A groundbreaking work on images
in the work of the Mexican writer Elena Poniatowska opens a dialogue with readers about the use of photography in text
El cristal de las mujeres: Relato y fotografía en la obra de Elena Poniatowska
2010, Beatriz Viterbo Editora
Reviewed by Eli Gardner
STUDIES on Elena Poniatowska’s work have been varied and ever increasing. Alejandra Torres has struck a new cord with her publication that considers the role of images in this writer’s oeuvre. Though this is an area that is possibly often left aside because Poniatowska does not tend to incorporate the use of photography in her novels and short stories, the study of this author’s use of photography in her texts is coming under scrutiny. Articles such as “Revelaciones: Los textos fotográficos de Elena Poniatowska” by Aurora Camacho de Schmidt published recently in América Sin Nombre and “Porque era un tema prohibido” in this year’s edition of the French journal Amerika bring to light the relationship between the written word and the visual image, underlining their importance as we consider the how these texts compliment each other.
While it is true that Elena Poniatowska began to use photographs with her writing while she worked as a journalist for several publications in Mexico City, this book limits the range of writings it studies to the author’s literary production between 1990 and 2000. During this time she produces a reflective piece on the real informant Josefina Bórquez whose life we see fictionalized in Hasta no verte Jesús mío. She creates a moving portrait of the women of the Mexican Revolution in Soldaderas and offers homage to many of Mexico’s important women of the 20th century with Las siete cabritas. It was also in this decade that Poniatowska published her fictionalized biography on Mexico’s often mentioned Italian photographer: Tina Modotti. These are the texts that receive the most attention in Torres’ study and provide important information with regard to how Mexico is perceived both from within and without.
El cristal de las mujeres is the fruit of this Buenos Aires-based academic’s doctoral studies at the University of Oviedo in Spain. As a scholar who has researched, not only in Argentina and Spain but also in Germany and Mexico, Torres’ wide investigative base is evident in her bibliography and in the range of materials with which she refers to when she writes about Poniatowska. As a PhD thesis would, this book demonstrates significant theoretical groundwork and demonstrates a wide knowledge of the period studied and the greater context surrounding Poniatowska’s writing. Each chapter is followed by a generous amount of footnotes that both the scholar and student will find useful.
Torres’ central hypothesis is that, given her aesthetic and social political objectives, Poniatowska needs both the image and the word in order to face the limits of representation (p.15). With this tenet in mind, the author studies both the written text and the visual images it contains. To do so, she employs theory that has been written by others who have explored this field such as Philippe Dubois, Raúl Beceyro, and Roland Barthes. Barthes’ classic study La cámara lucida is particularly relevant to the way in which this author interprets the relation between the written word and the photographic image.
Torres’ topic allows her to write on some of the more notorious cultural figures in Poniatowska’s work. In Luz, luna, las lunitas the author focuses on the images that allow us to see the real face of the woman who became so key to testimonial literature. With it, Torres argues that not only can the marginal speak but that we can also see who is speaking to us and further understand why their voice is not only audible, but also of great value. Torres underlines both the humanity of these subjects and the reality of their physical existence through the use of photography and writing.
While due to permission complications none of Tina Modotti’s photographs appear in El cristal de las mujeres (I am also led to believe that this delayed the initial release of this book as well), the interest in and value of her photographs are evident. In the case of Modotti, Torres argues that as you consider the interface between the fictionalised biography and its subject’s images, it becomes possible to read Modotti’s life through the pictures that accompany each chapter. Thus, the issue of “seeing” is key to Torre’s study. She believes that the “real” that is captured in each photo testifies that “this has been” and that this element allows the reader to “see” better while Poniatowska participates in the regime of the visibility of art (p.150).
Most useful as well is the inclusion of an extensive interview between the Alejandra Torres and Elena Poniatowska. In this conversation we are able to more clearly view the influence of both photographers and writers (and those who were both, such as Juan Rulfo) had on this writer. Poniatowska expands greatly on the role that photography has in her work; how, in some cases, “it saves her work” (p.175) and how in others it complements it.
El cristal de las mujeres is groundbreaking in that it initiates a dialogue with the reader as to the role of photography within texts. While photo historians such as John Mraz and Olivier Debroise have already mentioned their importance to history, Torres argues their value to literature. With Poniatowska’s work, she creates a starting point for what could be a vast number of new approaches to texts with which we are already familiar and those that are yet to come.
Eli Gardner is a scholar of Latin America