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Photographing the Mexican Revolution

Photographing the Mexican Revolution
Commitments, Testimonies, Icons

With almost 200 photographs, many never before published, and an authoritative text that delves into the motivations and aesthetics of the photographers who took them, this is the most ambitious and historically accurate visual record of the Mexican Revolution.

Series: William and Bettye Nowlin Endowment

April 2012
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327 pages | 8 x 9 | 197 duotones |

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Content from "Photographing the Mexican Revolution"Content from "Photographing the Mexican Revolution"Content from "Photographing the Mexican Revolution"Content from "Photographing the Mexican Revolution"Content from "Photographing the Mexican Revolution"

The Mexican Revolution of 1910–1920 is among the world’s most visually documented revolutions. Coinciding with the birth of filmmaking and the increased mobility offered by the reflex camera, it received extraordinary coverage by photographers and cineastes—commercial and amateur, national and international. Many images of the Revolution remain iconic to this day—Francisco Villa galloping toward the camera; Villa lolling in the presidential chair next to Emiliano Zapata; and Zapata standing stolidly in charro raiment with a carbine in one hand and the other hand on a sword, to mention only a few. But the identities of those who created the thousands of extant images of the Mexican Revolution, and what their purposes were, remain a huge puzzle because photographers constantly plagiarized each other’s images.

In this pathfinding book, acclaimed photography historian John Mraz carries out a monumental analysis of photographs produced during the Mexican Revolution, focusing primarily on those made by Mexicans, in order to discover who took the images and why, to what ends, with what intentions, and for whom. He explores how photographers expressed their commitments visually, what aesthetic strategies they employed, and which identifications and identities they forged. Mraz demonstrates that, contrary to the myth that Agustín Víctor Casasola was “the photographer of the Revolution,” there were many who covered the long civil war, including women. He shows that specific photographers can even be linked to the contending forces and reveals a pattern of commitment that has been little commented upon in previous studies (and completely unexplored in the photography of other revolutions).


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  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction
  • Chapter 1. The Porfiriato: From the Studio to the Street
  • Chapter 2. Representing the Revolution
  • Chapter 3. The Myth of the Casasolas
  • Chapter 4. Learning to Photograph War
  • Chapter 5. The Zapatista Movement and Southern Cameras
  • Chapter 6. Photographing the Reaction
  • Chapter 7. The Caudillo of the Cameras?
  • Chapter 8. The Advantages of Photographing the Constitutionalist Movement
  • Epilogue: The Icons of the Mexican Revolution
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • Index

John Mraz is Research Professor at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (Mexico) and National Researcher III. Among his books are Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity; Nacho López, Mexican Photographer; La mirada inquieta: Nuevo fotoperiodismo mexicano, 1976–1996; and Uprooted: Braceros in the Hermanos Mayo Lens.


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The armed struggle in Mexico from 1910 to 1920 offers an exceptional case of revolutionary photography. But before examining the singularity of the Mexican experience, we should ask, "What are we talking about when we talk about 'revolutionary photography'?" A primary instance—and one relevant to the task I carry out in this book—is the imagery produced during armed movements that have the objective of radically transforming the existing socioeconomic and political structure, and which defeat the old regimen to implant a new order. Now, not all the photography produced during this period was made by "revolutionary photographers," because that concept would be limited to those committed to forces of genuine popular mobilizations. There have been few revolutions, and even fewer that have been covered extensively by photography; it could well be that we would find no more than the Mexican, the Soviet, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, the Cuban, and the Nicaraguan revolutions. Moreover, the photography of these conflicts has been little studied in terms of authors and their allegiances, while discussions of the images' contents are often uninformative and/or erroneous.

The concept of "revolutionary photography" is usually applied to photos made after the conflict has ended. In a strict sense, this would be "postrevolutionary photography," because the imagemakers did not have to risk their lives on deciding to which side they belong. This photography could be considered "revolutionary" because the societies are in the process of constructing systems that are profoundly different from those that existed before combat began. These photographers participate in the cultural effervescences, identifying social problems, suggesting ways to resolve them, and celebrating—in a few cases, constructively criticizing—the advances of the new societies. In Mexico, the individual about which most has been written in relation to this type of imagery is Tina Modotti; in the Soviet Union, the photographer who has received the most attention is Alexander Rodchenko; and in Cuba, the imagemakers that most stand out are Korda (Alejandro Díaz Gutiérrez), Raúl Corrales, Osvaldo Salas, and Mayito (Mario García Joya).

