Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 22, 2013
John Mraz Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012. 328 pp.; 197 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780292735804)

John Mraz’s latest book has its origins in the exhibition Testimonios de una guerra: Fotografías de la revolución mexicana, which opened simultaneously in thirty national museums on November 18, 2010, coinciding with the centennial anniversary of the outbreak of the revolution. For both the exhibition and ensuing book, Mraz had vast archival collections from which to make his image selection. The Casasola Archive alone, from which many of the photographs presented in Photographing the Mexican Revolution are derived, comprises over 37,000 items from the armed phase of the revolution, not to mention the multiple regional, national, and university photo archives with which Mexico is richly endowed. Featuring 197 high-quality duotone images, Mraz’s book presents its readers with a judicious sample of photographs documenting Latin America’s first major social revolution of the twentieth century. This sample ranges from Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata in the National Palace (1912) and Soldaderas (1914), which Mexican audiences would instantly recognize, to the less familiar images of the anonymous women and men caught up in a bitter and chaotic civil war. This conflict, in which reportedly one million people perished (from a total population of 13.5 million), determined the course of Mexican history throughout the twentieth century.

The exceptionality of the photographic representation of the armed movement in Mexico is one of Mraz’s key starting points, where he claims that few revolutions have been extensively photographed (possibly only the Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, Cuban, and Nicaraguan uprisings). Furthermore, an important point for Mraz is that where “revolutionary” photography has been the subject of scholarly attention, such scholarship has tended to avoid focusing on photographers and their political allegiances, and “discussion of the images’ contents are often uninformative and/or erroneous” (1). Originally from the United States, Mraz has lived and worked in Mexico for many years, where his research has made an important contribution, and is indebted, to the work of an unusually numerous community of scholars of photography, who are supported by an outstanding institutional infrastructure. Thanks to the looming presence of the Casasola family, photographic authorship—determining who made which image and when—has become a key goal for this community of Mexico-based researchers, to a degree that might surprise an Anglophone audience.

The Casasolas—brothers Agustín Víctor and Miguel followed by their offspring—have dominated Mexican photojournalism from the days of the revolution and beyond, into the latter half of the twentieth century, when they published government-sponsored commemorative albums drawn from their vast repertoire of images. As Mraz, and many before him have pointed out, having founded a photo agency in 1912 to supply images to national and international bodies hungry for news and views of the violence, the Casasolas are more readily classified as entrepreneurs than photojournalists. At times giving short shrift to accurate attribution of images to their respective authors, the Casasolas commissioned, purchased, and appropriated photographs, appending their own surname as a shorthand signature that to this day has erased a multitude of other names, including those of Samuel Tinoco, José Mora, and pioneer women photographers, such as Cruz Sánchez and Sara Castrejón. These figures and their allegiances to specific factions and ideological lines within the conflict are restored throughout the pages of Photographing the Mexican Revolution.

Debunking the myth of Casasola and restoring authorship to forgotten figures are thus key goals for Mraz. His approach is also governed by the distinction that he discerns between “history of photography” and “photohistory.” He also differentiates “psychologism,” which he states is a tendency to “make psychological judgments from ‘apparent’ expressions of sentiment” (10), from a commonplace sense of the “semantic debility” of photographs, whose meanings change according to the contextual settings in which they find themselves. For Mraz, doing “history of photography” is about exploring the commitments of the photographers of the revolution, their personal backgrounds, and the stories behind the making of the images. Curiously, he declares that his understanding of photography has not been colored by traditional art history, with its emphasis on issues of “influence.” And yet, as Abigail Solomon-Godeau, Geoffrey Batchen, and other theoretically oriented commentators were long ago at pains to point out, scholars of photography have attempted to negotiate the medium’s status as a legitimate object of study by borrowing auteurist principles from art history. (Drawing primarily on the valuable excavationary work that has taken place in Mexican photo archives, with the exception of brief references to Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag, Mraz gives developments in photography theory a wide berth in this book.) Meanwhile, “photohistory” is “an effort to historicize with photographs, using them as documents that testify about social relations and details of daily and material life,” where photographs have the capacity to “testify to the presence of groups often absent from written histories, such as women and children” (9; emphasis in original). In short, for Mraz, photographs show us things that historians might otherwise overlook.

