Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Imported Nationalism

Jesse Lerner

Hovering somewhere between lithography and photography, between nationalism and Europhilia, between supernatural apparition and historical fact, the 19th-century carte-de-visite titled Our Lady of Guadalupe appearing to the Emperor and Empress in the Clouds above the Cerro de las Campanas, is a minor curiosity in the history of Mexican photography, a peculiar artifact of the French Intervention (1862–67). Much acclaim has been showered upon the modernist Mexican photography from the period of the post-Revolution cultural Renaissance—both the work done there by international visitors such as Edward Weston and Paul Strand as well as national artists. Their accomplishments are not at all diminished by the acknowledgement that much of the nationalistic iconography for which these Revolutionary artists are known was firmly in place by the end of the 19th century, developed by photographers who have received little praise. The earliest photography in Mexico reveals little that is distinctive. Practiced by and for Europeans, or elites of European descent, it is largely derivative of photography elsewhere, and virtually indistinguishable from the output of studios in Europe or the United States. For this reason, they might be understood not as "Mexican photography" so much as "photography done in Mexico." The carte-de-visite plays a critical role in the development of a distinctively national photography. Ironically it is the French Intervention, the failed and pathetic dream of reactionaries who imagined imported European royalty was the key to Mexico's prosperity, which did much to the definition of a uniquely Mexican style.

Though photography had been practiced in Mexico ever since the French made public Daguerre's invention in 1839,1 the carte-de-visite was the process that gave Mexican photography its first real mass distribution. The technique was invented by Louis Dodero in 1851, but it was André Adolphe Disdéri who patented the process in Paris in 1854, and went on to become its best-known practitioner. The carte-de-visite utilized a single wet plate negative to produce (typically) eight identical images. The resulting images were printed on light-sensitive paper, separated, and affixed to a slightly larger piece of cardboard. The albumen paper was made from egg whites mixed with salt and applied to the paper, which was then immersed in silver nitrate. The resultant chemical reaction produced light-sensitive silver chloride. The albumen negative, which employed glass plates treated with the identical mixture of egg whites and silver halide, was also used during the early 1850s, but the superior wet collodion process soon superseded this. Prices varied according to dimensions, which ranged from the standard size of about 2 1/2 by 4 inches to the larger "cabinet" (about 4 by 6 1/2 inches), "boudoir" (about 5 by 8 1/2 inches), or "imperial" (about 7 by 9 1/2 inches) sizes. While the earlier daguerreotypes and ambrotypes were accessible to few other than the small Europeanized elite (and foreign invaders, like the North American soldiers of occupation, who posed in front a painted cloth backdrop of the Castillo of Chapultepec in the Mexico City studios of Charles S. Betts and Antonio L. Cosmes de Cosío), the reduced price of the cartes-de-visite made photography accessible to the popular classes.

The uses of this technique were diverse. Portraiture was most important, produced in studios modeled on Matthew Brady's highly successful New York City gallery. Unlike the one-of-a-kind daguerreotypes and ambrotypes, the inexpensive cards could be distributed among friends and admirers as keepsakes. Francisco Javier Castaño's biography of the artist Jacobo Gálvez credits the painter with introducing photography to Guadalajara in 1853, when Gálvez returned from his studies in Europe with a "paper daguerreotype" camera. Shortly after this the itinerant photographer Amado Palma announced his presence in Guadalajara with fliers printed with the following text, which gives a good sense of his business:

Amado Palma has the honor of announcing to the respectable public that he has just returned from the United States, and that he has brought with him, for the practice of his profession, German, French and North American mechanisms, all the apparatuses necessary to make portraits or views, with colors or without, and offers—to those gentlemen who would like to try them—portraits which are better than those that they have seen and equal to the most successful ones made recently in Europe, and for the reasonable price of four pesos, with a standard frame.2

Later, in the 1860s, the city had permanent photo studios, the shops of Justo Ibarra and Octavio de la Mora. De la Mora, active in Guadalajara from 1865 to 1888, made remarkable wet collodion portraits set in an imaginary world created by painted backdrops and props. Fountains, gardens, waterfalls, and landscapes spotted with castles or temples suggested a simulacrum of distant elegance. Plaster columns and false balustrades supplemented the illusion. De la Mora is credited with introducing to Mexico the use of explosions of magnesium powder for illumination.3 He later relocated to Mexico City, where he ran a successful portrait studio and worked as a photographer for the National Museum. In addition to taking portraits of their customers, photographers sold to the public the likenesses of well-known individuals. These studio operators did not necessarily have to have access to these celebrities in order to sell their portraits, because cartes-de-visite could also be made by re-photographing an existing image, not necessarily a photograph, and then printing from this copy negative. In Mexico, one of the most popular carte-de-visite images was a portrait by Antioco Cruces and Luis Campa of the liberal president, Benito Juárez, that sold more than twenty thousand copies. His rival Maximilian appeared on similar cards. Collectors often assembled their cartes-de-visite in albums, in which they could place images of themselves, family, and friends alongside portraits of national or world leaders. In addition to individual images, studios offered sets of thematically related series of images. Examples of these include an early sequence of cards representing the already numerous succession of leaders of Mexico since independence. Since there were no photographs of many of these politicians, photographers shot copy negatives of lithographs and printed from these. Another genre produced for mass consumption by entrepreneurial photographers was the series known as tipos mexicanos, or Mexican types. These were representations of a variety of working-class tradesmen and Indian groups, and continued the conventions established by a number of earlier efforts in visual anthropology. In the years 1851–1855, Edouard Pingret, a French illustrator, produced a series of watercolors on the theme of tipos mexicanos. In contrast to portraiture, in these cases the basis for recording a person is not individuality but rather typicality, their representative quality.

The first photographer to market images of tipos mexicanos was probably François Aubert.4 Aubert was a Frenchman who had come to Mexico in 1854. He learned photography from Jules Amiel in Mexico City and bought Amiel's studio in 1864. In addition to his series of tipos mexicanos, he made the most complete photographic record of Maximilian's term in Mexico, as well as numerous studio portraits. He left Mexico shortly after the intervention in 1869. Several other studios offered cartes-de-visite of these folkloric archetypes, but by far the most successful, both artistically and commercially, were those of Antioco Cruces and Luis Campa. They created a series of depicting a variety of Mexican laborers: the water carrier, the baker, the candlestick maker, and so on. As with Pingret's illustrations, many of the "types" which Cruces and Campa selected (like the tlachiquero or pulque maker, who gathers the sap of the maguey plant to be fermented into a mild alcoholic beverage—later the object of Eisenstein's primitivist homoerotic gaze in his unedited footage from Hacienda Tetlapayac) emphasize the exotic nature of Mexico for foreign customers. Figures representing different types of peddlers posed with props in front of studio recreations of the settings appropriate to their work. The balance between the artifice of the studio and documentary concerns implicitly yields an elegant tension. Unlike Mexican studio portraits of the era, which typically evoke a world of wealth markers of bourgeois elegance—pilasters draped in cloth, a garden or flowery archway visible in the background—the accoutrements of the studio were used to add ersatz ethnographic authenticity. The images are suggestive of a collaborative process between the model and the photographer. The tipos mexicanos of Cruces and Campa formed part of the nation's official image of itself, and Mexico displayed these at their pavilion at the 1876 World's Exposition in Philadelphia.5 Significantly, they anticipate the folkloric types celebrated by the muralists more than half a century later.

A remarkably rich record of cartes-de-visite images documents the French Intervention in Mexico (1862–67), the unfortunate brainchild of the emperor Napoleon III. Mexico's economic hardships had led President Benito Juárez to suspend payments on foreign debts, and the creditor nations—Spain, France and England—moved on Veracruz in an effort to coerce repayment. Although his allies backed down, Napoleon III pushed on, coveting Mexico's natural wealth and hoping to prevent the United States from gaining sole control of New World resources. Despite a temporary setback in the battle of Cinco de Mayo (1862), the French forces took Puebla after a long siege. Juárez evacuated Mexico City in June of 1863 and General Bazaine took the capital city. With the support of Mexican conservatives, monarchy replaced republican government, and the Franco-Austrian alliance was secured. The Archduke Maximilian of Hapsburg, temporarily stateless after Austria ceded control of Lombardy, accepted the crown, and in May of 1864 arrived in Veracruz with his young wife Carlota. In June they entered Mexico City, and set up residence in Chapultepec Castle. Maximilian's soldiers managed to chase the Juarista forces far into the north and defeated Porfirio Díaz in Oaxaca, but they never fully controlled the entire country. Completed in March 1867, the withdrawal of the French troops, in deference to the supposed sovereignty of Maximilian's rule and motivated by events in Europe,6 marked the beginning of the emperor's end. The victory of Juárez's allies, the Union forces in the North American Civil War, threatened to bring a powerful new player onto the scene. Juarista forces drove the emperor out of Mexico City to Querétaro, where he was captured on 15 May 1867. A court martial sentenced him to death, and on 19 June, Maximilian, along with his two loyal generals, Tomás Mejía and Miguel Miramón, were executed on the Cerro de las Campanas overlooking the city.

The French intervention was extensively documented by photographers, both foreign and Mexican. The visiting North American Andrew Burgess created an important record of the war. Burgess had been part of Matthew Brady's team of photographers, working at the extremely successful New York studio and photographing the Civil War in the United States. Burgess had been in Guadalajara on 4 January 1864, when the French troops took the city from Juárez, and perhaps it was he who took the photograph from gates of the city of Guadalajara of the French troops entering the city. Burgess also took the emperor's portrait. The photographic studios, like those of Auguste Péraire, Valleto and Company, and Martínez and Co., produced hundreds of copies of a carte-de-visite of the Emperor. Maximilian also had his own court photographer, Julio María y Campo, who was housed in the emperor's Chapultepec castle. Politically inept, the emperor's central preoccupation was not waging war with soldiers, but rather with appearances. The carte-de-visite images of this era record a complex, reciprocal process, by which the Emperor and his wife try to become more Mexican, while at least some Mexicans look to the royal couple for cues on how to be more European. On one hand, one sees poses assumed by Carlota in front of the camera studiously replicated in the studio by her privileged female subjects. Conversely, the Imperial court made a conscious effort to surround itself with and to embrace distinctively local elements. Maximilian commissioned portraits of the heroes of Independence from Spain, thus positioning himself as heir to the struggles of 1812. The imperial couple hired Faustino Galicia Chimalpopoca to act as their Náhuatl (Aztec) translator, and Carlota visited the remote Mayan ruins of Uxmal. There are no photographs of Carlota's visit, but one carte-de-visite shows Francisco Boban, the court archeologist, surrounded by a cabinet of curiosities full of pre-Columbian artifacts, one of the first realizations in Mexico of the political efficacy of this particular invented tradition. The last photograph taken of Maximilian before his execution shows him sporting an oversized, broad brimmed hat like those favored by the Mexican cowboy. Hand-written on a copy of this carte-de-visite at the National History Museum is the caption that makes the symbolism explicit: Maximiliano (charro).7 It was the European royalty that discovered the nationalist potential later tapped by movie stars like Jorge Negrete and Tito Guízar.

