How is it that a young man from Eisenach, Germany, came to create an enduring visual mythology of Mexico? Hugo Brehme did just that. A master photographer, Brehme crafted images that embody lo Mexicano: the essence of Mexico. In striking black-and-white compositions, Brehme created an idyllic vision, a way of seeing the country that has been reinforced in photographs, films, and literature for a hundred years. Despite evidence to the contrary, the idea endures. The significance of Brehme's legacy was recognized by UNESCO in 2002 when his photographs were included in the World Memory Program.
Born in 1882 to a middle-class family, Brehme was an adventurous young man who loved hiking in the forests near his hometown. He studied photography in Erfurt, Germany, and in 1899 seized an opportunity to go to Africa, where he worked in the German colonies. He contracted malaria and was forced to return home, only to leave again as soon as his health permitted. This time he went to Central America and Mexico, where he remained from 1905 to 1907. Little is known of these first trips, but his experiences must have been positive since he went back to Germany, married, and brought his wife to Mexico to live. The newlyweds sailed into Veracruz in 1908. The young Mrs. Brehme's first impression was not favorable; the vultures that roosted around the port and in the arcades of the city plaza were upsetting to her, and the couple soon moved on to Mexico City. There was a vibrant German colony there, and it is likely that Hugo Brehme worked initially with one of the German-owned photographic firms in the city, such as the Fotografía Alemana.
Photography was already well established in Mexico when Brehme settled there. Many large studios in the capital specialized in portraiture. Some were quite luxurious, having all the accoutrements (elaborate painted scenes, props, and stylists) found in European and U.S. cities. These permanent establishments followed the earlier pattern of foreign itinerant photographers: typically, these photographic pioneers would place announcements in local newspapers and rent a hotel room to serve as a temporary studio. For a few days or weeks, they would make themselves available to citizens eager to have their portraits made in the fashionable new medium. By the time Brehme arrived, Mexican photographers had also learned the trade and set up their own businesses.
Some photographers, like Brehme, also made photographs of "popular types," the tipos mexicanos. This genre (known as costumbrismo) had been established prior to the invention of photography by foreign traveler-artists who depicted the regional costumes and customs of the peoples they encountered in their journeys. These picturesque subjects were vendors and laborers who practiced traditional trades until modernization made them obsolete: water carriers, lamplighters, and the most exotic of all, the tlachiquero, who used a long gourd to extract sap from the agave plant to make pulque. The Cruces y Campa photographic studio (1862–1877) produced some of the best of these in carte-de-visite format for collectors, who placed the little card-mounted photos into albums. The tipos changed with the times but remained popular. Brehme's gallant charros and glamorous china poblanas attest to the resilience of the genre.
Brehme settled in Mexico during the last years of the Pax Porfiriana (1876–1910), a period of relative stability and rapid economicdevelopment under the iron-fisted regime of President Porfirio Díaz. In its drive to modernize Mexico, the government wanted to attract tourists, immigrants, and, most of all, foreign capital. Photographers found work in commissions to promote the country. Abel Briquet was sent to Mexico to photograph ports for a French shipping company in 1883. He remained in the country and opened a studio in Mexico City where he sold his photographic views (historical buildings, monuments, views, and popular types). He also produced a number of albums. Some of these were commissioned by the Díaz government and document modernization projects. Briquet has been called Mexico's first commercial photographer. In the breadth of his enterprises he can be compared to Hugo Brehme.
The opening of the Mexico Central Railway in 1884 occasioned a series of photographs by U.S. photographer William Henry Jackson, renowned for his images of the American West. Solicited by the railway for promotional purposes, Jackson's photographs were scenes that a rail traveler might see along the route from Ciudad Juárez to Mexico City. The most striking of these are landscapes, like his work for the Union Pacific Railroad through the Rocky Mountains. His focus on this genre and his views of the snow-covered volcanic peaks of Mexico anticipate the interests of Hugo Brehme.
Another of Brehme's immediate predecessors was Charles B. Waite (1860–1929), a California photographer who worked in Mexico between approximately 1896 and 1913. Waite had a studio in Mexico City and produced a large number of views and postcards for the tourist market. He also worked on commission. Employed by the U.S.-owned Chiapas Rubber Company, he photographed scenes of tropical agriculture and the available labor force that potential investors could rely on to move the crops to foreign markets via the newly constructed railways and modernized ports.
