Rigor and sensitivity in images

In a portrait taken by the renowned photographer Augustin Victor Casasola in the early 20th century, Emiliano Zapata stares out with a determined, fiery gaze. This portrait of one of the most legendary figures in 20th century history takes the viewer back to the first social revolution of the century and a turbulent period in the history of Mexico, a time of revolution, civil war and radical social transformations. Casasola documented these changes with the rigor of a news photographer (he is thought to be the first Mexican photojournalist) and the sensitivity of an artist. «Mexico. The Revolution and Beyond: Photographs by Augustin Victor Casasola, 1900-1949,» the title of a large exhibition on show at the Pireos annex of the Benaki Museum, demonstrates the significance of his work both for its historical, documentary value and artistic aspect. The exhibition is organized by the Photographic Archives department of the Benaki Museum in collaboration with Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History and the National Photography Library of Pachuca, Mexico. It is taking place the occasion of the 13th International Month of Photography, the established annual photographic event which is organized by the Hellenic Center for Photography. A selection of 92 photographs from the National Photography Library of Pachuca, where the Casasola archives are housed, is wonderfully displayed by the exhibition’s curator Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (a photographer and co-author of the book that has the same title as the exhibition and is available at the Benaki) in two chronological sections: the «Porfiriato» period, which is when the dictator Porfirio Diaz ruled the country, and the period of the Revolution. Casasola’s photographs depict a world filled with commotion, instability and a overwhelming sense of raw energy. They capture demonstrations, battles, firing squads and even the brutal scenes of executions. One of those scenes actually captures the very moment when the condemned men are struck by the bullets and fall in the cloud of gunsmoke. The images – even those taken after Zapata’s murder in 1919 – are all intense and utterly pragmatic. Something is always happening in his pictures; at moments the viewer may feel that he is watching a film instead of viewing still images. The photographs encompass the full range of Mexico’s social and political life. Casasola photographed everybody: Porfirio Diaz (he was his personal photographer and actually traveled to Veracruz to photograph him in exile) and all the iconic figures of the Mexican Revolution, among them Francisco Madero, Victoriano Huerta, Pancho Villa and Zapata; figures of Mexico’s artistic and intellectual milieu such as Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo and the exiled Russian Leon Trotsky; and the anonymous soldiers and peasants who fought with the revolutionary forces, crowds of civilians and popular entertainers. Most of the half-million plaques at the Casasola archives are portraits, a genre for which the photographer is renowned. One of the most unusual and moving portraits included in the Benaki exhibition is that of Maria Zavala, a woman who fought with the revolutionaries and was known for offering solace to dying soldiers. The picture of «La destroyer,» which was Zavala’s nickname, was taken in 1915. There are also plenty of portraits of the anonymous crowd; each of them is a penetrating portrayal of Mexico’s social and political reality. The portrait of a woman behind prison bars from 1935, for example, alludes to the political corruption and the decadence in the country’s judicial system at the time. From Zapata’s portrait of 1916 down to the portraits of the late 1930s that show people of the underground arrested by the police, Casasola’s pictures expose injustice and corruption. Even though they do not take up a clear political position but engage in the more distanced, «objective» viewpoint of reportage, they are a vital testament to Mexico’s modern history and an investigative expose of the political and social turmoil that shook the country during the first decades of the 20th century. At the Benaki Museum (138 Pireos, tel 210 345.33.38) to December 3. The founder of Mexico’s first photo archive As a young photographer, Augustin Victor Casasola (1874-1938) worked for Mexico’s city newspapers, initially as a typesetter and a sports reporter. Like his brother, who was also a photographer, he worked for the goverment-sponsored newspaper El Universal. Around the time of the 1911 revolution, he and his brother Miguel founded the first Mexican photo agency to meet the demand for photographic material of reporters and photojournalists in Mexico to cover the news. Many photographers put their pictures into the Casasola agency and Casasola may have put his name on several of those images. This is one of the reasons that, in the case of several photos, some specialists are faced with problems of attribution. Casasola was the key photographer covering the Mexican Revolution. His work is considered of great historical importance. In 1976, the Casasola archive of more than half a million prints was bought by the Mexican goverment and has since been kept in the temperature-controlled vaults of the National Photography Library of Pachuca, Mexico.

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