Critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
March 22, 2012
Andrea Noble Photography and Memory in Mexico: Icons of Revolution Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2011. 208 pp.; 40 b/w ills. Cloth $89.95 (9780719078422)
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Contributions to Anglophone scholarship in the past decade have included more than a handful of narratives focused on Mexico’s post-Revolutionary artistic movements. Moreover, photography’s place in the general art-historical account has come to redefine the terms of discussion around what served as that emerging nation’s particular forms of modernism. Histories of photography in Mexico have been intellectually indebted to the persuasive writerly performances associated with the late Carlos Monsiváis and Olivier Debroise. They have gained also from publications like Andrea Noble’s Tina Modotti: Image, Texture, Photography (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2000) and subsequent pioneering work by Esther Gabara (Errant Modernism: The Ethos of Photography in Mexico and Brazil, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), Leonard Folgarait (Seeing Mexico Photographed: The Work of Horne, Casasola, Modotti, and Álvarez Bravo, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009 [click here for review]), John Mraz (Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009), and others who have expertly pursued the intersections of photography and Mexican art history within a broader cultural critique.

Noble’s book on Modotti remains a reference point in that it assessed the status of the medium thorough specific images, even as it traced, from a latter-day art-market perspective, photographers’ production and reception during the post-Revolutionary moment. Noble uncovered the “correlation between visual culture and the social and psychic construction of sexual difference” (29) and examined how visual representations of women in 1920s Mexico circulated, forging gendered perceptions within material social conditions. Even as some stakeholders today prefer the convenient categories that uphold one epistemic form to the exclusion of others—as though empirical accounts and the interpretive project were somehow incompatible—Noble successfully dispels those facile divisions. With the publication of Photography and Memory in Mexico, she underscores what it means to embrace archival work, to rehearse the panoramic view, to interlace a broader history with close readings, and to wager claims about Mexican photography that sparkle with theoretical appeal beyond the imposed or self-governing confines of Latin American area studies.

Photography and Memory in Mexico is divided into concise sections, the first of which takes a long view (“Panoramas”) and theorizes the ensuing case studies. In “Icons of Revolution” and “History through Photography,” Noble examines the way in which highly visible images—those photographs most often published or otherwise reproduced—are likely to be overlooked and are therefore all the more meaningful for history. With the writings of Walter Benjamin in sight, she presupposes to locate the “optical unconscious” as an undertaking whose stakes have demonstrable political consequences. To this end, Noble examines the role of photography and print capitalism at the end of the belle époque associated with the Porfirio Díaz regime. She analyzes the dynamics of the camera-generated icon, with its direct appeal generally derived from the “visual codes and conventions of the culture that produces them” (9). Noble traces how these photographic icons stage public performances about the plasticity of meanings that point back, over time, to actions first encapsulated in image technology. Icons possess mass appeal even as they betray the complexity that unleashes “emotional scenarios” played out for viewers in the context of reception; they give way to manifold “contradictions and crises” (9). By looking at the circumstances of production and reproduction, Noble outlines the progression of photography’s “social biography,” a term she imports from “anthropological approaches to material culture and the colonial archive” (9) associated with scholars like Elizabeth Edwards. In this sense, Noble’s method is to study photography’s emergent conditions, or its “pre-life,” and subsequent afterlife—stories whose rhetorical framings of the visual relate how still images are prone to stand in for the disconnected episodes that compose History.

Inasmuch as the iconic image is at once everywhere and nowhere—that is, both “ubiquitous” and “overlooked”—the structures of feeling it activates are linked to the psychoanalytic concept of the compulsion to repeat. Noble associates this structure to the future anterior, to the death cult, and to the symbolic realm of nationhood. In Mexico, she explains, “nation builders and their proxies deployed photographs taken during the conflict as symbolic coordinates to etch the war into the public consciousness” (15). Even after the Revolution’s civil wars—where mortalities numbered a million—death was a constant eruption in everyday life and representation. These visual patterns connect the 1867 execution of emperor Maximilian to the depiction of Revolutionary firing squads; “political assassination as favored tactic for the elimination of political opponents” is likewise linked to “femininity and death as the twin sites of alterity par excellence” (18–19). To the degree that the Mexican Revolution has served as a foundational narrative of identity, writes Noble, photography has been the location where consecutive storylines of struggle reassemble into a unified structure.