Porfirio Díaz was at the height of his power when Brehme established himself in Mexico City in 1908. The Centenary of Independence celebrations were planned for 1910, and the capital was undergoing a massive renovation designed to impress. The Díaz government wanted to make a statement about Mexico's place in the world and its economic potential. There was work for photographers. Hugo Brehme and others received commissions to photograph buildings, monuments, and festivities around the city. The apparent solidity of the Porfiriana, however, was illusory. The end was sudden and for many (including Brehme) wholly unexpected. By 1911 the dictator was exiled and the Revolution was underway.
Mexico City was calmer than the countryside with President Madero in power. That situation ended abruptly on February 9, 1913, with the events known as the Decena Trágica (Ten Tragic Days). The fragile coalition that had supported Madero fell apart. There were armed battles in the city streets, buildings were destroyed, and people were killed. A rightly terrified Hugo Brehme narrowly escaped the violence. At the end of the fighting the president and vice president were murdered and power was seized by General Victoriano Huerta. Brehme made a series of photographs depicting the belligerents and the destruction. He also made photographs of revolutionary groups outside Mexico City, principally the Zapatistas. These were probably either made for or sold to the famous Agencia Fotográfica Mexicana, established by Augustín Victor Casasola in 1911 (1874–1938).As a foreigner, Brehme was considered a neutral party by the revolutionary leaders, who were quick to perceive the usefulness of photography for self-promotion and for publicizing their causes. Brehme, aware that the world was eager to see images of the distant, exotic revolution, was there to provide them.
Being photojournalistic in nature, Brehme's Revolution photographs, particularly the Decena Trágica shots, are exceptional in his body of work. Others, such as his notable portraits of the Zapata brothers and their wives, afforded him the luxury of more careful composition. A famous full-body portrait of Emiliano Zapata is the subject of a long controversy. The striking photograph has been recognized as an inspiration for works by both Diego Rivera and Josá Guadalupe Posada. Initially thought to be the work of Augustín Víctor Casasola, it was later credited to Brehme. At present, its authorship is once more in question. While researchers continue to try to untangle attributions, it is certain that the Casasola archive does contain the work of many photographers.
The population suffered enormously during the Revolution. At one point in 1914, the Brehmes planned to emigrate to the United States. They did not go only becauset they were robbed the night before their scheduled departure and were unable to leave. Even the relatively well-off foreign communities, such as the German colony in Mexico City, struggled to protect its members' lives and businesses. As a member of this community, Brehme enjoyed a ready clientele. The reliable stream of commissions for portraits, social events, and pictures for the German School was an important part of the studio's income. There was another highly skilled and successful German photographer working in Mexico City at that time: Guillermo (né Wilhelm) Kahlo, father of the famous painter Frida. Apparently the two men were not on friendly terms. Possibly Kahlo felt that Brehme was encroaching on his territory as a renowned photographer of colonial buildings.
Brehme was very fortunate--and astute--in having an excellent staff. Wilhelm Weber ably managed the business and Luis Quintero, a young Mexican photographer who had worked for the prestigious studio of Emilio Lange, took on portrait and event assignments. This freed Hugo Brehme to do the work he loved and for which he is best known today: photographing colonial architecture, the everyday lives of indigenous peoples, and--above all--landscapes. His photographic excursions took him everywhere in the country, with the exception of the U.S.-Mexico border area. As a result, he was able to create a large and well-ordered collection of images representative of Mexico. These images were advertised in publications for tourists such as the popular Terry's Guide to Mexico and Frances Toor's Guide to Mexico. In addition to photographic views and postcards, Brehme sold high-quality photographic equipment and supplies and provided darkroom services. The quality of his printing was considered not only the finest in Mexico but equal to the best work abroad.
After 1920, with the Revolution ended and stability more or less returned to the country, Brehme began to plan his magnus opus: a book of his Mexican photographs. He had a ready archive of images and his German connections enabled him to have the book produced in Berlin. Brehme personally oversaw the printing, taking his family to Germany while Wilhelm Weber managed the business in Mexico. It was possible to finance such a fine edition abroad only because the German economy was in a shambles after World War I. The record inflation rate gave the peso an unheard-of buying power.
