Before photography was invented, only painters were able to produce visual imagery of the world around them. With the invention of the camera, an instrument that allowed people to reproduce a certain image more than once, in 1826, a new era of reflecting reality was born. From then on, it served people for documentation of everything around them from wars, revolutions, social injustice, gender inequality, and poverty to inspiring scenes of friendship, national unity, victory of justice, and hope. As photography possesses a great strength to reveal the truth and deliver important issues to the masses, this form of art have made significant influence on consciousness and opinions of societies throughout the world history.
Photography did play an important part in construction of national identity of the Mexicans. For many countries and for Mexico in particular, photography was not merely a technology for depicting life, it was a powerful mover of changes within the society. As usual, researchers regard the role of Mexico’s men photographers as the key one in documenting the history and culture of the country while neglecting a great contribution of women photographers.
This gendered discrimination should be stopped by reinforcement of studying works of women photographers. Knowledge of the works of Mexico’s female photographers and their contribution to the development of this form of art and documentation of Mexican history is very important as it broadens and extends their knowledge about cultural and social history of Mexico as well as reflects the long hard way to contemporary visibility of female artists in the creative world.
Despite the fact that some researchers argue that men has played a more active part in depicting the country, Mexico’s female photographers such as Tina Modotti, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Sara Castrejon, Kati Horna, Mariana Yampolsky, Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduño and Daniella Rossell have significantly contributed to the development of it as a form of art as well as to documentation of Mexican history and presentation of its national culture and identity.
The Role of Women Photographers in Construction of the Visual Image of Mexicans
Mexico’s women photographers have worked and still are working to promote visual image of the nation and demonstrate how Mexicans view themselves. In fact, most foreigners see the country narrowly, associating it with tequila, tacos, sombreros, and illegal immigrants. In reality, the country is a visually rich place with interesting culture, history, and people. That is why, the images made by Mexico’s photographers help to demonstrate it in all its greatness to the world. Unfortunately, Mexico’s women photographers are still overshadowed by their male counterparts.
Mexico’s Women Photographers at the Inception of Photography
Mexico’s female photographers gained an important place in photography as they participated in photo making from the very inception of this form of art along with their male colleagues. Mexico’s women photographers were co-founders of some of the first photographic studious in the country and brought a considerable increase in production of photos (Warren, 2006). Despite being uncredited with the invention of the technology of picture taking, women have played crucial parts in the development of photography as they worked alongside the pioneer photographers, frequently participated in printing photos for their husbands and photographed by themselves. At the very beginning, many viewed photography as a science rather than as a form of art. It was reaching unseen heights in the period between the late 19th and the first half of the 20th centuries. The pioneer women photographers of Mexico, such as Natalia Baquedano, contributed to transforming portraiture into an artistic depiction of a person rather than simply the process of taking a photo of him or her technically (Werner, 2001, p. 594).
Many Mexico’s female photographers, like Sara Castrejon, Lola Alvarez Bravo, and Tina Modotti among others, started to make photos when this art form was still young and its possibilities were unexplored (Cacucci, 1999). Photography soon became the main way of recording people, culture, and events. The technical improvement of equipment for picture taking made it easier for photographers to take photos outside studios and be more mobile in general, thus, having the possibility to be in the very center of historical events. However, the streets and battlefields were still not for women. Some female photographers had a will to fight social prejudice and were among the first photojournalists, such as Sara Castrejon and Tina Modotti among others. Thus, women photographers had been making important contributions to the development of photography as a form of art from the very creation of this technology.
Gender Inequality and Mexico’s Women Photographers
For a long time, the majority of Mexico’s women photographers were denied to exhibit their works because of their gender. The art of Mexico’s feminist photographers opened new opportunities for other women artists who were invisible within the art world in contrast to their male counterparts. Their photos not only presented the position of these women but also, depicted the struggle of common women to become equal to men. The contribution of Mexico’s women artists to the development of photography is substantial; however, they also did a lot for the struggle for equality of sexes in the country.
