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date: 23 September 2020

Photography and Cinema in 20th-Century Mexico

Summary and Keywords

Photography, film, and other forms of technical imagery were incorporated quickly into Mexican society upon their respective arrivals, joining other visual expressions such as murals and folk art, demonstrating the primacy of the ocular in this culture. Photojournalism began around 1900, and has formed a pillar of Mexican photography, appearing in illustrated magazines and the numerous picture histories that have been produced. A central bifurcation in the photography of Mexico (by both Mexicans and foreigners) has been that of the picturesque and the anti-picturesque. Followers of the former tendency, such as Hugo Brehme, depict Mexicans as a product of nature, an expression of the vestiges left by pre-Columbian civilizations, the colony, and underdevelopment; for them, Mexico is an essence that has been made once and for all time. Those that are opposed to such essentialism, such as Manuel Álvarez Bravo, choose instead to posit that Mexicans are a product of historical experiences.

The Mexican Revolution has been a central figure in both photography and cinema. The revolution was much photographed and filmed when it occurred, and that material has formed the base of many picture histories, often formed with the archive of Agustín Víctor Casasola, as well as with documentary films. Moreover, the revolution has been the subject of feature films. With the institutionalization of the revolution, governments became increasingly conservative, and the celebrity stars of “Golden Age” cinema provided models for citizenship; these films circulated widely throughout the Spanish speaking world. Although the great majority of photojournalists followed the line of the party dictatorship, there were several critical photographers who questioned the government, among them Nacho López, Héctor García, and the Hermanos Mayo.

The Tlaltelolco massacre of 1968 was a watershed, from which was born a different journalism that offered space for the critical imagery of daily life by the New Photojounalists. Moreover, the representation of the massacre in cinema offered sharply contrasting viewpoints. Mexican cineastes have received much recognition in recent years, although they do not appear to be making Mexican films. Television in Mexico is controlled by a duopoly, but some programs have reached an international audience comparable to that of the Golden Age cinema.

Keywords: Mexican cinema, Mexican photography, Mexican television, the Mexican Revolution, Mexican photojournalism, Nacho López, Hermanos Mayo, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Agustín Víctor Casasola, Hugo Brehme, Graciela Iturbide

The Porfiriato, 1876–1910

Mexican photojournalism began in 1900, and became an important tool of Porfirio Díaz’s dictatorship. Thanks to the subsidies he received from the Díaz regime, editor Rafael Reyes Espíndola imported the best European high-volume rotogravure presses and Linotype machines, which made it possible to publish photographs in Mexican periodicals and to sell them at markedly lower prices than the competition. Reyes Espíndola founded the newspaper, El Imparcial, and magazines such as El Mundo Ilustrado, both based on the modern notion that the truth could be discovered through direct observation rather than informed editorial commentary. However, the newspaper was anything but impartial; it utilized sensationalist photographs of nota roja (police reports) to represent Mexico as a country of disasters: train wrecks, streetcar accidents, fires, thefts, murders, suicides, rapes, and assaults. These morbid tales planted fear in readers and reinforced class anxieties, for the terror of the lower order’s brutality could only be allayed (if momentarily) through the patriarch’s iron fist. The focus differed in the weekly magazine, El Mundo Ilustrado, where the presumed objectivity of photography was fused with the purported impartiality of the new reportage style to prove that the progress and stability alleged by the dictator’s discourse were there for all to see. The imagery of the illustrated serial centered around the “great men” who made Porfirian Mexico, but the magazine also featured photos of high society congregations: banquets, balls, and fiestas, as well as the constant charity fairs that were designed to show concern for the less fortunate. Among the photojournalists working for Reyes Espíndola were Manuel Ramos, a devotee of Don Porfirio, and Agustín Víctor Casasola, who would become a crucial figure in the modern visual culture of Mexico. Prison photography, which had begun in the 1850s, was also a useful tool of social control.

Foreign photographers were important in Porfirian imagery. Guillermo Kahlo immigrated from Germany to Mexico in 1891 and provided photos of prosperous industries and Frenchified houses for books subsidized by the government or entrepreneurs, as well as for El Mundo Ilustrado. He also produced a number of picture albums that offered a vision of Mexico City as the showplace of Porfirian modernity, creating the appearance of a clean and orderly metropolis by shooting the most sanitized and modern areas from above and afar. Kahlo was commissioned by the government to make a visual inventory of all the colonial church buildings acquired under the reform laws of 1857 and to document new constructions. Kahlo remained in Mexico, but other foreigners came and went; among the most important were William Henry Jackson, C. B. Waite, and Winfield Scott, all of whom were linked to a variety of business opportunities often created by foreign investors, including rubber plantations, mines, real estate, tourism, and the railroad. They took an enormous variety of images, but those we find most interesting today—and which have contributed to constructing notions of Mexican identity—are scenes in which people are engaged in making and selling handcrafted articles. Although their motives may have been to entice visitors to exotic (but safe) locales, as well as to celebrate the creation of a new and dynamic Mexico, some of their photographs were indexes of the crushing poverty and underdevelopment in which so many Mexicans lived. Waite and Scott may also have been exploring a well-developed child pornography market in Europe, where erotic postcards of young girls numbered five times those printed of adult pin-ups. One foreigner who went against the grain of celebrating the pictorial duplex of exoticism and modernity was John Kenneth Turner, who transformed the meaning of the typical photographs made by others in his celebrated book, Barbarous Mexico (1910), while providing some of his own images to denounce what he described as slavery in the rural areas and the abysmal living conditions of Mexico City’s poor.