México pintoresco was published in 1923 in Mexico with 197 photographs beautifully reproduced in sepia tones and captioned in Spanish, German, and English. There are accompanying texts on the capital, the surrounding areas, the volcanoes, the interior, archaeology, and Indians. The archaeology section was written by German scholar Hermann Beyer. Others are unattributed, except the preface and the text on Indians; these are credited simply to the firm "Fotografía Hugo Brehme." It is believed that Wilhelm Weber actually wrote the texts, although Brehme would certainly have read, possibly edited, and approved his work. Brehme's images are indexed and presented in groups that largely correspond to the texts. There is one notable exception: there is no group of Indian images, but rather one of tipos: chinas and charros, tehuanas, an aguador, and the tlachiquero. México pintoresco was well-received and earned Brehme considerable prestige and recognition. He considered the book his greatest accomplishment and remained proud of it throughout his life.
A variation on the book titled Mexico: Baukunst, Landschaft, Volksleben (Mexico: Architecture, Landscape, Popular Life) was published in Germany in 1925, part of Wasmuth's Orbis Terrarum series of photographic books of the world. This volume was also published in Spanish, French, and English editions, the latter titled Picturesque Mexico, causing confusion with regard to the 1923 Mexican book. A comparison of the photographs and structure of these books reflects the different interests of their target audiences: tourists and sophisticated readers in Mexico City for the 1923 volume and Europeans and U.S. readers outside the country for the 1925 book. Although there is some overlap, the German edition contains more photographs and a single text, scientific in tone, by a German professor. Greater emphasis is placed on the volcanoes and pre-Columbian civilizations, less on Mexico City, and none on the tipos. Brehme's photographs also appeared in magazines. As early as 1917 his work appeared in National Geographic. He was never a staff photographer nor on assignment to illustrate articles; rather, he sold photographs from his extensive archive for use in the articles. To have his work published by such a prestigious international magazine added to his reputation. His work was also published in numerous books on Mexico, mainly in Germany and the United States. He also contributed to government publications such as Los caminos de México (Roads of Mexico). Brehme's postcards and published photographs disseminated his vision of Mexico far and wide and made a significant contribution to the promotion of tourism, an important and growing sector of the Mexican economy in that period.
Brehme's photographs also appeared in magazines. As early as 1917 his work appeared in National Geographic. He was never a staff photographer nor on assignment to illustrate articles; rather, he sold photographs from his extensive archive for use in the articles. To have his work published by such a prestigious international magazine added to his reputation. His work was also published in numerous books on Mexico, mainly in Germany and the United States. He also contributed to government publications such as Los caminos de México (Roads of Mexico). Brehme's postcards and published photographs disseminated his vision of Mexico far and wide and made a significant contribution to the promotion of tourism, an important and growing sector of the Mexican economy in that period.
Brehme's vision of Mexico has universal appeal. Although aware of his adopted country's problems, he chose to present what was beautiful, unique, and distinctive about Mexico. He crafted his images with the greatest care, both in terms of composition and printing. The result is seductive: graphically strong images in a lyrical Pictorial style. That style had its origins in the nineteenth-century Romanticism that infused German culture when Brehme was a young man. Romanticism exalted in Nature, glorifying it as something sublime beside which humankind and its ephemeral works were dwarfed. The works of German Romantic painters such as Casper David Friedrich (1774–1840) would have been known to Brehme, as would the writings of the great explorer and naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), whose publications were widely available and very influential.
Pictorialist photographers sought to achieve the look and status of fine art (e.g., painting) for their works. To achieve this they employed various techniques. Dramatic lighting—as in images made at twilight or with watery reflections, for example—evoked a still, fin-de-sièècle mood. The nostalgic quality was heightened by the use of toners or processes such as gum bichromate or platinum printing that rendered a soft, painterly look. Although considered Mexico's first and finest Pictorialist, Brehme did not apply the style equally in all of his work. The photographs in his two photography books are the best examples of his use of Pictorialism. His tasteful interpretation of the style avoided the excesses that could be perceived as melodramatic in the work of lesser photographers. Still, by the 1920s, Pictorialism was becoming somewhat old-fashioned and new trends in artistic photography were emerging. Modernism was transforming photography and gained impetus in Mexico with the presence in that country of Edward Weston from 1923 to 1926. With his companion Tina Modotti, Weston quickly became part of the circle of avant-garde artists in Mexico City. These were the early years of the effervescent period known as the Mexican Renaissance, when the government sought to unify the country by, among other means, commissioning public art. Diego Rivera had returned from Paris in 1921, the mural movement began, and the world's eyes were on Mexico. Accordingly, there was an influx of artists, writers, art lovers, and tourists eager to participate in or observe the artistic and social happenings in post-Revolutionary Mexico. New ideas were in the air.