The broad structure of Photographing the Mexican Revolution is at once thematic and chronological. After the introduction, the first chapter opens during the autocratic, thirty-five year regime of Porfirio Díaz, whose overthrow led to the revolution, and with whose photographic conventions the revolution, to some degree, broke. Where once photography was used to project an image of Porfirian power, as detailed in the second chapter, the revolution saw the entry of the “underdogs” into the photographic frame, and image-makers found it increasingly difficult to hide behind the pretense of neutrality. Chapter 3 focuses on the myth of the Casasolas, which began to establish itself in the aftermath of the violent phase of the conflict, in the 1920s, while chapter 4 charts the process of learning to “photograph war.” The remaining chapters then move through different groups and moments in the revolution: the representation of the southern Zapatistas (chapter 5); the reactionary interlude of the presidential usurper Victoriano Huerta (chapter 6); the “caudillo of the cameras,” Pancho Villa (chapter 7); through to the “advantages of photographing the Constitutionalist movement,” the group that ultimately triumphed and therefore features most prominently in the photo archives of the revolution (chapter 8). Finally, the book closes with an epilogue that explores those images, such as that of Villa and Zapata in the National Palace, that have become key icons of the revolution, endlessly reproduced across a range of media.

If it were a photograph, Mraz’s book would be a panorama or a series of snapshots, rather than a close-up. It ranges widely, and, to mix the media of my metaphor, it offers broad brushstrokes; or, to employ Mraz’s own metaphor, it is a “map indicating possible roads on which to advance study” (8). In the absence of a basic “back-of-the envelope” sketch of the revolution as historical event somewhere in the opening chapters, I did, however, wonder how accessible it would prove to newcomers to the conflict, who might find themselves at sea with the rapid introduction of a succession of events and personages. As a reader reasonably familiar with both the historical narrative and the images it generated, I found myself longing for more detailed analyses that might elucidate the complex role photography played in the construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction of history (45). One step toward achieving this would have been greater attention to the contextualizing settings in which the images were reproduced at the time of the conflict.

To be sure, Mraz provides abundant information, not only about the identity of the photojournalists, but also about the kinds of news outlets in which they published their images, particularly in the illustrated press (La Semana Ilustrada, La Ilustración Semanal, El Universal Ilustrado, etc.) and newspapers (El Imparcial, El Heraldo de México, El Liberal, etc.). However, rarely are these settings illustrated or commented upon in detail in the text, which on the whole reproduces the photographs from archive prints, rather than providing examples of how and where they were published at the time of their making. This is a pity, as many of these settings are fascinating and complicate readings of the photographs themselves. One partial exception in the book is figure 3.1. It features an image captioned “Children sob next to executed Zapatistas, Ayotzingo, Morelos, January, 1913,” which was published in Novedades on January 22. Here we catch a glimpse of the way in which the press routinely framed photographs, both graphically in the form of (to modern eyes) curious, hand-drawn frames, and also textually, through captioning, where the cutline “THE HUMAN BEAST IN AYOTZINGO” is a clear example of the vilification of the Zapatistas in the capital’s press. True, a cropped version of this image focusing on the crying children and the coffin-bound corpse reappears in a later chapter, “The Zapatista Movement and Southern Cameras.” Mraz comments, “Novedades attempted to determine the reading of this photo by accompanying it with a reference to “the Zapatista bandits executed in the same town in which so many misdeeds were committed” (97). After remarking that we are today accustomed to such scenes from “Vietnam, Yugoslavia, Iraq, or any other unfortunate part of the world,” he goes on to conjecture, “It is impossible to imagine that Tinoco could have remained immune before the scene of children sobbing, their faces full of terror, next to their father’s body; the boy’s gaze beseeches compassion” (98).

In the chapter on photo icons of the revolution, Mraz comments on the trajectory of the famous image that has come to be known as “Adelita,” featuring a soldadera (or female participant in the struggle, a role that ranged from camp follower through to active combatant) in the door of a train. He draws on Miguel Ángel Morales’s excavation of this photograph, in which Morales locates its original site of publication in the pro-Madero newspaper Nueva Era; after this point it disappeared for thirty years, before cropping up in a wealth of settings, including on a poster circulated by independent sex workers in Mexico City in 2008. Mraz laments, “Without identifications that ‘anchor’ photographs to their reality, their aesthetic force generates myths, and they become decontextualized symbols that disfigure our understanding of the past” (240). This is true up to a point; but it also misses the intriguing point about the relationship between photography and history. By tracing what Elizabeth Edwards, in Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums (Oxford: Berg, 2001), called the “social biography” of photographs, we can tap into the work that photographs do; this work involves not disfiguring but rather reconfiguring understandings of the past as they traverse time and space.

Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons rewards readers with a rich array of images from this most photographed of conflicts, and restores authorship to the myriad photographers who risked their lives to cover the various factions involved. As a map of the photographic representation of the revolution, its scale tends toward the panoramic. It nevertheless constitutes an essential resource for those seeking to zoom in and detail the contours of the war, its protagonists, and visual legacy.

Andrea Noble
Professor of Latin American Studies, School of Modern Languages and Cultures, Durham University, UK