The Edge of Time

[ Photography ]

The Edge of Time

Photographs of Mexico by Mariana Yampolsky

By Mariana Yampolsky

Foreword by Elena Poniatowska

Introduction by Sandra Berler

Afterword by Francisco Reyes Palma

A retrospective of Yampolsky’s photographic work since 1960.

The Wittliff Collections at Texas State University; Bill Wittliff, Series Editor


"This is my country." Mariana Yampolsky knew it the moment she opened her window and saw a bougainvillea blooming against a white wall on her first morning in Mexico City in 1944. Her empathy for the Mexican people and their land has guided her work for more than fifty years, finding expression in books of dramatic black-and-white photographs ranging from her early La casa en la tierra and La casa que canta to The Traditional Architecture of Mexico.

The Edge of Time presents a retrospective of Yampolsky's photographic work since 1960. Reflecting her lifelong concerns, the images capture rural Mexico and its people with respect and infinite care. They function as works of art and as documents of a moment in Mexico's history when lifeways that have endured for centuries face the onslaught of modernization.

Elena Poniatowska has been Yampolsky's friend for many years and, in the foreword, she describes Yampolsky's method of working and includes many quotes from the photographer herself. Sandra Berler provides an overview of Yampolsky's life and the range of her work. Francisco Reyes Palma concludes the text with an exploration of Yampolsky's photographic aesthetic.

  • Foreword by Elena Poniatowska
  • Introduction by Sandra Berler. Mariana Yampolsky: An Artistic Commitment
  • The People: Plates 1-28
  • Their Celebrations: Plates 29-54
  • Afterword by Francisco Reyes Palma. And Thus We Resist Death: The Photographic Cycles of Mariana Yampolsky
  • Notes on Contributors
  • List of Photographs
  • Curriculum Vitae: Mariana Yampolsky Urbach
  • Bibliography

The figure is centered with her back to the camera. Her head is covered in a rough white triangular cloth. Barefoot, she steps away from the viewer across the cobblestones of her village. A rural stillness emanates from the picture; intense light and shadow wash the image. In this picture, Huipil de tapar (a simple cotton garment used as a head covering), photographer Mariana Yampolsky captures a native woman against the foothills and architecture of rural Mexico. It is a timeless Mexican scene, and it invites us to share the photographer's commitment to her adopted country.

Yampolsky, born in 1925 in Chicago and now a Mexican citizen, is a distinguished artist with a long career as an engraver, illustrator, editor, curator, and photographer. Her photography continues her early work as a muralist and graphic artist who combines social and political issues through artistic media. Yampolsky seeks to create art that can be seen and shared by a broad population.

She grew up on her grandfather's 123-acre farm in rural Crystal Lake, Illinois, but her family life was enriched by the presence of artists, scientists, and anthropologists, whose collected artifacts introduced her to primitive cultures. It was a free-thinking intellectual environment in which great value was placed on independence, tolerance, education, and ideas. This stimulating childhood created a lifelong passion for books and reading. She had her own library, enlarged with contributions from her German grandmother, who sent her children's books in German. She attended public elementary school and two years of public high school in Crystal Lake. As a child, Yampolsky attended classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. By the age of twelve she was drawing and engraving in every spare moment.

Yampolsky's father, Oscar Yampolsky, a sculptor, introduced her to photography by allowing her to help develop the family portraits he made with an enormous Speed Graflex. She remembers "watching with fascination as the images appeared like magic in the trays, and this sense of amazement is still with me."

Around 1940, Yampolsky entered the University of Chicago, from which she graduated in 1944 with a bachelor of arts degree in the humanities. At that time, the University of Chicago was one of the most exciting yet serious places for education in the United States. Mortimer Adler's "100 Great Books" course was inaugurated under Robert Maynard Hutchins's tenure as president of the University. Football was banned, and there were no sororities or fraternities. Students who chose to be there were dedicated to bettering society. Yampolsky's personal and artistic development was shaped by the university atmosphere and by the events of her time: the Great Depression, social turmoil, war, and displacement of people.

It was in Chicago that she saw John Steinbeck's film about Mexico, The Forgotten Village. She says she "listened entranced" a few weeks later as Max Kahn and Eleanor Coen, two lithographers, described the Mexican mural movement and their experiences at the Taller de Gráfica Popular (TGP; Popular Graphic Arts Workshop) in Mexico City. These two events determined her future; in 1944 she left for Mexico.

Yampolsky joined the stream of artists who by the mid-1940s had been inspired to live and work in postrevolutionary Mexico. The atmosphere of social and economic reform, the inexpensive cost of living, and the nearness of anthropology, art, and folklore attracted expatriate Americans and refugees from World War II. Many people settled in Mexico out of a desire to leave behind an increasingly materialistic society.