This term has also been employed in an intrinsic sense in relation to those photographers who have metamorphosed the medium itself. Sometimes they have been linked to transformative situations—for example, Modotti and Rodchenko; in other occasions they have been influenced by these visual climates of opinion, as were Edward Weston and Paul Strand in Mexico of the 1920s and 1930s. Manuel Álvarez Bravo is the Mexican who best represents this third instance because his modernist stance in opposition to picturesque and pictorial photography transfigurates the folkloric. His is the most progressive way of incorporating Indianist elements, which are at the center of lo mexicano in the postrevolutionary period.

It is not my intention in this book to examine either postrevolutionary photography or that which innovates the medium. This work centers on the photography made during the period 1910 to 1920—above all by Mexicans—in an attempt to discover who made these images, why, to what ends, with what intentions, and for whom they were taken. It seems clear—once we leave behind the myth that Agustín Víctor Casasola was the photographer of the revolution—that many others covered the long civil war. Some of them were linked to certain groups, and in the course of this project I have discovered a pattern of commitment that has been little commented upon in previous studies (and completely unexplored in the photography of other revolutions). I believe that specific photographers can be linked to the contending forces in broad strokes—and with strong possibilities of erring—in the following way: Manuel Ramos was the preeminent photojournalist of the Porfiriato; the agency of Heliodoro J. Gutiérrez was linked to the Maderista movement both on the northern frontier and in Mexico City, making it the first photographic protagonist on the side of the revolutionaries; Gerónimo Hernández was a Maderista imagemaker during the truncated presidency; the photographer most engaged with the Orozquista rebellion seems to have been "El Gran Lente" (the Great Lens), Ignacio Medrano Chávez; Amando Salmerón was the photographer of Emiliano Zapata, although there were other photographers connected to that movement, among them Cruz Sánchez and Sara Castrejón (one of the few women to participate with a camera); an individual named Hernández appears to have been the imagemaker for Domingo Arenas, an agrarian revolutionary from the Puebla region; Eduardo Melhado may have photographed reconstructions of La Decena Trágica (the Tragic Ten Days) and thus could be considered as having been a Huertista; the Cachú brothers, Antonio and Juan, were the photographers closest to Pancho Villa; and although the Constitutionalists had many imagemakers, Jesús H. Abitia has been considered the Constitutionalist photographer.

How did they express their commitments visually? What aesthetic strategies did they employ to take sides and offer their bit to the struggle? What identities and identifications were generated with their images? What sorts of fears must have been associated with appearing in photos, taking them, signing them, and circulating them? How did the "visual economy" function in terms of production, distribution, consumption, and conservation, both immediately and in the long run?

That which is really novel about Mexican photography during the armed struggle is the fact that photographers were committed to revolutionary groups that were at war with each other. Hence, the term "revolutionary photography" is problematized, because the images of the Gutiérrez agency or Gerónimo Hernández are as "revolutionary" as those of Medrano Chávez, just as Abitia's are as "revolutionary" as Salmerón's or the Cachú brothers', despite the war that their armies waged against each other. At the same time, many photojournalists worked for illustrated magazines whose owners and editors were generally conservative, even Porfirian; however, the periodicals were chameleon-like, changing their lines to adapt themselves to a turbulent situation. Perhaps the foreigners were the only ones able to be impartial (and not always); among them, Hugo Brehme stands out.

In this study I highlight the commitments that I have been able to uncover. The revolutionary situation required, on occasions, that photographers identify with one or another group. At the same time it offered them the opportunity to use their artistic and technical capacities to express themselves—and to have their material and equipment paid for. There is a fundamental difference between those who write and those who photograph: it costs money to create technical images; photographers must face expenses for film, chemicals, cameras, tripods, assistants, and equipment. We must always ask of predigital imagery, "Why was this photo made?"

