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Latin America: An Overview, Photography in

The history of photography in Latin America is rich and diverse. The work of Latin American photographers often reflects the key historical, social, political, and aesthetic forces at work in the region. A variety of people and groups brought the photographic medium to Latin America in the 19th century: foreign invaders, such as the French forces seeking to place Maximillian on the throne in Mexico; amateur artists looking for inspiration, such as Adela Breton; settlers searching for a way to earn a living, such as the German Guillermo Kahlo, the father of the renowned artist Frida Kahlo; and the numerous foreign companies seeking profits and needing to illustrate their operations to investors.

During the 19th century, Latin American photography more closely followed artistic and journalistic trends from outside the region. European institutions, audiences, and aesthetics played significant roles in this early Latin American photography. However, by the early 20th century, Latin American photography became more complex and syncretic. It often portrayed the many problems and contradictions of societies that combined indigenous, colonial, and modern industrial elements.

In the early 20th century, documentary photography grew in importance in Latin America. Already by the late 19th century, Latin Americans had become increasingly interested in visual records of contemporary events, as was seen, for example, in the many combat photographers who recorded the region's conflicts. Documentary photography became more widespread as travel became easier with construction of roads and rail lines. Also, the appearance of illustrated periodicals such as Caras y Caretas in Argentina and El Cojo Ilustrado in Venezuela created more demand for photographs.

The beginnings of documentary photography can perhaps best be seen in Mexico and Brazil during the late 19th century. In Mexico, documentary photography prospered under the dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz. This photographic style suited the needs of the dictatorship, showing off public works, parades, and orderly citizens, all in line with the positivism of the era. In Brazil, Marc Ferrez, the best-known 19th-century Latin American photographer, recorded economic development and modernization starting in the 1860s and continuing into the early 20th century.

It was during the period of the Mexican Revolution that began in 1910 when documentary photography matured in Mexico. The best example of an early Mexican photojournalist is Agustín Victor Casasola, who left an archive of more than 600,000 plates. He photographed some of the key revolutionary leaders such as Emiliano Zapata and Pancho Villa. Casasola, who sometimes traveled with troops, showed the human side of the conflict and focused on the life of ordinary soldiers. He often photographed women, both soldiers and those accompanying the men. Casasola's photographs also demonstrated the horrors of war, as seen in his images of executions. His work shows how photography can be used to aid in the construction of political history and national identity.

The early 20th-century also saw the flourishing of portraiture in Latin America, a trend that began in the late-19th century and was part of a world-wide phenomenon. These early portraits often depicted members of a new urban society that was growing in size, power, and wealth. This trend can be seen in the work of photographers such as Melitón Rodríguez and Benjamín de la Calle in Colombia, Alejandro Witcomb in Argentina, Romualdo García in Mexico, and Eugene Courret in Peru.

As might be expected in a region in which Catholicism predominates, many early Latin American photographers used their medium to examine the place of the Catholic Church. Among the most notable early examples is the work of Juan José de Jesús Yas, who was born in Japan, moved to Guatemala in 1877, and converted to Catholicism. Starting in the 1880s and continuing until the second decade of the 20th century, he frequently photographed the clergy, churches, and ritual objects. Missionaries in the remote parts of Latin America also used photography to document and legitimate a European presence among indigenous populations. Missionaries used their cameras to record the lives, rituals, and cultures of native inhabitants and the transformations that took place with the arrival of so-called "civilization."

In the post-World War I period, there were limited options for photographers in Latin America. Relatively few photographers were able to both earn a living and maintain any sense of artistic vision. There was no counterpart to the photographic experimentation that took place in Europe and the United States, as seen in the work of photographers such as Alfred Stieglitz. Furthermore, the nihilism and pessimism of the European avant-garde was not present in Latin America, as the region did not experience the same death and destruction. Rather, themes such as pan-Americanism and Indigenismo permeated Latin American photography.

