Mexico, the Revolution and Beyond:
The Casasola Archives 1900–1940
|Narrator||Welcome to an Arizona State Museum podcast. This podcast is one of five recordings from a panel discussion that occurred as part of the opening celebration for the exhibition Mexico, the Revolution and Beyond: the Casasola Archives 1900-1940, which is on display at the Arizona State Museum from December 3rd, 2009, through January 16th, 2010. For more Arizona State Museum podcasts, go to www.statemuseum.arizona.edu/podcasts or go to iTunes, keyword Arizona State Museum.|
|Lisa Falk, Moderator||
Dr. William H. Beezley is one of the pioneers of Mexican cultural history. He has written or edited 20 volumes of Mexican and Latin American history. His recent publications include Mexican National Identity: Memory, Insinuation, and Popular Culture, Mexicans in Revolution: 1910 1946 and The Oxford History of Mexico. He is Professor of History at the University of Arizona, co-director of the Oaxaca Cultural Institute and visiting Distinguished Professor of El Colegio de México.
Dr. William Beezley.
Thank you very much. First I'd like to acknowledge Lisa Falk and the Arizona State Museum for sponsoring this program. It's a wonderful activity and a wonderful way to begin the celebration of 2010, Mexico's Bicentennial and Centennial of the Revolution and Independence. I would also like to thank, personally, the essential role of the Mexican Council and the Honorable Juan Manuel Calderón for his support in making this possible.
Finally, I'd like to acknowledge that all of you here demonstrate my deeply felt belief that the interest, the curiosity, the respect for Mexican history and culture cannot be blocked by walls on any borders. Thank you for coming. [applause]
My presentation is entitled "Ten Days that Shook the World—The First Time." Many of you no doubt will instantly recognize the first part of my title as a reference to the indelible account of the Marxist Revolution in Russia in 1917, written by John Reed. Jack, as he was called by those who knew him, graduated from college without much direction. Some of us probably remember that experience. [laughter]
He finally decided to become a journalist, an investigative journalist we would call him today. His first major assignment was to look at the Paterson New Jersey Silk Strike. This put him on a course to seek out popular efforts demanding social justice. In 1913, the American Magazine sent him to Mexico to cover the Revolution. He spent four months with Pancho Villa, decided that he didn't like Venustiano Carranza, and then returned to the United States and wrote a book about his experiences ‑ Insurgent Mexico. I recommend it highly to you.
Following his Mexican experience he went to Europe looking for the same adrenaline‑filled opportunities in World War I. But he didn't find them. So he went to Russia where, by coincidence, he arrived in Moscow, where he became a familiar in the inner circles of the Bolsheviks, who in a remarkable 10-day period established the Marxist Revolution in Russia. It made Lenin, who was essentially unknown at the time, a household name, and launched what many believe was the beginning of World Revolution.
Reed, as a foreign journalist, provided a voice for the world's first revolution, first social revolution, in Mexico and for the first Communist Revolution in Russia. His medium was the written word, but in a world in which illiteracy was rampant, the power of technical images had, and still has, a much greater and particular importance. In a nation such as Mexico in 1910, with its high rate of illiteracy, photographs served to make sense of events such as the Old Regime and the Revolution. They served to explain the nature of revolutionary social programs and to legitimate the new revolutionary government.
Mexico has always been a country with a vast, rich visual culture. The revolutionaries decided to capitalize on it. The national rather than cosmopolitan standards and subjects of Western Europe became the subject of revolutionary Mexico. It became part of the expression of the revolutionary heritage and the Patrimonio Nacional if you will. The murals of Rivera, Siqueiros and Orozco, the later lithographs of José Guadalupe Posada, the paintings of dozens of world famous artists such as Rufino Tamayo and the films of "El Indio" Fernández all expressed visually the nature of the Revolution.
Photojournalism played a major part in this. There, later photographs would also serve to question and contest the regime. Above all, the realism of the photograph was crucial in legitimating the ideology that the Revolution represented. Of these national photojournalists, Agustín Victor Casasola was the most prominent. He had been a photographer from the late Porfiriato, as the age of President Porfirio Díaz was known, and later earned the title of the photographer of the Revolution.
Casasola, born in Mexico City, became an apprentice typographer because of the early death of his father. He was 35 when the Revolution began in 1910. He had been a working journalist, including a sports reporter, for 16 years at that point. He had established great interest in the opportunities for photography when he obtained his first camera in 1900. Shortly after that, during the execution in Belen Prison of a Central American president in exile, no photographers were allowed. No reporters were allowed. Casasola built a platform, got on this platform and took photographs, establishing the pattern of behavior for photojournalists from that time forward. [laughter] As we know, any time you try and go somewhere there is usually a photographer in your way, taking images. I hope there are no photographers who are going to start throwing things.
During this time, he worked for El Imparcial, an important newspaper at the time. He quickly became the official photographer of Porfirio Díaz. He never had that title, but that is in fact what he did. He captured a whole series of images of the Porfirian Regime, including Independence Day celebrations, vendors of all types, soldiers, and most interesting as you will see when you look at the exhibit, schoolgirls in math class apparently learning algebra. There is also a photograph that has become a cliche. That is the image of Porfirio Díaz standing next to the Aztec Calendar Stone. This is the most cliche of cliches of Porfirio Díaz and Mexican archeological images.