We could also rephrase Jean-Paul Sartre's famous question about writing to ask, "For whom does one photograph?" The most direct way to demonstrate commitment and have it paid for was to be subsidized by a caudillo; obviously, those that had more money for arms, munitions, and uniforms also had more for photography. Nonetheless, there were other ways to earn a living with imagery and, perhaps, express a point of view: work for the illustrated magazines or in a news photo agency; have a studio or a film business; be employed by an institution with an interest in documenting the war, such as the Cruz Blanca Nacional (National White Cross); and, moreover, sell postcards to publications, or in a store, or to the very people pictured therein as souvenirs.

It would appear that art historian Laura González is correct in asserting that "The revolution was covered by more or less professional photographers." The photojournalists from Mexico City were important in picturing the revolution; for example, metropolitan photographers made about half of the photos in this book. They did not, however, leave the city often, and it is a common misconception that their media sent them to cover the war. In the main, the illustrated magazines got the images of scenes outside of Mexico City from photographers they called their "correspondents," but who were probably the owners of local studios. I believe it could be argued that regional photographers, most likely with studios (but who also sold their imagery to local and national publications when possible), were the ones who really documented the revolution, particularly as they attached themselves to one group or another.

Photographers with a political consciousness must have found that the revolution represented a unique opportunity, for taking photographs is a passionate occupation. Although the evidence of commitment is, at times, circumstantial, we can imagine that many thought in ways similar to the filmmaker Salvador Toscano, who wrote to Venustiano Carranza insisting on the importance of counteracting the effects of films produced for or about other leaders (such as Pancho Villa, who had signed a famous contract with the Mutual Film Corporation): "The masses are easily impressed by movie scenes, which are a faithful copy of life. Their effect can be greater than that achieved with propaganda in a hundred newspapers." Hence, one can imagine a scenario in which commitments were made in greater and lesser degrees, and grew stronger or weaker, according to the relation with the caudillo, the luck of his movement, and the market for images.

It is important to note that the task of establishing commitments is particularly complex because it is difficult to identify the authors of the images. The research of Ignacio Gutiérrez Ruvalcaba on the Casasola Archive in the Fototeca Nacional, a fundamental source of revolutionary photographs, has demonstrated that "Agustín Víctor Casasola erased photographers' names from the emulsion of many thousands of negatives"; moreover, the archive itself "is made up of the work of at least 483 photographers." The problem of determining authorship is not limited to the Casasola photographs, as can be seen in the example of one of the more impactful photos from the Veracruz invasion. The image of a U.S. sailor with his rifle pointing down at some dead Mexicans—as if he were on tropical safari in the arches of the Hotel Diligencias—has appeared repeatedly in the picture histories produced by Gustavo Casasola. Although the usual Casasola practice of not giving credit to other photographers implied that Agustín Víctor had shot the scene, the grain of the copy published in the histories indicates that it was copied from a magazine of that period. At any rate, Casasola did not sign this photo, but other photographers did. For example, the left side of another version bears the following legend: "No. 33, Muertos in Diligencias (Dead in Diligencias) Abril 21-1914, P. Flores Perez, Fot.," indicating that it was taken by Ponciano Flores Pérez, a resident of the port city who was active during the occupation. According to historian Bernardo García Díaz, the area around the Hotel Diligencias was "one of the strongest centers of resistance to the invaders," a comment he placed in the cutline for this photo. But Walter P. Hadsell evidently made the image that the historian published; handwritten on the left side is the label "Hadsell, V Cruz, 3371, Killed in Front of Hotel Diligencias."

Plagiarism of images—by erasing the name they bear and signing them—was constant during the Mexican Revolution (and in the wider world of international photography). Nevertheless, the confusion generated around the authorship of the image made in front of the Hotel Diligencias does not end with the legends scratched into the emulsions. According to Daniel Escorza, the first time this photo appeared was in the weekly La Ilustración Semanal in May 1914; although this magazine sometimes credited its "correspondents," such as Samuel Tinoco, in this case there is no indication of who made the photo. Even if credit for the image had been given, that would not prove who really made it, because one finds photos in the illustrated magazines of the period that seem to have been credited to photographers that didn't make them. That observation notwithstanding, publication of a photo with credit (in a national magazine) offers a surer lead about authorship than a signature on the negative itself; misidentifying an image would expose the periodical and the photojournalist to a complaint, something that could not occur with postcards. There are a number of articles in magazines accusing one another of publishing copyrighted photos, answered by assertions from the accused as to their rights to the images.

