A vast and varied landscape with the subconscious quest of El Dorado as a backdrop has made Mexico a fascinating place for photographers.
Mexico is a land steeped in religion and superstition. Ancient cultures have heavily influenced modern society creating a melting pot of different ideas and traditions.
NB: This article contains images which may be distressing to some readers
1. Graciela Iturbide – Angel Lady of the Sonora Desert, 1979
Graciela Iturbide, Mexican photography’s leading lady, has documented her native country for decades, creating an ethnographic portrait of the vast land. Highly influenced by Mexican modernist master Manuel Alvarez Bravo whom she assisted in the seventies, her work focuses primarily on the Indigenous cultures of Mexico that still prevail. With a particular focus on the Zapotec women of Juchitan, the visual tropes seen in her work evoke the superstitious beliefs of the Mexican people. In “Angel Lady in the Sonora Desert’, a woman surveys the landscape, standing tall and almost specter-like in the foreground, like a mythical character from ancient stories.
2. Flor Garduno – Mexican Woman holding bound Iguanas, 1987
Flor Garduno’s arresting portrait of a young woman holding dead and bound iguanas captures a strange and brutal moment of beauty where the relationship between mankind and beast is called into question. Iguanas are native to tropical Mexico and are one of the countries’ national emblems. In the mesoamerican and Aztec religion, Iguanas have many symbolic qualities, but they are also captured and eaten in parts of the country. Flor Garduno comes from a long tradition of post-revolutionary Mexican female photographers who helped reinvent the countries’ artistic reputation across the world.
3. David Alan Harvey – Community leaders meeting, San Mateo del Mar, Oaxaca, 1992
David Alan Harvey’s Divided Soul chronicles decades of change in the Spanish-speaking world. Traversing Central and South America as well as the Caribbean, Harvey’s images speak of the traditions and rituals inherent in everyday Latinx life. In his chapter on Mexico, Harvey chronicles Fiestas and Quinceaneras, religious ceremonies and small political council meetings. Harvey’s eloquent use of color and personal vision imbibes every photo he shoots, resulting in informative documentary work with a fine art flourish. In this photo, Harvey portrays the leaders of a small town who have gathered to discuss issues within their community. Sodas, flowers and colorful tablecloths adorn the meeting in a non-archetypal political setting which is inherently Mexican.
4. Tina Modotti – Mexican Sombrero with hammer and sickle, 1927
Tina Modotti, an Italian photographer who made some of her most famous work in Mexico between 1923 and 1930, was also a political activist during the Mexican revolution. Earning fame (and notoriety) through her romantic relationship with Edward Weston, she was also a socialite who was friends with Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo. Her studio work incorporated the revolutionary ideals she sought to propagate throughout Mexico in the lead-up and aftermath of the revolution. This striking image reinvents the typical poster-image of the hammer and the sickle with a Mexican twist.
5. Nickolas Muray – Frida Kahlo, 1939
Invited by a friend to visit, Hungarian-born Nickolas Muray traveled to Mexico, where he was introduced to the artist Frida Kahlo, a woman he would never forget. Thus started a romance that continued for a decade and a friendship that lasted the rest of their lives. Muray’s portraits of Kahlo have a unique and intimate perspective that only a friend or lover could share. Shedding light on Kahlo’s private life, Muray produced some of the most memorable and striking images of the surrealist artist. In perhaps one of the most famous portraits of Kahlo, she holds Muray’s gaze, standing confidently and powerfully in front of a plain white background, arms folded but ever fierce and questioning, the artist as art.
6. Larry Towell – Mennonite girl sitting at a table, La Batea, Zacatecas, 1992
Larry Towell first encountered the Mennonites in his native Canada and developed a long-standing friendship that gave him access to their very closed community. The Mennonites are a Protestant religious sect, much like the Amish, originating in Europe in the sixteenth century. Forced to migrate around the world rather than compromise their way of life, the largest community of Mennonites are now found in Mexico. Towell has closely documented the hardships these people have had to face by rejecting society and modernity, and their struggle to keep their rural existence and traditions alive, ways that are often highly misunderstood.
7. Alex Webb – Mexicans Arrested whilst crossing the US border, San Ysidro, California, USA, 1979
Fascinated by the differences between the US and Mexico, American photographer Alex Webb’s seminal series La Calle is a decades-long investigation into the lives and routines of Mexicans. His unflinching dedication to this in-depth series is evident in every image Webb has produced. His photographs are rich, complex, colorful, full of emotion, depth, and empathy. This image stands as proof, presenting the arrested in a way that evokes religious iconography.
“Sometimes I talk with people, sometimes not. It all depends on the given situation. When working along the US-Mexico border, for example, I crossed illegally a number of times with Mexicans heading north to the US to photograph them as a way of trying to understand their world.”
8. Mary Ellen Mark – Acrobats at the Vazquez Brothers Circus, Mexico City, Mexico, 1997
Mary Ellen Mark, who brought together her photographs of circus performers from Mexico and India in her book Man and Beast, called the circus a “universal form of theater.” Her drive to document the individuals who performed in these traveling institutions stemmed from her desire to listen to the voices of those living on the margins of society. Mark loved Mexico and taught photography in Oaxaca annually for over a decade. Thus her pictures of the Mexican people are highly intimate- tinged with the viewpoint of someone who really knew them well.
9. Enrique Metinides – The death of Adela Legarreta Rivas, 1979
Adela Legarreta Rivas is struck by a white Datsun on Avenida Chapultepec, Mexico City, 29 April 1979
Known as the ‘Mexican Weegee’, Enrique Metinides was always the first at the scene of the crime or disaster. It’s as though tragedy followed him around. Inspired by the morbid curiosity that inhabits us all, Metinides made his name by photographing these daily events in a series called the “101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides.” In perhaps what is one of his most famous photos, an image that stands out from his other work for its use of color, a woman lies dead in the foreground after having been struck by a car on one of the roads of Mexico city. The fact that the woman looks posed as though in some strange dance is a unique perspective on death that is typical of Metinides’ work.
10. Manuel Alvarez Bravo – Fireworks in the Barrio del Niño, 1990
Often remembered as Mexico’s most celebrated fine art photographer, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, captured the history of the country’s rapidly evolving geopolitical atmosphere. After the turbulent Mexican Revolution ended, a creative renaissance emerged in the country, at which point Alvarez Bravo made his name. His work explores the gradual abandonment of rural customs and the rise of a post-revolutionary culture with international influences.
Although considered part of the surrealism movement, Alvarez Bravo’s images also share approaches associated with modernism, inspired by his friend Edward Weston, and formalist ideas. He captures the mythic qualities of tangible objects and saturates them with poetic complexity.
All images © their respective owners