Mexico through the lens

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John Mraz has written a valuable history of photography in a country that has pioneered the medium in Latin America

 

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Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity
John Mraz
2009, Duke University Press
344 pages

Reviewed by Eli Gardner

JOHN MRAZ’S groundbreaking study takes a sweeping look at the development of visual culture from its inception with daguerreotypes and cartes-de-visite to digital photography and modern cinema. It is a hefty undertaking, yet in this pioneering work he has carried it off with great finesse and accessible prose.

In his introduction, Mraz warns the reader that he will employ what he terms an eclectic approach to the study of the images in Mexico. The author’s previous interests and research can be observed: one can note the influence of his monograph on the work of Mexican photographer Nacho López and of the issue on Mexican photography that Mraz edited for the journal History of Photography.

In a field that has received such minimal exposure outside its own country (and within, some might argue), the sheer quantity of material available makes it tempting to attempt to write about everything possible in an effort to document the essential. Nonetheless, this text successfully walks this delicate tightrope and weaves Mraz’s interests into a coherent chronologically-structured and useful history.

The first of the book’s five chapters departs from just prior to the era of Benito Júarez when the first photographs began to circulate in Mexico. Mraz continues through the period of Maximillian and Carlota and comments on how the cartes-de-visite (a small photograph of oneself or something unique) was in vogue and was able to offer us a portrait of Mexican elite and other aspects of society – such as pulquerías (that would later fascinate Edward Weston).

Mexican Revolution

The author then dedicates a chapter to the visual elements of the Mexican Revolution and how certain elements of it, such as Pancho Villa’s battles and executions, became some of the first known war footage. Chapter three pauses briefly from photography to centre on Mexican cinema’s golden age. The text reveals how, during this time, many directors strived faithfully to represent mexicanidad and how they struggled to do this. Likewise, Mraz charts the rise to fame of classic Mexican film stars such as Cantinflas y María Felix as their rising profiles fixed them for ever in the country’s cinematic history.

The “Mexican Miracle” during the middle of the twentieth century coincides with the emergence of many important figures in photojournalism: the author focuses on los hermanos Mayo, Ismael Casasola, Nacho López, and Hector García among others. As Mraz has shown in past publications, this topic is one of his strengths. He describes the development of the photoessay and the photoreportage genres in Mexico as well as the publications that distributed them to a hungry public, and examines the reasons for their eventual demise. Finally, he concludes with a section that discusses some of the advances in visual culture in Mexico since 1968. Most of his focus is on reactionary cinema such Rojo amanecer and El violín, although he also includes information about the growing role of women in photography and the two most significant films that cover Frida Kalho’s life.

While Looking for Mexico encompasses a vast amount of information, the author demonstrates a keen talent for writing about photohistory. As a photohistorian, he is reassuringly sceptical about many modern uses of photography in the writing of history. In a world that is increasingly visual, he asks us to view the limitations of photography and cinema as well as questioning the motives of photographers, film-makers, actors, editors, and others who control what we see and consider to be historical.

Mraz is painfully aware that Mexico, along with Egypt, has been an important focus of photographers and the search for the exotic since the beginning of photographic history. His book challenges the reader to see beyond the exoticism often offered (by foreign and national image-creators alike) to encounter a more faithful image of lo mexicano both in history and culture.

Looking for Mexico strives to assist its reader in comprehending not only past and present manifestations of visual culture in Mexico but also to trace its roots. That said, Mraz’s study dedicates less space to the portrayal of women than men, although he does devote significant space to female film stars and commenting on notable women photographers such as Flor Garduño, Graciela Iturbide, and Mariana Yampolsky as well as their forerunner Bernice Kolko.

Additionally, as the book states, if in Historia Gráfíca de México women represent less than 5 per cent of the content, Mraz’s work significantly improves on that figure.

Looking for Mexico is clearly written, thoroughly researched, and will be of great value to the reader who desires to know more about Mexico through its visual history or to understand the factors contributing to portrayals of mexicanidad through images.

Eli Gardner is an academic who teaches about Latin America

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