The photo of the dead lying before the Hotel Diligencias arches entered quickly into international circles: the French magazine L'Illustration published it in May 1914 without giving credit to any photographer. Years later it was included in the now-classic volume that Anita Brenner brought out in 1943, The Wind That Swept Mexico, in which credit was given to the "Brown Bros." agency; however, the contrast and retouching make it apparent that the image is a copy. Moreover, it is cropped on the left side, where the signature of Flores Pérez or Hadsell might have appeared. Finally, it could have been taken by one of the invaders, because it was a "popular card bought and sent by participants on both sides of the battle lines." These examples of its circulation, both in the period of its making as well as years afterward, reveal how problematic it is to trust what we see on the surfaces of images or what we read beneath them in publications. The semantic debility of photographs in general is also demonstrated—in this case by the fact that we cannot identify which side the photographer was on: it would be just as easy to imagine that a Mexican took it as a denunciation—La Ilustración Semanal published it "in case anybody doubted it"—as it would be to think that one of the invading forces made the image to show a hunter with his trophies.

I have attempted to overcome problems of accurate identification with a methodology that cross-references archival photographs, images printed in illustrated magazines and picture histories, interviews of the photographers, and articles written during the revolution, as well as investigations carried out afterward of both photography and the revolution. I have privileged certain images and constructed a narrative that has been consistently propelled by the visual, given that it is based on a photographic exhibit that I curated, Testimonios de una guerra: Fotografía de la Revolución Mexicana. In this sense it has not been an investigation of the twenty or thirty years that the photography of the revolution deserves, but a study that synthesizes prior research and my own. As curator of the national exhibit for the centennial of the Mexican Revolution, I have written this work in a situation that had its advantages and disadvantages: I was able to enter into unexplored archives, but I have had to write within a time frame uncomfortable for a historian.

On rereading the text, I notice that the words "it appears" or "it seems to have been" crop up repeatedly. Such phrases will perhaps lead readers to infer that my observations are based on scanty evidence, but in some cases that is all that currently exists. Although it is important to open new photo archives—and conserve and circulate the images they contain—in order to have the "previously unpublished photos" about which such an ado was made during the centennial, I believe that it may not be as important as producing previously unpublished research on the archives that we know. We are working in a field with great difficulties, and the only way to advance is to formulate hypotheses and attempt to identify the photographers as well as what they photographed. We must be open to taking risks and committing errors, from which we surely can learn more than our successes. Although I have indicated the mistakes of my friends and colleagues, I hope that I have pointed out more of my own made in previous works. I do not consider this book to be a definitive history of the revolution's photographs and photographers, but a map indicating possible roads to advance in its study.

In developing my analysis, I have been guided by the idea that photographs offer historians a "double testimony": they tell us about the authors who made them, and they show us frozen fragments of past scenes. The categories I use as a heuristic device to distinguish between these two distinct "testimonies" are "history of photography" and "photohistory," which necessarily employ two distinct research methodologies.

Insofar as this work is a history of photography, I have attempted to examine the commitments of the imagemakers in relation to their personal backgrounds, their aesthetics, their equipment, and their experiences during the armed struggle. I have also attempted to unearth the stories behind the making of the photos—why they were made, and why they were made the way they were—even when their authors are unidentified. Writing a history of photography also implies studying the circulation of images. In general, I have focused on the illustrated magazines because they also had their commitments, and reviewing the published images can open important windows onto the photographers and the events depicted. Further, I have carried the issue of image dissemination beyond the period of combat to study the history of five icons of the revolution. I cannot say that my understanding of how to do histories of photography has been much influenced by traditional art history, above all the aspect of that discipline that emphasizes "influences," for I find the concept of "climates of opinion," developed by historian Carl Becker, to be more useful. I believe that the photographers of the revolution existed within a climate of technovisual opinions and possibilities that we are only beginning to understand.

At the same time that I have written a history of the photographs, and of the photographers and their imagery (and its circulation), I have been involved in an effort to historicize with photographs, using them as documents that testify about social relations and details of daily and material life. That is, I have produced a species of photohistory in which I attempt to discover what technical images can tell us about some of the social aspects of this period as a function of their unique capacity for "mechanical reproduction," their indexicality, their "transparency," their capacity to embalm "That-which-was." Photographs testify to the presence of groups often absent from written histories, such as women and children. They also record differences in the armies' armaments, the destruction of the bombings, and life in the camps and on top of the train cars, among other things. In this enterprise I have had to base my identifications largely on those provided by Gustavo Casasola in his picture histories; he lived during the revolution and knew how his father, Agustín Víctor, had identified the images. Although I recognize that his works contain significant errors, they have served as a point of departure that I have corrected from other sources.

