Slaves of the moment

Miguel Casasola in the dark room of his studio in Mexico City, 1925. Note the pistol in his belt

The Mexican Agustín Víctor Casasola, with the intermittent help of his brother Miguel, began to set up around 1900 one of the most important photographic archives for the history of a country. However, the international recognition of these almost 500,000 photos has not matched its importance. Born in 1874 and raised in the years of the Porfirio Díaz government, Agustín Casasola was a direct witness to all the adversities that led to modern Mexico, and breathed as nobody else the air of a country and a city that developed during the first third of the 20th century at a runaway pace.

During the government of Porfirio Díaz the city become full of fancy restaurants where
the aristocracy had access to goods from Europe and the United States. In the
pulquerías they drank the thick pulque distillated from agave.
El Vaseo, a downtown pulquería.

He soon abandoned his initial profession of typographer and became a “news-hunting” reporter. Since the moment when for the first time a camera fell into his hands (it seems this was in 1902) he did not cease to hunt for images and to reveal the flow of history. In his own words, he became “a slave of the moment”.

Pulquería in Tacubaya. Díaz’s repression and violent methods were especially noticeable in the villages

Porfirio Díaz had come to power with a coup in 1876, presenting himself as the only human being capable of bringing order to a country violent and chaotic since splitting from Spain in 1821. Since then, the presidential palace had been occupied by more than fifty governments, some of them almost of an operetta, like the eleven ones of Santa Anna. Mexico was also a country afflicted by the loss of half of its territory to the United States (1846-1848) and by the delirious act of the French of putting Duke Maximilian on the throne of an alleged Mexican Empire (one will always remember Fernando del Paso’s extraordinary novel Noticias del Imperio, 1987, recalling those years.)

The Porfiriato wanted to create a scientific and intellectual elite. A group of politicians and astronomers analyzing the rays of sunlight from the roof of the Palacio Nacional, 1912

The Porfiriato in which Agustín Casasola grew up involved a strong inflow of foreign capital as well as an unbearable growth of social inequalities. Any voice against injustice was silenced by force, quelling any protest with extreme brutality (they reinforced Los Rurales, a semi-military police force which was responsible for pursuing the bandits that proliferated all over the country as well as those who protested against the established order) in agreement with local despots, they developed an enormous bureaucracy, and strictly controlled the means of written communication. Not coincidentally, William Randolph Hearst owned in Mexico a ranch of an unimaginable size of 2,500,000 acres. Each time when creating a modern telecommunications infrastructure, a hydraulic system etc., Porfirio Díaz alienated the country: the United States was in possession of two thirds of the railway network. 1% of the population owned 80% of the land. Nevertheless, Mexico City lived a certain mirage of prosperity fostered by the newspapers which only gave good news about the urban middle class and the residents of the wealthy neighborhoods. Initially the Casasola brothers collaborated in those papers. Their reputation as photographers quickly grew and soon Agustín created one of the first photo agencies, the Agencia de Información Gráfica, where sometimes there worked as many as 480 photographers. His motto was: “I have or make the photo you need.” Indeed, all Mexico is there in this archive.

Triumphal entry of a Maderista troop into a village, 1911

General joy over the fall of Porfirio Díaz, a prelude to many years of bloodshed. The railroad employee in the lower right seems to foresee it

On 20 November 1910 the shooting started. The moderate Francisco Madero, who was somewhat naive and idealistic for the task he was going to undertake, expelled Porfirio Díaz, but remained only two years in power until he was shot on the order of his friend Victoriano Huerta. There followed ten days of bloodshed in the capital, the so-called “decena trágica”. Then the revolution spread throughout the country with all those endless complications inside and among its leaders that will lead to a figure of more than one million deaths for a total population of fifteen millions. Generals Venustiano Carranza, Álvaro Obregón, Pancho Villa, Emiliano Zapata all went on parade in front of the cameras of the Casasolas. They were first more or less united to overthrow Huerta, then turned to fighting among themselves. But the Casasolas also immortalized with their cameras the anonymous citizens walking down the street, in either direction. The press all over the world demanded photos by them as reliable witnesses of the facts. But while Mexico began to respire a little bit, Europe became entangled into the carnage of the First World War. Mexico was being destroyed, but the world now had other concerns.

The phenomenon of the soldaderas was peculiar of the Mexican Revolution. Their role went beyond the image of “adelitas” created in the course of time


Some soldaderas were really soldiers

This woman was nicknamed La Destroyer. She helped those fallen in the battle to die well, ca. 1915

Soldaderas walking next to a Zapatista army, ca. 1914

Soldier of the Constitutionalist Army led by Venustiano Carranza. They fought against Huerta in the north, while Emiliano Zapata led the southern rebellion, ca. 1914

Zapatista peasants who have entered Mexico City in December 1914. Breakfast at the famous Sanborns restaurant. They had the revolutionary habit of paying for breakfast

The Casasolas were also witnesses to the recovery of Mexico and the conversion of Mexico City into a great modern metropolis. Thus, the city was again their favorite topic, the streets that were flooded by an uncontrolled traffic of cars (20,000 cars per 500,000 inhabitants in 1925). There was peace, and with the peace also a certain prosperity, only threatened by immigration from the countryside to the city. The camera of the Casasolas now explored the night, they tarried in the police stations and courts, in the theaters, cabarets, and wrestling rings, in the poorly lit alleys.