Lola Alvarez Bravo
The works of Mexico’s women photographers reflect the efforts of female artists to establish gender equality and visibility in the art world. For instance, Lola Alvarez Bravo, one of the most outstanding Mexican female photographers, frequently experienced unequal treatment throughout her career. Similarly to other women artists who were overshadowed by their more renowned male colleagues, Lola’s work has often been associated with the oeuvre of Manuel Alvarez Bravo, a famous photographer to whom she has been married for several years. It was her husband who introduced her to the camera and taught her some photography techniques. For some time, the couple shared equipment and Lola even assisted her husband in developing and printing his photos. Of course, he was not satisfied with his wife’s longing for photography that was considered a masculine activity at the time. This clash of opinions ended their relationship. Despite the fact that some of Lola Alvarez Bravo’s photographs did depict the impact of Manuel, she found her own style by 1930s as well as her own “thematic repertoire, combining empathy for the working class and poor with criticism of social disparities” (Steele, 2000, p. 59).
In her works, Lola concentrated on portraiture and street photography in which she discovered the world around her. The most interesting aspect of street photography was that women photographers were not supposed to take pictures anywhere else except the studio at the time. The very fact that Lola Alvarez Bravo took photographs in the streets demonstrated her resistance to social norms of the first half of the 20th century and her struggle for gender equality. Alvarez Bravo’s portraits of Frida Kahlo demonstrated the self-assurance and strength of the woman artist’s will (Congorn & Hallmark, 2002). The photographer did not present Kahlo as a victim of the situation (she suffered a lot of physical pain after a bus accident), thus, stating that a woman was not weaker than a man and could be even stronger.
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Like Alvarez Bravo, the other Mexico’s woman photographer, Tina Modotti, was overshadowed by Edward Weston, her lover and teacher. For some time, Modotti followed Weston’s style by creating hard-focus photography. As the time passed, however, she started to establish her own style by filling her teacher’s form with criticism of social order in Latin America. Modotti made a great contribution to documenting of the Mexican Revolution. Her transformation from Weston’s model and pupil to an independent artist and revolutionary has made her “a natural feminist icon from the 1970s onwards” (Dyer, 2004, p. 1).
One of the pioneer Mexico’s female photographers, Sara Castrejon, also faced gender inequality. She was born in 1888 and went to study photography in Mexico City at the age of 18. According to John Mraz (2012), “it was, of course, unusual for a woman to enter into this occupation, and even more uncommon to go off to metropolis to study at such a tender age” (p. 115). She has later made an important contribution to visual history of Mexico by her pictures of the Porfiriato and Maderista troops among others.
Influence of Mexico’s Women Photographers on Development of Photography
Such Mexico’s women photographers as Lola Alvarez Bravo, Kati Horna, and Tina Modotti further developed t photography by experimenting with photomontage and other techniques. Alvarez Bravo’s photography included distinct elements of composition, interesting details as well as fascinating play of light and shadow. She demonstrated her longing for experiments and her ability to influence the advancement of this form of art. Actually, she was a pioneer of photomontage she learnt from Kati Horna (Becker, 2008). At the time, Mexico’s photographers used photomontage mainly in media and advertising. In contrast to them, Lola was brave enough to use this technique in an artistic project. She showed that it could be used in high art. Oliver Debroise (2001) cites the photographer’s explanation of the use of photomontage in her works, “Sometimes I wanted to say something, and photography wouldn’t let me. … So, I would take a piece of cardboard, make a sketch, choose some negatives, print them to the necessary size, cut and glue them [to the paper]” (p. 238). Thus, Lola Alvarez Bravo experimented with photomontage in her works in order to broaden the capability of photography to convey the artist’s message. According to Lynne Warren (2006), Tina Modotti also had “no qualms … about creating a photomontage such as Those on Top and Those on the Bottom (1928) to make her point” (p. 1034). Kati Horna experimented with documentary photography and photomontage, sometimes mixing them with a view to addressing important social issues.