Included among the images Noble highlights (in “Close-ups”) are many derived from the Casasola Collection, an image archive amassed by photojournalist and editor Agustín Víctor Casasola and members of his family. They include a photo of “strong man” Porfirio Díaz during the anniversary celebration in honor of Benito Juárez (1910), a striking portrait of the insurgent leader Emiliano Zapata (ca. 1914), and a post-mortem picture of Zapata’s corpse on display after his political assassination in Cuautla on April 10, 1919. Noble’s visual analyses satisfy on many accounts; so does her deft prose in its pursuit of changing iconologies at various historical intervals anterior and posterior to the manufacture of an image. Noble seeks to unearth the persistently shifting afterlife of these highly visible images whose “rhetorical power is derived from a combination of their visual eloquence and their ability to coordinate patterns of identification with and memories of the idea of the revolution as a foundation event in Mexican history” (10). A few of Noble’s photographic rehearsals illustrate her power to historicize and speculate on the enduring fascination of a photograph’s public subjectivity.

Attributed to Casasola, one image of Díaz, frequently reproduced, encapsulates an event that took place on July 1, 1910, four months before the revolution officially began. Both an enactment of the national state and a posterior performance of mythology, Porfirio on the Mournful Anniversary of Benito Juárez “reveals visual clues that point to the unrest that was, in fact, afoot on the margins of Porfirian high society” (35). To outline those margins, Noble first links photography to its persuasive function in photographs sent as appeals to Díaz by indigenous or mestizo peasant classes in requests for assistance. Noble submits the metonymic role of photographic testimonials from below, in contrast to the 1910 Independence centenary celebration from above. For this, she turns to Mauricio Tenorio who has forcefully shown (in Mexico at the World’s Fairs: Crafting a Modern Nation, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996) how Díaz and his social architects crafted “Indian” pageantries and metropolitan spectacle to distract from the political present—that is, to erase indigenous bodies and the popular classes from the streets of Mexico City.

The transversal lines in Porfirio on the Mournful Anniversary of Benito Juárez divide photographic space along a bias, even as they serve, in Noble’s reading, to reassess the Díaz regime’s power epitomized in the image where Díaz appears as the central spectator at the commemoration. Almost imperceptible at first, a row of half-obstructed high-toned ladies in attendance prompts associations about “impeded vision,” which Noble sees as “emblematic of the broader visual dynamics at stake in this photographic enactment of the power of Porfirio Díaz” (47). Impediment of vision has its discursive counterpart as well in Noble’s prose that performs the structure it describes. Consider this sentence: “Triptych in format, it is obvious, but worth emphasizing all the same, that Díaz occupies the central ‘panel’ and is correspondingly the most important figure in the image” (47). With Díaz at a center where “orthogonals converge,” the image activates a play of spectatorship inside and outside the photographic frame, a visual correlative to the axiomatic hesitation of “it is obvious, but worth emphasizing all the same.” Or witness how Noble delays the production of hindered sight in the following sentence: “Almost all the gazes within the photographic frame are trained on a spectacle that exists off-frame and which the external viewer cannot, as a consequence, see” (48). All these elements serve to remind readers what lies beyond the frame of the photograph: the conditions of social unrest at the periphery of seeing, what “Porfirian vision” was unable to discern. With the aid of this image, Noble elegantly provides visual evidence of a tautology that writer Monsiváis found embodied in the figure of Díaz: “a field of vision that was so narrowly focused on itself that its peripheral vision was severely curtailed. Had Díaz taken the time to look down from the balcony of the republic, he might have seen what was coming” (54).

