Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
August 12, 2010
Roberto Tejada National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009. 256 pp.; 73 b/w ills. Paper $27.50 (9780816660827)
Esther Gabara Errant Modernism: The Ethos of Photography in Mexico and Brazil Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008. 376 pp.; 7 color ills.; 67 b/w ills. Paper $26.95 (9780822343233)

Poet, urban chronicler, and queer dandy about town, Salvador Novo helped give modernism in Mexico its shape while never quite fitting in. A consummate insider-outsider, he found perches in the government and at various publications throughout his career, though he never stayed for very long. In the 1920s and 1930s, Novo was a member of the Contemporáneos literary circle, which was known for its high-meets-low tastes and cosmopolitan orientation. He published prodigiously—“promiscuously” according to his critics who advocated a folkloric cultural nationalism—with writings ranging from the cunning to tongue-in-cheek. Many of his stories circulated in the new illustrated magazines that imagined as much as they documented an emerging Mexican consumer culture. Like many self-conscious avant-gardists from the first half of the twentieth century, Novo was drawn to photography, a technology that appeared to encompass both impulses. Speaking at the opening of an experimental photography exhibition in 1931, Novo protested that the medium had been hastily handed painting’s leftovers, relegated to serving a mimetic function. Nonetheless, Novo envisioned photography taking advantage of this pedestrian status: “New creature, she marches happily through the streets, she goes on excursions, she exercises, curiosea [browses or pries]. She is the prodigal daughter of art” (Gabara, 152). It was photography’s wanderlust, the (frequently gendered) mobility and thus mutability of its representation, practitioners, and social status that attracted a precociously media-savvy Novo. It is these same qualities of the medium that mobilize two recent scholarly works, Esther Gabara’s Errant Modernism: The Ethos of Photography in Mexico and Brazil and Roberto Tejada’s National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment. These authors seek to narrate the nexus of aesthetic and ethico-political experimentation among (mostly modernist) photographers in Brazil and Mexico; but rather than offering a repentant return, they practice an art historiography a la Novo.

From a theoretical standpoint, National Camera and Errant Modernism wander intentionally out of bounds. Both books create a space for encounter between the histories of photography in Mexico and Brazil and insights from feminism, semiotics, and historical materialism (among other currents) as well as film studies and anthropology. Their mutual interlocutors include Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Roland Barthes, Walter Benjamin, John Berger, Michel de Certeau, James Clifford, W. J. T. Mitchell, Laura Mulvey, Novo, and Raymond Williams. The cosmopolitan result is sometimes cacophonous but nonetheless productive, steering clear of the aestheticization and historicism that have limited the grounds for photographic analysis. As Tejada makes clear in his introduction, “the assumption of this study is that there can be no origin, autonomous history, or fixed identity to photography” (13). To date, histories of photography in Latin America, both in English and Spanish, have preoccupied themselves with documentation: historical surveys, artist monographs, and picture books. While this was a reasonable strategy in the past given the scarce resources devoted to the medium by national archives and other institutions, including the U.S. academe, its limitation has been evident for some time now. This has especially been the case in orthodox conceptions of photography as a purely objective technology of representation. In other words, a fixation on documenting photography confines an understanding of the medium as mere document. Instead of offering sweeping historical narratives, Tejada’s and Gabara’s selective emphases and episodic structures explore the ambivalences and limit-cases of photography.

Since the 1970s, photographers, critics, and historians in the Americas have sought to expand photography’s theoretical terrain, tracing the trajectories of photographs, their meanings and cultural significance, beyond the moment of production. The influential First Latin American Colloquium on Photography was organized by Raquel Tibol and Pedro Mayer in Mexico City in 1977 and raised the question of photography’s social relevance. In some ways, the questions raised by scholars of photography echo the ambivalence experienced by modernist photographers themselves. Gabara asks readers to imagine her subject: “The Latin American modernist intellectual grasps hold of the camera and asks: ‘What now? How do we capture an accurate image of this modernity? Who is the subject and who is the object of this photographic encounter?’” (1).

What was one to do, what was one’s ethical responsibility, in a world in which the aspirations of modernism did not correspond to the frustrating realities of modernization, as Néstor García Canclini argues in Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1995)? To think about photography in collective terms was to break it wide open but also to embrace qualities that were already intimate to the medium: the tension between denotation and connotation, indexicality and arbitrariness. It also recognizes but does not reproduce photography’s role in “scientific” discovery and colonial-nationalist exploit, which troubled modernist photographers even as they embraced the medium. Gabara’s and Tejada’s methods also engage the work of Rosalind Krauss (The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1986), Richard Bolton et al. (The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992), Abigail Solomon-Godeau (Photography at the Dock: Essays on Photographic History, Institutions, and Practices, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), and Johanna Drucker (Theorizing Modernism: Visual Art and the Critical Tradition, New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), which insists on complicating the hermetic purity (and assumed masculinity and heteronormativity) of modernism to explore representation writ large. Gabara and Tejada are not alone in questioning the purity of modernism and nation; recent books by Olivier Debroise (Mexican Suite: A History of Photography in Mexico, trans. Stella de Sá Rego, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001), Rubén Gallo (Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2005), and Leonard Folgarait (Seeing Mexico Photographed: The Work of Horne, Casasola, Modotti, and Álvarez Bravo, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008 [click here for review]) have begun to open up national(ist) histories of photography in Mexico to transnational affinities and/or comparison across media. As Folgarait observes, referring to images of the Mexican Revolution in the post-revolutionary period: “These photographs now float in a new interpretive space and need a different sort of attention” (6).