I have also attempted to draw out meanings in photographs by adding another level of testimonies, those of participants in the revolution. These texts are situated in an oblique relation to the images; that is, they do not derive from the pictures, but are included in an attempt to suggest ways of seeing them that go beyond simple description.

We confront a unique problem in both history of photography and photohistory: photographs are polysemic, and they can be used to illustrate anything. Whether they are too "thin" or too "thick" is a crucial theoretical question In other words, are the connotations and denotations of photographs so fickle because these images are semantically weak, and hence can be assigned any meaning by accompanying text, or because they are so full of information, so replete with so many possibilities, that they offer themselves to seemingly infinite readings? Whether resulting from one or the other instance, the only solution is to historicize photographs by embedding them in the contexts from which they came, as well as those which have given them subsequent meanings.

One of the great temptations of historians who use photographs in their analyses is that of psychologism, or making psychological judgments from "apparent" expressions of sentiment—for example, deducing depression from a non-smiling face. The classic example of this is Michael Lesy's Wisconsin Death Trip, in which the historian juxtaposed photographs of deadly serious people in Wisconsin around 1900 with state reports, news items, and stories of epidemics, suicides, homicides, insanities, bankruptcies, arson, early deaths, and ghosts. He concludes, "If a man didn't kill himself or if a woman didn't murder her own children, the countryside [offered] two varieties of psychic identity … The character type of genteel success now described as obsessive-compulsive, and the character type of failure now called paranoid." Historian Robert Levine also fell into this temptation in describing the reaction of the Brazilian underclass to being photographed: "Some lower-class men and women stared at the camera listlessly; others appear to be carefree. Whites, who were usually European immigrants, and blacks, likely slaves or ex-slaves, showed similar degrees of weariness, but whites usually wore shoes and were better dressed."

Although histories of photography and photohistories are related to the study of the mentalities of the imagemakers and the photographed, it is crucial to insist that using photographs to document mentalities is completely different from arguing for psychological readings of them. Mentalities are long-term, deeply ingrained sociocultural patterns, whereas psychology, at least as it appears in photographs, is an immediate emotional state: sadness, joy, disappointment, chagrin. The problem with this approach becomes obvious if we consider exposure times. When films and lenses were slow, people did not look happy because they could not hold a smile for the length of time required; it became a blur. Thus, they necessarily had to maintain a straight face (something perhaps a result as well of posing's ordeals). Today, however, exposure times are usually in the range of from F1/250 to F1/60 of a second. Obviously, no one could seriously propose to make a psychological analysis based on such a tiny fraction of time, although the photographs of Zapatistas in Sanborn's restaurant lure us to do so.

The Mexican Revolution occurred just as photography was being defined as a medium. In the same way that we find horses next to airplanes, and ancient cannons on the same battlefield as modern artillery, one sees a great variety of photographic equipment: old and heavy cameras together with the new, lighter, more portable ones that became available as the revolution advanced. Wars stimulate technological development, and U.S. preparations to enter World War I, and that cataclysm itself, produced dramatic advances in photographic equipment. Many photojournalists used reflex (single-lens reflex) cameras, which could be carried and operated in a hand-held fashion, enabling photojournalists to go to the news rather than wait for it to come to them and their stationary apparatus; the even more portable Graflex camera was employed at times. The reflex cameras offered more mobility and the capacity to capture action; the visor on top allowed photographers to focus on subjects without covering their heads with a dark cloth. The other camera employed by professionals during the revolution was the view, which required the use of a tripod. Some photojournalists—above all the older ones, such as Manuel Ramos—used view cameras; however, these were generally favored by studio and postcard photographers, probably because they were, in the words of photo historian Naomi Rosenblum, "an instrument of great sensitivity and precision, provided the subject was immobile." Finally, Kodak Brownies must have been popular among the wealthy and the middle class, but it appears that they did not document the war; moreover, there is no evidence that the common soldiers of the revolution made the small-format photos taken during World War I by soldiers from more-prosperous nations. The differences between the cameras determined, to some extent, whether one captured combat scenes or was limited to posed groups, and the degree to which photos were spontaneous or directed. If, however, the variations between the cameras produced different kinds of photographs with their particular aesthetics, in the distribution of photos there was much filtration between the genres, with photojournalistic images circulating as postcards and vice versa.