The first public exhibition of film equipment in Mexico took place in August 1896, when the Lumière’s representatives displayed their Cinematographe apparatus. Two weeks later, they showed the first scenes shot in Mexico, which featured “General Díaz Strolling through Chapultepec Park.” Thus was born a close collaboration between Díaz and cinema, as can be appreciated in the fact that the first significant Mexican documentary was made in 1906, when Enrique Rosas filmed Díaz’s visit to the Yucatán. Among fiction films, historical movies were featured. In 1908, El grito de Dolores, a film on Mexican independence, was directed by Felipe de Jesús Haro and shot by the Alva brothers. Filmmakers (and photographers) participated in the sumptuous 1910 commemoration of the Centennial of Mexican Independence; the Cinematographers Union produced a film on the conquest of Mexico, El suplicio de Cuauhtémoc. Some of the Centennial’s filmmakers—Salvador Toscano, Rosas, and the Alva brothers—would soon be important in documenting the Mexican Revolution.

The Mexican Revolution, 1910–1920

The Mexican revolution was one of the most photographed and filmed conflicts in the world; it changed the face of the country. Suddenly, ordinary people appeared in photographs, periodicals, and documentary film, replacing the “Mexican types,” into which they had been shoehorned in the 19th century, as well as the wealthy in their suits and Victorian dresses that had so dominated Porfirian representations; combatants with crossed bandoliers were only the most immediate of the apparitions. The armed struggle received extraordinary coverage, from its very beginnings, by both commercial and private image makers: photographers and filmmakers poured into Mexico to document the 20th-century’s first great social conflagration, taking advantage of the relatively free access to the action. Photojournalists from the United States, among them Jimmy Hare, recorded the Maderista triumph in the north, but, as the war developed, Mexican graphic reporters entered onto the scene. Although Agustín Víctor Casasola was long considered to be the premier photographer of the revolution, recent research in the illustrated magazines of that period indicate that photojournalists Samuel Tinoco, Abraham Lupercio, and Antonio Garduño received many more credits for pictures than did Agustín Víctor, while Ezequiel Álvarez Tostado was much more important in the world of modern media. The photojournalists published their images in magazines such as La Semana Ilustrada and La Ilustración Semanal, but their photos also circulated as postcards. Although a common misconception has attributed the photography of the revolution to metropolitan photojournalists, they rarely strayed far from Mexico City; moreover, the photojournalists reproduced the vision of the media owners and the generally conservative position of Mexico City’s residents. Instead, the revolution was really covered by regional studio photographers, some of whom served as correspondents for the magazines, and others who were committed to the different armies.

Some photographers can be linked to the contending forces. 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 revolutionary photographic protagonist. Gerónimo Hernández was a Maderista image maker during Madero’s truncated presidency. The photographer most engaged with the Orozquista rebellion seems to have been “El gran lente” (Ignacio Medrano Chávez). Although the zapatismo movement was considered formerly to have had little consciousness of modern media, Amando Salmerón was Emiliano Zapata’s photographer, and other photographers were connected to that movement, among them, Cruz Sánchez and Sara Castrejón (one of the few women to participate with a camera). A photographer we know only as Hernández appears to have been the image maker for Domingo Arenas, an agrarian revolutionary from the Puebla region. Eduardo Melhado may have pictured reconstructions of the Tragic Ten Days, and thus could be suspected of having been a Huertista. The Cachú brothers, Antonio and Juan, were the photographers closest to Pancho Villa. The Constitutionalists had many image makers, although Jesús H. Abitia has been considered “The Constitutionalist photographer.” A German immigrant, Hugo Brehme, was among the neutral photographers, and his imagery may be the best of the revolution.

Newsreels about the struggle, as well as documentary compilations, were shown throughout the country and became very popular. Leaders recognized the importance of spreading their images around, as propaganda for themselves and their causes, and so employed cameramen, usually Mexicans, or included them in their ranks. Some cineastes also worked as photographers, and one of the first to enlist was Jesús H. Abitia, probably the only individual to practice extensively both photography and filmmaking, although others were Ignacio Medrano Chávez and Eustacio Montoya. Abitia followed the Constitutionalists around the country, recording battles, triumphs, and camp life, with revolutionary leaders Venustiano Carranza and Álvaro Obregón in the foreground. He edited this documentary footage into feature-length productions such as La campaña constitucionalista (1915) and, although his films no longer exist, the surviving material was eventually made into a documentary, Epopeyas de la Revolución. Salvador Toscano was attracted to the Maderista movement from its beginning; he produced and distributed La historia completa de la Revolución in 1912, later extending it to 1915, upon aligning himself with the Constitutionalists. In 1950, Toscano’s material was edited into a landmark documentary compilation, Memorias de un mexicano. The Zapatistas also had their filmmakers; one documentary, La Revolución zapatista, celebrated that movement, evidently the only such film to be made during the armed struggle by a Mexican about a losing cause. Among the first chieftains to fully grasp the power of transnational media, Pancho Villa signed a contract with the Mutual Film Corporation in 1914 for twenty-five thousand dollars, giving the company exclusive rights to film his battles and executions, which he was obligated to carry out in daylight or to recreate if they could not be recorded; he was also required to wear the uniform invented by the company (although he was only permitted to use it when filming).

Cultural Effervescence in Post-Revolutionary Photography and Film, 1920–1940

A controversy raged among post-revolutionary photographers as to how Mexico was to be depicted. Given the surge of patriotism in this period, it is ironic that the polemic about how best to photographically portray the nation is most easily embodied—at least initially—in the opposing aesthetics of foreigners: on one side, Hugo Brehme; on the other, Edward Weston and Tina Modotti. The positions they represented can be summarized as the picturesque and the anti-picturesque. Brehme, and Mexicans such as Luis Márquez and Rafael Carrillo, were traditionalists who constructed a romantic vision of a bucolic rural Eden absorbed in its nature and peopled by charros and chinas poblanas, regional stereotypes that were transformed into national archetypes. Their aesthetic was at one with their content, using the camera like a 19th-century paintbrush to offer what appeared to be transparent, fine-art inspired images of beautiful, idyllic scenes. Edward Weston and Tina Modotti (and Manuel Álvarez Bravo) were experimenters who broke with painterly notions of art, and sought to establish photography as a medium in its own right, with its own possibilities and limitations. They rejected the picturesque, and focused on modern urban life as found in telegraph lines, typewriters, and toilets, which were represented in a Modernist style.

