Photography Against the Walls

A history of photographers who prefer the streets to the museum.

Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle, Tina Modotti, Mexico City, 1927

A hundred years ago, one revolution had been upending the social order just south of the US border and another revolution was about to begin halfway around the world. These revolutions did more than expropriate the property of the wealthy. They discarded old ideas and created a field in which new ones took their place. This was especially true with photography.

Mexico before its revolution was a country dominated economically by the US, and on its cultural periphery. Through the turn of the twentieth century, the main aesthetic framework for Mexican photographers was defined by a Pictorialist tradition that asserted the medium’s status as “art.” The Pictorialist and Photo-Secession movement, led by Alfred Steiglitz and popularized through Camera Work, established New York City as the center of the photographic world in North America.

The Mexican Revolution, a decade-long conflict in which one in every seven Mexicans died, officially ended in 1920 with the termination of its civil war and the destruction of its old social order. New ideas about art and culture flourished in Mexico City’s post-revolutionary ferment, particularly in photography.

Suddenly the unipolar photographic world of North America, dominated by Pictorialism and Photo-Secession, became a multipolar one, with a very different approach emerging in Mexico. Photographic ideas developed outside New York City, both about how photographs should be constructed and about the role of photographers themselves. Artists who saw themselves as agents of social change rejected the old vision and sought a new one.

This period began an exchange of ideas between the US and Mexico about photographic technique, aesthetics, and the stance of the photographer. These ideas did not develop in a vacuum, but rather within a context of social movements that grew and waned. The shift was part of a larger debate about the role of photographers, writers, journalists, and painters in relation to those movements — the post-revolutionary leftist movements among workers and peasants in Mexico, and later, the rising labor movement in the US in the 1930s.

“What was the center and what was the periphery changed,” says John Mraz, a historian of Mexican photography at the Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades, Universidad Autónoma de Puebla (México) who curated the national exhibit for the Centennial of the Mexican Revolution, Testimonios de una guerra. Mraz suggests that the social cataclysm in Mexico created a new climate of ideas, including aesthetic ones.

By the mid-1920s, for instance, painters like Diego Rivera and David Alfaro Siqueiros had rejected their Pictorialist training and replaced it with a muralist tradition, promoting in a dramatic new graphic style the social movements unleashed by the revolution. The muralists viewed artists as participants in those movements, even organizing a union of painters and sculptors (later depicted in a photograph by Tina Modotti) to express the new social stance they believed artists should take.

Mraz calls this a cultural effervescence, in which new social ideas mix with new aesthetic ones in an environment of rapid social, political, and aesthetic change. The effervescence was not confined to Mexico. The Russian Revolution started in 1917, and its civil war ended in the early 1920s. Moscow, St Petersburg, and Mexico City all became places where this new climate of ideas flourished.

Into this maelstrom came Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, arriving in Mexico City from California in 1923. Weston, not at all political himself, was nevertheless determined not to create stock-in-trade pictorial depictions of colonial churches and exotic (or noble) “savages.”

“Weston introduced modernist photography into Mexico,” Mraz says. “But he didn’t bring it from the US because he didn’t do any modernist photography there. He only discovered it and started doing it here in Mexico. The modernist way of photographing is connected to the anti-exotic. Exoticism comes from Pictorialism, like a nineteenth century painting. No ragged edges, no sharp angles. Everything’s perfect, the way it ought to be. A very European idea.”

Weston found himself in the middle of an incredible revolutionary ferment in Mexico, which transformed the aesthetics of his photography. After a few years, he returned to the US, but continued with the same straight, direct approach he had honed in Mexico.

Modotti, originally Weston’s student, stayed behind to become one of the most influential photographers, not just in Mexico, but also in the US and Europe. She took Weston’s approach to form, and gave it a social content. At first she took still lifes in the Weston formalist style that included platinum prints of roses, and abstract experiment compositions beginning in 1924. But as she became more involved in the political ferment of the city, she made one of her first efforts to give social meaning to this modernist form, in the photograph, Workers Parade, taken in 1926.