Peace brings the proliferation of all types of trades. A balloon-seller (and the shadow of the photographer)

Traders, shops and small workshops, as this glassware, fill the city, ca. 1910

Butcher’s shop, Mexico City, ca. 1928

An orchestra composed of blind musicians. Mexico City, ca. 1910

Amateur wrestlers. In Mexico, the love of wrestling has been very popular since these years. Mexico City, ca. 1925

Newspaper vendors, known as “voceadores” (“hawkers”) pick up the ware to sell on the streets. See the headline in El Demócrata: “El canto de la ciudad alegre” – “The song of the happy city”, ca. 1925

Many children work hard in Mexico City. They were known as “mecapaleros” by the type of belt with two ropes and a headband with which they loaded packages

The painter Diego Rivera leads the funeral procession for Antonio Mella, assassinated while
going home with Tina Modotti, who was accused as the main suspect, but by the
intervention of Rivera she was acquitted and the Cuban dictator Gerardo
Machado was accused with the crime instead. Tina Modotti was
active in Spain as a Stalinist agitator and died in a taxi
in Mexico when after 20 years she returned home.
The 1920s were the years of a certain
revolutionary bohemianism
and glamour. 1929

Mexican nightlife found its expression in the theaters Colón, Principal, Arbeu, María Guerrero and Esperanza Iris. Mexico City, ca. 1925

A couple who changed their clothes dawns in the police station and are ridiculed. Mexico City, ca. 1935

A delinquent arrested with the weapon of the crime and taken to prison. Mexico City, ca. 1935

Here the weapon is a bloody knife. Belén (Bethlehem) Prison (former convent and hospital), ca. 1935

Playboys. Mexico City, ca. 1935

A pair of robbers at the court. Mexico City, ca. 1935

A young accused couple waiting for the judgement. Ciudad de México, ca. 1935

Prostitution is tolerated in certain ambiguous areas of the city, ca. 1935

Woman accused of prostitution. Mexico City, ca. 1935

Physiognomic study of delinquents in the Laboratory of Criminal Investigation and Identification. Mexico City, ca. 1935

Investigators at the home of La Cinta Aznar, killed by Gallegos. One of the most notorious crimes of the period. Mexico City, ca. 1920

Woman accused of witchcraft. Mexico City, ca. 1935

Judge Schultz listening to a statement during a trial. Mexico City, ca. 1935

Agustín Casasola, who no doubt was aware of the recent development of the photographic art and must have known the combative use of photography since the examples of Eugene Atget in Paris in 1895, or Jacob Riis’ How Other Half Lives (1890) of New York, never claimed that his work was art or that it had any value of social intervention. It was life at the moment it crossed the field of vision of his camera – and also a way to earn his life. Nevertheless he was an excellent artist who has defined Mexican photography since its origins. We recently saw a major retrospective exhibition of Graciela Itúrbide and we could realize her great debt to the documentarism of the Casasola brothers.

Life in the Mexican countryside, marked by harshness and neglect. A tlachiquero extracting mead. D.F. Mexico, ca. 1910

Mecapalero with his load in the field
Lila Downs, «El relámpago». From the CD: La cantina.

8 comentarios:

francesca dijo...

I dare quote what seems to be the only poem Tina Modotti wrote - if we exclude her photos - in her whole life. It was written in 1923, at the moment in which she was going to leave California.


I like to swing from the sky
And drop down on Europe,
Bounce up again like a rubber ball,
Reach a hand down on the roof of the Kremlin,
Steal a tile
And throw it to the kaiser.
Be good;
I will divide the moon in three parts,
The biggest will be yours.
Don't eat it too fast.

Tina Modotti De Richey (so signed she at that time)

((It's a kind of thank you for your post.))

Megkoronáz A.J.P. dijo...

A magnificent selection of pictures. And thank you for the poem, Francesca!

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you, Francesca, for this poem which beautifully evokes the personality of Tina Modotti as she was and as she lived.

Thanks, Megkoronáz! I love them too. And, besides the final song, you can have some more musical background to the period here.

TC dijo...

An extremely powerful and haunting post, Studiolum. Many thanks.

Perhaps you would be interested in some comparable work with historical photo archives.

(I have taken the liberty of linking my blog to yours, hope you won't mind.)

Studiolum dijo...

On the contrary. It’s a great honor to me.

Those are great photos. And great texts accompanying them. Yes, they are very close in spirit to the Casasolas’ pictures.

A warm handshake from another Tom, on the other side of the globe.

vélo dijo...

great article and incredible pictures... on the subject, I'm just reading the Pancho Villa's biography written by Ignacio Taïbo II, very complete, that I recommend. (By the way, the book explains quite well the relations between the revolutionarians and some US interests who first wanted to make money and sell arms all over the frontier..)
(sorry for my poor english)

Studiolum dijo...

Thank you very much for the reference, vélo. It sounds very intriguing. I will certainly check the book.

BTW, the strange coincidence of your nick – an abbreviation for vélociped, that is, bicycle – and the hint to Ignacio Taïbo II obliges me to call your attention to this post.

And don’t worry for your English. First, because it is absolutely not poor (without the apology I would have not noticed that it was written by a non-English speaker). Second, because all of us use this language as the Latin of our age, more or less poorly, but proudly. And third, on Río Wang you can comment in any language, we will understand it and possibly reply it in the same language.

vélo dijo...

:-) thanks for your post that definitely legitimate my way of locomotion !( Paris)
And I feel that you have some doc. about EVERY KIND OF SUBJECT, such your blog looks rich and deep. I'll surely take a look at it soon.