I could be showing you the images now. But if I did that you would see small, blurred pictures here in PowerPoint and at the end of this session tonight you will be able to walk a short distance and actually see the photographs themselves. And so my goal here is to create a burning curiosity on your part to see what I've been talking about.
After Díaz fled into exile in 1911 and Casasola was there and took a picture of the boat that he left on, Casasola created the "Agencia Fotografica Mexicana" to compete with other photographic enterprises such as the "Sonora News Company" run by a U.S. citizen, Frederick Davis. He hired a group of active photographers including Hugo Brimm, who was a wonderful photographer and one of about 15. Casasola sent these photographers out to take pictures of the revolution. One he sent to take pictures of the Zapatistas. The Zapatistas, like a lot of people in the rural countryside, didn't like it and shot him to death. This is a warning, when you go to Mexico as a tourist you need to ask before you take photographs. [laughter] There are things to be considered.
Casasola, as a photographer, adopted the style of photojournalism in which the image or representation offered an exemplary image. Serendipity offered him the opportunity to photograph Madero as the tragic ten days began. This tragic ten‑day period in 1913 led to the overthrow of the Madero administration, the first revolutionary president's administration, and his assassination. It is the first ten days that shook the earth. Casasola took the last living picture we have of President Madero, and following his murder, Casasola took a picture of the corpse of Madero, and so he took the first photo of the dead President as well.
Casasola's photographs concentrate on the revolution in Mexico City, so its focus on the tragic ten days gives us an image of fighting in the capital city, which rarely happened. Otherwise, his photographs concentrate on troop movements, usually federal troops, but later the revolutionary armies of Villa, Zapata, Carranza and, in reality, the most important, the armies of Obregón.
Beginning in the 1920s, both the Obregón and Calles governments carried out revolutionary social programs, and during that period, Casasola became the official photographer of the Revolution, charting in images for us the changes that brought about a new revolutionary society in Mexico. Thus it comes as no surprise that all of the photos of Obregón and Calles are flattering. There's no criticism in these photos. It shows the President as the heroic mediator between workers and owners of enterprises. His relationship to revolutionary leaders gives his photographs an element of officialism, and at times, a troubling question of authorial intent.
He had a sense early on in the course of the Revolution about the importance of the photographs that he was taking, and those who worked with him were taking. In 1917, when the newspaper "El Imparcial" went out of business, Casasola bought their collection of photographs and negatives. What we have today as the Casasola archive, is the work of Casasola, a number of other photographers, as well as some newspaper archives that enrich our visual images of Mexico during this period.
In the 1930s, Casasola recognized the opportunity to reuse these photographs in books. The best collection we have of Casasola images are in the books that he put together, the multi‑volume Historiographica de la Revolucion and other volumes of that sort, so that you can follow the revolution through images with descriptions. The history that was written for these graphic volumes was by the important writers Luis Gonzales Obregón and Nicolas Rongera.
Casasola died in 1938. His influence, however, lives on in a great many ways. The general public and scholars recognized that these images had great value and great interest. Consequently, other scholars began to use these images in their books. The first of these that I want to mention is the important history of Mexico called The Wind That Swept Mexico by Anita Brenner. She writes about 150 pages of text, and there are about 150 pages of images, most of them from the Casasola collection. This is now a classic work, and the photographs were arranged by George Lighten, assisted by Walker Evans.
Casasola clearly should be recognized not only as an important photographer, but as an important promoter of photographs as well, much like Matthew Brady in the U.S. Civil War. He and his brother, Miguel, as they collected, sold and used the images of 489 other photographers—he defined the basic characteristics of Mexican photojournalism. Their professional standards and traditions were handed down to other major, later photographers including Tina Modotti, Los Hermanos Mayo, Hector Garcia, and Nacho Lopez in the 1950s.
Victor Agustín had four sons, all of whom entered the profession of professional photography. In the 1940s, shortly after their father's death, two worked for "Novidades," an important newspaper, another for "La Prensa, " another newspaper, and a fourth as the photographer for the revolutionary government. They continued to contribute the rich, varied and enduring visual legacy that is contained in the Casasola archive. Casasola felt a great need to preserve this part of Mexico's past.
The photographic archive he assembled with his brother comprises nearly 500,000 images. Just to look through them would take you a good, long time ‑ 500,000 images ‑ and are considered the finest collection available in Mexican history, documenting the first part of the 20th Century. The archives are housed in the Convent of San Francisco, in the city of Pachuca, in the state of Hidalgo. If you go to Mexico City, I recommend taking the trip up, where you can get great sheep stew and go to the archives.
Filmmakers and writers have all taken the images of the Revolution from the photographs in these archives, and it's those images of the times that we have internalized. When you see the photographs tonight, many of you will think, "I know that picture," and you do, because they have been so widely used in textbooks, magazines, and other representations of Mexico.
The photos that you will see tonight include some that have become, while not quite as pervasive as Che Guevara, but equally as important on t‑shirts ‑ extremely popular with tourists ‑ postcards, ashtrays. Even the Zapatista uprising in the state of Chiapas used images from the Casasola archives, samples of which are at the exhibit now on display right here in Tucson at the Arizona State Museum.
Reed, for many, offered a written text on both the Mexican and Russian revolutions, but it was Casasola's photographs that provided images of the first ten days that shook the world.
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