In the 1920s, intellectuals, writers, and artists began shifting away from the heavy European influence that had pervaded Mexico's culture since the arrival of European conquerors. Under Minister of Education José Vasconcelos, the Mexican government supported the creation of Mexican art that would unify social sectors fragmented by the Mexican Revolution. Ideas of art for the populace were openly propagandistic. The government supported the monumental public murals executed by Diego Rivera, José Clemente Orozco, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. The government's goal was to promote art that would address Mexico's historical legacy as well as its current social problems. The intent of this art was to encourage awareness and pride in the people; emphasis was on the identity of a Mexican nation.

In the 1930s, graphic artists who were not necessarily sponsored by the government began to record the economic and social plight of the workers and farming people, and to capture a way of life that was authentically Mexican and untainted by foreign influences. During this decade, few foreign photographers were interested in looking beyond the picturesque or idealized Indian. Two prominent exceptions were photographers Anton Bruehl and Paul Strand, who took a more intimate look at the people of Mexico. Bruehl mainly photographed individuals removed from their historical cultural context. Strand viewed Mexican peasants, ancient walls, and churches with a more critical eye. He also made a politically motivated film titled The Wave, which was sponsored by the Mexican government and dealt with social injustice in a Gulf Coast fishing village. Mexican muralist and graphic artist David Alfaro Siqueiros continued the attack upon naive and folkloric depictions of the Mexican Indian that had made their way into American art and the murals of Rivera. Other American painters, like Pablo O'Higgins and Marion Greenwood, undertook mural commissions of workers and political events. Photographer Edward Weston also lived and worked in Mexico during the 1920s. Although he made abstractions of Mexican folk objects and landscapes, he preferred to focus on classical forms, shapes, and textures. Weston was much admired, but his works show little interest in the cultural and social problems of Mexico that Yampolsky would focus upon.

When Yampolsky arrived in Mexico in the mid-1940s she enrolled in the Escuela de Pintura y Escultura (School of Painting and Sculpture), popularly known as "La Esmeralda." The atmosphere at the school was relaxed, and students were left alone to work. In contrast to the more academic or disciplined tradition of teaching, it was an open system.

The most meaningful influence on Yampolsky in Mexico was her participation in the Taller de Gráfica Popular, a cooperative workshop of printers and graphic artists in Mexico City dedicated to social and political issues. It was founded in 1937 by Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O'Higgins, and Luis Arenal.

The workshop took a strong antifascist stand during the Second World War. Its most active years were part of a tremendously intense period of political ferment in Mexico in which artists played a participatory role. The workshop's heart was shaped by a desire to put its members' creative capacity at the service of the people.

Among her mentors at the Taller were Leopoldo Méndez, whose graphic art illustrated "customs and past times of common folk, re-creation of scenes from the Revolution, and acrid caricaturesque denunciation of contemporary political events," and the painter Pablo O'Higgins, who used his skills as a muralist and printmaker to illustrate social injustice and to advance the cause of labor and the working class. Both men became her lifelong friends.

Using black-and-white graphics, woodcuts, and linoleum cuts, artists produced posters, pamphlets, leaflets, and illustrations for labor and teachers' unions and farmers' organizations. The aesthetic of the graphic artist was shaped by the muralists; by the expressionist lithographs of George Grosz, Kathe Kollwitz, and master lithographer Jesús Arteaga; and by social realism as a vehicle of political expression. This aesthetic combined political propaganda and artistic expression, a philosophy that continues to be important to Yampolsky. After a six-month apprenticeship, she was accepted as the first female member of the Taller de Gráfica Popular. While working there, she earned her living teaching English literature to high school students, and she went on to teach in the initial foreign language program of the National Polytechnic Institute in Mexico City.

The standards were very high at the Taller, and the work was exacting. Each print had to be approved by all the members. As Yampolsky recalls, "The collective nature also extended to our social role as artists. We were more interested in others than in ourselves."

In 1949, Swiss architect Hannes Meyer, the former director of the Bauhaus, asked Yampolsky to photograph the younger members of the Taller for a book, The Workshop for Popular Graphic Art: A Record of Twelve Years of Collective Work. Although she had just begun experimenting with photography, this medium became increasingly important to her work. Mariana was mainly self-taught in photography. While at the Taller she took a short photography course with Lola Alvarez Bravo at the Academy of Fine Arts, San Carlos, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). Bravo may have introduced Yampolsky to a certain vision, a straightforward formal way of constructing a picture within the lens. Bravo observed painters' technical concerns and photographed the way muralists painted. She encouraged a focus on strong light and shadow; on orderly, elegant shapes; on figures framed in doorways and against walls and other architecture, always with reference to Mexico's historical and natural settings. It was nonconfrontational photography. From making black-and-white engravings, Yampolsky understood the great importance of light, volume, and composition.