The attitudes of photographers, and the public, were as important as the technology. For those with pretensions—and informed about international movements—Pictorialism represented the way to elevate photography to an art in order to legitimate it, particularly that which was made in the studios. For example, photojournalist Ezequiel Álvarez Tostado, editor of the news magazine La Ilustración Semanal, published covers with soldiers posing in the midst of cactus and the national flag which have no credibility for our eyes (see Figure 6-29). Photo historian Marion Gautreau has explained this phenomenon, noting that "It was habitual for the photographers to pose soldiers (or individuals disguised as such), so as to offer images more acceptable to what the editors and readers expected to see of the armed struggle, images that were almost impossible to capture on the battlefield." Nonetheless, at the same time photojournalists were creating their own space thanks to the increasingly sophisticated equipment, the innovative formats of the illustrated publications, and modern culture's appetite for the realist effect. This confrontation between art and documentary resulted in codes of realism that varied greatly, much the way that premodern and modern elements rub up against one another in photos of the conflict.

Readers may be surprised at the "primitive" aesthetics of many photographs. It is important to remember that most of these pictures were made by provincial studio photographers and photojournalists who were largely inexperienced in covering live news. It appears that photographing combat was "very nearly impossible" at this time, and that many photos that purport to be of troops going "over the top" were in fact training exercises. Photo historian Susan Moeller evidently expected to find more interesting imagery than she discovered while investigating the photographs of a war that was taking place at the same time:

What seems so disappointing about the World War I photographs is the near-total absence of either a sense of the horror or the thrill of the danger. The photographs are remarkably static—more so than the camera technology insisted. They portray neither a sense of emotion nor one of movement. No photographs were published during the war of individual faces showing the glazed eyes of the shell-shocked or the naive look of the recruits.

According to historian of photography Jane Carmichael, "Very little has been written on the photographers of the First World War." Despite that deficiency, it would appear that they belonged to essentially three groups: official imagemakers attached to the armed forces, photojournalists, and amateurs. Press photographers were severely restricted by the commanders and largely excluded from the most important battle area, the Western Front. "Most journalists were not allowed anywhere near the front … [and] photographers labored under the same—if not worse—constraints." Sometimes they were incorporated, along with other professional photographers, into the services and given commissioned status, but they were subject to very strict military and civilian censorship. Working under the shadow of the censor and ever conscious of what would and would not pass, imagemakers took few controversial photographs; those that were deemed acceptable were "mundane and uninspired." The role of the "embedded" photographers was that of providing images for home-front publications and propaganda material, but there appears to have been little consciousness among the military hierarchy of the importance of photography in the struggle, particularly in the beginning. Carmichael notes that "Despite the shift from hostility to welcome in 1916, it remained fundamental to most military thinking that any form of reporting should be limited and occupy a lowly place in the overall scale of priorities." This resistance to modern media is a crucial difference with the Mexican Revolution, in which all the caudillos understood the importance of projecting themselves and their movements visually.

Another important distinction between the images of these cataclysms is the role of amateur photographers. This group may well have provided the most interesting pictures of World War I, thanks to small, readily available cameras. At times soldiers were encouraged by the press to provide photos for publication; for example, the French magazine Le Miroir offered ten prizes for outstanding photos of the war, with the best awarded 30,000 francs. The freedom enjoyed by amateurs varied according to their commanders, the war zones in which they found themselves, and the time period. They appear to have been most important in the beginning of the conflict: "The first year and a half of the war on the Western Front and at Gallipoli was recorded chiefly by amateur photographers." The most striking of these images were those of the 1914 Christmas truce, which show German and British soldiers fraternizing, but there are many candid pictures of troops eating in the trenches and shielding themselves from the cold, wet mud. Further, while private cameras were increasingly restricted on the Western Front, they abounded in other theaters of war. In contrast, there appears to be very little amateur imagery of the Mexican Revolution, although that may be a function of the lack of research on this aspect. Nonetheless, one can conclude for the moment that while professional photographers were largely excluded or embedded by the armies of World War I, they provided the vast majority of imagery of the Mexican Revolution.