Despite the limited opportunities for photographers in general in the post-WWI period, the 1920s did see the emergence of the so-called Cuzco School. Centered in Cuzco, the photographers associated with this school-Native Americans from the highlands of Peru-produced images that were modern and ethnographic. These men used old equipment and earned a living as traditional village studio photographers, working under difficult economic situations. Furthermore, each of them came from the same social and ethnic groups as many of their subjects. None of them became rich nor famous in their lifetime. It was only later in the 20th century that these men were recognized as important photographers.

The most well-known of the Cuzco School photographers is Martín Chambi. Chambi, the son of peasants from the village of Coaza, began working during the 1920s. He began his career as an apprentice for a photographer working for a British mining company. He later moved to Cuzco, where he made a modest living as a studio photographer. Chambi also traveled widely and produced thousands of documentary photographs. His body of work was influenced by the indigenismo ideology prevalent at the time in Peru. He was also associated with the nationalist APRA political party. Chambi's work brings his subjects to life, even in ordinary scenes and without defying the conventions of conservative Peruvian society. He meticulously posed his photographs, so much so that they satisfied his upper-class clients who were unaware that he was satirizing their status and class power. Unfortunately, Chambi died virtually unknown in 1973.

In addition to Chambi, the other Latin American master who emerged from the first half of the 20th century was the Mexican Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Alvarez Bravo began taking photographs in the mid-1920s. Originally more interested in painting, music, and literature, in 1922, Alvarez Bravo met the photographer Hugo Brehme and decided that he too would become a photographer. Then in 1927, Alvarez Bravo met Tina Modotti, who led him to find a personal tone for his images. Edward Weston came to admire Alvarez Bravo's work, which opened the doors to the international photographic community. Alvarez soon became internationally famous, exhibiting in Paris in the 1930s along with Henri Cartier-Bresson. His work possesses a great poetic quality. Furthermore his images offer a wide range of interpretations, as there is often more than meets the eye in what seem like ordinary photographs. Like the Mexican muralists of the time, Alvarez Bravo incorporated Mexico's indigenous past into his images.

There were relatively few women involved in photography in the early 20th century. The first to make a significant contribution was the Italian-born Tina Modotti, who first went to Mexico in 1923, where she lived off and on until she died there in 1942. Modotti was a student of Edward Weston. She is known for her photographs of Mexican street and village life, exploring everyday problems of the people. For example, she produced images of workers demonstrations. Modotti emphasized what she called "photographic quality," which meant taking "sincere photographs" without manipulation. Modotti had an important influence on other Mexican photographers such as Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Lola Alvarez Bravo.

Lola Alvarez Bravo was another important female photographer in Mexico in the first half of the century. Many of her images reflect the surrealist movement. She also produced portraits, especially of painters and writers involved in the vibrant art scene of Mexico City in the 1930s and 1940s. Among her subjects was the artist Frida Kahlo. Alvarez Bravo was able to capture Frida's free spirit in a way that no male photographer had been able to do.

A third female photographer of note in Mexico was the Hungarian-born Kati Horna, who came to Mexico in 1939 seeking political asylum. Horna settled in Mexico City for the rest of her life. Like Alvarez Bravo, she was part of the surrealist movement. Horna also earned a living as a newspaper photographer.

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, a number of female photographers also made significant contributions. In particular, the German-born Annemarie Heinrich and Greta Stern rose to prominence. Both women arrived in Buenos Aires in the 1930s and both became known for their artistic portraits, a distinctive characteristic of the Buenos Aires photography scene. Their clients were often well-known artists from theater, dance, and cinema. No artist who visited the Colon Theater in the Argentine capital failed to visit their studios. These glamorous photographs of the famous performing artists developed in Buenos Aires to a greater extent than anywhere else in the region.

The role of Latin American photography changed with the Cuban Revolution of the 1950s. From the early days of the revolution, Cuban photographers recorded the events of the guerrilla war against the dictator Fulegncio Batista. Not only did photographers document events, they also portrayed the leaders of the revolution. Iconography played an important role in Latin American photography of the period. Fidel Castro's image became known worldwide and could be seen in publications such as Life. Che Guevara became a popular icon in large part due to Alberto Korda's photograph of the revolutionary leader with a black beret with a revolutionary star on it.