In 1928 the Primera Exposición de Arte Fotográáfico Nacional in Mexico City marked a public confrontation between the old and the new photography. Included were works by photographers as stylistically diverse as Hugo Brehme and Tina Modotti. In an apparent spirit of inclusiveness, judges awarded top honors to both photographers. Also receiving positive notice in the press review was a young amateur, Manuel Álavrez Bravo. The following year another exhibition was held at the Galería de Arte Moderno. The photographs were selected by artists Carlos Mérida and Carlos Orozco Romero; their criteria, Modernist in tone, stipulated that the photographs should be an expression of the particular nature of the medium and not imitate traditional fine arts, i.e., painting. Although Brehme's style did not change, he again was awarded a prize. However, by 1931, things were different. In a watershed event, the Cementos Tolteca company sponsored an important competition for a photograph to commemorate the opening of their modern new factory. This time the old Pictorialist style was passed over in favor of a strikingly Modernist image by Manuel Álavrez Bravo.
Commercial photography also changed significantly in the 1930s and '40s. The big studios were in decline, victims of technical advances and economic shifts. The availability of handheld cameras to the growing middle class put many studios out of business. An influx of inexpensive street photographers who were undercutting prices provoked the ire of the newly founded Asociación de Fotógrafos de México. These controversies were aired in the organization's official organ Helios: Revista Mensual de Fotografía, to which Hugo Brehme contributed translations of German professional articles. As economic strains increased, along with the political tensions of the times, the tone of the publication became more aggressive, even racist, striking out at "foreign competition." Eventually, the strident tone lessened and Helios was replaced with Foto in 1936. It should be stressed that Brehme was always apolitical. Like many members of the German community in Mexico, he would have been loyal to the German culture and country he knew, not to the Third Reich.
Mexico entered World War II in 1942. As in the United States, citizens of Axis countries fell under suspicion. Brehme, being both a German and a photographer, landed on the dreaded blacklist that appeared in the newspaper. The results could have been disastrous for him, since a wartime decree prohibited citizens of Axis nations from managing businesses in Mexico; they were to be replaced by nationals or citizens of neutral countries. Arno Brehme, Hugo's son, was convinced that the United States was responsible for the list. He went to the American Embassy and argued to have his father's name removed, only to find it replaced by his own. Perhaps because his long-time manager Wilhelm Weber was Swiss, Hugo Brehme escaped losing the business.
During the 1940s Brehme's health began to fail. Plagued by asthma, his excursions became fewer and he relied increasingly on his son. Arno had joined the business in 1933 after studying in Munich and was an excellent photographer in his own right. He took on much of the studio's work and also drove his father so that Hugo no longer had to rely on trains and mules to get around the countryside. In 1943 the eruption of Paricutín, a spectacular volcano in a cornfield in Central Mexico, greatly excited Brehme, the old alpinist, and provided the occasion for some equally spectacular photographs. Because the fumes and ash made extended proximity to the volcano impossible for the ailing photographer, Arno made the pictures. But it was decided that Hugo should sign them, given his greater fame and the resulting enhanced marketability of the images. The Brehme Studio met the worldwide demand for photographs of the event with both postcards and large-format photographs, some in sepia tones or hand-colored. In a few of his more dramatic images, Arno employed techniques that his more traditional father would not have used, such as the use of multiple negatives.
