.We were able to see under painting that had never been seen before.
Justin Kerr Jorge Perez de Lara also did much of the IR photography
Martha Were you photographing there, then?
Justin Kerr My part of the project was the color images
Martha Cool!
Justin Kerr Yes Martha it was cool about 90 degrees in the shade
Martha OOFFF!
Kris Hirst will this project also end up online?
Justin Kerr Yale has a web site up and running I will look up the URL
Kris Hirst do you prefer online publication, or does it pose special problems
Justin Kerr Both media have their problems
Justin Kerr however, online moves across the world
Pat Garrow I am still interested in how the data from the roll outs are being used in research. Are you aware of any papers at the upcoming SAA meeting that will use data from your roll outs?
Justin Kerr No, I generally do not attend the SAA
Justin Kerr Pat. I am not sure since the images are available many scholars use them
Pat Garrow will make an effort to identify some of those papers and attend them
Pat Garrow understand Justin, it has become a really big meeting. I will try to see how your work is being used
IreneH What's IR, Martha?
Martha Infra Red - heat energy.
IreneH Should have figured that out myself
Justin Kerr The online database is a product of the database that I developed for my own use there from interest
Kris Hirst I've played there several times, to be honest, looking for similar images.
Kris Hirst I also think, in my own way, that online publishing is cheaper, in terms of being able to publish more images
Kris Hirst but, speaking as a photographer, do you feel the image lose something in translation to the web?
Justin Kerr Yes, it does
Justin Kerr But on special request, I have posted hi-res. images for a project
IreneH But can't you manipulate it by editing it?
Justin Kerr Pixels are pixels
Kris Hirst is it a color thing, or primarily detail?
Justin Kerr There is a color problem. Every monitor is doing its own thing
IreneH Yes, I can see that color can be a problem
Martha Has anyone made a rollout DIGITAL camera? They use CD's for imaging, right? Could that work?
Justin Kerr Yes, there are digital cameras that can make rollouts
Kris Hirst my husband the photographer sneers at digital cameras
Kris Hirst are you of the same opinion?
IreneH I don't like them either but have to use one sometimes
Justin Kerr I do most of my work on film
Pat Garrow He hasn't seen the right one yet Kris
Pat Garrow there are very high resolution digitals available now
IreneH Must be expensive though, pat, or?
Pat Garrow I have one that has 3.3 mega-pixels, but under $1,000
IreneH Too much for a small non-profit budget
Pat Garrow understand that Irene, but the price keeps coming down
IreneH I sure hope so
Kris Hirst do you also publish to CD-ROM, Justin?
Justin Kerr Yes, Volumes 1, 2, and 3 of the Vase Books are on CD
Martha Is there any way one can know if a vase in a photo has been repainted?
Justin Kerr I takes a lot of study to deal with that problem
Kris Hirst Are you happy with the digital images provided for the CD-ROM, or is there a similar problem with quality in transferring the images to JPEG's?
Pat Garrow any thought of putting the rest on CD as the hard copies are sold Justin?
Justin Kerr Yes, The CD are in PDF format and the prints almost equal the original books
Martha Yeah!
Pat Garrow can't they be TIFF images?
Justin Kerr Since I was able to use color on the CDs that is another bonus
IreneH But viewing them would be the same as online?
Justin Kerr No the CD images are somewhat higher res.
Kris Hirst well, PDF would be more like a book, rather than separate images
IreneH Ah
Justin Kerr Yes, the PDF file is the file that is sent to the printer
Kris Hirst eh, maybe the technology will continue to improve...
Pat Garrow have any of your images been made available to the public as decorative prints?
Justin Kerr Yes, a number of rollout images decorate people's walls
IreneH Is there a catalogue?
Pat Garrow how are they marketed, or rather where are they available?
Justin Kerr The Denver Art Museum has a permanent exhibition of the photographs
Justin Kerr Pat- from us
Justin Kerr By request
Justin Kerr No from Kerr Associates   http://www.mayavase.com
Pat Garrow oh--can you give me a web address on that?
Justin Kerr or you can contact us at mayavase@aol.com
Kris Hirst tell us what kinds of images are in the  Precolumbian portfolio.
Kris Hirst and what are your plans for it in the future?
Justin Kerr Portfolio contains images of objects from Mesoamerica, sites, and some objects from South America as well
Justin Kerr I hope to have between 4000 and 5000 images on line in a few years
Pat Garrow are you involved in other forms of photography than the Mayan images?