By the 1860s the photographic documentation of world events had become a standard practice, and the tragic appeal of Maximilian and Carlota's ill-fated Empire made this an ideal subject for market-oriented vendors of cartes-de-visite. An unusually thorough documentation of the execution of Maximilian was photographed by François Aubert, and later widely distributed as cartes-de-visite by Disdéri, Auguste Péraire, the Viennese studios of Auguste Klein and von Jägermayer, Aubert himself, and other photographers. Aubert did not photograph the actual execution, and may not even have been present, but he did record portraits of the three victims, the adobe wall against which the three were shot, the emperor's clothing after the execution, the embalmed emperor in a glass-covered casket (his eyesockets stuffed with glass eyes borrowed from a statue of the Virgen de los Remedios), and at least two images of the execution squad, one at attention and one at ease.8

Aubert's images were rephotographed, printed and sold by other photographers as cartes-de-visite, but never as deliriously as in a constructed photograph produced from Aubert's images by Adrien Cordiglia. Using the photograph of the execution site as a background, he superimposed the firing squad, divided into two halves and placed in the lower corners, and the three victims. The images of the victims are themselves constructions, assembled from headshots placed on borrowed bodies. Beneath Maximilian his last words are written in by hand: "Mexicans, may my blood be the last that is shed and may it revive this unhappy country." The figure of the emperor appears larger than the two generals or the members of the firing squad, as if to emphasize his relative importance. In one sense, this unusual image seeks to construct the decisive photograph that Aubert never took, the actual execution itself, with the executioners and victims placed together at the site of the event. But more than simply attempting to reconstruct the execution scene, Cordiglia's composite draws on other pictorial traditions and hints at an unexplored potential of the medium. Other artists, especially lithographers, were free to invent their vision of this scene, and later Edouard Manet painted three versions, based on prints and on these photographs.9 Contemporary prints commemorating the same event combined several scenarios into a single image, such as an anonymous Italian lithograph of the same year that integrates a portrait of the Emperor with scenes of "the departure from Miramare," "the arrival in the capital city," and "the betrayal." Many of these circulated as cartes-de-visite reproductions.

Less than three decades after its introduction, Mexican photography was a surprisingly mature medium with distinctly national characteristics. Long before the modernists of the 1920s, photographers turned their attention to the indigenous faces and traditions, the characteristic landscapes, and the iconic national symbols in ways that sometimes anticipate the Post-Revolutionary Renaissance. Like the image of the apparition of the dark Virgin before the Austrian royalty, Mexican photographic practice in the 19th century was a mixture of imported and autochthonous elements. The juxtaposition of the imported archduke and Mexico's patron saint is not an inappropriate one. Maximilian had commissioned an oil of the Virgen de Guadelupe from Joaquín Ramírez, one of Mexico's leading academic painters. Though the Royal Guadalupana ascension is perhaps technically awkward, it embodies a series of revealing contradictions, and like many of the images of these early photographers, in all their hybrid complexities, achieves a rare beauty.

1 — On 3 December 1839, three and a half months after Louis Jacques Mandé Daguerre, Isidore Niépce, and François Arago gave the first public demonstration of the daguerreotype before the French Academy of Sciences, the printer Louis Prélier landed in Veracruz with two daguerreotype cameras that he had purchased in Paris. News of the daguerreotype had already arrived in Mexico. Prior to revealing the details of the photographic procedure in August 1839, Daguerre made public the news of his discovery, as early as January of the same year, and displayed sample images. A Mexico City newspaper, El Diario del Gobierno de la Republica Mexicana, gave the first account of the daguerreotype in Mexico on 5 June 1839.
2 — Quoted in El que mueve, no sale! Fotógrafos ambulantes (México D.F.: Museo nacional de culturas populares, 1989), pp. 32-33.
3 — La Bandera de Jalisco, vol. 1, no. 28 (6 June 1888), p. 4.
4 — Philippe Roussin, "Photographing the Second Discovery of America," in Mexico Through Foreign Eyes (New York: W.W. Norton, 1993), p. 97.
5 — Olivier Debrosie, "Fotografía: verdad y belleza: notas sobre la historia de fotografía en México," México en el Arte, no. 23 (Fall 1989), p. 7.
6 — The Prussian defeat of Austria made Napoleon's alliance considerably less valuable, and the mounting cost of the entire effort made it unpopular in France.
7 — Mexican cowboy celebrated in the national cinema of the Golden Age.
8 — Even decades after the execution of Maximilian, the execution site continued to be a point of interest, and in the early 20th century photographers such as François Miret and C. B. Waite documented and sold views of the chapel later erected on the spot.
9 — Juliet Wilson-Bareau, Manet, the Execution of Maximilian: Painting, Politics and Censorship (London: National Gallery, 1992).

Tuesday, October 9, 2007


by Jesse Lerner

A floral curtain is pulled back to reveal a smartly dressed brunette from the 1930s reclining on a well-appointed bed. She stares mesmerized into space, seemingly transfixed by a point in space somewhere below and to the left of the camera's lens. In her hands is an opium pipe, held at an angle above an extinguished burner, on which the camera, but not the subject's gaze, is focused. Is this a cautionary image of moral decay, a celebration of the libertine and liberated pursuit of pleasure, or a frank, non-judgmental reportage documenting urban vices? The absence of any clear editorial voice, and the matter-of-factness with which this and other illicit and typically invisible acts are presented for the camera, lead the viewer to wonder just how to interpret the striking photographs of drug use in Mexico City in the twenties and thirties.
This and many other arresting pictures of high living in Tenochtitlan between the World Wars are images from the Casasola photo agency, perhaps the most important photojournalistic outfit in early 20th Century Mexico. Agustín Victor Casasola and his younger brother Miguel began their careers as press photographers around 1900 working for the El Imparcial, for whom they documented presidential travels and state ceremonies. The narrow limits on freedom of the press made them in effect the dictator Porfirio Díaz' propagandists during the latest year of his rule, although they also produced some photographs of the dictatorship's darker side--photo essays that could be interpreted as anti-government--of the poverty which was normally hidden from the camera behind the positivists' facade of rational order, marble monuments and scientific progress. They supplemented their work as journalists photographing weddings, first communions, public works projects and the like. When Díaz left for exile in Europe the Casasolas covered the story. The Revolution that followed changed photojournalism in Mexico definitively. When foreign journalists began to flood the country to report on the civil conflict that erupted in 1911, the brothers formed an agency with several colleagues to better contend with this new, more competitive environment. The Agencia Fotográfica Nacional, founded in 1912, grew into a wide-ranging archive of over half a million negatives, as the brothers began to acquired existing collections, beginning with the photo archives of their former employers, El Imparcial. The Casasola collection thus includes not only photographs taken by the two brothers, their children Agustín Jr. and Gustavo, and other Casasola family members, but also the work of over four hundred other photographers.1 Soon Miguel abandoned photography, at least temporarily, for a more active role as a combatant in the army of Alvaro Obregón.2 Agustín Victor didn't leave the capital often in pursuit of pictures, but in 1913 the conflict came to the streets of the city. While the Casasolas continued to photograph after the Revolution, producing images, like those of the drug users, for newspapers including El Universal, Excelsior, and El Demócrata, their business increasingly involved the marketing of their archive and the publication of visual histories that drew on their extensive holdings.3
Collectively the Casasola images, now housed in the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia's Fototeca in Pachuca, Hidalgo, offer a cross-section of (for the most part urban) society over the course of the first half of the Twentieth Century. The archive is still almost synonymous with its powerful images of the Revolution, any number of which have gained the status of icons: the "Adelita" leaning out of the train car, Pancho Villa looking quite comfortable in the presidential chair, with a more ambivalent Zapata at his side, and so on. These are photographs that, after having been reproduced countless times, are ingrained in the imagination as the defining visual record of the first social revolution of the past century.4 But given that the photographers whose work comprises the archive were active both before and after the armed conflict of the Revolution, and given the sheer size of the collection, it should not be surprising that the Casasola archive involves much more than these well-known images of civil war. What is startling is that segment of the archive contains the extensive record of drug use and abuse in the twenties and thirties. Some of the images seem clearly legible: policemen posing with quantities of confiscated contraband, the detailed record of the means and subterfuge involved in transporting drugs, and so on. But others present such a non-judgmental look at a topic that is typically absent from the photographic memory that one cannot but wonder: for whom were these images produced?
The images capture a moment in which drug use was in a process of dramatic and rapid changes. There were two broad patterns that defined drug use in Mexico in the period prior to this era. One of these was centuries old, and employed herbs, cacti and mushrooms as a means to access the supernatural. In Pre-Columbian society these were regulated and largely dominated by professional holy men, part of a variety of mechanisms that maintained the social order though controlling contact with the divine. Needless to say, with the Conquest the Church did what it could to eliminate these practices, but to a great extent failed to do so. Instead what frequently emerged after the arrival of the Spanish were syncretic practices that mixed and matched Catholic saints and iconography with the indigenous traditions of ritual hallucinogen usage. This is the yerbería mexicana that brought Artaud to the sierra Tarahumara and the hippies to Huautla de Jiménez. The conflation of the Eucharist with Pre-Cortesian peyote rites brought the Saints, the Virgin and Christ to life for believers under the influence.5 Though we know the sacred use of drugs was commonplace in a Nineteenth and early Twentieth Century Mexico, where the professed allegiance to Catholicism masked a vast diversity of religious practices, there is scant photographic documentation of this sort of use. The exception is the work of Karl Lumholtz, the Norwegian zoologist, ethnographer, photographer and botanist, images created over extensive periods of travel and fieldwork. In 1890, after securing support of the American Museum of Natural History, he traveled to the cliff dwellings of Arizona, and then Sonora and Chihuahua. He returned to Mexico in 1892-93 to study and photograph the Tarahumaras. After exhibiting his photographs at the Chicago Columbian Exposition, he undertook his longest expedition. Between 1894 and 1897, Lumholtz spent extended periods living with the Coras and Huicholes. In 1898 he traveled to the northwest region of Mexico with the anthropologist Ales Hrdlicka, once more to live with the Huicholes and the Tarahumaras, and he returned again in 1905 and 1909-1910. In his photographic archive there are glimpses of the peyote rites that brought visions of the divine to the faithful.6
The other broad category of drug use during the Díaz dictatorship was a more recent phenomena, and one less uniquely Mexican. As in many other parts of the world, decent, middle-class citizens in the late Nineteenth Century indulged in a range of over-the-counter "energizing" pills and powders, typically cocaine or morphine derivatives. According to the memoirs of Francisco Rivera Avila, entitled "When the Coca had no Cola," this marketing of these drugs through pharmacies continued well into the nineteen-twenties, in spite of the Revolutionary-era legislation aimed at eliminating the trade.7 Though evidence is scarce, there is every reason to believe this market was prospering at the turn of the Century. For the pre-Revolutionary society of the Porfiriato, the stance taken regarding drug use was defined by social class, both that of the user and that of the individual passing judgment. One contemporary newspaper made this distinction clear: "only in the spectacle of the drunk of the streets, half-naked, does alcohol terrify. The discreet drunk, well-dressed, passing in a car, is something else, respectable and decent."8 Marijuana was prevalent in Pre-Revolutionary society, but it was a proletarian vice, associated with prisons, the lumpen's vasilada [meaning to enjoy, especially when stoned], and off-duty hours of enlisted men, and thus largely the purview of the guardians of public morality. References to the popular appreciation of pot are found in song, and slang expressions.
The drug use portrayed in the Casasola archives is different from these other cases; it is neither the mushroom trip into an ecstatic religious haze as practiced by the indigenous shaman, nor the polite Porfirian señoras popping the cocaine-laced "Dr. Ross' Pills of Life" or some other ersatz medication. The Casasola archive seems to focus instead on the pastime of a new, cosmopolitan subject, testing the limits of freedom. It is again not in photography, but in popular songs, films, newspaper reports, poetry and literature that we find the context that allow us to understand the world in which these photographs were created. There is much evidence in these records of popular attitudes and manners to lead us to believe that recreational drug use was a part of an urban, bohemian underworld, an emergent, modern public space of altered sensation, accelerated rhythms and exaggerated emotions. Here playboys, poets, movie starlets, artists and flappers loitered in smart cafés and said to themselves, in the words of an anonymous writer in Revista de revistas, "From today on, when I am bored, very bored, very bored, so bored that neither Greig nor Chopin nor Beethoven nor Debussy can get me high enough, I take ether or 'coco'."9 Germán List Arzubide, in his chronicle of the Estridentista movement, the vanguardist bad-boys of Mexican arts and letters of the nineteen-twenties, reports on one wild party where "hygienic tobacco" was used, and a misogynistic new verse was first read:

That night, beyond all the almanacs, the squeaking doors of metropolitan horror opened. “A Woman Chopped in Pieces” surprised the sonnet-writers that could not triangulate and did not want to know about women, and the shout of the academic parrots added enough green so that the reporters stayed up until dawn on the rooftops of the new horizon. The general staff of Estridentismo, with Maples Arce, pointed their loudspeaker to the road and Huitzilopoxtli, waking up from centuries of Manuel Horta and Panchito Monterde, gave time a hand by looping the loop.10

[Aquella noche, fuera de todos los almanaques, abrió chirriando las puertas del espanto metropolitano. "Una Mujer Hecha Pedazos" asustó a los soneteros que no se trianulizan y no quieren saber de mujeres, y el grito de los loros académicos, puso la suficiente verdura para los reporteros que vieron amanecer desde las azoteas del nuevo horizonte. El Estado Mayor del Estridentismo, con Maples Arce, plantó su magnavoz hacia el camino y Huitzilopoxtli, desamorrándose los siglos de Manuel Horta y de Panchito Monterde, dió la mano al tiempo en looping the loop.]

A fiction film from Orizaba, Veracruz, from the same time as the Casasola images and the Estridentista text, also provides a context for understanding the photographs. Gabriel García Moreno's feature-length film drama El puño de hierro [The Fist of Iron, 1927], the story of a young man's experiment with heroin, avoids both List Arzurbide's euphoric rhetoric and the moralizing hysteria of contemporary journalistic accounts (or a later film like Marijuana: el monstro verde [Marijuana, the Green Monster, 1936]). Here we see the casual experimentation with needles and opiates in the backrooms of cafés, a provincial version of the bohemian atmosphere that pervades the Casasola images. While the main narrative line of El puño de hierro seems to fulfill prohibitionist expectations, the film undercuts its own message of temperance with a coda that suggests that all is well. The protagonist, coming to, and finding his friends frolicking at the beach, and not mired addiction and violence as he had dreamt, swears off further experiments with heroin. In dismissing the misadventures and tragedies depicted earlier in the film as a nothing more than a bad dream induced by drugs, the director García Moreno seems to suggest that junk is little more than the harmless, youthful folly of the overly curious.11
This permissive attitude taken towards recreational drugs in the beginning of the last century gave way to greater and greater efforts to prohibit and restrict. It has been argued that a gradual shrinking of the spaces of tolerance in Mexico over the first part of the Twentieth Century was one which in the end responded more to external interests, especially those of the North American agents of "moral hygiene," than to nation ones.12 While changing international attitudes did in fact stir the state and their police into a repressive mode, arguments for and against specific drugs also responded to internal political dynamics as well. The xenophobic violence targeting the Chinese immigrant community, a demagogic scapegoating cynically utilized as a political tool, found an ideal pretext for racial intolerance in opium.13 The Casasola images coincide with a watershed in international efforts to control the global flow of opium and its derivatives,14 in which the Mexicans participated, beginning with the national ban imposed by Venustiano Carranza at the end of 1915.
The present-day mores of narco-trafficers, with their powerful weapons and ostentatious lifestyles (the latter spawning what one architectural critic, Lawrence Herzog, calls "narchitecture," those palatial monuments to poor taste), and "wars" for and on drugs are distant from what is visible in the Casasola images. Instead, we see a world where current prohibitions were barely in the process of being articulated, in which retailers were able to openly market the certain chemicals and organic products with characterization such as "energizing," "medicinal," or "hygienic." At this time when experiments with opium or heroin were as likely to be understood as a badge of sophistication than a symptom of a disease or a criminal behavior, Casasola's photographers were able to create these arresting images of intoxication.

1 This calculation was made by Ignacio Gutiérrez Ruvalcaba, who was charged with cataloguing the Casasola collection for the in the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia's Fototeca, in "A Fresh Look at the Casasola Archive, " History of Photography vol. 20, no 3 (Autumn 1996), p. 191.

2 Gustavo Casasola's role as a combatant in the Revolution is described in an interview with Gustavo and Mario Casasola by Adriana Malvido, La Jornada, November 21, 1991.

3 The Casasola family published several multi-volume sets of images from their archive, most notably Álbum Histórico Gráfico (1921), Historia gráfica de la Revolución Mexicana (1942) and Seis Siglos de Historia Gráfica de México. (1978)

4 Images of the Mexican Revolution from the Casasola archive are reproduced in Jefes, heroes, y caudillos (Mexico City: Rio de la Luz, 1986); Gustavo Casasola, Historia gráfica de la Revolución Mexicana, (México, Ed. Gustavo Casasola, 1942); and David Elliott, ed., Tierra y Libertad!: Photographs of Mexico 1900-1935 from the Casasola Archive, (Oxford: St Martin's Press, 1986). A broader selection of photographs from the archive appears in Agustín V. Casasola (Paris: Photo Poche, 1992), The World of Agustín Víctor Casasola (Washington, D.C.: Fondo del Sol Visual Arts and Media Center, 1984), and David Maawad et. al., Los inicios del México contemporáneo (Mexico City: FONCA/CONACULTA/Casa de las Imagenes/INAH, 1997). A selection of images of drug use and abuse from the archive appears in Ricardo Pérez Monfort, Yerba, goma, y polvo (Mexico City: Ediciones Era/Instituto Nacional de Antrologogía e Historia, 1999).

5 Serge Gruzinski, Images at War: Mexico from Columbus to Blade Runner, 1492-2019 trans. Heather MacLean (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2001), pp. 170-172, and The Conquest of Mexico: The Incorporation of Indian Societies into the Western World, 16th-18th Centuries trans. Eileen Corrigan (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1993) pp. 220-221. See also Peter T. Furst, Alucinógenos y cultura (Mexico City: Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1980).

6 See Lumholtz's books, which include reproductions of these images, Unknown Mexico (New York: C. Scribner's Sons, 1902); New Trails in Mexico (New York: Scribner, 1912); Symbolism of the Huichol Indians (New York: Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, 1900); and Decorative Art of the Huichol Indians (New York: Memoirs of the American Museum of Natural History, 1904).

7 An translatable pun--"cola" in Spanish means "tail," in Estampillas Jarochas, Veracruz: Instituto Veracruzano de Cultura, 1988).

8 Diario Ilustrado, 2 November, 1908, quoted in Ricardo Pérez Monfort, "Fragmentos de historia de las 'drogas' en México, 1870-1920, in Hábitos, normas y escándalo: Prensa, criminalidad y drogas durante el porfiriato tardío (Mexico City: Plaza y Valdés, 1997), p. 168.