In many ways, the photographs of the Cuban Revolution followed the tradition of epic photography begun during the Mexican Revolution with the works of photographers such as Casasola. In the post-Cuban Revolution period, Latin American photography was given a sort of revolutionary imperative. That this was the case can be seen in Fidel Castro's unannounced visit in 1984 to the Third Colloquium of Latin American Photography being held in Havana. The Cuban leader reminisced about the role of photography and images during the revolution. Furthermore, with the creation of the Cuban news agency Prensa Latina, a Third World alternative to international news organizations, a new space was opened for Latin American photojournalists.

One of the results of the Cuban Revolution was that it forced photographers-as well as those in almost any other occupation-to choose sides. Either one was committed to the ideals of social revolution or one was labeled as a frivolous and decadent artist who simply produced art for art's sake.

The Cuban Revolution was not the last time that photography was used for political purposes. Rebels in El Salvador during the 1980s continued the tradition. However, the Salvadorans also added a new twist to traditional documentary photography. They made the genre more pragmatic and media-savvy. The 1980s was a decade of media events, and in places like El Salvador, where conflict was rampant, a good photograph could be just as important as a military victory.

In 1978, Latin American photographers staged the First Colloquium of Latin American Photography in Mexico City. Subsequent meetings would be held in Mexico City in 1981 and Havana in 1984. The events brought a new prominence to Latin American photography. In the wake of the Cuban Revolution and influenced by more recent events such as the Sandanista Revolution in Nicaragua, leftist political rhetoric dominated the meetings. The Colloquium was accompanied by an exhibition called Hecho en Latinoamerica (Made in Latin America). The exhibition clearly had a point of view, as photography was seen as an anti-imperialist tool. Some used the term "liberation photography," in reference to Liberation Theology, which was so prevalent at the time. One critic described the exhibit as "documentary and humanistic with an occasional tinge of exoticism and leftist politics." While some Latin American photographers did produce alternative styles of images, they were largely unrepresented at the Colloquium.

The Colloquium was also important in that it helped to internationalize Latin American photography. It led to a series of international exhibitions that helped to bring Latin American photography to a global audience for the first time. Also important is that fact that for the first time, some of these exhibitions were based on extensive curatorial surveys. Generally, Latin American curators had lacked the funds to conduct such a survey.

While the Colloquium had emphasized the political and social nature of Latin American photography, by the end of the 20th century, the medium had taken many forms. While traditional themes of social justice and magical realism continued, many other forms of experimental photography prospered. Among them was the avant-garde work of Luis González Palma and Mario Cravo Neto. Others such as Pedro Meyer, Graciela Iturbide, and Flor Garduño produced documentary fine art. Overall, by the end of the century, the Latin American photography scene was as diverse and vibrant as anywhere in the world.

Ronald Young

See also: Documentary photography; Photography in Latin America: Central America; Photography in Latin America: Mexico; Photography in Latin America: South America; Portraiture; Manuel Alvarez Bravo; Martín Chambi; Tina Modotti; Edward Weston

Further Reading

Billeter, Erika, A Song to Reality: Latin American Photography, 1860-1993, Barcelona and New York: Lunwerg, 1998

Hopkinson, Amanda, "'Mediated Worlds': Latin American Photography," Bulletin of Latin American Research 20:4 (2001): 520-527

Levine, Robert M., Images of History: 19th and Early Twentieth Century Latin American Photographs as Documents, Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1989

Levine, Robert M., ed., Windows on Latin America: Understanding Society through Photographs, Coral Gables, FL: North-South Center, University of Miami, 1987

Watriss, Wendy and Lois Parkinson Zamora, eds., Image and Memory: Photography from Latin America, 1866-1994, Austin, TX: The University of Texas Press, 1998

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