Comparing photographs is a methodological key to analyzing them, and another obligatory parallel is with the photography of the Soviet Revolution, which began in 1917. Unfortunately, this imagery appears to have been little studied, and I am left with the necessity of making impressionistic remarks based on one photohistory that uses images to illustrate a text, and in which no photographers are identified. Despite these limitations, it would appear that these pictures were taken by professional photographers who carried relatively sophisticated cameras. This is clear, above all, in the capture of movement within the frame, an aesthetic characteristic of modern (1930s on) photojournalism. In pictures probably taken by military photographers, soldiers attempt to flee the German advance, their legs blurring against the ground behind them. One of the most famous of this revolution's images, shot from on high on 17 July 1917 in Petersburg, shows demonstrators running away from machine-gun fire.

Other photographs of the Soviet Revolution that spark interest are those of prerevolutionary squalor, such as people sleeping in crowded cellars and eating in filthy dining halls; these images are reminiscent of Jacob Riis's work in the United States, and of those made by John Kenneth Turner in Mexico. It is difficult to imagine the public for whom these photos were intended. There are many images that document destruction, executions, mounds of cadavers, and the hunger faced by the populace, who evidently were reduced to cannibalism at times. The participation of children and women (sometimes as combatants) is also depicted, at times as refugees in flight. Some photos that purport to be of combat are in fact training exercises; others may be of actual fighting, but taken from the air. There appears to be little amateur photography, and the identification as to commitments will have to await studies of the different factions' media.

Perhaps the most accomplished photographer of the Mexican Revolution was a German who came to live in Mexico, Hugo Brehme, for whom I acquired a new respect in the course of this project. He had studied photography in Erfurt, Germany, at the beginning of the century and afterward joined a geographic expedition to German colonies in Africa, but he caught malaria and had to return to his native country. His liking for hot lands led him to travel to Veracruz in 1906; he went on to Mexico City and remained there. A particularly gifted technician, with an eye for exotic beauty, he would in the coming years turn out to be one of the most important photographers in Mexico. Although much research is still to be undertaken, the surviving photos indicate that he must have covered the revolution extensively. He took photos of the centennial, and of the demonstrations when Porfirio Díaz fell on 25 May 1911; of Maderismo in power, the Tragic Ten Days, the U.S. invasion of Veracruz, and the entrance of the Constitutionalists, as well as the Conventionists, into Mexico City in 1914; he also photographed different groups around the city, notably the Zapatistas. In the 1920s and '30s he constructed what some scholars of Mexican photography consider to be "a graphic system of lo mexicano," creating a "visual vocabulary" of mexicanidad that constitutes "the base of today's national identity." His romantic and bucolic vision was expressed in a nineteenth-century style that would be directly confronted by the modern photography of Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, and Manuel Álvarez Bravo.

The Mexican Revolution received extraordinary coverage by photographers and cineastes—commercial and amateur, national and international—from its very beginning. The battle for Ciudad Juárez in May of 1911 attracted some 1,500 "Kodak fiends" from El Paso, who daily went down to the Rio Grande or stood in relative safety on rooftops to shoot the action. As the struggle developed, photographers and filmmakers poured into Mexico to document the world's first great social conflagration, taking advantage of the relatively free access to the action, especially compared to the strict censorship exercised during World War I. Film historian Jay Leyda reflected on the exceptional documentation of this war in modern media, stating that he had once fantasized about making a movie that would "attempt to bring together the newsreel footage of this world-shaking event, filmed by cameramen sent there from every film-producing country of the world. I even dreamed of a fascinating world tour, digging in London and New York newsreel archives, finding Mexican footage in Copenhagen and Stockholm é in Berlin and Vienna."