At the Taller, Yampolsky served as an engraver, and she was appointed the first female member of the executive committee. As curator of exhibitions, she organized and sent collective exhibits throughout Mexico, the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia. Within Mexico, Yampolsky was designer and curator of the twentieth-anniversary retrospective exhibition of the Taller's works. This was held in Mexico City in 1956 at the Palace of Fine Arts under the title Gran Muestra de la Obra del Taller de Gráfica Popular. She was illustrator for the magazine Construyamos Escuelas (Let's build schools), and she designed a poster for the film Memorias de un mexicano, which was among the first documentaries on the Mexican Revolution. She won prizes for a poster in 1952, and for several years was an illustrator in Mexico City for the newspapers El Nacional (1956), Excelsior (1958), and El Día (1962). In 1966, she exhibited in the thirtieth-anniversary show of the Taller at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City.

In 1959, two events marked a turning point in Yampolsky's career. There was a schism in the workshop, and she left the organization along with most of the members. She was invited to work with Leopoldo Méndez in editing art books for the Fondo Editorial de la Plástica Mexicana, a publishing house that he had founded. She collaborated with him on a book about the great Mexican illustrator J. G. Posada and was co-editor and photographer for another book, Lo efímero y to eterno del ante popular mexicano (The ephemeral and the eternal of Mexican popular art), later published in 1970 by El Fondo Editorial de la Plástica Mexicana. To produce this two-volume work that described traditional Mexican dances, ceremonies, and objects of folk art, she traveled all over Mexico for three years, visiting collections of popular art. This was the first professional publication of her photographs. But before the book was published, Méndez died and Yampolsky gave up engraving to become a full-time photographer.

At this point, Yampolsky was able to combine all of her interests—editing, curating, and photography—to encourage the production of popular art in the provinces. Working for Mexico's Ministry of Education, she directed graphic design and photography for natural science textbooks used in grade schools. She created and edited a weekly publication for children called Colibrí, which used the talents of the foremost writers and painters of Mexico. This gave rise to a radio series that she also directed. Over the years, Yampolsky has edited art books, including Diego Rivera's Murals in the Ministry of Education, Children (children pictured in art from the pre-Columbian period to the present), The Imagination of Indigenous Children, and Mexican Toys. She was coordinator of art books on Francisco Toledo, the contemporary painter from Oaxaca, and Pablo O'Higgins, the well-known Mexican painter, lithographer, and muralist.

Experts consider Yampolsky a brilliant curator, and she is widely respected for the exhibitions she has put together throughout the years! The most recent shows she has curated include an international exhibition of Mexican photography for the 150th Anniversary of Photography, Memoria del tiempo (Memory of time), in 1989 for the Mexican Museum of Modern Art, and a retrospective of the work of photographer Enrique Díaz for the Mexican National Archives.

The photographers that Yampolsky most identifies with, for enlarging her knowledge of the world and for their concern with aesthetics and social issues, are Dorothea Lange, Paul Strand, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Brassai, Andre Kertesz, and Henri Cartier-Bresson. Yampolsky says she does not believe women photographers have a distinctive point of view; she thinks that Cartier-Bresson's picture of a father and child, for example, is no less poignant than such a photograph would be if it were taken by a woman. She says that being a woman was never an obstacle within the intellectual and artistic community of Mexico.

In the 1930s and 1940s, women painters, writers, and photographers such as Lola Alvarez Bravo, Frida Kahlo, María Izquierdo, and Lupe Marín (Diego Rivera's first wife) were well known and respected. Women were considered equal to men in this world. She believes Frida Kahlo's popularity abroad has helped Mexican women photographers become better known. She cannot recall ever being discriminated against for being a woman artist. On the contrary, she says she has been encouraged and befriended by men such as Pablo O'Higgins, Leopoldo Méndez, and art historian Francisco Reyes Palma.

The progression of Yampolsky's work from the medium of engraving to the medium of black-and-white photography shows her earnest devotion to the idea of making art available to as many people as possible. Both media allow the artist to make many black-and-white prints. This is important because relatively inexpensive reproduction takes art out of the hands of the elite and makes it more accessible to the larger public. Yampolsky says she is disturbed by numbered prints and restricted editions in photography because these make the images too rare and defeat the potential egalitarianism of the medium.

Like many talented artists, Yampolsky uses her camera as a personal appendage that is always ready to enhance her efforts at writing, editing, publishing, and recording Mexican life. Her books convey themes of and references to history, ancient traditions, and changing culture.