Depiction of Mexico by Female Photographers
Mexico’s women photographers played an important role in depiction of the country’s indigenous people, its culture, the rich and the poor, the Mexican Civil War and other important events. According to Tucker and Campt (2009) the role of photography in illustrating history may have some limitations, but its power of detailed illustration of historical events and people is without doubt great. Mexico’s women photographers showed a more emotional and sensitive side of the history and culture of the country.
Some of them even were the only witnesses with a camera in their hands during very important historical events like Sara Castrejon. According to Samuel Villela, Castrejon was the first women photographer who took a photo of the revolution (as cited in Mraz, 2012) and “she may have been the only Mexican woman to do so; in fact, she may have been the first woman in the world to photograph war” (Mraz, 2012, p. 114). She depicted the poor of the Porfiriato and photographed the combatant Colonel Amparo Salgado, a Mexican female revolutionary, executions, and Maderista troops when they entered Teloloapan, which was “the first photograph of the southern rebellion to be taken” (Mraz, 2012, p. 116) among others. Women photographers Lola Alvarez Bravo and Tina Modotti were among leading figures in the post-revolutionary cultural renaissance of Mexico.
Lola Alvarez Bravo
Among the other renowned photographers of the period, Lola Alvarez Bravo most expressively depicted Mexican life. She is known for “her poignant photographs of Mexican culture and the Mexican people, and especially her portraits of the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo” (Congorn & Hallmark, 2002, p. 1). According to Cynthia Steel (2000), Alvarez Bravo was “one of the first modern Mexican photographers to document popular celebrations, and among the first to explore the rich spiritual life of women” (p. 59).She traveled throughout Mexico, making photographs of its people in their everyday circumstances. Instead of taking staged photographs, Alvarez Bravo tried to catch ordinary Mexicans at work and leisure, in the marketplace and other places. She portrayed people with compassion and demonstrated how the violence of the Mexican Revolution affected their lives (Congorn & Hallmark, 2002). For instance, her photo entitled The Dream of the Poor depicts a little boy that lies asleep in a market surrounded by a number of shoes on sale. This work shows what the life in poverty was like at the time.
Another woman photographer, Tina Modotti, illustrated social inequities in order to expose the flaws of the Revolutionary regime in her works. For example, the cutline to her photo entitled The Protection of Children states, “There are millions of girls like this in Mexico. They labor strenuously for 12 to 15 hours a day, almost always just for food…and what food!” (Warren, 2006, p. 1034). Today, Tina Modotti is known for her involvement in the revolutionary movements in Mexico. Her works recreate atmosphere of this picturesque country of the 1920s and are focused on native people of Mexico and their everyday routine. In her portraits, the author illustrates contrast between prosperous families and poor people. Modotti also worked on project documenting Mexican mural painting in order to preserve them for future generations.
One of the country’s greatest women photographers, Mariana Yampolsky, used camera to capture the countryside of Mexico and cultural richness of its indigenous people (Warren, 2006). According to Debroise (2001), objects the artists photographed were “peeling walls, broken windows, furniture turning to dust, chickens roaming the abandoned rooms with their painted walls, […] old people […] remembering a tradition, […] solitary figures in the gray landscape of the ruined vat rooms” (p. 125). The woman photographer focused her work on native people of Mexico and their traditions, rituals and other elements of their daily life as well as the indigenous architecture. According to National Galery of Canada (2002), “to Yampolsky, the act of taking photographs corresponds to the transmission of knowledge from communities to viewers and the arousal of memory as a metaphor of life” (p. 1). The photographer also paid much attention to women and their place within Mexican society. Yampolsky’s photographs would later inspire such Mexican women photographers as Graciela Iturbide and Flor Garduño.
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The other influential woman photographer, Graciela Iturbide, is known for her documental photos of villages, rituals, and everyday life of Mexico’s indigenous people (Congdon & Hallmark, 2002). For instance, she captured Juchitan, the town with matriarchal order and its Zapotec community as well as documented “the powerful and multi-faceted role of these women as healers, community leaders and merchants” (Warren, 2006, p. 809). Iturbide’s portraits of Oaxaca people are “timeless, showing the strength of simple women and their dignity” (Cave, 2013, p. 1). By her works, the photographer demonstrates the position of women and variety of their roles in Mexican indigenous communities. Silao writes that Iturbide’s photographs “are set in the context of Mexico’s ritualistic theatrical practices, religious ceremonies, carnivals, and everyday Indian life” (as cited in Congdon & Hallmark, 2002, p. 111). In such a way, Iturbide discovers interaction between the present and the past of Mexico, indigenous and modern cultures in it.