Workers’ Parade, Tina Modotti, Mexico City, 1926

Here, a crowd of marchers is shot from above, creating a scene of men in white sombreros, headed for a destination outside the image. Art historian Leonard Folgarait argues that Modotti does more than document the event as a photojournalist. “Modotti has engaged in the documentary aspect of photography . . . but she has balanced that sense of a visual record by manipulating its information in such a way that it has become an interpretation of the event, with that interpretation becoming a historical occurrence as well.”

She selected the scene for political purposes, discarding “neutrality,” and creating an image that has an explicit purpose of showing the strength of workers in their collective numbers, and also their nationality and culture as shown in the sombreros. In today’s culture, where each person is inundated by thousands of images, it’s easy to forget that this was one of the first efforts to document mass working-class protest, and that it was done not just to record the event, but to inspire similar activity.

In his book, Folgarait quotes journalist Carleton Beals, who knew Modotti and says that she “no longer contents herself with perfect platinum prints for wealthy collectors but has become desirous of a wider audience.” That audience (workers and farmers) was defined by the politics of the Mexican Communist Party, which she joined the following year.

In a modernist departure from recording events, Modotti created another series of images, in which she sought to graft together Mexican nationalist sentiment, strong in the revolution’s wake, with communist ideology.

First she created a striking and stark photograph of a hammer and sickle, the communist emblem, which bore clear evidence of heavy toil. Then in another image she placed these objects on a sombrero, giving these international left symbols a specifically Mexican context. She mixed symbols even further: a sickle and a bandolier of bullets with a guitar, or an ear of corn. And finally she discarded both hammer and sickle, depicting the corn, bandolier, and guitar without them.

Bandolier, corn, guitar, Tina Modotti, Mexico City, 1927

In the Communist movement of the late 1920s, which prized political orthodoxy, reinterpreting its most important visual symbol must have caused some controversy. But Modotti’s images were widely circulated at the time. They were published in the radical left-wing periodicals that flourished in Germany, and the US/Mexican sombrero with hammer and sickle was the cover image for the October 1928 issue of New Masses, a socialist cultural magazine published in New York City.

Her ideas dovetailed with those popularized in the Soviet photographic ferment that followed its revolution, not just her modernism in style, but also her stance as a committed political actor.

She and other photographers of the Left in this period were influenced by Soviet photography, which rejected “photography as art” and insisted on its use in connection with social change. Alexander Rodchenko wrote, “art has no place in modern life” and that “we must take photographs from every angle but the navel.” Rodchenko and his fellow photographers in Moscow pioneered the use of extreme angles, along with diagonal composition and close-ups, as a means to shake the viewer’s perspective and liberate them from complacency.

This strategy was similar to that put forward by the earliest works of leftist playwright Berthold Brecht, written during the same period. Brecht felt that drama should stimulate people to question social reality in a critical way, and should not just tell stories.

“Rodchenko believed that it was necessary to educate people to see rather than simply to look, and proposed that ordinary familiar things be photographed in new ways, from new angles and perspectives, effectively ‘defamiliarized,’” according to Robert Deane, honorary researcher in photography at the National Gallery of Australia. Additionally, Deane notes that Soviet publications, especially Ogonyok (which began publishing in 1923) “established many of the techniques of the illustrated magazine, such as the use of large visually striking cover images, now considered commonplace.”

Modotti did not invent the idea of the photographer as a committed participant in social change. In his book, Photographing the Mexican Revolution, Mraz documents how many Mexican photographers became supporters of different factions in the civil war, making it one of the world’s most photographed political upheavals of the time. The style they used came from their prior training and the way they made a living, primarily as studio photographers or working for magazines.

