Agustín Victor Casasola

Centre National de la Photographie

Agustín Victor Casasola (1874–1938) may not have been “the photographer of the Mexican Revolution,” as he is popularly known, but he was the founder of Mexico’s first photo archive, and as such, not only preserved but shaped a vision of history encompassing the whole of Mexico’s political and social life during the first third of this century. In 1921, drawing on the thousands of photographs in his archive, he published the first edition of the now-classic Album Histórico Gráfico de la Revolucíon (Illustrated historical album of the revolution, 1921), which traces the history of the revolutionary decade from 1910 to 1920 in texts and photos.

The 75 photos in this exhibit basically corresponded to the successive stages of Casasola’s itinerary: the photo-reporter’s views of high and low society in the Porfirio era; the icons of the Mexican Revolution—Madero, Huerta, Pancho Villa, Zapata, along with the anonymous soldiers and peasants who followed them; the vigilantes of public life in precisely those areas where Casasola exercised his official functions in the ’20s and ’30s—the courts, the prisons, the popular entertainments. Whatever the situation—and this is what sets these photographs apart from run-of-the-mill historical documents—there is a singular selectivity at work. The early shots of spanking-new offices and factories are visual displays of modernity, just as the various courtroom and prison situations are visual displays of power (or its absence).

But an eye for subjects iscoupled with what must have been an inordinately rapid sense of timing and place. This is nowhere more apparent than in three execution scenes, each of which, in a totally different way, forges an eternal image out of a topical (and potentially sensational) event. The first of these, Execution of Arcadio Jimenez, Hilario Silva, and Marcelino Martinez, Chalco, 28 April 1909, 1909, a kind of Goya–esque tableau (in reverse), shows three convicted murderers facing the firing squad just as the officer in charge, sword raised over his head, is about to give the command to fire. The second, Execution of Fortino Sámano, Mexico City, 1917, 1917, zooms in for a vertical close-up of a counterfeiter smoking his last cigar with the seeming sang froid of a lonesome cowboy. And finally, the Execution of Francisco San Roman, Mexico City, 1918, 1918, captures the terrifying instant when the condemned men (notwithstanding the title, there are four of them) are actually struck by the volley of bullets and go into their eerie free-fall in a cloud of gunsmoke.

In the face of such images, it is virtually impossible not to think of the photographer and his physical proximity to these suspended moments between life and death. But if there seems to be a “Casasola presence” or a “Casasola eye” in these and other photographs, it is far from certain that Casasola actually took all of them himself. What then do we make of a group of photographs that cannot be identified conclusively with a specific photographer? In this instance, we seem to have made them into journalistic artifacts belonging to the prehistory of Mexican art-photography (which officially begins with Manuel Alvarez Bravo in the mid ’20s). Somehow this seems like a lost opportunity—aided and abetted by an exhibition and an accompanying monograph that do not really address the issue at all—not only to rethink the ways that the language of photography was actually formed in a particular historical context, but also to shed our own historical skins, if only for the time it takes to look at these remarkable photographs and to plunge into the intellectual free fall of anonymous creation.

Miriam Rosen