9 Revista de revistas, 7 June, 1925.

10 Germán List Arzubide, El movimiento estridentista (Jalapa, Veracruz: Ediciones de Horizonte, 1927), p. 74.

11 The Filmoteca of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México recently completed a restoration of this film that involved a re-editing of the existing materials. To what extent the re-edited version has altered the moral message of the film remains open for further study. For more on this film and García Moreno, see Dante Octavio Hernández Guzmán, Imágenes en movimiento en Orizaba (Orizaba, Veracruz: Comunidad Morelos, 2001), pp. 30-34; Gabriel Ramírez, Crónica del cine mudo mexicano (Mexico City: Cineteca Nacional, 1989), pp. 234-235.

12 Ricardo Pérez Montfort, "De vicios populares, corruptelas y toxicomanías," in Juntos y medios revueltos: La ciudad de México durante el sexenio del General Cárdenas y otros ensayos, (Mexico City: Ediciones UníoS, 2000), p. 111-134.

13 Juan Puig, Entre el río perla y el Nazas: : la China decimonónica y sus braceros emigrantes, la colonia china de Torreón y la matanza de 1911, (Mexico City: CONACULTA, 1992), pp. 173 ff.; Jorge Gómez Izquierdo, El movimiento antichino en México, 1870-1934: Problemas del racismo y nacionalismo durante la Revolución Mexicana (Mexico City: Institúto Nacional de Antropología e Historia, 1991).

14 David F. Musto, The American Disease, Origins of Narcotics Control. (New York: Yale University Press, 1973).

Monday, September 17, 2007

Consumed by a Fever: The Small-Gauge Cinema of Orizaba's Sergio Tinoco Solar

As a movement, Super 8 filmmaking in Mexico was a largely a counter-cultural affair. Though the format was marketed to the hobbyists of the emerging middle class, as a rule its most impassioned practitioners were not well-appointed families intent on documenting babies' birthdays, vacations at the beach, and so on. It was, in contrast, from the ranks of the anti-establishment youth movements of the 1970s that the format took on another life, and became the vehicle for a movement, with its own film festivals, polemics, manifestos and politics. Although the means of production used by the superocheros (as these small-gauge practitioners of Third World cinema of liberation called themselves) was more amateur than industrial, their ambitions were great. They saw Super 8 as a tool for social struggle, an expressive vehicle for activist filmmaking out of the censor's purview, a forum for playful, irreverent experimentation and radical politics that was at once potent, direct and accessible.
In this broader context, then, the work of Sergio Tinoco, one of the most prolific and tireless practitioners of Super 8 filmmaking in Mexico, must be understood as the exception. In contrast to the hundreds of participants in the competitions for the Luis Buñuel Prize, the filmmakers who produced their Super 8 works collectively as a way of rejecting the "bourgeois idea of authorship," and the bohemians who, along with Buñuel, signed the manifesto called "8 millimeters versus 8 Million," stating that "film ought to be in service of the collective," ["cine debe estar al servicio de la colectividad"], Tinoco saw film as vehicle for home-grown, unpretentious entertainment. Ignored by the archives and historians that define the national film history, isolated from the Aquarian Age experiments that characterized Super 8 as a movement, and viewed as little more than a curiosity by the few media professionals with whom he crossed passed, Tinoco has disappeared from all but the most emphatically regionalist accounts of Mexican filmmaking. What follows outlines his accomplishments in film, and to draws some tentative conclusions about what his admittedly idiosyncratic and atypical film practice might suggest about the nature and significance of amateur filmmaking in Mexico.
In one sense, Sergio Tinoco Solar was a media professional all of his life. From 1942 onwards he made his living as a radio host for XETQ, a local station in Orizaba, Veracruz. Through his work he became well known to most of the people in his hometown, and apparently he had many friends. He made films on his own time, principally on weekends and holidays. Between 1967 and 1988, consumed by what he characterized as a "fever to bring stories to the screen," he directed three productions using regular 8mm stock, an amazing 46 in Super 8, one in 16mm, and three on videotape. To maintain this level of productivity, he often made three films a year. The majority of these were feature-length.
Tinoco's movies were emphatically homegrown affairs. Although he traveled as far as Mexico City and Guanajuato for locations, his cast and crew were comprised of residents of Orizaba, and a good deal of local pride pervades the work. Tinoco positioned himself as heir to a significant (if minor) Orizabeño filmmaking tradition, artistic descendent of Gabriel García Moreno, and Carlos Villatoro, who made films in their home town in the silent era (e.g. El tren fantasma, 1927; El puño de hierro, 1927) and his contemporary José Luis Ibáñez, who left as a youth for Mexico City, where he became a director (e.g. Las dos Elenas, Las cautivas). At times local history would enter into the films, as when he chose to make a fiction film based on the clash of 1907 in nearby Río Blanco, regarded as one of the important precursors, if not the beginning of the Mexican Revolution. A network of Orizaban friends and neighbors provided access to locations, key props, and costumes. His daughter, Silvia Angélica Tinoco, wrote most of the screenplays.
Tinoco's films, domestic in their mode of production and firmly rooted in a sense of a local community, did not reject or ignore the norms of commercial cinema so much as they mimicked them, albeit on a much more modest scale. Though for many years he called his production group "Cine Experimental de Orizaba" ["Experimental Cinema of Orizaba"], this was something of a misnomer, as his films are firmly in a classical narrative tradition. His autobiography makes clear that the models provided by commercial genres were never far from his mind, as he proceeded to replicate these one by one: "We had already filmed many themes," he writes, "but we had not yet touched upon one tradition in cinema, the one which the common folk know as 'cowboy films.' It would be exciting to make one. . . .”
In this manner, over time, Tinoco tried his hand at a wide range of genres: space alien invasion thriller, hospital melodrama, romantic comedy, desert island drama, sci-fi for Children, Gothic horror, a bullfighting drama, a children's musical, a colonial costume drama, a Pre-Columbian "Sword and Sandals" spectacle, an adaptation of Romeo and Juliet, a parody of the spaghetti Western, historical epics of the Conquest and the Revolution, a religious drama of the life of Jesus, an anthology of shorts, a modern literary adaptation, a work of social protest condemning the mistreatment of Mexico's Indians, and so on. In addition to replicating the diverse genres of the commercial cinema, Tinoco also reproduced their most self-congratulatory ritual, creating his own Veracruzano version of the Oscars or the Ariels (the Mexican film industry's version of the Academy Awards), a gala evening event during which he would give out what he called the "Silver Masks" [Las máscaras de plata]. At the annual awards ceremony, starting early in his filmmaking period (June 2, 1973), Tinoco would typically premiere his most recent production, and then distribute these tokens of recognition to the individuals who had made outstanding contributions to his filmmaking efforts.
Sergio Tinoco's relation to the more commercial film world involved more than simply the replication of the industry's genres and rituals. On one occasion, a professional screen actress, Pilar Pellicer, better known for her work in 35mm films such as Tajimara, appeared in his film entitled La cruz de sorcia [The Cross of Sorcery]. The television comedian Manuel Taméz "Régulo" likewise appeared in one film (Para ti una rosa). Other professional entertainers from Orizaba also participated in the films: musical groups like The Twings and Grupo Cuervos, and Bony the Clown, who appears in two of the movies for children. Others, though certainly not many, moved from working with Tinoco into a more professional milieu. Two of the actors, Miguel Angel Alvarez and Hector Cruz Teista, who appeared in several of his films were later hired as extras by the feature director Ismael Rodriguez to work in the 35mm film Mi niño Tizoc. On rare occasions Tinoco's films circulated outside of Orizaba in a larger exhibition circuit. La Insepulta was broadcast nationally on Televisa. His work was also written up in a national newspaper, El Heraldo de México, and featured on a national news program. But there were real limits to the extent that Tinoco succeeded in converting his filmmaking hobby into something more professional. Tinoco's one experiment with 16mm filmmaking is suggestive of his technical limitations. Tinoco would edit his camera originals and, following the introduction of Super 8 sound in 1968, recorded sound directly onto the magnetically striped film stock. Working in 16mm provided a different sort of a challenge, as he relates in his autobiography.

Making a 16mm film isn't as easy as making a super 8; here one must work like a professional with a negative, and make a copy in the laboratory once the material is edited, and all this cost a lot of money. We went to Mexico City and investigated and a laboratory committed to doing the work though the day of the premiere the public had to put up with out of sync sound.

After this unsatisfactory experience Tinoco returned to working in 8mm.
The exhibition of Tinoco's films was largely through what distributors call "four-walling;" the maker borrowed or rented local venues, some of them movie theaters (e.g. the Teatro Llave), some of them designed for other functions (e.g. the Club 600, a nightclub, or the auditorium at the Railway Workers' Union Hall) for the evening's presentation. Most of the films were not exhibited outside of Orizaba. Though admission was collected at these screenings, Tinoco reports that he was only able to recoup less than 45% of the production expenses.
Although Tinoco shared a passion for small-gauge filmmaking with the countercultural media artists who called themselves superocheros, that was likely the full extent to which their interests coincided. Church and State were two of the superocheros' favorite targets. Tinoco thanks Jesus Christ repeatedly in his autobiography and dedicates the text to -- among others --Miguel Aleman Velasco, governor of Veracruz and the president's son. Tinoco was a not of the generation of the superocheros, but rather was closer in age to their parents. He did not share their politics, their formative experiences in the 1968 student movement, their interest in filmmaking as politicized weapon of the weak. In his autobiography he mentions entering one of the competitions that took place in Mexico City. Que dios los perdone won the PECIME foundation prize for Super 8 filmmaking.
The avant-garde's small-gauge film practice, both in Mexico in other parts of the world, could be thought of having one leg in home movies and the other in fine arts traditions, often linked to other media. This is not the case for Tinoco. Though home movies are certainly a relevant reference here, the ambition is to tell Hollywood-style narratives (or in the case of Tinoco's films of the Conquest, the Aztecs, the Revolution, and other explicitly national themes, Estudios Churubusco-style narratives) using home movie talent, locations, technology and mode of production. Although the roughly-drawn posters advertising the local screenings of each new film conjure up the image of a cinematic naïf, Tinoco was anything but an innocent, untouched by the commercial film industry. His films, on the contrary, affectionately mimic the industrial product, while the impecunious production values constantly announce that they are something altogether different.
Within the context of "orphan films," Tinoco's body of work occupies a peculiar position. A host of factors place him outside, or, at the very best, at the margins of film history: his choice of small gauge film stock, his failure to distribute his work outside Orizaba, his position in the "developing world," and within the provincial margins of that. Yet the films themselves forever strive to be the sort that does enter into film history, the feature-length narratives that have been used to define the medium's past. If Tinoco has every thing to gain from a more inclusive view of cinema history that leaves some place for his unique contributions, then what, one might ask in all fairness, does film history have to gain from, say, a feature-length Super 8 of teenagers in rural Veracruz who make contact with alien beings in flying saucers? Above all, it is a new-found appreciation for the artificiality of narrative film conventions, conventions so often repeated that they come to be mistaken for "realist" or "natural". In Tinoco's appropriation of these conventions, the awkwardness of the technology and the performances, the devices of film narrative gain anew an uncanny quality that is absent from most commercial film. This quality, which highlights industrial cinema's codes, allows the films of Tinoco to surpass the original models that they mimic.

