Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity (review)
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Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity. By John Mraz. Durham: Duke University Press, 2009. Pp. xiv, 344. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $84.95 cloth; $23.95 paper.

John Mraz began studying the modern visual culture of Latin America back when few historians took the field seriously. The fruits of his own labor and the growth of new scholarship are evident in this broad and ambitious narrative that views modern visual culture as “the site where Mexican identities have been constructed, deconstructed, and reconstructed” (p. 250). The book focuses specifically on photography and cinema and spans the period from the first photographic documentation of any war (the United States invasion of Mexico in 1846) to recent cinematic portrayals of Frida Kahlo.

At the heart of the book are dialogues between photography and film, foreign and national image makers, and image makers and those who participated in the making of their own image. But the central dialectic revolves around what Mraz calls picturesque and anti-picturesque visions of Mexico. The first depicts Mexicans as timeless products of nature, [End Page 286] linked to indigenous cultures and marked by colonialism and underdevelopment. If the elitist and orientalist visual culture of the Porfiriato was profoundly challenged by the revolution, postrevolutionary image makers soon recreated a similar master narrative in which “the Mexican Revolution is a mythic form given once and for all—of volcanoes and clouds, of ancient structures, of picturesque clothing, of superficial beauty, of the party dictatorship that ruled the country for seventy years” (p. 118). Mraz directly connects the postcards of German photographer Hugo Brehme, with their passive if idealized peasantry, to the Golden Age, celebrity-centered movies of Gabriel Figueroa and Emilio Fernández, whose ahistorical allegories of nation obscured differences of class and ideology and largely reinforced gender roles and the patriarchy of the “revolutionary family.” Similarly, the pioneering photojournalism and subsequent Historias Gráficas of Agustín Víctor Casasola and his family were fundamental to the construction of a conservative vision of a unified Revolution produced by Great Men and protected by the PRI.

By contrast, the anti-picturesque vision of other image makers posits lo mexicano as a product of ongoing struggle and historical experience. Mraz traces this vision through the photographers Tina Modotti and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, independent photojournalists such as the Hermanos Mayo and Héctor García, and a cinematic tradition that begins with the revolutionary trilogy of Fernando de Fuentes in the 1930s and continues with more recent depictions of the repression of the 1968 student movement and peasant guerrillas. He also elaborates on the mechanisms of censorship, bribes, and outright repression that limited the production and postponed the circulation of many critical images, the counterpart of the intimate relation between photojournalism and power that was fundamental to the picturesque. Some of the most insightful analysis comes from contrasting specific images within these competing visions, such as two very different photographs of a woman carrying a water jug by Brehme and Modotti, or the similar plots and different meanings given the revolution in de Fuentes’s El Compadre Mendoza and Fernandez’s Flor Silvestre.

Of course, the categories of the picturesque and its converse do not in themselves do justice to Mraz’s argument. Both visions often rely on essentialist vocabularies, if only to challenge them; over their careers, many image makers first challenged and then perpetuated official myths; and individual images lend themselves to multiple meanings, depending on the publisher or the specific reading of the viewer, academic or otherwise. Indeed, Mraz subtly and convincingly constructs his narrative around the interactions of these contrary visions, in the process showing how fundamental modern visual culture was to both the creation of and resistance to the postrevolutionary hegemonic order. His book reminds us that at different moments, image makers, their subjects, officials, publishers, scholars, and viewers all participate in the ongoing debate over Mexican identity.

Readers interested in a narrower focus or a more overarching theoretical framework might prefer Leonard Folgarait’s Seeing Mexico Photographed (2008), with its very different argument. Others might question Mraz’s exclusion of other forms of visual culture that reached more...