Exhibit highlights female photographers in Mexico
By Jesús Ibarra
On December 15, the new exhibit Otras miradas: fotógrafas en México (Other views: female photographers in Mexico) opened at Museo Casa de la Canal, at calle Canal 4. The exhibition is organized by Banco Nacional de México, through Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C. It features photographic works by women in Mexico from the end of the 19th century through the mid-20th century. A representative sample of works by more than 200 professional female photographers included in a book by José Antonio Rodríguez, curator of the exhibit, was selected from more than 130 photos by 50 female photographers. The exhibition has been divided into pioneering female photographers, modern photographers, avant-garde women and humanists. Between 1872 and 1900, the first female photographers paved the way in Mexico. Some of them were foreigners. Mexican female photographers set up some of the country’s first photographic studios, leading the way for increased production.
At first, portraiture and a more documentary style were popular, and then during the 1920s and 1930s avant-garde photographers deployed a new way of seeing through the lens, in which objects and settings replaced portraits and brought photography to a new visual dimension. Finally, the humanists, during the 1940s and 1950s, revealed a sensitive look at the fragility of Mexico by photographing marginalized ethnic groups, with a special tenderness and fascination for indigenous cultures and the most vulnerable members of urban societies.
Among the pioneering female photographers represented is Natalia Baquedano, who opened her studio in 1898; however, according to Rodríguez, the Escuela de Artes y Oficios (Arts and Trades School) used to teach photography to young girls years earlier. Among the modern photographers, we have Sara Castrejón, the first female photographer to depict the Mexican Revolution. There is also Catalina Guzmán, who had a studio along with her brother but that later became independent and won an important photography prize in Milan.
Among the representatives of avant-garde women is Tina Modotti, who arrived in Mexico in 1926 and was deported for having supposedly had links to an assassination attempt against President Ruiz Cortines. Besides being a painter, Frida Kahlo was also an avant-garde photographer, and the exhibition includes two of her photographs, the only two signed by her. There are five others attributed to her.
Among the humanists, photographers of the indigenous Mexico, was Rosa Harvan, who arrived in Mexico with her husband, Herbert Kline, in order to make a movie called The Forgotten Village, for which, according to Rodríguez, John Steinbeck wrote only a few lines. Harvan photographed and filmed the movie, which depicts the birth, life and death of a Mexican town, called Santiago, probably located in the central part of Mexico, where water is contaminated and childhood deaths are frequent. A young man travels to the city in search of medical help, but mythical and magical customs prevail in the town, where healers and witches are stronger than medicine. Although the script of the movie is signed by John Steinbeck, it was Rosa Harvan who, through her photography, is the true narrator of the film.
Among the humanists there are two other photographers who can be considered to be sanmiguelenses. One is May Mirim, who spent long winters in San Miguel de Allende and did a great deal of her work here. She is the mother of Lola Smith, a current resident of the city and director of the local troupe Playreaders; she has part of her mother’s photographic collection. The other San Miguel photographer is Reva Brooks, who also created a great part of her work in San Miguel. Many of her photos were used by Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siquieros; one of them, called “Felicidad,” is included in the exhibit. A mixed-media work, the photograph is embellished with the artist’s fingerprints applied with paint.