Arguably the most renowned photographer in the history of Latin America, and certainly the cornerstone of this art in Mexico, Manuel Álvarez Bravo was the first from his country to take an anti-picturesque stance in representing it. Influenced by Weston’s insistence (which he received via Modotti) on the necessity of defining photography’s uniqueness, he participated in the struggle to distinguish it from other visual arts: “Photography has its limits. What is important for a photographer is to know them, understand them precisely, and give them a personal interpretation. Reality itself is one limit that presents photography with specific problems.”1 For example, the inherent otherness of Mexico necessarily appeared when the camera was raised, and it was that problem around which photographers divided. Despite having been attracted initially to the medium by Brehme’s imagery, Álvarez Bravo perfected a much more sophisticated approach to representing his culture. Conscious both of Mexico’s uniqueness and the way in which that has led almost naturally to stereotypical imagery, he swam counter to the stream of established clichés, using visual irony to embody contradiction. In order to say “not picturesque,” Álvarez Bravo displayed the exotic, and then cut back against the expectations awakened by its folkloric elements, thereby taking the image in the opposite direction to critique it. The fact that an image includes both sides of the equation creates a complex situation. On the one hand, it makes the picture more articulate because you can see what is simultaneously being negated; on the other hand, it increases the ambiguity characteristic of photographs.

Among the best films ever made by Mexicans are El compadre Mendoza (1933) and ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! (1935), directed by Fernando de Fuentes. These works do not in any way glorify the revolution, as for example, Miguel Contreras Torres had done in the first sound film made on it, Revolución. La sombra de Pancho Villa (1932). Rather, looking at the movies of de Fuentes in terms of Mexico's best known 20th-century muralists, the films are more in the tone of José Clemente Orozco than of Diego Rivera or David Alfaro Siqueiros: they emphasize the pain and torment, rather than the transformations; they exude a disenchantment with the revolution's shortcomings, instead of celebrating its achievements. El compadre Mendoza narrates the travails of Rosalío Mendoza, an opportunistic hacendado who pretends to be a friend to all sides. When the Zapatistas come to his hacienda, he celebrates their arrival, feeds the troops, and dines the officers under a photo of Zapata; with the Huertistas, he does the same, except beneath an image of Huerta; at the moment the Carrancistas become a force in the area, he buys and exhibits a photo of Carranza. In the end, Mendoza is forced to choose between the sides, and he betrays his compadre, a Zapatista general, rather than his class interests. ¡Vámonos con Pancho Villa! follows the fates of six campesinos, “Los Leones de San Pablo,” who join up with Villa's forces after the occupation of their town by the Huertistas makes life increasingly hazardous. The film demystifies Villa through a complex process of identification and alienation that begins with the title: although Villa is the personage who appears to define the work, he is not the central figure. As the film develops, it insistently cuts back against the very attachment that it fostered through the Leones’ devotion to Villa. In contrast to the vast majority of films about Villa, Vámonos is an anti-epic: it contains all the elements for an epic about the Revolution, but holds Villa-the-legend at bay through a constant distantiation, which is effected through the Leones’ own disenchantment, as well as with examples of Villa's legendary cruelty.

The Institutionalization of the Revolution, 1940–1968

With the arrival of institutionalization—made explicit with the creation, in 1946, of the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI), which imposed a party dictatorship—film and photography lost the power they had during the post-revolutionary effervescence. This can be seen in the portrayal of the revolution by director Emilio “El Indio” Fernández and cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa. In Fernando de Fuentes’ films on the revolution, history is a living mesh that imposes itself upon the lives of those caught in it, shaping their social relationships. With the movies of Fernández and Figueroa, the revolution is converted into a confused tangle of meaningless atrocities, and historical contexts are reduced to “trappings,” ornamental facades that have no relation to the situations they purport to be representing. By removing the social origins of character motivation, Fernández and Figueroa reduce the revolution to a variety of still-life forms, filmed through Figueroa’s extraordinary visual style. One is the natural landscape that, as in picturesque photography, dominates the scene: panoramic valleys marked by the sudden thrust of volcanic formations provide the backdrop; majestic magueys and statuesque cacti jut into the images and frame the protagonists; and over it all, the billowing clouds are made impossibly luminous by infrared filters and curvilinear perspective. Architectural landscapes are also important stages, whether they be long takes of the seemingly endless arches of Cholula’s plaza or the camera’s extended play over the baroque convolutions of the El Rosario chapel. The faces of the stars are yet another landscape. Actors such as María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz were celebrities, and the films of Fernández and Figueroa were designed for them; they generate the identification that makes the public believe in the fictional historical figures they characterize, and they ratify the greatly distorted reconstruction of the revolution, all the while bringing it into the present of their fans’ daily lives.

During the 1940s, the world of celebrities arrived to stay in Mexico, largely fomented by the media culture developing around cinema and the illustrated magazines. The Golden Age of Mexican cinema began in this period, when it was the most prolific film producer in Spanish. Some good comedy was produced, but the great majority of the movies were limited by the constraints of the genre to which they belonged: melodramas, movies about charros and the abject women that are their counterpart, and wrestlers; these genre films were really little more than vehicles for the celebrity stars that appeared in them, and who enjoyed enormous popularity throughout Latin America and Spain. In that sense, as Carlos Monsiváis commented, “It is not really a ‘Golden Age’ of film, but of the public that, among other things, trusts that these idols will clarify how to manage the new forms of life, orienting them in the vertigo of transformations.”2 Moreover, by personalizing archetypes, stars individualize fate, and it is no accident that this occurs at precisely the point at which problems within Mexico are “decollectivized”; the end of class struggle decreed by the ideology of “National Unity” is the first early step toward privatization, both personal and economic. The emergence of stars is one symptom of this process—and of the industry that sprouted to promote them—though they also obviously speak to something very deep in the national imagination that enables the audience to connect with them, and not other actors. Celebrity stars can be studied as expressions of national archetypes: the peladito (Cantinflas), the pachuco (Tin Tan), the charro (Jorge Negrete, Pedro Armendáriz, Pedro Infante), and the long-suffering woman and/or the mother figure (Sara García, Dolores del Río, María Félix). The individualization of these archetypes, their power and depth, depends upon the actors; these stars were somehow able to create public personas of such power that they came to express central features of Mexicanidad for their audience. They were so recognized in this period that they sometimes played themselves, incorporating their names as elements of self-reflexivity that call attention to and play with the virtual world created on screen and in the magazines.