Errant Modernism’s strength is its comparative frame. Gabara organizes her main chapters by genre—landscape, portraiture, (photo) essay, and fiction. The first half focuses on Brazil and the second on Mexico; an in-between chapter on mediation serves as the bridge. Her introduction does a nice job of outlining key figures and critical issues germane to the study of modernist photography across Latin America, while the epilogue considers some of her arguments in relation to contemporary art photography. Trained in comparative literature, Gabara fluently places literary and visual representation in dialogue, appreciating that most vanguardists did not work within a single media, toting journals along with cameras on their travels. Gabara’s Brazilian chapters highlight Mário de Andrade, who among his many creative projects organized the Week of Modern Art in São Paulo (1922), the mythic origin of Brazilian modernism. De Andrade is a curious figure because unlike his contemporaries he did not “discover” Brazil from across the Atlantic, in Paris or Berlin. In the 1920s, de Andrade reluctantly toured the country’s interior, although he was fascinated with the idea of being a tourist-ethnographer in his own land. Gabara foregrounds the deliberate formal and technical “errors” in Andrade’s photographs and his fictionalization of his travelogue, which serve as the basis for the book’s organizing metaphor: errancy. To err is to make a mistake but also to freely stray or roam. De Andrade’s images did not aspire to accurately or dependably document Brazil’s people or natural resources, as the camera was so often called upon to do in this rural territory. In his view, the troubling socioeconomic and political contradictions of postcolonial Brazil refuted a glossy, coherent representation, a naturalization of the status quo as it were. This is where his aesthetic and ethical concerns meet. De Andrade forced the camera to act against its own design to practice what he called a “critical nationalism,” which allowed for an “additive, combinatory, and even contradictory portrait of nation,” one that was anticolonial without bowing to populist-dictatorial nationalism in Brazil after 1930 (111).

An analysis of critical responses to homogenizing and frequently patriarchal nationalism allows Gabara to bridge Brazil and Mexico. She covers the explosion of popular illustrated magazines there, especially women’s magazines, which created novel discursive spaces for imagining an alternate society; in the process, Gabara expands Jesús Martín Barbero’s influential theories of media and mediation in De los medios a las mediaciones: comunicación, cultura y hegemonía (Mexico City: Ediciones G. Gili, 1987). Martín Barbero argues that the urban masses in Latin America were not undifferentiated and facile receptors of national-popular culture but in fact mediated state and market imperatives through their specific and socially transformative modes of consumption. He in effect jettisons mestizaje or (biological) assimilation as a model for interpreting cultural exchange between popular and hegemonic groups. Gabara takes Martín Barbero a step further by advancing the gendered aspect of this contest. Members of the Contemporáneos, like Novo, and also of the Estridentistas, another vanguardist literary circle, published heavily in the photo-rich women’s magazines of the early post-revolutionary period. Their creative identities were shaped by, if not dependent on, their relationship to the popular. Appearing alongside fashion spreads, makeup tips, and recipes—which led to jarring yet fertile contradictions—their work drew fire from conservative writers operating within the state patronage system. Critics perceived women’s magazines as foreign and, moreover, effeminate spaces for modern letters, which had always been housed within elite culture and masculine discourse and thus the institutionalized post-revolutionary regime. Novo and company had strayed too far. As literary scholars have noted recently, this criticism was due in part to the perceived or known homosexuality of several members of the Contemporáneos and Estridentistas (Salvador Oropresa, The Contemporáneos Group: Rewriting Mexico in the Thirties and Forties, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2008; and Robert McKee Irwin, Mexican Masculinities, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003). Gabara rounds out this revision to include salient issues of gender, “showing a far more variegated and contradictory image of nation than the ontological one that has governed studies of this period” (147).

