Mexican color: vibrant, tropical, loud. Any list can fall into folkloric clichés for the unchanging chromatic enchantment. However, color is a construction, not merely the result of age-old traditions, but rather a vision promoted by the tourism sector and industrial enterprises. Color is everywhere, except when it comes to the history of photography in Mexico. Until today that history has almost exclusively been illustrated in black and white.
Although the techniques to produce color photography reached Mexico soon after they were invented, their prohibitive costs and technological limitations deterred many local photographers until the 1980s. Color was also thought to distract viewers, whereas black and white (the classic silver gelatin print) was seen as conveying underlying “truths,” both for artists and photojournalists. Mexichrome. Photography and Color in Mexico tells another story, in which color is an essential part of the image, just as it is an essential part of the world. In the words of American photographer Joel Meyerowitz, who visited Mexico for the first time in 1962: “If we accept the idea that a photograph basically just describes things, then a color photograph describes more things.”
The Museo del Palacio de Bellas Artes and Fundación Televisa are pleased to present the first examination of the history of color photography in Mexico. In nine thematic sections—from landscape to the flag—Mexichrome includes works by more than ninety photographers, including Mexicans and foreign residents, visitors and travelers, the famous to the now forgotten. The result of almost a decade of research, the exhibition is not an encyclopedic survey of an enormous field. Instead, it is a provocation to rethink the importance of color in the history of Mexican photography.
The texts in the present exhibition are drawn from essays in the exhibition catalogue.
In its essence, the landscape is an expression of both nature’s majesty and the interpretative gaze of whoever contemplates, captures, and transforms it. The earliest landscapes in color tended to emphasize pure, nationalistic spaces, without human intervention. In the work of Armando Salas Portugal and Eliot Porter, applied or directly captured melancholy tones evoke a sensation of serenity and respect for untouched nature.
As time passed, photographers trained their lens on human intervention in cultivated, intervened, and even painted landscapes. They sought beauty in images of abandonment, transformation, and even contamination. Allan Sekula and Richard Misrach portray the intense human intervention on the border, using large-format printing techniques to make statements as impressive as the oil paintings of their contemporaries.
Reproductions and reconstructions of pre-Hispanic pyramids in Mexico are as numerous as the clichés about the country’s supposed chromatic enchantment. Although many of the ancient sculptures and constructions were originally colorfully painted, the passage of time deprived them of their splendor, leaving pale ruins barely visible amidst the vegetation. It is a challenge to imagine that lost world in its full chromatic richness.
At the beginning, the precision of black and white was ideal for the painstaking documentation of the pre-Hispanic past. However, as the accessibility of archaeological sites increased and color photography advanced, new perspectives arose that coincided with scientific research and the promotional needs of tourism. In the work of various contemporary photographers, the fusion of past and present is exaggerated. Those works reveal how the history of the pre-Hispanic past intersects with the present.
The exteriors of colonial palaces and churches did not need to be painted, but color has been used since much earlier in Mexico to plaster less sophisticated buildings, to distinguish one house from another. Many photographers have focused on Mexican vernacular architecture, with great interest in the use of color to frame windows, doors, and other architectural details. Those chromatic compositions serve as a backdrop for passersby, cars, daily life.
Among so many other changes, the unbridled modernization of Mexico in the past century brought colorful advertisements splashed over facades even in the most remote communities. But above all, it brought increasingly resistant, brighter, more artificial industrial paints. The contemporary tendency among some photographers has been aimed at more monochromatic painted walls, resulting in compositions as abstract as they are evocative.
In the 1940s, new technologies arrived in Mexico that increased the production of color photography, as the way people imagined the capital and its architecture also quickly shifted towards color. Although publicists drove this process by promoting tourism, architects and editors of architectural magazines also contributed. In the 1950s and 1960s, commercial photographers like Julius Shulman and Fernando Luna captured the architectural boom and a new upper-class lifestyle, inspired by a southern California model.