Friday, September 14, 2007


by Jesse Lerner and David Serlin

Weegee (Usher Fellig) is best known for his dystopic urban photographs, principally those images made in New York as a free-lance photojournalist in the years prior to the end of the Second World War. But these photographs represent only a portion of his work, a vast corpus which includes satirical city symphonies like Hollywood: Land of the Zombies, his "collaborations with Picasso," which fragment the maestro into a demented cubist portrait of distorted shards, an obsessive series of clowns, and hundreds of images of chimpanzees acting out a myriad of anthropomorphic scenarios. After the War and the publication of Naked City (1945), Weegee moved away from photojournalism and became increasingly involved in both filmmaking and the use of specialized distortion lenses. With the run-away success of his book, and the rights to the title sold to Hollywood studio, Weegee left New York in 1947 for Los Angeles, a trip which marked a curious turning point in his life. In the critical literature, the evolution away from the street photography most closely associated with his lowbrow modernist aesthetic has been denigrated. Focusing on this latter work, and as a preliminary and tentative step toward a much-needed larger reappraisal of Weegee's life's work, we propose that his films and photography must be understood as meditations on the hyperbolic physical body, fed ultimately by two main influences: iconography of mass urban culture (Coney Island, the dime museums, etc.) and icons emanating from Yiddish culture, including newspapers, political cartoons, and theater.
That Weegee's later work in film and with distortions is marginalized, dismissed, and often critically maligned reflects a larger scholarly misapprehension of his art. If his street photography could be awkwardly incorporated within the canons of modernism as a kind of intuitive primitivism ("a primitive with a camera, like Grandma Moses," as he mockingly describes himself in his autobiography ), his filmmaking efforts fit much less comfortably, and more often found a home as part of special effects sequences in Hollywood films (on which he frequently consulted) than they did in the art museum. For Weegee, motion picture photography was an area for sui generis experimentation:

I'm patenting the Color Box. It's an amazing slide machine that creates colors and designs . . . this machine throws these colors onto the nude or seminude bodies of my girl models, and I photograph the results with a movie or still camera.

Much of this experimentation was poorly received or ignored. The Aperture series entitled "Masters of Photography", aiming to define the canonical compendium of photography as Art, includes a volume on Weegee which restricts itself, perhaps not surprisingly, to his street photography at the expense of these experiments and distortions, leaving out all of the three-breasted women and multiplying toilets. Photographer and critic Louis Stettner writes in his introduction to a monograph on Weegee:

One cannot pour over the vast numbers of kaleidoscopic and distorted nudes without realizing that Weegee was working out his sexual fantasies through photography. While some of them have genuine artistic merit, lending insight into the male concept of female sexuality, the rest of these photographs were of purely therapeutic value to Weegee himself.

Reading through the impoverished critical literature on Weegee, it is apparent that he has been ill-served and misunderstood by the academics and critics. Based on the working-class subject matter, he is lumped together with dissimilar, goyish artists: "Weegee was an abrasive, even abusive, realist in the style made public by Thomas Hart Benton, Paul Cadmus and Margaret Bourke-White." Weegee is consistently deracinated, disconnected from his immigrant Jewish roots in the shtetl and on the Lower East Side, though it is from there that so much of his sensibility originates.


In his comparative study of Polish, Jewish, and Irish
constructions of nationalism at the turn of the 20th century, Special Sorrows, Matthew Frye Jacobson describes how Jews attempted to define the boundaries of a national Jewish culture. For many, Jewish nationalism was often articulated through the celebration of Yiddish types, and, especially in the Yiddish language press, debates on the relative merits of an increasing trend toward "cosmopolitanism." According to Jacobson, the virtues of cosmopolitanism were discussed at length by Jewish religious leaders, secular nationalists, and nomadic intellectuals alike. For some, this term was not a compliment of urbane sophistication, but an insult directed at those who chose to absorb the lifestyle of the assimilated city dweller and eschew the religious integrity and cultural separatism of the immigrant enclave. But for many artists, cosmopolitanism was also a sophisticated method of reconfiguring shtetl archetypes and subject matter within the dense urban milieu, so that nostalgic visions of traditional ghetto life were renewed. In the best spirit of Sholom Aleichem, the familiar topsy turvy world depicted by the shtetl was even further dramatized and exaggerated by the material artifacts of urban life streets and sidewalks, crowds, electric trains, and the heterogeneous tendencies of popular culture. Thus, cosmopolitanism relocates subjectivity from the ethnic enclaves and ghettoes of Eastern Europe to the streets of New York City, transforming the whole island of Manhattan into one megashtetl of village types, exaggerated expressions, and social disparities, themes of which constantly recur in Yiddish literature and iconography of the period.
If the European basis of Modernism, especially in the visual arts, captivated the imaginations of American artists excited by these new challenges to representational art, then can we then think of Jewish--or vulgar--Modernism as an ethnic construction of Modernism? The historical specificity of racial and ethnic identity and community often obscures the institutional and canonical construction of high Modernism. Was it not the accepted stereotypes of Jewish immigrants earthy, hirsute, swarthy, passionate that fomented the associations between Eastern European Jewish artists and a certain kind of vulgar Modernism, which contrasted with the high German and French Modernist contributions to painting, sculpture, illustration, or photography?
For many critics, Jewish Modernism gets folded within the
traditions of social realist (or, in many cases, explicitly proletarian) arts, as in the case of fiction by Michael Gold, Tillie Olsen, or Henry Roth. For these writers, descriptions of immigrant experience follows the aesthetic dictates of what was then called the lyrical Left, the cultural vanguard of the Communist Party USA and other official organs of radical groups. This was an attempt to create an accessible, highly democratic aesthetic tradition that would ideally supplant the classical (and classist) tendencies of high Modernism. This alternative Modernism also included Ash Can painters like Robert Henri and John Sloan, or W.P.A. artists like Ben Shahn. Publications such as the New Masses relied heavily on the iconography of urban chaos and repression bloated capitalists in top hats punishing striking workers or huddling urban masses depicted as refined in order to critique economic and social injustices and to promote political mobilization among its readership. For Jewish artists, this vision of Modernism emerges from these early associations in the formalism of immigrant artists like Jacob Epstein, Abraham Walkowitz, Adolph Gottlieb, Mark Rothko, Louis Lozowick, and others.
In this context, Weegee's work can be understood as a organic, class-conscious expression of the immigrant working-class milieu that parallels proletarian contemporaries, though without the sense of moral outrage that appears in Meyer Levin (Weegee was too cynical for that), and without the utopian aspirations of a Party member. Much of Weeegee's humor about how the powerlesss can find a way to express his contempt for the powerful. He recalls in his autobiography: "For toilet paper, we kids tore up Hearst's Journal." His photographs often express contempt for the swells, their affectations, their carryings on and their triumphant skyscrapers. Mayor LaGuardia is framed to look if he is picking his nose, and Joe McWilliams, "professional anti-Semite and Nazi lover," is paired with the rear end of a horse. "Don't make any mistake," Weegee's caption advices us, "that's handsome Joe at the top of the photo." Through these compositions, distortions, and captions, Weegee extracts has the last laugh at the expense of the wealthy and the powerful, to wipe his ass on the bloated rich, as it were.
Weegee's relationship to the street was very different from that of contemporaries who also chronicled the meaner streets of New York. Reginald Marsh, a blueblood, chose proletarian subjects in the belief that "well bred people are no fun to paint." In contrast, Weegee came from the streets, and his aesthetic was always that of the tabloid, the Coney Island funhouse, and the comics. Where the uptowners looked to the street as a source of proletarian vitality, Weegee had this sensibility within him. And if Stieglitz typifies the Modernist aesthete, then Weegee is the consummate vulgar Modernist. Weegee's nontheatrical short film Camera Magic, made for Castle Films, a demonstration of photographic and cinematographic tricks, embodies the carnivalesque sensibility of this lowbrow aesthetic. Many of the techniques in the film echo Vertov's Man with a Movie Camera or surrealist photomontage; optical printing stops and reverses the motion of a horserace, and another sequence demonstrates "the girl who lost her head," a bizarre decapitation worthy of the most misogynist dadaist. But these techniques are not employed here as part of a revolutionary political program, but rather as tricks for the "camera buff" or the "amateur". Significantly, Weegee's photographic practice is frequently linked to amateurs and hobbyists. The 1957 documentary The Naked Eye, seeks to justify his proclivity for trick lenses by telling the viewers: "an amateur at heart, Weegee, like other amateurs, delights in casing the camera stores for new equipment." But what does "amateur" mean here, if Weegee was clearly someone who depended on his cameras for his livelihood? Recent scholarship has reevaluated the importance of amateur film practice, placing it in a central position in the the origins of cinema and the histories of the American avant-garde.