“Although the subjects that appear in the images were radically ‘other,’ it seems that the ways of photographing them were established prior to the rebellion,” Mraz speculates. He links specific photographers to particular groups active in the revolutionary struggle: Manuel Ramos with the overthrown dictator Porfirio Diaz, but also Heliodoro Gutierrez and Geronimo Hernandez with Francisco Madero, who overthrew him. Amando Salmeron was Emiliano Zapata’s photographer, while Antonio and Juan Cacho were part of Pancho Villa’s army.

Other photographers similarly took sides, and often those sides warred with each other. Agustin Victor Casasola became the best known, and the Casasola archive is today the repository of a great deal of both his work and that of other photographers working at the time.

Peasant Zapatistas, members of a Mexican insurgent group, are fed breakfast at the famous restaurant Sanborns, Agustin Casasola, Mexico City, 1914.

The revolution had an enormous impact on the US Left. Its precursor battle, the uprising in Cananea in 1907, was planned by Mexican anarcho-syndicalists in Los Angles and St. Louis. Many of their political associates went to Mexico to join the fighting. Radical journalist John Reed covered the battles of Pancho Villa, and his dispatches became the basis for his first revolutionary book, Insurgent Mexico. Reed then went on to St Petersburg, where he wrote the story of the insurrection that ultimately brought the Soviets to power in Ten Days That Shook the World.

Reed had no desire to be an impartial observer. He took part in labor struggles in the US (notably the Paterson, NJ, silk workers’ strike), and then traveled through the new Soviet Union in its first years, promoting the revolution. (He died there and is buried in the Kremlin wall.) His stance, as a journalist and writer covering a movement in which he participated, was a common choice for many artists in the US until McCarthyism deprived most left-wing cultural workers of the ability to earn a living.

Modotti too chose politics over art. The Mexican government, as it moved to the right, cynically accused her of involvement in the assassination of her lover, Cuban revolutionary Julio Antonio Mella. It deported her to Europe. There she gave up photography, and went to work for the Communist International, eventually shepherding refugees out of Spain after the victory of the fascists in the Spanish Civil War.

Even before she left Mexico, Modotti wrote Weston, explaining, “Since the element of life is stronger in me than the element of art I should just resign to it + make the best of it . . .” That political stance is as much Modotti’s legacy to photography in Mexico (and in the US) as the social content and formalism of her photographs, but it was not taken up by everyone.

The US documentary tradition of the 1930s included photographers with a wide diversity of political perspectives. Some saw their role as showing the devastating impact of the Depression, but hesitated at linking their photography to the radical social movements actively trying to change existing economic and political conditions. For example, at the Farm Security Administration, Roy Stryker would not hire photographers he viewed as too left, fearing the backlash from right-wingers in Congress who targeted his funding.

But there were other photographers working at the time who participated in left-wing social movements. John Gutmann left Germany in 1933, where he had already been influenced by the radical photographers of the Weimar Republic and the Soviet Union.

Some of his photographs were direct warnings of fascism on the horizon, such as The News Photographer, San Francisco City Hall. In this image, a huge US flag is draped beside the Nazi swastika and the flag of fascist Italy, just as the city fathers greet officials from those two countries, while a newsman takes the picture.

The News Photographer. San Francisco City Hall, 1935
The News Photographer, San Francisco City Hall, John Gutmann, 1935

Alexander Alland also came to the US from Europe when fascism rose to power. Here, he connected the rise of the Right to domestic racism, and took photographs of anti-racist demonstrations, as well as of the Hooverville settlements of the unemployed and homeless.

The two most committed “movement photographers” of the period were Otto Hagel and Hansel Mieth. Both left Germany at fifteen, and went to work as laborers and farm workers on their arrival in the US. They photographed the huge farm worker strikes of the 1930s, and were close to the dockworkers union when the San Francisco general strike in 1934 radicalized US labor.

Outstretched Hands, Hansel Mieth, San Francisco, California, 1934

Their photograph, Outstretched Hands (1934), became an icon of the union, showing the desperation and humiliation of longshoremen trying to get hired in the despised daily shapeup, an abusive system that the union eventually abolished. Mieth also took photographs in the Heart Mountain concentration camp for Japanese “internees” during World War II, where photography was virtually forbidden.