Decades later, several contemporary photographers have directed their attention to color in informal architecture in more peripheral zones. Unlike emblematic structures, like the Towers of Satellite City, these images show buildings in which color highlights modern constructive languages, often with a social or political critique of the effects of modernism on the city, always reflecting the personal tastes of its inhabitants.
The anthropological gaze directs its attention to typical physiognomies and cultural practices of the diverse groups that occupy Mexican territory. This perspective, rooted in historical traditions of representation, has prompted enormous interest in documenting native peoples and mestizo societies, as well as urban subcultures and Mexico’s middle and upper classes. Some photographers revitalize nineteenth-century typologies, while others highlight textiles and rituals through their documentary focus, with subtle features of the modern world.
Thinking anthropologically implies a critical position. When we look at these photographs, we would do well to ask ourselves who took the image, from where, and what relationship is established with the people portrayed. Do foreign photographers represent members of native groups in a different way from Mexican photographers? Does the photographer look from a distance, or is he or she submerged in the action, like another participant?
Black and white distances us from the country’s tragic past. The Mexican Revolution seems so far from us because in our memories the actors and events exist solely in silver gelatin prints. Although color film was available, the student protest movement of 1968 was also recorded mainly in black and white, often surreptitiously. In the past fifty years, however, an anxious and violent Mexico has frequently been depicted in color. This palette reduces the distance between subject and viewer, making us feel like direct witnesses.
Some photographers capture personal existential dramas, at times with a touch of humor. But reality becomes rawer in images that directly tackle the brutality of contemporary life: dimly lit figures at the border with the United States; crimes documented moments after they were committed; and above all, the families of women kidnapped and murdered in Ciudad Juárez desperate to find any lead.
The history of commerce is a constant in Mexican life, from the indoor market to the contemporary supermarket. These spaces not only shape our geography, but they also dictate regimens of visuality where color serves to focus our attention on the product. Through images, we can appreciate a gaze of informal commerce that is presented not as resistance, but as a parallel economy in dynamic tension with formal commerce.
Photographs capture the essence of an unstoppable capitalism, from piles of fruit to industrial products of the globalized economy. Advertising plays a key role, and the omnipresent symbol of Coca-Cola rises as an icon in modern commerce: a fusion between global capitalism and Mexican markets. In the photographs of Werner Bischof, the striking white of flowers reminiscent of Diego Rivera’s calla lilies cannot eclipse the presence of Coca-Cola.
Religious fervor in Mexico has generated a rich and sometimes overwhelming visual culture, both static—still lifes—and ceremonial, even theatrical. Some photographers have focused on specific details, especially the flowers plentiful on altars in rural churches; in offerings and floral mosaics that frame the entrances to brightly painted churches; at Christmas and on Day of the Dead altars; on frames of the Virgin of Guadalupe, a ubiquitous figure in Mexican photography.
Most of the photographs presented here are related to traditional Catholic rituals, although the diptych by Salvador Lutteroth consists of two still lifes arranged in the studio and shaped by his view of the syncretic religious beliefs of the Mayas in the Chiapas highlands. The gray and brown tones of the photographs of Fernando Castillo Fuentes reveal the dark power of other ceremonies, other cults, like that of the Santa Muerte.
The nation’s flag has been an inescapable subject for documentary and press photographers, with ties to the patriotism profoundly driven by official history. In some photographs we find the tricolor flags at civic ceremonies, at a time when the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI)
consolidated its role as the ruling party. In his campaign photographs of Miguel de la Madrid, Pedro Meyer confirms how this party appropriated the homeland’s flag for a sense of identity.
Nevertheless, accounts of those images go well beyond ideological postures, because the same three-color banner flies over often contradictory desires from the nation’s perspective and vision to celebrate, denounce, frame, or bring about necessary changes. Although today the flag remains omnipresent in photographers’ vision, after the tragedy of 1968, its images have become more unrepentant and critical, reminding us of the symbolic fragility of its colors.