Celebrity stars were touted on the pages of illustrated magazines that, from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s, were the latest fad of modern visual culture. Magazines such as Hoy, Mañana, and Siempre!—all founded by José Pagés Llergo—employed top image makers, including Enrique Díaz, the Hermanos Mayo, Ismael Casasola, Walter Reuter, Nacho López, Héctor García, Juan Guzmán, Rodrigo Moya, and, infrequently, Manuel Álvarez Bravo. By the mid-1950s, television was beginning to provide on-the-spot coverage, in motion and with sound; magazines steadily lost advertising revenue to the new media and were displaced by it. While these magazines represented some of the best journalism in the Americas, Siempre! above all, it is important to bear in mind the degree to which they were co-opted, from top to bottom, by government payoffs. As Moya observed, “During the presidencies of Miguel Alemán (1946–1952) and Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952–1958), the relationship between the press and the state was almost idyllic. The manna of pesos destined to periodicals flowed through strange sewers and circled the pyramid of directors, columnists, reporters, and assimilated intellectuals. Not that the money provided by the government to control the press permitted higher salaries for journalists; rather, they received gifts in a thousand different ways, the better to control them individually. In this complacent picture, the photojournalists also got theirs–closed envelopes at important political acts; air fare, good hotels, and comforts on federal and state government accounts; gratifications at year’s end; and houses acquired at easy credits when they belonged to associations that placed paid announcements supporting the regime. It was the height of the embute (bribe)–the hand of power holding bills extended from behind the backdrop; the trips with everything paid; the open bar, and the procured girls. The periodical’s salary was the least important consideration.”3 Given such a situation, it is not surprising that the presidents were at the marrow of Hoy and Mañana, and around a quarter of all the illustrated articles featured them. The adulation shown the Primer Mandatario was absolute.

Critical illustrated magazines also appeared from time to time. The first such publication was born under the freedom of expression allowed by Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–1940), when Pagés Llergo founded Rotofoto in 1938, the periodical most expressive of the roughhouse give-and-take during Cárdenas's regime, which offered images that rubbed against the grain. This magazine lasted only eleven issues, from May 22 to July 31, 1938, but during its short life it was an agile, provocative, and fundamentally visual attempt to vindicate the place of photojournalists in Mexican publications. Pagés Llergo felt that the period demanded, and would accept, his critical freshness, but his right-wing mindset led him to attack incessantly and personally the labor leader, Vicente Lombardo Toledano, who eventually brought about the magazine’s end. As the governments moved increasingly to the right, some magazines assumed short-lived postures of opposition to the government, the most important of which were Tricolor, Más, and Presente. Tricolor was founded by communists Hernán Laborde and Efraín Huerta, and included contributions by such radicals as José Revueltas and the lithographer, Leopoldo Méndez, as well photographs by the Hermanos Mayo; it lasted four months during 1944. Más is notable principally for the Hermanos Mayo’s critical photoessays on slums and police corruption; its lifespan was a bit longer, from September 1947 to January 1948. Presente, founded in 1948, designed to appeal to middle-class readers, was a moderate periodical that criticized an increasingly corrupt and reactionary administration. Photographs by Arvizu and Legoretta contrasted the opulence in which Alemanista collaborators lived to the shacks and shantytowns of the poor; they also produced several essays critical of child labor. On August 23, 1948, the press that printed Presente was destroyed by twenty armed goons, evidently sent by important figures of Alemán’s regime, and a few months later it expired due to the constant attacks by the government.

Enrique Díaz represented the epitome of the great majority of entrenched press photographers who unquestioningly followed the dictates of president and party. The star of Mexican photojournalists from the mid-1930s to 1951, his entrepreneurial attitude and political position of center-right placed him squarely in concert with the ruling party. However, Díaz took adulation of the president to new levels. When the right came to power in 1940, he became the photojournalist who most appeared in images with the Great Patriarch, whom he adulated in several photoessays. The great scoop of Díaz’s career reflects his political commitment. In the spring of 1938, the caudillo of San Luis Potosí and the last of the revolution’s great military leaders, Saturnino Cedillo, rose up against the Cárdenas government. Cedillo was a warlord with private forces who had founded a highly personal system of cacicazgo (rule) in his state, based on family ties and individual loyalty. This clashed with the new Mexican nation being constructed by Cárdenas, which called for a professional army, corporatist labor-peasant organizations, and the development of a bureaucratized system for resolving differences. The rebellion seems to have been a half-hearted, almost suicidal, effort to defend local identity against an emerging national unity. The magazines of Pagés Llergo made the revolt into news by sending Díaz to cover it for four months, at a time when most periodicals had correctly measured the lack of support for the uprising.