In her works, photographer Flor Garduño explores Mexican nature, culture, and the female body combined with a dreamy atmosphere of Latin-American mythology. In fact, Garduño’s works are connected to ancient rituals of her people and femininity of the past and present. Her longing for presenting indigenous people is reflected in her series Bestiarium. According to Peter Standish and Steven M. Bell (2004), this series “features indigenous peoples dressed in the zoomorphic costumes from pre-Columbian rituals, [in these series] indigenous traditions are often integrated with the Catholic faith and modern trends” (p. 284). Standish and Bell (2004) also argue that Garduño “in perhaps an idealized way, […] illustrates the close relationships between mankind, animals, and nature in traditional Mexican culture” (p. 284).In such a way, she blends the past and present of Mexico in order to present complicated and complex modernity.
A modern Mexican photographer Daniella Rossell explores the lifestyle, habits, and traditions of the richest Mexicans instead of documenting the everyday lives of indigenous peoples like many of her colleagues do. As a matter of fact, Rossell’s photographs are “free from interest in folklore and tradition that engaged Mexican art and photography in the past” (Marien, 2006, p. 121). In her series Rich and Famous, the photographer depicts “the wealth accumulated through corruption by the PRI’s leaders and their families” (Gambs, 2008, p. 74) and how the children of the most privileged class of Mexico enjoy it and view themselves. According to Mary Warner Marien (2006), “the women, who sit for Rossell’s portraits are like rare hot-house plants, nurtured in an overheated environment from which they can seldom leave because of the constant threat of kidnapping” (p. 121). Moreover, the photographer’s works are very important ones as with them Rossell opens the doors of the rich that are closed to common people. Marien (2006) states that “while Rossell’d work has been shown internationally, its greatest impact and meaning are found in Mexico” (p. 121). The artist asks the society whether equality in the country exists or not, whether the subjects of the photos are ordinary women or a class of parasites. By touching social issues that are important for Mexico today instead of simply depicting the rich, Rossell calls the Mexicans for a change.
Undoubtedly, some people may argue that men have played a more active part in depicting Mexico. In fact, there has always been more male photographers than women who chose this occupation. However, dominance in number does not mean dominance in the quality of work. Mexican women photographers entered the doors closed to men and explored more emotional perception of the country’s historical events, culture, and people.
Thus, with their works, Mexico’s female photographers have greatly enhanced the development of this form of art as well as documented Mexican history and presented national culture and identity. The knowledge of this contribution is very important for students, scholars, researchers, photographers, and other people interested in the subject since it can broaden and extend their awareness of the cultural and social history of Mexico as well as of humanity in general. The works of Mexico’s female photographers reflect the long hard road to present-day visibility of women artists in the creative world and shows how value systems have been generated in Mexican society over the years. Despite the fact they participated in photo making from the very appearance of this technology, researchers often forget about the importance of their role in the development of photography as a form of art. Such Mexico’s women photographers as Lola Alvarez Bravo, Kati Horna, and Tina Modotti contributed to development of photography by experimenting with photomontage among other techniques. Indeed, Mexico’s women photographers strongly influenced the perception of historical events by the modern public. Sara Castrejon and Tina Modotti took priceless pictures of the Mexican Revolution. Daniella Rossell, Tina Modotti, and Lola Alvarez Bravo communicated the issue of social inequality in Mexico. Such Mexican photographers as Graciela Iturbide, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Flor Garduño, and Mariana Yampolsky preserved the images of indigenous peoples and their culture. Photography has played an important part in depicting of Mexican history and Mexican women photographers continue to influence its visual maintenance.