After the war, however, the US lost its socially committed documentary tradition to McCarthyism. Alland was blacklisted in the late 1940s as the Cold War began. After they were called before the House Un-American Activities Committee, Mieth lost her job as a staff photographer for Life magazine, and Hagel’s freelance career ground to a halt.

He photographed a pioneering work on longshoremen, however: Men and Machines; the International Longshore and Warehouse Union was one of the few organizations that would still give him work. Nevertheless, the whole idea of photographers connected to radical social movements ended because they couldn’t work while left-wing social movements themselves were on the run.

In Mexico, successive administrations moved to the right during the Cold War as well, and pressured media outlets to use photography for their political glorification. Nevertheless, the tradition of documentary photography, carried on by politically committed photographers, lived on. The Mayo brothers, who fled Spain at the end of the Civil War, became the most productive photojournalists in Mexico City. While most of their work wasn’t overtly political, they had close ties with the Mexican left.

Manuel Alvarez Bravo became a photographer during the cultural and political ferment in which Modotti was active. But Alvarez Bravo was not a political militant or an activist photographer, despite images such as “Death of a Striker,” purportedly showing the violence of the social turmoil of the time. In a long career he combined documentary work, surrealism, nude photography, and other visual genres. His first wife, Lola Alvarez Bravo, became a pioneer documentarian of the country’s indigenous cultural roots, using a realist style to combat the exoticism of the Pictorialist tradition.

Nevertheless, Alvarez Bravo, the Mexican photographer best known to US audiences, was the mentor of others who did document social reality. Their work was printed despite the fact that the publications in which their work appeared needed to stay on the good side of the government.

The work of Nacho Lopez, Hector Garcia, and their colleagues rebelled against depicting either false cheer or the exploitation of indigenous pre-Hispanic cultures as exotic fare for Europeans and tourists. Lopez’s most dramatic images were taken in the police stations (delegaciones) of Mexico City, showing clearly people’s poverty and powerlessness.

But he treated his subjects as human beings, with dignity, rather than representing them as helpless victims. Lopez famously remarked that, “Photography was not meant as art to adorn walls, but rather to make obvious the ancestral cruelty of man against man.”

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Woman Standing Before Book in Delegacion, Nacho Lopez, 1954

Hector Garcia, who died in 2012 at the age of eighty-nine, also tried to use photography as a way to help dissident social movements break through the wall of official silence. He grew up on the streets and went to work on the railroad in the US as a bracero contract worker in the 1940s. After Alvarez Bravo took him under his wing, he began work as a photojournalist.

At the same time, he took photographs of social protests in which he also participated, even starting a newspaper that carried his images of student marches. Both Garcia and the Mayo brothers documented the high point of rebellion in the 1950s — the 1958 railroad strike — which led to the imprisonment of its leaders Demetrio Vallejo and Valentin Campa. One striking Garcia image shows two steel workers, only protected from the fumes and sparks by dark glasses and cloth wrapped around their noses and mouths.

When David Alfaro Siqueiros was imprisoned in 1960 during Mexico’s anti-communist purge, Garcia took a famous image showing him with his hand raised, behind the bars of the Lucumberri Prison. The image brings to mind Mieth and Hagel’s famous photograph of imprisoned labor activist Tom Mooney — a stylized portrait of his face behind the bars of California’s San Quentin prison — taken around 1936.

Both are direct frontal portraits. In the Hagel and Mieth portrait, Mooney stares through the bars of his cell, while Siqueiros holds up his hand, palm forward, in a gesture undoubtedly meant to say, “Stop!” Both portraits clearly convey the idea that these are not passive prisoners, but ones who are resisting an unjust imprisonment. They are profoundly political images.

“What I’ve done practically all my life,” Garcia explained, “is to be a witness and to make graphic testimonies of the movements and struggles of the social classes in Mexico. This continues to be the most important motive I have to do photography.”