The social consciousness awakened by Cardenist education (as in the case of Nacho López), the experience of growing up miserably poor (as did Héctor García), and the commitment expressed in fighting for democracy (as had the Hermanos Mayo), led these photographers to make critical imagery that contested the PRI’s carefully constructed façade, as the persistence of injustice led to events that demonstrated the limits of the “Mexican Miracle.” López, García, and the Hermanos Mayo took pictures that documented the misery that prevailed in the shanty towns of Mexico City, though only García attempted to contrast that to the wealth enjoyed by others. The Mayo Brothers and García (and Enrique Bordes Mangel) were the photographers who best captured the 1958–1959 strikes, one of the most prominent instances of dissent and social upheaval in Mexico. Railroad and oil workers, teachers and telegraphers, clashed with the police and army for almost two years in an attempt to rid their unions of government-appointed leaders and to regain the right to elect their own representatives. Finally, García and the Hermanos Mayo produced the most powerful pictures of the 1968 student movement, which became the watershed of contemporary Mexican history when the official mask of the regime was torn aside by the massacre of its youth. These photojournalists provided a window—if infrequently—onto the country’s real state, in the midst of a modern visual culture that was marked by wish-fulfillment cinema that avoided reality as carefully as did the nascent television; the newsreels were covertly produced by the United States Information Agency (USIA).

New Ocular Cultures, 1968–present

The student movement and the Tlaltelolco massacre of 1968 marked a watershed in Mexican history, documented by cineastes on both sides of the struggle. The vast majority of footage was taken by government filmmakers such as Demetrio Bilbatúa and Servando González; it was never edited into movies, and has become available only very recently. However, students enrolled in the newly-created film school, Centro Universitario de Estudios Cinematográficos (CUEC), at the Universidad Nacional Autońoma de México decided that the screen was their battleground, and they took over CUEC to produce what is considered to be the most faithful portrait of this period, El grito, directed by Leobardo López Arretche. Composed of four parts that move in a strict chronological sequence—“July,” “August,” “September,” and “October”—El grito hovers between newsreel-like neutrality and agit-prop commitment. The moving footage often appears to limit itself to simply presenting events, a result no doubt of the participation of so many different cameramen with greatly varying experience. However, the edition of still photographs and the sound track are a searing indictment of the army and police, as well as the president and ruling class, for their role in the repression. There is little omniscient narration; instead, the text is largely composed of speeches given at rallies and marches—which seem to have been the organizing principle for López—along with the testimony of the Italian journalist, Oriana Fallaci. Although the track is never in sync with the image, the constant incorporation of source sounds—chants, speeches, singing, shouts, screams, sirens, helicopters, and gunshots—give the appearance of respecting a documentary time-space continuum, though it is unclear whether this is a result of the filmmaker’s attempt to infuse the material with the neutral look of newsreels, his inexperience in directing documentaries, or the influence of the direct cinema that was developing in the United States and Europe, made possible by increasingly lightweight equipment. The fact that it is included among the fifty best Mexican films ever made speaks to its transcendence in initiating a documentary sensibility in the country.

Two very different fiction films stand out for their representation of 1968: Canoa, by Felipe Cazals, 1975; and Rojo amanecer, by Jorge Fons, 1989. Canoa was a product of the cultural policies promoted by Luis Echeverría in 1970–1976, who created a new mode for making movies, that of “package” pictures, which were funded through a novel combination: the Banco Cinematográfico paid the production costs, and the film’s workers postponed their salaries in the hopes of receiving benefits when the pictures prospered. The first package picture, Canoa tells a horrifyingly blood-splattered tale of an ill-fated mountain climbing expedition by five workers from the University of Puebla in 1968. Driven into a frenzy by a corrupt and fanatically anti-communist priest, machete-armed campesinos in San Miguel Canoa attacked the workers, who were eventually rescued by the police. In a sense, the film inverts the roles in Tlaltelolco, depicting the Mexican people as savages that can be held in check only by government force. Rojo amancer dealt directly with the Tlaltelolco massacre; hence it had to be made very cheaply and completely independently of government funding. All the action takes place within the walls of one apartment in the Tlatelolco complex, where one family’s experience becomes a synecdoche for the massacre. The film is a taut condemnation of official repression, with an extraordinary rhythm that sharply fluctuates between the daily life activities of the normal family and the waves of repression that finally destroy that entity. In a certain sense, the director and scriptwriters created a version of daily life photojournalism, in which meaning is developed in relation to the larger whole; as Fons explained, “Rojo amanecer could have been a meaningless film because there is nothing interesting about a family eating, or the children going to school, or the father being a bureaucrat, or the mother being a housewife—their stories are nothing in the face of the massacre; what makes it interesting is that it reflects what is going on outside.”4

Photojournalism that focuses on quotidian events has been a staple of such Mexican photographers as Álvarez Bravo, López, García, the Hermanos Mayo and, most recently, the New Photojournalists. The impulse of New Photojournalism to represent the country in a different way was made possible by the founding of periodicals whose critical perspective had long been wanting in the country’s press. The magazine Proceso had opened the door to contestatory journalism in 1976, but the link to photography was not firmly established until the 1977 birth of the newspaper, Unomásuno; with the 1984 founding of La Jornada, imagery became a fundamental element. These newspapers offered opportunities unique for graphic reporters: they participated in the editorial process, could sometimes propose their own assignments, and they retained the rights to their negatives. At the same time, the pages of the dailies were opened to pictures not directly related to hard news, and they published many images of daily life activities. Among the most important of the New Photojournalists are Elsa Medina, Pedro Valtierra, Marco Antonio Cruz, and Francisco Mata Rosas. Inclusivity is the concept that seems to best encapsulate this photojournalism during its acme, 1984–1990. Their emphasis on the quotidian allowed the common people of Mexico to appear in the media alongside male politicians. Their visual questioning of presidential authority brought the formerly all-powerful, untouchable figure down to earth, while their rejection of the PRI’s party dictatorship inaugurated spaces for a political pluralism. Their search for personal expression linked photojournalism to the broader art world, and they have exhibited their imagery in photo galleries, published them in book-length photoessays, placed them on posters, and even seen them reproduced in murals. Finally, the entrance of women into the field redefined what was formerly an exclusively male environment and perspective.

