Hispanic American Historical Review 84.1 (2004) 156-158
Nacho López: Mexican Photographer. By John Mraz. Visible Evidence. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003. Photographs. Notes. Bibliography. Index. xvii, 249 pp. Cloth, $68.95. Paper, $24.95.
Nacho López was one of Mexico's best photojournalists. Few have launched such intense social criticism or delved so deeply in what it is to be Mexican than he did during the 1950s. Yet his work is hardly known outside of his country. Therefore, it is of special importance and delight that John Mraz has brought him to our attention in this fine book.
López (whose full name is Ignacio "Nacho" López Bocanegra) honed his social conscience during the 1930s, those years of world depression, international intellectual ferment, proletarian protest, and progressive Cardenista land and labor reforms. Two decades later, the nation had settled into a modernist trajectory planned and directed by a corrupt and favoritist one-party system. López was there with his camera to catch the results, which were then published as photo essays in the capital's most popular picture magazines.
Mraz—who holds a doctorate in history, specializes in visual culture, and has lived and worked in Mexico for more than 20 years—analyses these essays with both a photographer's eye (he has made several motion pictures) and a historian's skepticism. He admires his subject but notes his contradictions and compromises. Mraz is most effective in describing the web of realities in which journalists of the epoch had to work, principally the payoffs that publishers took in exchange for printing materials favorable to the ruling regime. Mraz claims the practice led to self-censorship among reporters and photographers—López included, even if he had more latitude to select themes than most of his fellow journalists. Why bother to take pictures that the photographers knew would never get published?
But López did, of course, take many such photos, which Mraz discovered in a number of public and private collections. When we compare published and unpublished photos, the demands of publishers become apparent. The author also studied how publishers altered and cropped photos to their liking; this discussion leads to a fascinating discourse on the art of cropping. Mraz frankly explains how he cropped (or did not crop) the examples included in this book. He also comments upon the headings and cut lines that are printed above and below published photos: who writes them and how are they used to alter the meanings of photos. How refreshing it is to have a serious scholar asking these sorts of questions of pictorial documentation! Mraz concentrates on the photo essay "Solo los humildes van al infierno [Only the Poor Go to Hell]," which appeared in Siempre in June 1954 and pictures everyday activities at precinct police stations and holding tanks. Only 21 of the 150 photographs that López took for this essay were published; the disparity gives Mraz the opportunity to note the chasm between the photographer's and the publisher's intentions. While portraying the dignity of the humildes, the published pictures do not recount ways in which ordinary people worked their way out of difficult encounters with authorities at the delegaciones. Says Mraz, "I fear that once again we find ourselves confronted by the dilemma of a photojournalist with a social conscience: limited by the relations of power [in this case, the publisher's demands weighed with the photographer's need to earn a living] in the society that he wishes to criticize, he ends up reproducing those relations, and 'victimizing the victims'"— that is, depicting them as powerless (p. 127). Maybe so, but it largely depends upon the predilections, tastes, and concerns of the person who is reviewing the photo (or written document). In this case, those of the author obviously mesh with those of the photojournalist he esteems.
This same camaraderie is clear in the author's interesting discussion of the photographic search for mexicanidad. Mexico must be one of the most photographed countries in the world, and Mraz leads us through the celebrated endeavors of Edward Weston, Tina Modotti, Paul Strand, Henri-Cartier Bresson, Robert Capa, and...