George Leighton selected the images for Anita Brenner's book, and he affirmed that "No revolution has ever been so thoroughly photographed." Art historian Olivier Debroise agrees with Leighton, writing, "Few wars have excited the imagination like the Mexican Revolution. Few have been so extensively represented, so intensely observed." The Mexican Revolution was probably the most photographed of such events for nearly a half century, largely because of its duration; also, its proximity to the United States allowed materials and equipment, and photographers, to enter easily due to the extensive and essentially unguarded border. The Mexican revolt was much longer than the Soviet uprising (which lasted about a year, from February 1917 to March 1918, although fighting continued until 1921), the Cuban struggle of some two years (from December 1956 to 1 January 1959), and the Chinese conflagration, which lasted about three years (from 1946 to 1 October 1949). The Sandinista rebellion in Nicaragua (1962–1979) was of long duration, but there is no evidence of extensive photo archives. I believe that the Vietnamese struggle against France and the United States (1848-1975) must have replaced the Mexican as the most photographed revolution, because of the development of both technology and media consciousness.

What can be argued is that the Mexican Revolution is one which has generated great interest in conserving its images. This interest in conservation has resulted, in part, from public interest in picture histories, but it is also a product of "the perfect dictatorship," the felicitous turn of phrase with which Nobel Prize–winning novelist Mario Vargas Llosa described the rule of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI). The party dictatorship subsidized the construction of a history in images that present it as the legitimate heir of the painful events that produced modern Mexico. Obviously, the winners write history, so it is not surprising that many more photos exist of the Constitutionalist movement than of the other armies. For the same reason, there are few images in the Fototeca Nacional of manifestations supporting Porfirio Díaz, despite the fact that Agustín Víctor Casasola must have made many while working for the pro-government newspaper El Imparcial. The official historiography of the postrevolutionary period gave priority to Constitutionalism among the revolutionary forces and sent the Porfiriato to the cellar of the Black Legend. The visual economy of the armed struggle assured that more images were made of Constitutionalism; photo historian Miguel Ángel Berumen states that they took many more photographs of Pablo González, Venustiano Carranza, and Álvaro Obregón than of Pancho Villa, and, moreover, that the photos of Emiliano Zapata are 5 percent of those made of Villa.

The challenges of this investigation have been several. Our vision of the revolution's photography is necessarily mediated by the fact that we are limited to analyzing the images we can find in archives and those published during and after the armed struggle. The photos we know best are those that a metropolitan photojournalist (Agustín Víctor Casasola) accumulated with a vision to posterior uses—or which a victorious army conserved. Where are those that were hidden out of fear that they would provide evidence of a commitment to a lost cause? The competition between photographers to establish credit for the images complicates the situation, as do prior identifications of authorship, including names they themselves have written over the emulsion. Above all, the extraordinary number of photos of the armed struggle made by so many photographers imposes its own challenges. To a certain point, the visual variety of the mechanical eyes offers a parallel to the cacophony of the revolutionary voices.


“Mraz and his editor at the University of Texas Press have produced a highly readable and lavishly illustrated book, perfect for a broad range of readers. With this book, advanced undergraduates will get an aesthetically rich and authoritatively narrated introduction to the Mexican Revolution, and graduate students will engage with the thinking of a pathbreaking historian of visual culture.”
Hispanic American Historical Review

“The relationship between humans and their environment also plays a role inJohn Mraz's Photographing the Mexican Revolution, which masterfully analyzes the work of revolutionary-era photographers. Widely considered the preeminent expert on the history of Mexican photography, Mraz compiles and interprets more than two hundred photographs from the 1910s, including many hitherto unknown images...For that reason alone, this is a book worth buying.”
Latin American Research Review

“Historians of Mexican politics and society will benefit from this book’s synthesis of the latest research and original analysis.”
Journal of Latin American Studies

“John Mraz is undoubtedly the world expert on Mexican photography. . . . In addition to correcting the historical record and offering a fresh vision of the history of Mexican photography and its links to revolutionary and post-revolutionary governments, Mraz brings to light dozens of photographs that are virtually unknown. His careful exploration of the archives has led him to unearth photographs of almost every single chapter of the Mexican Revolution: from the rise of Madero to the presidency of Álvaro Obregón. American readers will see most of these images for the first time, and Mraz provides an excellent historical and cultural gloss to each of them. Together, these photos—almost 200 in total—provide the most ambitious—and most historically accurate—iconographic representation of the Mexican Revolution.”
Rubén Gallo, Director, Program in Latin American Studies, Princeton University, and author of Mexican Modernity: The Avant-Garde and the Technological Revolution


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