Women photographers and their photographs of women are redefining the machista ideology that has been a center of Mexicanidad. In some instances, they have followed the familiar road of folkloric essentialism. The Mexican most given to the stereotypical representation of her culture is Flor Garduño, who has recently decided to forego any pretense of documentary work by concentrating on her internal voyage. The most important photographer today in Mexico is Graciela Iturbide, and some of her imagery revolves around folkloric themes, to which foreign audiences are attracted because they are exotic. Iturbide’s most explicit expression of Mexico’s otherness is a documentary project on the city of Juchitán, Oaxaca, in which the photographer collaborated with the renowned Mexican writer, Elena Poniatowska, to produce the book, Juchitán de las mujeres, a paean to a mythical matriarchal society. It is difficult to analyze her photos of Juchitán outside of the book’s narrative, although the women did not work together in Juchitán. It should be noted that Iturbide is a wonderful photographer of her own society, and she has also demonstrated the capacity to capture the cultural blending that is so typical of today, as in Mujer ángel (Woman angel, 1980), a picture that shows a Seri Indian woman in traditional raiment running into the infinite desert, a portable radio-cassette player in hand. Here, Iturbide created an allegory for the very process that she had observed of the dramatic adjustment of Seri Indians, from a life of nomadic artisanal production to their integration into commercial capitalism. However, if you want to sell to foreign audiences (including agencies such as the Guggenheim Foundation, from whom Iturbide received a grant 1988), you must give them a Mexico that is dramatically different from their own countries, a Mexico that they have come to expect to see, thanks to exceptional picturesque image makers such as Hugo Brehme, Luis Márquez, Emilio Fernández, Gabriel Figueroa, and Bernice Kolko, among others.

The pioneer of digital photography in Mexico is Pedro Meyer, who created the bilingual site, “Zonezero: From Documentary to Digital Photography,” in 1993. His images often raise doubts about the act of representation, calling attention to the fact that they are constructed, and putting into question the notion that photography is somehow an objective window onto the real world. They are postmodern in fomenting incredulity, in opposition to the believability that was the ideological bedrock of technical images since their invention around 1839. While Meyer uses digitalization to reveal the reality of image construction, Francisco Vargas employs a documentary style in his fiction film, El violín, to uncover a Mexico that really exists: “The hand-held camera, the non-professional actors, the lack of special effects, and the form in which it is narrated are all resources to make it look like a documentary, with the end in mind that people don’t think this occurred in the past, but that it is occurring right now.”5 The film utilizes the certainties of the documentary style to portray the clash between highland campesinos, in rebellion against an oppressive government, and the modern army sent to eradicate them. Because it deals with the controversial theme of military repression, the film had to win thirty-three international awards before it was released in Mexico. Once distribution was undertaken by Canana Films—the company created by actors Gael García Bernal and Diego Luna—in collaboration with Proceso magazine, the movie became an immediate draw in those Mexican theaters where it was shown and was often applauded. In fact, it attracted the greatest number of viewers in relation to the amount of copies being shown. A recent independent documentary film by Maricarmen de Lara and Leopoldo Best, Alaíde Foppa: La sin ventura (2014), powerfully explores the repression in Guatemala, using the disappearance, torture, and death of Foppa, a prominent feminist intellectual who was living in Mexico, as a symbol of the dirty war in Latin America.

The team of García Bernal and Luna, together with “The Three Amigos of Cinema”—Alejandro González Iñárritu, Alfonso Cuarón, and Guillermo del Toro—are among the Mexican cineastas who have redefined the fiction film culture in recent years. In 2000, González Iñárritu made Amores perros, a stark evocation of life in Mexico City told through three interweaving narratives, a technique he also utilized in his following films: 21 grams (2003) and Babel (2006). The latter film, for which the cineaste became the first Mexican nominated for a Best Director Oscar, was composed of four stories in four languages, and set in Morocco, Mexico, the United States, and Japan. His later films are set outside of Mexico, with Biutiful (2008) being shot in Barcelona and Birdman (2014) in the United States. Similar patterns can be seen in the other two “amigos.” Cuarón was first recognized for The Little Princess (1995), but he then returned to Mexico to make the comedy, Y tu mamá también (2001), starring García Bernal and Luna. His most recent success, Gravity (2013)—set in outer space—made him the first Latin American director to win the Best Director Oscar. Del Toro’s best works are situated in Spain during the Civil War of 1936–1939, Devil’s Backbone (2001) and Pan’s Labyrinth (2006). Because all three directors have moved both their narratives and their lives (and, because of security concerns, their families) out of Mexico, there is some question as to whether they are still Mexican cineastes. The extraordinary journalist and editor of Proceso, Julio García Scherer, provocative as always, believes that they do not now represent Mexican cinema: “Where one works is where one’s life is.”6 Nonetheless, the recognition achieved by the “amigos” is one indication of Mexicans’ talent for the visual. Another example is the national and international popularity of “El Chavo del Ocho,” (1973–1992) created by Roberto Gómez Bolaños, which was viewed by 350 million people throughout the Americas and in Europe during the 1970s, and is still seen by 91 million people daily, replicating the enormous international presence of the Golden Age idols. Despite the fact that Mexican television is generally dominated by the wretched fare produced by the duopoly of Televisa and Televisión Azteca, both complicit in maintaining the party dictatorship, there is some hope for the future of still and moving images in Mexico.

Discussion of the Literature

In order to study photographs, they must be made available in archives and published reproductions. Picture histories have been fundamental in circulating archival photos. They began to be published during the Mexican Revolution (1910–1917), and at least ten large series have been produced; some have been republished as many as five times, with print runs as large as 100,000, and on expensive paper.7 The series produced by the Casasola family are exemplary: Historia gráfica de la Revolución Mexicana was expanded and republished many times, eventually reaching 3,760 pages with some 11,500 photos; Seis siglos de historia gráfica en México was also republished several times, arriving at 3,248 pages and around 18,000 images.