Trauma and pain are inherent in Yiddish literary and iconographic typology, and this, explains Weegee's fascination or at least recurring preoccupation with themes of suffering, torture, shock, and physical humiliation. Among other things, this would suggest ways of understanding the volk aspects of Weegee's subject matter, in which class is either explicitly critiqued ("The Critic", "Metropolitan Opera House", etc.) or implicitly embedded ("The Bowery", "The Vegetable Peddler", "Bagels on Second Ave"). Sander Gilman's study of the Jewish body and its connotations in Europe of disease, depravity, decay, vampirism is one side of this equation. But this assumes that such racial typology only emanates from dominant discourses that socially construct ethnicity and the body, and that Jews did not produce either complicit or alternative versions of their own typology. When we see the kinds of anthropometric or phrenological studies, anthropometric and early medical photographs done throughout the ninteenth century by anthropologists, eugenicists, and criminologists (per Sekula) we must also ask how visual artists from within these communities represented themselves. What, for example, did caricatures of Jews looks like when produced by Jewish artists or through means of mass production as would have been accessible in large metropolitan areas?
The specificity of photography perfectly captures the aesthetic and political tensions that lie between group identification and self representation. Photography is a mass cultural art that relies on notions of technological authenticity (the objectivity of the camera). But what is different about Weegee's exploitation of identifiably ethnic images is that his photographs are not merely about objectification, but rather about self definition. For example, why not use the camera, as Weegee did, to reproduce multiple images of certain ethnic or racial types a Litvakian, a Chelmian, a Galitzian?
Weegee projected the sensuality of the physical body onto the modern cityscape, which are perpetually linked by an implicit relationship between immigrant experience and physical expression. In Weegee's work, we see a convergence of European hyperrealism (in the tradition of Zola or Dostoyevsky) with a kind of vulgar Modernism influenced by the Ash Can School artists, European Dadaism, mass advertisements, and the visual culture the Coney Island and Bowery: side shows, burlesque theaters, and dime museums. Weegee's nascent Modernist aesthetic conceives of city life as naturalistically archetypal. Indeed, we see in Weegee's photographs the repetition of camera angles that focus on certain body parts, certain poses, and certain contortions of the body that noticeably perform somatic variations on ethnic identity or social experience. The best of Weegee's work shows how the social fabric of public space is intimately intertwined with the physical performance of embarrassment and vulnerability.
Characteristic of Weegee's city is a profusion of human bodies in close proximity to each other, and in such corpulent abundance as to suggest a compulsive fascination. This motif is a recurring one in Weegee's films, photographs and writings. The Coney Island sequence of Weegee's New York, with its telephoto shots of oversized butts and bellies bursting out of scanty swimsuits, evoke an immigrant's sense of wonder at the excesses of the American body. Likewise Weegee's fascination with nudist camps and his fixation--most apparent in Naked Hollywood--on asses and on cleavage (the breasts of Marilyn and Zsa Zsa, dubbed by Weegee their "spheres of influence")--reflects both a prurient interest and a good measure of anxiety. To view Weegee's films and photographs is to gaze upon this country's physical surplus made manifest in the flesh, to ogle its size, nakedness, and its overflowing bounty, like a new-arrival strolling down Fourteenth Street on a summer day. "Wardrobe Department" shows a display window of a store whose specialty, "Extra Large Panties," is announced across three mammoth-sized samples. This profusion is multiplied and exaggerated even further in Weegee's distortions, which expand the muscular, shirtless chest of the "villain" to aberrant proportions in Naked Hollywood, add beards and remove torsos from the goyish models in swimsuits who populate Camera Magic. Over and over again, Weegee's aesthetic is dominated by caricature, exaggeration, and hyperbole.
The luscious desirability of these healthy American bodies acts as counterpoint to Weegee's own body, a recurring figure in both his photographs and his remarkable autobiography, Weegee by Weegee. A recent Hollywood film modeled on Weegee's life, The Public Eye, suggestively illustrates how the presence of his Jewish body offends the clientele at a high class nightclub. The waiter apologizes: "He's a poet who recently escaped Mr. Hitler." The miffed client retorts: "It's still no excuse, is it?" Posing next to Tony Curtis in a photograph from his Hollywood years, Weegee's distended paunch obscures most of the movie star's trim body, while Curtis' date towers a full head taller than the squat photographer.
For Yiddish playwrights and visual artists, the hallmarks of Modernism, if not the streamlined forms of the Impressionists, or the fractured distortions of the Dadaists, are the use of subjectivity to grapple with issues of representation directly stemming from questions of national interest. One thinks of, for example, the photomontage experiments of John Heartfield or Hannah Hoch, although nothing in Weegee is as overtly political.
Weegee's wry bawdiness and irreverent appreciation for the human body must emanate, in part, from the commercial (and admittedly secular) delights that exploited the naivete and pocket money of Eastern European immigrants. The delights of mass culture from the carnival rides at Coney Island to the dime museums and freak shows of the Bowery provided a visual playground of widely divergent reference points. Dime museums, with their assortment of stuffed animals and anthropological curiosities, also contained dioramas of male and female bodies wrecked by venereal disease and the seething desires of the flesh. Between these museums and the flophouses, saloons, brothels, and bawdy houses that littered the thoroughfares of New York City in the early 20th century (and which constantly reappear in Weegee's autobiography), the material evidence of male and female sexuality defined an environment in which physicality became itself like a tangible object to be displayed, bartered, and possessed.
Weegee's formal (and, one might argue, formalistic) education by the streets, whorehouses, and mass cultural bombardment of New York City during the early decades of the 20th century was mediated by his immigrant heritage and his Jewish identity. This came not only from the life of immigrant children fraught with discoveries and horrors, as they must have been but also from Jewish cultural forms (newspaper, cartoons, etc.) that brought visual imagery into the home and which circulated throughout the neighborhood. At the level of visual impact, the products of mass culture paralleled certain iconographic images familiarized in the Yiddishe newspapers and magazines of the period. Yiddish periodicals inflected exaggerated approaches to the body often the direct influence of American culture on the psyche of the shtetl through street scenes and caricatures. Yiddish language newspapers like Grosse Kundes, which ran from 1909 until 1927, regularly featured comics and political cartoons in which Jewish archetypes made transitions in language and communication familiar to newly arrived immigrants. The fact that these archetypes what Jacobson calls national types found their way into ethnic language newspapers is not so surprising; what is most remarkable is that the visual culture of immigrants is so unexplored and undertheorized, not only by historians of Jewish culture but by scholars of print culture and visual documentation. If they did not directly emulate, say, the more sober Modernist work of the Educational Alliance and uptown artists, then they reflected the overwhelming influence of mass cultural forms on communities separated by language and faith.
While Weegee moved from job to low paying job, his father quit working and fulfilled his desire to become a rabbi. The Talmudic scholar eschews the American dream of fame and wealth for internal, private, non quantifiable intellectual rewards. In this regard, Weegee's self conscious appellation of "Weegee the Famous" seems paradoxical, both a comment on his unyielding desire for recognition and his tendency toward irony and self ridicule, a situation not unlike that suffered by Al Jolson's character in The Jazz Singer (1928). In fact, Weegee's stint in Hollywood involved more than simply photographing the stars and consulting on studio productions. He hoped to parlay his new-found celebrity status into movie stardom, though he never landed roles more significant than cameos and bit parts. He appeared in films including The Set-Up (1949), Journey into Light (1951), Skid Row (1951), Every Girl Should Get Married (1948) and Joseph Losey's remake of M (1951). With a Warholian flare for self-promotion, Weegee obscured the pain with a smoke-screen of self-deprecation, buffoonery, and bravado.
In this context, photography becomes one of the principal forms for the cosmopolitan artist to render national types of Jewish identity and physical examples of the Jewish body while making use of modern technology and the infinite reproductive capacities of mass culture. This is the flip side of reform/philanthropic photography (Evans, Riis, Hine, Lange), in that it assumes and even celebrates the vicissitudes of human suffering, which one might argue is central to a Yiddishe phenomenology of the spirit. Yet, aesthetically speaking, Weegee's work has more in common with Hine and Riis for precisely this reason. His views of urban life were comprised emphatically of the literal, the colloquial, and pedestrian, not the studied pretense of Alfred Steiglitz's architectural impressions or the cool objectivity of Andreas Feininger's urban landscapes. To reclaim themes of violence, suffering and anger in post diasporic Jewish art is to revise Adorno's pronouncement about the impossibility of art after the Holocaust, and demonstrate how pain and trauma played a significant force in the creative and political work of Jewish artists and intellectuals.

Saturday, June 16, 2007

Las paradojas de Quirigua

Las paradojas de Quiriguá

por Jesse Lerner

En el principio del video documental experimental Paradox, de Leandro Katz, aparece una toma de un joven guatemalteco en el sitio arqueológico de Quiriguá, en las afueras de un platanal. El joven aparece al centro del video y sostiene un pequeño fragmento de una antigua escultura maya, del mismo tipo de esculturas que se venden a los turistas que visitan los sitios arqueológicos mesoamericanos. El realizador coloca esta imagen de Quiriguá en medio de su documentado estudio sobre el cultivo y procesamiento del plátano para la exportación, en una plantación neocolonial gobernada por un gigante multinacional. Esta toma y otra muy similar se repiten hacia el final del video, como un eco de un par de secuencias muy parecidas en la obra maestra inacabada de Serguei Eisenstein ¡Que viva México!

Entre las notas de filmación salvadas en el tiempo, los guiones y las variadas versiones del filme de Eisenstein, tal parece que Eisenstein había intentado abrir su obra a nuevos significados, incluyendo los primeros planos estáticos de cabezas de indígenas mayas, recortados de perfil sobre las ruinas de Chichen Itza. Este montaje debía, de acuerdo con el plan del cineasta ruso, conducir a la secuencia del “entierro de los trabajadores”, inspirada por el fresco de San Ildefonso, de David Alfaro Siqueiros, una secuencia que se rodaría en medio de los campos de henequén de Yucatán, y es también la escena que introduce el tema de la opresión de las mayorías indígenas empobrecidas en México. (1) Estas composiciones diagonales con profundidad de campo se repiten en la secuencia final inacabada; de nuevo se trata de cabezas indígenas, ahora recortadas sobre el fondo de las chimeneas y del paisaje industrial. Parece ser que Eisenstein planeaba concluir su filme con una visión optimista del México futuro y socialista, un país fiel a sus raíces indígenas aunque moderno e industrial, producto de las luchas revolucionarias que sacudieron la nación en la segunda década del siglo XX. El México futuro —todavía en construcción— representa el final de la tiranía opresiva descrita en la secuencia previa. Existe una enorme separación entre los sueños utópicos de una Latinoamérica moderna, desarrollada, que Eisenstein presentó en su filme inconcluso, y las ideas que documenta Katz en su video. Esta separación o cisma, que separa las aspiraciones del sueño revolucionario latinoamericano de la actualidad sombría, representa el fracaso de los sueños latinoamericanos de modernidad y apunta a la paradoja que se encuentra en la esencia de la obra realizada por Katz.