Brehme's last years were difficult: his asthma and resulting confinement led to depression. He was also deeply saddened by the postwar division of Germany. Any dreams of returning in retirement were dashed when his home city wound up in the Soviet-controlled Eastern Bloc. The Brehmes would remain in Mexico, their adopted country. In 1951, Hugo Brehme became a citizen of Mexico, the country in which he had lived, worked, and raised a family for more than four decades. Two years later he died, leaving Arno to continue the business. In step with the times, Arno worked in color and built up an important commercial studio specializing in advertising photography, one of the largest in Latin America. He also made artistic photographs of an abstract, somewhat surreal nature, reminiscent of the Bauhaus work of the 1930s—the period in which he studied in Germany. These were exhibited in a one-man show at the Museo Nacional de Arte Moderno in Mexico City in 1963.
Hugo Brehme's work was largely forgotten until Mexican researchers began to reconstruct the history of photography in their country. The impetus was the acquisition in 1976 of the Casasola Archive by the Mexican government, which in turn led to the founding of the Fototeca Nacional. In the years that followed, numerous exhibitions and symposia were held in Mexico. Catalogues, books, and new periodicals dedicated to Mexican photography were published. Brehme's name and photographs began to reappear. There were important exhibitions and catalogs dedicated solely to his work in 1989 and 1995 in Mexico City and in 2004 in Berlin. A key event in the reevaluation of Brehme's work came in 1990 with the re-publication of México pintoresco. The facsimile edition is augmented with personal remembrances by Brehme's family and business associates. These are especially valuable in providing a sense of the man, as he left only a few letters and no journal of his excursions. The anecdotes reveal that he was well-liked, calm, and determined. Except when working in the field, he dressed formally, wearing a jacket and necktie, and he was never without his hat. He got along well with people in Mexico, who considered him less rigid than some of his countrymen. According to Luis Quintero, his former assistant, Brehme did not think of himself as an "artist," but rather as a serious craftsman of the photographic medium. Quintero remembered him fondly as a "simple man, not boastful. In another important book, Pueblos y paisajes de México (1992), the photographer's grandson Dennis Brehme contributed a text that offers the reader a rare view into the photographer's life, work, and times.
Brehme was a powerful influence on Mexican photography. He was, in the words of the late critic Olivier Debroise, "both the first modern photographer of Mexico and the last representative of its old guard and of a certain nineteenth-century vision. This vision, together with his technical expertise and professionalism, influenced a number of Mexican photographers, filmmakers, and artists. Mexico's most famous photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, considered Brehme his first mentor. As a young man, Álvarez Bravo bought his first camera from Brehme, went on photo excursions with him in the Valley of Mexico, and even worked briefly in Brehme's studio where the older photographer taught him the process of platinum printing. Álvarez Bravo greatly admired the quality of Brehme's printing, which he recognized at the time as far superior to his own.
Less recognized is Brehme's influence on cinema. Gabriel Figueroa, a leading figure of Mexico's Golden Age of film in the 1940s and '50s, acknowledged the importance of Brehme's imagery to his own work and to that of Emilio "El Indio" Fernández. Figueroa and Fernández worked together on John Ford's film The Fugitive (1947). Ford, in turn, went on to direct a series of landmark Western movies that carried forward that vision of Mexico. Somewhat earlier, the great Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein filmed Que Viva México! (1932), in which Brehme's iconic view of Mexico can be seen in the dramatic segment filmed in an agave hacienda in central Mexico.
So how did the young photographer from Eisenach, Germany, become a creator of Mexican mythologies? This happened through a fortuitous intersection of Brehme's personal qualities and the opportunities presented by the times in which he lived. He had an adventurous spirit, the cultural background to perceive Mexico in a particular manner, and the education, skill, and taste to realize his vision. Mexico presented him with opportunities that he recognized and acted upon. Moreover, he was patient and perseverant. The last of these traits was perhaps the most critical: making photographs in Brehme's day was technically difficult, especially outside the studio in the challenging and sometimes dangerous circumstances that existed. Brehme was a determined man and a consummate professional, entirely dedicated to his craft.
Hugo Brehme's photographs are a time capsule. Preserved in them is a vision of traditional Mexico where—on a clear day—you could still see the volcanoes from Mexico City. We can return to that Mexico looking at Brehme's images, even if we were never there. That is his legacy as a maker of mythologies. In his Pictorialist vision, Hugo Brehme created a photographic iconography of the essential Mexico, lo Mexicano: cacti and pyramids, Indian children and marketplaces, the colonial buildings of Humboldt's "city of palaces," and towering above all the timeless snow-capped volcanoes and peaks of his sublime landscapes.