In the 1980s, the Fondo de Cultura Económica published a multi-volume series, “Río de luz,” which provided the possibility of seeing a wide range of Mexican photographers; the first volume, on Nacho López, signaled the importance given photojournalism. Unfortunately, the accompanying texts were weak appreciations of the photography, often by intellectuals who had little knowledge of the medium. Exhibit catalogues have generally followed the same pattern; in spite of the fact that the curators were informed, their texts tend to be more celebratory than analytical. In the 1990s, monographs appeared that had been Master’s and Licenciatura theses in Art History, and were generally focused on the 19th century. Around 2000, several monographs on photojournalists were published, among them Nacho López, Enrique Díaz, and the New Photojournalists. These works seem to have stimulated the study of that form, for recent years have seen a flowering of production, on previously little known individuals such as Rodrigo Moya, as well as on specific contexts such as the 1968 student movement. The Mexicanist scholar, Andrea Noble, observed of the Mexican scene that it is marked by “an unusually numerous community of scholars of photography, who are supported by an outstanding structure.”8 Universities and other degree-granting institutions have provided visual historians with positions; they, in turn, have legitimated these studies through their productions, and by directing many students to complete M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in History and Art History, focusing on photography, often on photojournalism. Two journals, Luna Córnea (of the Centro de la Imagen) and Alquimia (of the Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, or INAH), provide space for increasingly scholarly texts; the magazine Cuartoscuro is also an important source. A number of English-language texts have appeared, but they have been predominantly written by scholars from Literary Studies, whose focus generally falls on postmodern “theorizing” rather than on conducting research. The priority given photojournalism can be appreciated in the fact that no in-depth study of Manuel Álvarez Bravo has yet been published.

Scholars of Mexican film face an overwhelming mass of evidence: Mexico has had a prolific cinema industry and has produced more movies than any other national film industry in Spanish. Fortunately, an extensive guide exists in the encyclopedic work of Emilio García Riera. His Historia documental del cine mexicano and similar publications on directors of Mexican cinema—among others, Fernando de Fuentes and Emilio Fernández—have provided a much-needed orientation in the form of the complete credits of all films, synopses of the plots, commentaries by García Riera, and extensive citing of periodical notes and book analyses.9 A more critical approach is provided by Jorge Ayala Blanco; his “A, B, C,” series of books, La aventura del cine mexicano, La búsqueda del cine mexicano, and so forth, have made available a very personal but knowledgeable introduction to Mexican cinema. Interviews with directors, cinematographers, writers, and other participants in Mexican cinema are widely available in book form, as well as periodicals.

Several Mexican scholars have written prolifically about cinema. The early period is covered by Aurelio de los Reyes, in his three-volume work on Cine y sociedad en México, 1896–1930. The most assiduous of those writing on the cinema of the Mexican Revolution is Ángel Miquel in books on the documentarians Salvador Toscano and Jesús H. Abitia, among other contributions. Eduardo de la Vega was based at the Centro de Investigación y Estudios Cinematográficos (CIEC) of the Universidad de Guadalajara, an institute founded by Emilio García Riera. De la Vega has produced monographs on Mexican directors such as Juan Orol, Alberto Gout, Raúl de Anda, Gabriel Soria, Arcady Boytler, José Bohr, Fernando Méndez, Adela Sequeyro, and Raphael J. Sevilla, as well as on the presence of Sergei Eisenstein in Mexico. Gustavo García was long a central figure in Mexican film history, with several works on the Golden Age. Carlos Monsivaís wrote extensively about Mexican cinema, and his works are always full of creative approaches to issues, though they were not characterized by research. Julia Tuñón and Patricia Torres San Martín have explored the gender issue in various books. Among important English-language works are those authored by Joanne Hershfield, Susan Dever, Elissa Rashkin, Charles Ramírez Berg, Andrea Noble, Carl Mora, David Maciel, Sergio de la Mora, and Zuzana Pick. Studies of Mexican television are limited, but the works of Florence Toussaint, Raúl Trejo Delarbe, and Fátima Fernández Christlieb are a good place to begin, as is a biographical study of Emilio Azcárraga.10

Primary Sources

There are hundreds of photographic archives in Mexico, but two massive image repositories are the cornerstone of that nation’s visual history: the Fototeca Nacional (of the INAH) and the Archivo General de la Nación (AGN).11 The Fototeca Nacional began with the Casasola Archive, formed by a family of photojournalists that produced many picture histories. At its core are the half million negatives sold to the government by the Casasolas in 1976, although it also contains the photos of Nacho López, Tina Modotti, Hugo Brehme, C. B. Waite, Winfield Scott, Guillermo Kahlo, and Semo (Simón Flechine), among others, as well the Felipe Teixidor collection, in its million (or so) images. Around half of its photos have been digitalized and more have been catalogued; it can be consulted online as well as at the INAH module in Mexico City. The Fototeca Nacional is part of the Sistema Nacional de Fototecas (SINAFO), created in 1993, which is composed of around 20 INAH archives in which are found 1.6 million pieces of some two thousand photographers, covering the period from 1840 to 2002. The Archivo General de la Nación (AGN) preserves many more images in its Centro de Información Gráfica, perhaps some eight million; unfortunately, almost none have been digitalized. The Hermanos Mayo archive, which was acquired in 1982, contains around five million negatives; fortunately, the Mayos catalogued their photos as they took them, and this provides information rarely found in photo archives. There are many other archives in AGN collections, among them those of Enrique Díaz (Díaz, Delgado y García), C. B. Waite, Winfield Scott, Ponciano Flores Pérez, Eduardo Melhado, Sabino Osuna, as well as images of labor workers in the Ramo de Trabajo. Photos published in illustrated magazines and newspapers can be consulted in the Hemeroteca Nacional. Old photos can be acquired in the Lagunilla.