David Alfaro Siqueiros, Hector Garcia, 1960
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Tom Mooney, San Quentin Prison, Otto Hagel, 1936/1938

At twenty years old, Mariana Yampolsky left her native US in 1945. She became the first woman in the Taller de Grafica Popular (the People’s Graphic Workshop), an antifascist project started in the late 1930s by Leopoldo Méndez, Pablo O’Higgins, and Luis Arena.

Yampolsky was a socialist, close to the Mexican Communist Party. She worked for many years with the secretariat of public education during the period, when the office was staffed by progressive educators dedicated to bringing schools and literacy to rural areas, especially in indigenous communities. She published art and children’s books, including textbooks for schools, and documented indigenous community life in a realist style.

One of her best-known photographs, Martel, shows a disused railway station — half a railroad car — as empty tracks lead to nothing in the distance. The composition’s strong graphic elements show her skill as a printmaker, paring reality down to a few essential elements. The image dates from the years, now long since gone, when passenger rail service still existed in Mexico, but its atmosphere of abandonment is evocative of the migration issues of today.

Yampolsky said, “If I have to define my photography, I’d say my studio is the street.”

Martel, Mariana Yampolsky, Mexico, 1968

Yampolsky was friends with Milton Rogovin, one of the few US photographers who maintained a commitment to social documentary photography during the Cold War. Rogovin, who photographed in Mexico in the early 1950s, knew Yampolsky when she worked at the Taller Grafica. He was called before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1958, and his optometry practice was virtually destroyed, forcing him, he later said, to make a greater commitment to photography.

Family of Miners, Mexico, Milton Rogovin, 1988

In the following decades, Rogovin took several series of photographs documenting working people, especially African Americans, in Buffalo, New York, and in Appalachia. “I just use the camera as a way of expressing my thoughts about society,” he said. “It is the political awareness of what’s happening to people that drives me into the direction of my photography.” He cited Brecht’s question: “Who built the Seven Gates of Thebes? Was it kings who hauled the craggy blocks of stones?” and responded, “I wanted to show who did the toughest work in industry. I wanted to show them because nobody does.”

In 1988, Yampolsky took Rogovin to Pachuca, Mexico, where he took photographs of coal miners. His extensive body of work on miners eventually included workers in ten countries, including Cuba, China, and Czechoslovakia. The images were straightforward and direct, showing the subjects’ lives both at work and at home.

Trabajadores, Hector Garcia, 1950s

By the 1960s, the pressure for social change had built to a crisis point in Mexico, the US, and much of the rest of the world. In the US, the civil rights and antiwar movements gave social protest new life, and with the rebirth of radical social movements came the rebirth of movement photography.

In Mexico, battling repression was more difficult. Hundreds of students were shot down in the Tlatelolco plaza in 1968, and others were killed in Mexico City streets in 1973. The government launched a “dirty war,” murdering leftists it viewed as political enemies. Yet social movements grew in Mexico nonetheless, giving new life to social documentary photography.

The New Photojournalism movement produced photographers like Pedro Valtierra, and today Antonio Turok, Victor Mendiola, and Yuriria Pantoja. Periodicals like Uno Mas Uno and Proceso, and later La Jornada, were willing to publish their work. A new generation of indigenous Mexican photographers, including Leopoldo Peña, Antonio Nava, Miguel Bravo, and others now work on both sides of the border, as do US photographers like David Maung, Francisco Dominguez, myself, and others.

“I think we have had an influence on photography in the US, not just in this digital age, but going back into our history,” Valtierra told me. “Mexican photographers kept alive certain ideas. They were close to social movements. They documented migration all the way back to the 1940s, and the original cultures of indigenous people, which have both become major themes for modern photography.”

According to Folgarait, “Mexican photographers influenced US and world photography because of their political engagement: human action with social relevance.”

“I think there is a way of seeing that is Mexican,” adds Valtierra. “Whether it is its heart or its look, I can tell it from others.” The use of the camera has a point to make, a critique. As Garcia says, it was not meant to adorn walls.