Paradox , de Leandro Katz, representa el último entre numerosos trabajos en celuloide, fotografía, ilustración de libros, instalaciones plásticas y videos que exploran la vida intelectual y los sitios arqueológicos mayas. Los trabajos previos sugieren con gran riqueza alusiva una gran sensibilidad relacionada con temas como el calendario maya, las visiones sobre la historia y los mitos, los sitios arqueológicos como lugares turísticos que han perdido su autenticidad y otros temas relacionados que aparecen todos de alguna manera en Paradox, en el cual se presenta la toma mencionada antes en estrecha relación con los tres elementos constructivos que constituyen la obra. Primeramente, y de manera predominante, se presenta el cultivo, la cosecha, el procesamiento y embalado del plátano para exportación, justo en una plantación cercana al sitio arqueológico que se supone protegido . Esta parte está rodada en tomas estacionarias, en un estilo impasible y observacional pero, como el resto del video, carece de diálogos, voz en off o entrevistas. Intercalado aparece un segundo elemento compositivo: los retratos de residentes locales que miran a la cámara, retratados muchas veces con un objeto en las manos que sugiere su ocupación. Finalmente, hay largas tomas del llamado “Dragón de Quiriguá”, escultura del siglo VIII que representa a una criatura sobrenatural. Todos estos elementos se presentan con un sonido que parece ser sincrónico y ambiente, sin elementos de audio añadidos.

Al emparejar la producción y exportación de un producto agrícola con las gloriosas ruinas arquitectónicas mayas, se urge al espectador a contemplar, durante la media hora que dura el video, la relación entre el pasado monumental y el presente degradado; es decir, la paradoja de Guatemala y de Latinoamérica. Más allá, existe un contraste implícito entre las pequeñas miniaturas antiguas que se venden y los enormes, complejos monolitos también antiguos, dos tipos de objetos separados por sus escalas, funciones, significados y niveles de complejidad. En su imagen del vendedor de souvenires, Leandro Katz “desmonumentaliza”, por emplear un neologismo, el pasado precolombino, y reduce el patrimonio cultural al estatus de una mercancía en miniatura. Esta “desmonumentalización” es característica recurrente del arte latinoamericano, como puede percibirse en la instalación En el medio del camino, de Silvia Gruner, entre otras.


Los turistas están ausentes del video Paradox, de Katz, o al menos no se hacen visibles. Si bien las fotos del propio Katz para el Proyecto Catherwood mostraba nativos indolentes y sin expresión, ignorantes del pasado glorioso y riquezas potenciales que los rodean, en el video Katz describe frenéticamente el trabajo de esos nativos con salarios de esclavos, el final de la economía transnacional, dedicada a extraer las riquezas del Sur subdesarrollado. Vemos los enormes racimos de plátano colgados en un rudimentario sistema de cables. Cada racimo cubierto con una envoltura de plástico, cual mortaja, del mismo modo en que se envuelven los cadáveres en bolsas de plástico. (...) La infraestructura del mundo desarrollado entra en el video solo en esa zona de contacto, que relaciona el lugar de la producción en el sur y el de consumo en el norte.

Esta viene a ser la visión documental contemporánea de una Latinoamérica industrializada, lo cual añade un matiz irónico y amargo a la cita de Eisenstein con que comienza y termina la obra de Katz. La visión de Leandro Katz es pesimista a la hora de mostrar las realidades de una era globalizada. No hay nada que contraste más dramáticamente con el entusiasmo utópico que anima la conclusión de ¡Que viva México! Las composiciones balanceadas de Eisenstein entre las cabezas y las ruinas mayas, nobles y sin movimiento, son descritas en el guión de la siguiente manera: “El tiempo en el prólogo es eterno. Puede haber sido hoy. Puede haber sido hace 20 años o mil. La gente parece imágenes de piedra, y esas imágenes representan los rostros de sus ancestros”. Este es uno de los mitos de la historia occidental: antes del arribo de los conquistadores europeos, el resto del mundo estaba detenido en una especie de eternidad atemporal. Para usar el término de Levi-Strauss, esta era “una sociedad fría”, dejada atrás por la marcha del progreso, hasta que fue despertada de su inercia por el arribo de la Conquista. En contraste, hay una composición análoga en la conclusión del filme que en el guión de Eisenstein se describe en los siguientes términos: “Moderno... Civilizado... El México industrial aparece en la pantalla. Autopistas, presas, ferrocarriles... El bullicio de la gran ciudad. La maquinaria. Nuevas casas. Gente nueva. Aviadores. Choferes. Ingenieros. Militares. Técnicos. Estudiantes. Expertos en agricultura… La vida, la actividad, el trabajo de personas llenas de energía... pero si miras de cerca, se ven las mismas caras, que se parecen mucho a las que celebraban la antigua ceremonia funeral en Yucatán o que danzaban en Tehuantepec; aquellas que cantaban el Alabado detrás de los altos muros, aquellas que bailaban con extraños trajes en torno al templo, aquellas que lucharon y murieron en las batallas de la revolución. Las mismas caras pero gente distinta. Un país diferente. Una nación nueva y civilizada”.

La significación de esta secuencia no es solamente que México se haya transformado en una nación industrial, sino que es la misma gente de color, con sus rostros “desproporcionados”, lo que opera esas nuevas industrias. No solo los rostros son los mismos, sino que también son similares las tomas en una y otra etapa del filme, con sus composiciones diagonales profundas y los ángulos bajos de los perfiles vistos también en profundidad. En la creación del ritmo visual, Eisenstein ofrece al espectador una respuesta optimista al problema fundamental de la modernidad latinoamericana: el problema del indio. (…) Inspirado en la retórica de José Vasconcelos y en la iconografía nacionalista del movimiento muralista, Eisenstein propone una visión documental de una realidad futura más imaginada que vivida. Lo antiguo y lo moderno se funden sin fracturas. Si Latinoamérica consigue mantenerse alerta de la alienación asociada con la sociedad de consumo norteamericana, entonces conseguirá superar ese modelo más que imitarlo.

La severa realidad expuesta por Leandro Katz no puede ser más diferente. Su trabajo concluye no con proletarios triunfantes sino con la escultura de un guerrero desmembrado encontrado en el altar del Dragón. Como las riquezas de la nación, esta antigua víctima ha sido sacrificada y despachada hacia los cuatro puntos cardinales. La paradoja de Katz presenta uno de los problemas centrales de Latinoamérica: la abundancia de recursos naturales de la región ha conducido más a la inestabilidad, la explotación y la tiranía que a la prosperidad y a la estabilidad social. Son muchas las posibles explicaciones para ello, pero Katz no ofrece un discurso didáctico, sino que opta por entregarnos una rica metáfora, el microcosmos de un tiempo y un lugar que expresan un rango muy amplio de ideas generales.

Los antiguos mayas son conocidos por sus cálculos de calendario y por su casi obsesiva fijación con las fechas. Se cree que el calendario maya involucra dos sistemas simultáneos: uno que infinitamente se repite alternando ciclos de semanas y meses; otro, un largo conteo de días a partir de un punto exacto en el pasado distante. El filme de Eisenstein confía también en una serie de metáforas temporales, sobre todo a partir de ese estatismo atemporal, diverso, de la marcha hacia delante con que gusta verse la historia europea, una marcha evocada en las primeras secuencias en las ruinas, en la que se aplica la narrativa marxista de la historia, pues se presenta al capitalismo barriendo con el modo de producción feudal, el socialismo destronando al capitalismo, y también se muestra el eterno retorno al redescubrimiento de las raíces indígenas a través de la revolución industrial y socialista.

La característica más retadora e inusual del video de Katz (especialmente para el público no acostumbrado a los ritmos del arte visual experimental) debe ser su ritmo pausado, que propone otro marco temporal para comprender las paradojas de la América Latina contemporánea. Contrapuesto tanto al estatismo del Dragón como a la falsa promesa del progreso representada por el capital extranjero, Paradox, de Leandro Katz sugiere que comprendamos los procesos sociales y económicos actuales como algo similar a procesos tan lentos como la erosión del suelo, o las transformaciones geológicas, cuya duración es tan pausada que solo puede ser observada con medios especiales. Paradox propone un tiempo reflexivo y calculado que nos permite observar, y además refleja, todos estos difíciles, complejos y prolongados procesos que se están verificando no solo en Guatemala, sino en buena parte del mundo.


1.- Después que el productor Upton Sinclair paralizó la producción, el material rodado se dio a conocer en una variedad de versiones no autorizadas: Tormenta sobre México, de Sol Lesser, Donn Hayes, Carl Himm y Harry Chandlee, en 1933; Time in the Sun, de Marie Seton y Paul Roger Bunford, 1939; Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: Episodes for Study, de Jay Leyda, 1957; y ¡Que Viva Mexico!, de Grigory Alexandrov, 1979. Recientemente, Lutz Becker está trabajando en lo que se supone será la versión reconstruida definitiva de este filme.