Not unlike Errant Modernism, Tejada’s National Camera is far-ranging, with its four chapters touching on journalist, ethnographic, modernist, and contemporary photography. All the while, Tejada switches back and forth across the U.S.-Mexico border and both sides of the camera lens to reverse certainties of photographic subject and object, “here” and “there.” Indeed, Tejada organizes his project around the metaphor of a “shared image environment,” or the plural, overlapping, and contingent visual and spatial exchanges between Mexico and the United States over the course of the twentieth century. He stretches the cultural borderlands concept beyond geopolitical adjacency, further unsettling notions of nationhood, statecraft, and exceptionality. Both Mexico and the United State sponsored robust cultural nationalism projects that employed photography to classify and differentiate their respective populations when in fact they were much more porous. Acknowledging this shared history, Tejada sidesteps photography’s instrumentalization at the hands of the state, seeking out “blind spots” in images and how their meanings waver over time. For example, he lingers on a photograph dated alternately 1905 or 1922 of a male and female “Indian” couple on display at a provincial fair. While the image gestures to primitivism and indigenismo, Tejada presses the reader to take a closer look at the discrepancies (Are they in fact both male, suggesting staging? Is it a relic of the Porfiriato or a reality of the Mexican Revolution?) that make certainties of nationalism and photographic analysis come undone. Dwelling on photography’s ambivalent mediation, he argues early on that “the technology of the image had the capacity to betray the space of the nation as being a visual landscape discontinuous with the historical institution of the state” (26). Photography’s instrumentalization at the hands of historians is another trap Tejada seeks to avoid. As such, archives figure prominently in his study.

In the mid-1970s, a vast cache of negatives assembled by Augustín Victor Casasola was acquired by the Mexican government. Known as the Casasola archive, its photographs, which were taken during the late Porfiriato through the Mexican Revolution, “document” the regime change and, as Carlos Monsiváis describes it, have been “imprinted on the collective unconscious” (“Notas sobre la historia de la fotografía en México,” Revista de la Universidad de México 25, nos. 5–6 [December 1980–January 1981). In Archive Fever: A Freudian Impression (Trans. Eric Prenowitz, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998), Jacques Derrida reminds readers that the etymology of “archive” signals “commencement” but also “commandment,” referring as much to the physical storehouse of documents as the process of putting them together into an argument. After the revolution the Casasola archive served as a major point of origin and authority for the legitimization and institutionalization of the new government, deployed to efficiently illustrate the paucity of the past and prosperity on the horizon (which would be perpetually pushed into the future). Tejada treats the Casasola archive and the other photographs he deals with neither as historical proof nor as disinterested aesthetic objects. He writes: “To be sure, one unavoidable aspect of the Casasola photographs is that they render inoperative the conventional historiographical narratives, because the positivist value of a photograph as mere visual document is so often betrayed by its inadequacy or failure to represent a categorical conclusion” (39). For Tejada, it is the human body that most readily undoes a photograph’s and its history’s positivism.

If Gabara foregrounds the ethics of photographic experimentation, then Tejada brings forward its politics of embodiment. In his latter chapters, he works through images of (mostly female) bodies by Tina Modotti, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Christina Fernandez, Silvia Gruner, Graciela Iturbide, Amalia Mesa-Bains, and an itinerant photographer who took portraits of sex workers and their clients in 1970s Nuevo Laredo. Tejada sees a kinship between the body, photography, and bodies of knowledge. Drawing from phenomenology without adopting the essentializing notion of a universal body, he is especially interested in “indiscreet” encounters between people, actual and mediated by photography. His concluding chapter turns on an analysis of the sex-worker portraits, which were transformed into an archive of sorts in 2000, i.e., a coffee-table book for U.S. audiences with blurbs on the back cover by Tommy Lee Jones and Jessica Lange. While the book, Boystown: La Zona de Tolerancia (New York: Aperture, 2000), treats the photographs as a document of a particular time, place, and commercial transaction, Tejada argues that the body, like photography, is not a transparent medium. Its visibility does not promise legibility. A body-photograph moves, encounters others, is mutable, and thus, “The Boystown photographs submit that bodies are an insufficient guarantee of knowledge and history” (166). The ambivalence of photography’s mediation, its potential for “reversibility,” displaces modernism’s romance with pure form and technical truth.

While narrating photography’s trajectory through consumption and a shifting landscape of meaning is perhaps a more difficult task than sticking to its point of production, Tejada and Gabara offer through their organizing metaphors—“shared image environment” on the one hand, “errancy” on the other—pathways to productively working with formal, technical, and historiographic uncertainty. Recalling Novo’s anthropomorphism, photography in National Camera and Errant Modernism “marches happily through the streets, she goes on excursions, she exercises, curiosea [browses or pries].” Tejada and Gabara invite the curious scholar to indiscreetly wander far afield to investigate that which gives shape to history without necessarily fitting in. Their invitation comes at a critical moment in which modern and contemporary art in Latin America is just beginning to “fit in” U.S. academe as a field of study.

George Flaherty
Assistant Professor, Art and Design Department, Columbia College, Chicago