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Reviewed by:
  • Nacho López: Mexican Photographer
  • Roberto Tejada
Nacho López: Mexican Photographer. By John Mraz. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Pp. xvii, 249. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $68.95 cloth; paper $24.95.

Photojournalism is happier for the uncertain meaning of "hard news" that Nacho López imparted to the medium. Enhancing the practice with equal parts social concern, formal commitment, and narrative drive, López radicalized Mexico City press photography of the 1950s. Within a prescribed information industry, his feature stories and pictorial essays advanced a dynamic that further galvanized the power of photomechanical images, whose effects remain unpredictable regardless of forethought. López infused picture assignments for magazines with modernist objectivity and ethical dedication, as gained from the example of art photographers like Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and thus was able to dodge the pitfall of representation that claims the common people as its source.

Mraz's study is divided into four chapters, of which the middle two constitute the scholarly core of the monograph. After a survey accounting for the visual function of Mexican identity discourse (mexicanidad) and the genres of photojournalism that were the currency Nacho López came into, Mraz clarifies the book's intention to activate the relationship between specific photographic images and source meanings in the larger context of their publication history. Mraz does well then to underscore the "significant differences between pictures published in the media and those produced by the photographer" (p. xvii). His second chapter, "Photojournalism and Photoessays," contributes to a social study of the compliance and pressure between the information industries of the 1950s and the presidential cultures of Miguel Alemán (1946-52) and Adolfo Ruiz Cortines (1952-58). At the time, photojournalism [End Page 460] was still largely a holdover from the Lázaro Cárdenas presidency (1934-40), when photojournalism's foremost use in the modern illustrated magazines was to flatter the president or to celebrate the political and social elites. The fact that images of workers were largely absent from articles disparaging labor leaders serves for Mraz as evidence of the general climate of political conformity.

Having briefly taught photographic technique, López probably chose to work not for newspapers but for magazines, because they provided him with greater opportunities to experiment with narrative sequence. In the pages of these widely distributed journals (Rotofoto, Presente, Hoy, Mañana, and Siempre!), López introduced social commentary, sometimes oblique, but mostly unambiguous. Mraz's third chapter is an appraisal of such photo-essays, whose subjects ranged from indigenous peoples to entertainment celebrities. Making structure tantamount to content, López shaped the hard look of social scrutiny into a newsworthy category of its own. His photo-essays maximized the possible ironies between an image and its caption (which he generally authored).

Some of López's photo-essays, which he called reportajes or "stories," were artfully compiled from his personal archive of previously unpublished images. An example of this method is "La Calle Lee" ("The Street Reads"), a photo-essay uniquely devoted to acts of reading as productive of the individual, and therefore of group determination. Another technique involved direct social interfacing: López directed scenes for the sake of the camera with the aid of a model employed as a social actor meant to incite the reaction of surrounding people on the street. His 1953 series "Mujer guapa" ("Beautiful Woman"), involved an attractive female model provoking all kinds of gendered and class-specific engagements. López employed the practice of photographic staging in more than half of his most important photo-essays, a tactic thatmade visible the intersections of anonymity and celebrity, of subjectivity and its representations, and of the thing observed when transformed by the observer.

Mraz's book brings the work of this influential documentarian and photojournalist to the attention of a general audience, historians of photography, and scholars of Latin American studies, as it gainfully discusses how this image-maker "represented invisibility" as a twin project: López revealed the underside of the country's so-called "miraculous" modernization, even as he pointed to the blind spots in the visual discourse about national identity. At least one account would have broadened the...


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