Justin Kerr yes, Pat,
IreneH Oh wow, Justin, I like the way you mouse-over the photos!
Justin Kerr The Software for the Database and The Portfolio was develop by Laurent Imbaud of the Saiph Corporation
Kris Hirst see, that's one thing you can't do in traditional print
Justin Kerr The ability to link is the advantage of the web
Justin Kerr In the near future the FAMSI site will link all the material into one search
IreneH I'm always look for new ideas for websites
Kris Hirst what sites are you planning on showing in the PP?
Justin Kerr Copan, Tikal, Chichen Itza, Uxmal. Sayil, Yaxchilan, etc
Martha Justin, what's the best way for amateurs to try out their theories and ideas about iconography? Is there an online email list, for instance, where people can exchange their ideas?
Justin Kerr yes, There is AZTLAN a news group and sci.archaeology.mesoamerica
Justin Kerr You can always contact me  at  mayavase@aol.com
Martha AZTLAN is pretty diffuse - not just epigraphy or iconography,I mean. Could one of your sites support such an effort.
Justin Kerr We have a bulletin board on the FAMSI site for questions and comments. check it out
Martha OK! That would be great.
Kris Hirst actually, AZTLAN often of late discusses various images and what they might mean, as a matter of fact. It's well worth dropping in on the discussion
Justin Kerr yes, I posted questions and created comment pages attached to the vase
Kris Hirst AZTLAN, Irene, cause I know you're going to ask, is an email discussion group for Mesoamericanists; named after the mythical home city of the Aztecs
IreneH Thank you!
Kris Hirst you've concentrated on the Americas, Justin; do you have any plans to wander further afield?
IreneH So many things to look at, so little time sigh
Justin Kerr No, with the time I have left, I will stay with America
Pat Garrow how much of your time is devoted to the Maya images Justin?
Justin Kerr about 6 hours a day
Pat Garrow quite substantial then
Kris Hirst will you have South American sites as well in the PP? are you fond of the Inca?
Justin Kerr I will not have any South American Sites only objects
Martha Just an idea - have you ever done a rollout photo of a person?
Justin Kerr Yes, I was going to take a year off and work on that, but the Maya got in the way
Kris Hirst I have to ask--what's your favorite Mayan image, if you have one?
Justin Kerr I love all my children
Kris Hirst I am fondest, myself, of the rabbit/scribe
Justin Kerr Gilette Griffen wears him in his lapel
Justin Kerr So did Linda Schele
Martha I love the toad.
Justin Kerr Martha- The toad's name ids AH MAL-the dripper.
Martha Dripping his strange venom, bufotenine?
Justin Kerr Martha, I think you've got it
IreneH I'm looking at the toad right now, wow!
Kris Hirst is there an advantage to such close study of the images alone? what do you think you've acquired along the way, in terms of knowledge about the   Maya?
Justin Kerr Since the vase images are the main body of pictorial evidence we have of the Maya, I believe we have learned quite a bit from them
Justin Kerr As more text is being read, the images come more alive.
Kris Hirst so, not to simplify or anything, but if you had to describe the Maya culture, how would you do it?
Justin Kerr Lets have a two week symposium and we can get to the beginning
Kris Hirst okay, fair enough <grin>
Justin Kerr My guess is that the Maya were as complex a culture as any the world has produced
Kris Hirst so much of it was lost during the Spanish conquest, it's a fortunate thing we have the vases
Justin Kerr I think there was much lost in the period between the classic and late classic periods. The Maya seem somewhat different in the terminal classic
Pat Garrow we are down to the last few minutes. Time for last call for questions
Kris Hirst is that change reflected in the images on the vases as well as archaeologically?
Kris Hirst (not that the vases aren't archaeological)
Justin Kerr to some extent. There are differences in the way myths are treated
Kris Hirst Oh, thanks very much for coming, Justin Kerr. It was a very interesting discussion. Thanks to everyone who came, as well.
IreneH It was a real eye-opener for me, Justin!
Pat Garrow Who is our guest for next week Kris?
Kris Hirst Next week is Rosemary Joyce, of the Sister Stories website (another Mesoamericanist)
Pat Garrow thanks for coming Justin
Justin Kerr Thank you all, and May the Lords of Xibalba be with you
Kris Hirst gee, thanks! (I think)
Martha Good night to all --

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