Among these books, La casa en la tierra (The house of the earth), with text by Elena Poniatowska in 1981, and La casa que canta (The house that sings) and The Traditional Architecture of Mexico, written by Chloé Sayer in 1982 and 1993 respectively, are about homes and storage areas of rural Mexico. Tlacotalpan, written by Elena Poniatowska in 1987, is a collection of images of a town in Veracruz. La raíz y el camino (Roots and paths, 1985), with an introduction by Poniatowska, is a selection of Yampolsky's photographs. The Forgotten Estates and Haciendas of Puebla explore the old plantation system. Mazahua documents a village where the women are left behind when the men go off to work in the cities. Thinking About Mexico is a retrospective book of Yampolsky's work published in 1993, with text by Erika Billeter. These publications celebrate Mexico, using Yampolsky's images. She is responsible for monographs on Romualdo García, a turn-of-the-century studio photographer, and on the early-twentieth-century photographer Enrique Díaz.

Throughout her career as a photographer and artist, Yampolsky has been invited to participate in many solo and group exhibitions. In 1976 she exhibited in the first Latin American Photography Colloquium—a significant event that helped create a place for Latin American photographers in the international world of photography. Yampolsky recalls the tough juries and high standards for admission to the exhibitions of the colloquiums. She exhibited in the second colloquium exhibition, Hecho en Latinoamérica in Mexico City at the Palace of Fine Arts, and again in 1985 at the third Latin American Colloquium.

Yampolsky's forays into the countryside are reminiscent of the nineteenth-century itinerant photographers who wandered from town to village taking portraits and creating images as if by magic for special occasions. And her work in the countryside continues the tradition of the photojournalists who documented Mexico's revolutionary struggle. She records the present-day events that are rapidly changing the cultural identity of Mexico.

Yampolsky is at ease with rural people and the countryside setting. She says country people are less likely than city people to mask their feelings. She approaches all rural people, from the child to the worker in the field, with respect, concern, and gentleness. Yampolsky says, "Although I try to be unobtrusive, it is not always possible to pass unnoticed. It pleases me when I am taken for an itinerant photographer and not as an intruder utilizing others for my own ends."

She photographs simply and directly and does not manipulate the image. Her subjects fill the lens. She makes large prints that are rich and dense with detail; they are printed by Alicia Ahumada, who, Yampolsky says, "does it better."

In one of her early pictures, Puesto de naranjas, Axochipan, Morelos, taken in the 1960s during a two-week trip by foot from the coast of Pinotepa through the mountains, the viewer senses Yampolsky's responsible approach and her identification and sympathy with the common man. A close view of a child sleeping against a man's leg—with the man's calloused hand on the child's head, the rough-textured clothes, the barest glimpse of oranges at their feet, the huarache, grass, and wall—all give us a sense of the man's place in his world. The figures and objects are not exotic or strange, the man is identifiable not simply as a Mexican worker; the image is a universal, human one. Certainly this picture reflects in detail what Yampolsky says interests her most in photography: "People and everything the human hand touches."

Each photograph is like a short narrative sentence sharp, composed, and tightly focused. In Crucifixión from 1991, the viewer first sees in the foreground an ancient religious scene: country women, their heads covered with rebozos, gathered near a man portraying Christ on the cross. An automobile intrudes in the background, jarring the viewer back to the present.

The mother and child in Caricia (Caress) from 1990 becomes in an instant a poem of the past, the present, and the future.

When asked if her work reflects Mexico today, Yampolsky replies enigmatically that the moment she presses the shutter button it becomes yesterday's. She continues to be imbued with the social conscience of the Taller and remains a conduit for many people in Mexico who have needed public visibility. She has employed photography to record Mexican history and traditions, to depict with honesty and sincerity the struggle for the well-being of the child, the elderly, the artisan, and the people. As an artist she works side by side with the farmer, with the women of Mazahua, who have seen that the artist can be useful and that photography is a worthwhile career. She has collaborated with the people over many years to produce identifiable pieces of a grand photomural of Mexico that gently combines the poetic and the political.

She has participated in many major international group exhibitions in Mexico City and throughout the world, beginning in Mexico City with a collective exhibit for the International Year of the Woman in 1975.

Mariana Yampolsky's photographs are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art, Mexico City; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.; the Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern & Mexican Photography, Southwest Texas State University, San Marcos, Texas; the Houston Fine Arts Museum, Houston; The Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson; and in private collections. She is married to engineer and agronomist Arjen van der Sluis.

One of the major figures in twentieth-century Mexican photography, the late Mariana Yampolsky was accepted as an integral part of Mexican life and art. She worked since 1944 as an engraver, artist, editor, lecturer, and book designer; but it is primarily as a photographer that she is best known, letting nothing escape her eye—neither the forgotten nor the marginalized—writing in images the story of the country she loved so deeply.

Best Monograph, 1998
Maine Photographic Workshops Golden Light Awards