Among images that document the insurgent forces of Francisco Villa and Zapata entering Mexico City is a photograph that features the two revolutionaries occupying the headquarters of state power (Villa in the Presidential Chair (1914)). In several afterlives, this image has served to illustrate the cover of Anita Brenner’s The Wind That Swept Mexico: The History of the Revolution 1910–1942 (New York: Harper, 1943) and, half a century later, Enrique Krauze’s 1997 Biografía del poder: Caudillos de la Revolución Mexicana (1910–1940) (Mexico City: Tusquets). As Noble marks the shifting circumstances of reclaimed images and their consumption, she describes the structure of certain photographs that, as partial objects, command questions about the medium’s relationship to post-revolutionary discourses of memory. To trace the circumstances that “brought the caudillos to their encounter with one another in the National Palace”—the struggle between the two Constitutionalist factions, the insurgent forces of Carranza and Villa, Eulalio Gutiérrez’s provisional president, the Villa-Zapata alliance, and Carranza’s withdrawal from Mexico City—this, for Noble, along with “the original contexts of publication at the time of its production” (62) proves to be a “straightforward” endeavor.

More daunting is her effort to produce the “subsequent trajectory of the photograph’s multiple sources of public dissemination, during the phase of intense post-revolutionary institutionalization through its use as a cover image on the books” (62). Although published in Semanario Rotográfico on March 10, 1926, Villa in the Presidential Chair becomes in Noble’s account part of a broader sequence of photographic associations and a history of fleeting regime changes that followed the assassination of Francisco Madero. It is as though all these factors have driven the appearance of this image to embody a certitude; as Noble puts it, Villa in the Presidential Chair came to endow history “with a degree of teleological inevitability: thanks to the revolution, radicals rather than reactionaries occupy the seat of power” (63). Inasmuch as meaning exceeds photographic temporality, over time the image speaks also of the photographic stakes in mestizaje and Mexican masculinity. A photograph’s repeated appearance in different print environments commits it to public memory—a belated disavowal of knowledge in favor of belief. Noble writes: “To the very subjects who authorize and control their circulation, these photographic images, on whose surface are inscribed traumatic traces of the real, represent a past that, ghost-like, haunts the present . . . [in] an endeavor to master the external stimuli retrospectively by reproducing the anxiety” (74).

Noble weighs two versions of another scene, Zapatistas in Sanborns (1914). Occupying Mexico City in December 1914, Zapata’s forces stopped to eat at an upscale department store café. A row of Zapatistas stands upright in acknowledgement of the camera; in front of them, two soldiers sit at the café counter largely unfazed by the magnesium flash, even as they are depicted straight-on, engrossed in the consumption of a simple meal. In the other composition “two waitresses, who occupy the central foreground of the image [are] captured in the act of serving their incongruous new clients [the very same subjects of the alternate photograph], whose very incongruity in this hub of bourgeois sociability renders them photogenic” (104). Sexual difference further complicates the social paradox of the images and their positioning of the subject and viewer in what is being contested: “the right to gaze at the women behind the bar” (109). In one version of this scene, the “viewer is made to occupy the feminine space of the subservient side of the bar. That is to say, the viewer is made to confront the dark-skinned hordes full-on. From the symbolic site that is socially and sexually encoded as belonging to the disempowered, to those whose subjectivity and right to historical agency have conventionally been disallowed” (110).

Photography and Memory in Mexico concludes with latter-day examples of Mexico’s Revolutionary uncanny: the visual structures relative to the Zapatista movement that galvanized after 1994. Throughout the book, Noble’s interpretive dynamism, structured as a photographic counter-memory, finds the image surplus of one historic moment displaced and repeated over time in others. Her close visual analyses uncover a structure whose “feedback” and “feed forward” challenge historical conventions by fastening a panoramic sweep to a visually discursive point of view. The essays in the book thus provide an excellent model for future scholarship at once accurate to the archive and evocative in its performance.

Roberto Tejada
Distinguished Endowed Chair in Art History, Southern Methodist University

Please send comments about this review to editor.caareviews@collegeart.org.