The UNAM Filmoteca has collections of writings on and by cineastes, as well as many copies of the films. The Cineteca Nacional is also an important depository of both documentary materials and films. Many films are available in DVD reproductions, particularly those of the Golden Age, in commercial music stores. Another source of DVD reproductions are the ubiquitous street stands that sell “pirated” copies of films. This can have unexpected effects. For example, before allowing Rojo amanecer to circulate, the government censured scenes in which the military appeared. However, by the time the censored version was finally released, pirated copies (evidently made from the original in the censors’ hands) were available on Mexico City streets. The director, Jorge Fons, says he considers it a unique case in which he celebrates video piracy, which has allowed the original version of Rojo amanecer to be seen in many parts of the world. The different hemerotecas provide access to the illustrated magazines and newspapers in which appear material related to films. The volumes of Historia documental del cine mexicano by Emilio García Riera contain parts of many original articles, with the sources identified.

Links to Digital Materials

Further Reading

Aguayo, Fernando. Estampas ferrocarrileras. Fotografía y grabado 1860–1890. Mexico City: Instituto Mora, 2003.Find this resource:

Casanova, Rosa. Guillermo Kahlo: Luz, piedra y rostro. Toluca: Fondo Editorial Estado de México, 2013.Find this resource:

De la Mora, Sergio. Cinemachismo: Masculinities and Sexuality in Mexican Film. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006.Find this resource:

Debroise, Olivier. Mexican Suite: A History of Photography in Mexico. Translated by Stella de Sá Rego. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2001.Find this resource:

Del Castillo, Alberto, Ensayo sobre el movimiento estudiantil de 1968. La fotografía y la construcción de un imaginario. Mexico City: Instituto Mora, 2012.Find this resource:

Dever, Susan. Celluloid Nationalism and Other Melodramas: From Post-Revolutionary Mexico to fin de siglo Mexamérica. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Figarella, Mariana. Edward Weston y Tina Modotti en México. Su inserción dentro de las estrategias estéticas del arte posrevolucionario. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autońoma de México, 2002.Find this resource:

Folgarait, Leonard, Seeing Mexico Photographed: The Work of Horne, Casasola, Modotti, and Álvarez Bravo. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008.Find this resource:

García Krinsky, Emma Cecilia, ed. Imaginarios y fotografía en México, 1839–1970. Mexico City: Lunwerg, 2005.Find this resource:

García Riera, Emilio. Historia documental del cine mexicano. 18 vols. Guadalajara, Mexico: Universidad de Guadalajara, 1997.Find this resource:

Hershfield, Joanna, and David Maciel, eds. Mexico’s Cinema: A Century of Film and Filmmakers. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 1999.Find this resource:

Kismaric, Susan. Manuel Alvarez Bravo. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1997.Find this resource:

Krippner, James, et al., Paul Strand in Mexico. New York: Aperture, 2010.Find this resource:

Meyer, Pedro. Truths and Fictions: A Journey From Documentary to Digital Photography. New York: Aperture, 1995.Find this resource:

Monroy Nasr, Rebeca. Historias para ver: Enrique Díaz, fotorreportero. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 2003.Find this resource:

Monsiváis, Carlos. Mexican Postcards. Edited by John Kraniaukas. London: Verso, 1997Find this resource:

Mora, Carl. Mexican Cinema: Reflections of a Society, 1896–2004. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005.Find this resource:

Mraz, John. Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009.Find this resource:

Mraz, John. Nacho López, Mexican Photographer. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003.Find this resource:

Mraz, John. Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons, Austin: University of Texas Press, 2012.Find this resource:

Mraz, John, and Jaime Vélez Storey. Uprooted: Braceros in the Hermanos Mayo Lens. Houston: Arte Público, 1996.Find this resource:

Noble, Andrea. Photography and Memory in Mexico: Icons of Revolution. Manchester, U.K.: Manchester University Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Pick Zuzana. Constructing the Image of the Mexican Revolution: Cinema and the Archive. Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010.Find this resource:

Ramírez Berg, Charles. Cinema of Solitude: A Critical Study of Mexican Film, 1967–1983. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992.Find this resource:

Rodríguez, José Antonio. Fotógrafas en México, 1872–1960. Madrid: Turner, 2012.Find this resource:


(1.) Cristina Pacheco, “En los 80 años de Manuel Álvarez Bravo: ‘Sólo hay que mirar hacia el futuro’,” Sábado, Unomásuno, Suppl. 6 (February, 1982), 7.

(2.) Carlos Monsiváis, “Las mitologías del cine mexicano,” Intermedios 2 (1992), 13.

(3.) Rodrigo Moya, “Las imágenes prohibidas,” unpublished manuscript, 2007.

(4.) Raquel Peguero, “Rojo amanecer no tendrá distribución mundial,” La Jornada 5 (August 1995), 27.

(5.) Francisco Vargas, cited in “Exhibirá Argentina El violín antes que México,” El Universal 4 (April 2007), Section Espectáculos, 15.

(6.) Columba Vértiz de la Fuente, “La evocación cercana de Del Toro, Mandoki y Cazals,” Proceso 1993, (January 11, 2015), 102.

(7.) See my discussion of Mexican picture histories in John Mraz, Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2009), 72–76, 192–200, 226–235.

(8.) Andrea Noble, review of Photographing the Mexican Revolution: Commitments, Testimonies, Icons, by John Mraz,, (February 22), 2013.

(9.) Emilio García Riera, Historia documental del cine mexicano, 18 vols. (Guadalajara, Mexico: Universidad de Guadalajara,1997). Covers the years 1929–1976.

(10.) Claudia Fernández and Andrew Paxman, El Tigre: Emilio Azcárraga y su imperio Televisa (Mexico City: Grijalbo, 2000).

(11.) See Martha Davidson, Carlota Duarte, and Raúl Solano Nuñez, Picture Collections: Mexico (London: Metuchen 1988), for a guide (unfortunately now outdated) to more than 500 Mexican photo archives. A more recent publication is: Dirrectorio de archivos, fototecas y centros especializados en fotografía, Mexico City: Conaculta (Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes), 2001.