The Paradoxes of Quirigua


by Jesse Lerner

Towards the beginning of Leandro Katz' experimental documentary video Paradox, there is a shot of a young Guatemalan boy at the archeological site of Quiriguá, just outside the banana plantations that are at the center of the video, holding up to the camera a small fragment of an ancient Maya carvings of the sort that is offered for sale to tourists who visit Mesoamerican sites. Katz places this image from Quiriguá in the midst of his deadpan, studied documentation of the cultivation and processing of bananas for export on the neocolonial plantation run by a multinational agricultural giant. Both this shot and a very similar one repeated near the end of the video both echo a pair of sequences in Sergei Eisenstein's unfinished masterpiece Que Viva México! From the available notes, scripts, and the existing (unauthorized) versions of the film, it appears that Eisenstein had intended to open his film with a series of static close-ups of the heads of Maya Indians posed against the profile of the archeological ruins of Chichen Itza. This montage was, according to the Russian filmmaker's plan, to lead into the "worker's burial" sequence, inspired by David Alfaro Siqueiros' fresco at San Ildefonso, a sequence shot in the midst of the henequen fields of Yucatan and the scene which introduces the theme of the oppression of Mexico's impoverished, dark-skinned majority.1 These diagonal deep-focus compositions were to be repeated in the unfinished film's final sequence, again of Indian heads, now set against the backdrop of smokestacks and industrial landscapes. Eisenstein, it seems, planned to conclude his film with an optimistic vision of a future, socialist Mexico, one true to its indigenous roots yet thoroughly industrial and modern, the product of the revolutionary struggles that shook that country in the second decade of the past century. This future Mexico--still under construction--represents the end of the oppressive tyranny depicted in the earlier sequence. There is a vast gulf separating the utopian dreams of a modern, developed Latin America embodied in the conclusion of Eisenstein's aborted film project and the mind-numbing, repetitive labor and exploitative drain of resources overseas that Katz documents. That gulf, the chasm that separates the utopian aspirations of Latin American revolutionary projects and the infinitely bleaker present-day realities, represents the failure of Latin American dreams of modernity, and points toward the paradox at the center of Katz' video.
Leandro Katz' Paradox is the latest of several decades of work with film, photography, invented alphabets, artists books, installations and video exploring ancient Maya archeological sites and intellectual life. The previous works are richly suggestive of a dense cluster of concerns relating to issues including Maya calendrics, competing visions of history and myth, and the archeological site as a place of touristic longing for a lost authenticity, questions which intersect with those raised by Paradox. Katz' Paradox presents the shot mentioned above woven together as part of the three elements that make up this half-hour video. Firstly, and the most predominant, is the extensive footage documenting the raising, harvesting, washing, processing, packaging and loading for export of bananas at a plantation just outside the archeological preserve that protects these ruins. This footage is largely shot from a stationary camera position, in an impassive, observational style, and as with the rest of the materials used in the video, devoid of dialogues, voiceover or interview material. The employees depicted do not acknowledge the camera, but are seemingly absorbed as they go about their monotonous labors. Interspersed throughout is a second element, portraits of local residents looking directly at the camera, often portrayed with an object or objects that suggests something about their occupation. The sellers of pre-Columbian objects are an example of this thread; other Guatemaltecos are shown with other wares for sale (iguanas, parrots, and of course, bananas). Finally, there are very long takes of the so-called "Dragon of Quiriguá," sometimes less poetically called Altar P--an VIIIth Century sculpture thought, at least by the current archeological establishment, as a representation of a supernatural creature. All of these three elements are presented with what appears to be ambient synchronous sound, and without additional audio elements.
The pairing of contemporary production and export of an agricultural product, in this case bananas, with the glorious archeological ruins of some of the most stunning sculptural achievements left by the ancient Maya, urge us to contemplate, over the half-hour duration of the video, the relationship between the monumental past and the degraded present, but more generally, the paradoxes of Guatemala and of Latin America. Further, there is an implicit contrast with the miniature ancient objects being sold and the enormous, complex monoliths, two objects separated by their scales, functions, meanings, and levels of complexity. In his image of the souvenir vendor, Leandro Katz "de-monumentalizes" the pre-Cortesian, to employ a neologism, reducing cultural patrimony to the status of a miniaturized commodity. The "de-monumentalization" of the Pre-Columbian is, as Tarek El-Haik has noted previously, a characteristic recurrent within contemporary, post-NAFTA Latin American art, as exemplified by Silvia Gruner's "Middle of the Road," installation, Ruben Ortiz Torres' "Breaking the Mayan Code," among others. If, in an earlier age, the original carvings had been removed and commodified, often by smugglers, looters, and black marketeers, it was in part the monumentality of the objects that made them so desirable as objects to be exported and sold. As with so much of the Western engagement with the ancient Maya, this process might be traced back to the antiquarian adventurer John Lloyd Stephens, author of Incidents of Travel in Central America, Chiapas and Yucatan (1841) and Incidents of Travel in Yucatan (1843) and his traveling companion, the illustrator Frederick Catherwood, who visited and described the site of Quiriguá more than a century and half ago. Catherwood's engravings and Stephens' narrative underscore the monumentality of the ruins. The former at times includes a human figure alongside a stele or carving as an indicator of scale. The monumental scale of the carvings emphasized in both Eisenstein's footage from his never-completed film and Catherwood's engravings is implicitly contrasted in Katz' video with the miniaturized object for sale.
Catherwood's engravings appear in the end credit sequence of Leandro Katz's Paradox, accompanied by the tune of "Yes, We have no Bananas," and Katz has previously addressed Catherwood's work systematically, most notably in the photographic series entitled "The Catherwood Project." Stephens and Catherwood are justly celebrated for bringing the abandoned Maya sites to the attention of the outside world. Catherwood's illustrations of the architecture and carvings of the Maya are renown for their fidelity, in contrast to the fanciful--even laughable--renditions of these objects made by the Count Waldeck, Guillermo Dupaix, and other less than precise illustrations created by their contemporaries and predecessors. Katz has praised Catherwood for his ability to see beyond the conventions of the European tradition in which he was trained, and to recognize in the ruins something "entirely new and unintelligible" (Katz 232). Where previous Westerners who had attempted this found only vestiges of imagined Balinese, Norse, Hindu or Japanese influence, "he [Catherwood] saw them as something new," and rendered this with "a clinical, profound accuracy" (Katz 232). But Stephens and Catherwood are also associated with a darker legacy: one of plunder. In Stephens' account of their visit to Quirigua, he describes the bargaining with Guatemalan owner of the land on which the site is located:
…I called on Señor Payes, the only one of the brothers then in Guatimala [sic], and opened a negotiation for the purchase of these ruins. Besides their entire newness and immense interest as an unexplored field of antiquarian research, the monuments were but about a mile from the river, the ground was level to the bank, and the river from that place was navigable; the city might be transported bodily and set up in New-York. I expressly stated (and my reason for doing so will be obvious) that I was acting in this matter on my own account, that it was entirely a personal affair; but Señor Payes would consider me as acting for my government, and said, what am sure he meant, that if his family was as it had been once, they would be proud to present the whole to the United States; in that country they were not appreciated, and he would be happy to contribute to the cause of science in ours; but they were impoverished by the convulsions of the country; and, at all events, he could give me no answer till his brothers returned, who were expected in two or three days. Unfortunately, as I believe for both of us, Señor Payes consulted with the French consul general, who put an exaggerated value on the ruins, referring him the expenditure of several hundred thousand dollars by the French government in transporting one of the obelisks of Luxor from Thebes to Paris. Probably, before the speculating scheme referred to, the owners would have been glad to sell the whole tract, consisting of more than fifty thousand acres, with everything on it, known and unknown, for a few thousand dollars (123-124).

In the volume's afterward, Stephens describes the ultimate failure of this effort:

Having mentioned in the preceding pages efforts to introduce into this country some of the antiquities therein described, the author considers it proper to say that, immediately on his return home, a few friends, whose names he would have great pleasure in making known if he were at liberty to do so, undertook to provide the sum of $20,000 for the purpose of carrying that object into effect. Under their direction, the author wrote to his agent at Guatimala [sic], to purchase the ruins of Quirigua, or such monuments as it might be considered advisable to remove, at a price beyond what would have been accepted for them when he left Guatimala; but, unfortunately, in the mean time, a notice taken from Mr. Catherwood's memoranda, and inserted by the proprietors in a Guatimala paper, had reached this country, been translated and copied into some of our own journals, and one eulogistic paragraph, probably forgotten as soon as written, was sent back to Guatimala, which gave the proprietor such an exaggerated notion of their value that he refused the offer (469).

Though they were unable to purchase and export the archeological treasures of Quiriguá, Catherwood and Stephens did succeed in removing carved lintels and other pre-Columbian objects on their travels, objects which then did in fact manage to return home with, but which were subsequently lost, along with Catherwood's daguerreotypes, in a fire in New York City on July 31, 1842.
In the Guatemala that Katz represents, more than one hundred and fifty years later, the outbound flow of resources, still headed towards the North, has been accelerated, streamlined and industrialized. The exports however now are principally fruit rather than artifacts. Many have noted that the purchase, removal and attempted or proposed export of archeological artifacts functions as a symbolic claim-staking, a prelude for later imperial incursions in pursuit of natural resources and raw materials.2 Catherwood and Stephens worked at a time when the southern and western borders of the United States remained undefined, and Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine characterized North American foreign policy within this hemisphere. The adventurous antiquarian paves the way both for investors drawn by the natural resources and prospective riches they represent, and later for tourists, seeking to relive the initial encounter with the virginal jungle. Cuauhtémoc Medina writes of Katz' "Catherwood Project" that the photographs that the tourists depicted are "looking in every direction, especially on the ground, as if they had lost something. What is missing (what they are so bent on finding) is, perhaps, the aura of the mechanically reproduced prints"(35). The images reveal "how impossible it is to recover the sensation of the first contact"(35). The original encounter that these later visitors seek has been packaged and commodified like so many bananas sent off to a North American grocery.
Tourists, however, are absent from Katz' Paradox, or at least they are not visible. Where Catherwood's images showed indolent, faceless natives, lounging languidly, oblivious to the faded glory and potential riches which surround them, Katz depicts frenetically busy wage slaves, the bottom rungs of a transnational global economy that extracts riches from the "undeveloped" south and packages them for export. In the video, we see the bananas hanging on large hooks as they are transported from the orchards to the packaging plants by means of a rudimentary system of cables. Each large stalk, with dozens of bunches attached, is covered with a plastic bag; they look like nothing so much as cadavers returning from the battlefield in body bags. Here are the front-line casualties of neo-liberalism. The transport mechanism that hauls these corpses is propelled by a small gasoline engine, alongside which an operator is seated. Within the packing plant, the work is largely manual. A mechanized stapler aids in the assembly of the boxes, but the washing and packaging is done by hand. Nothing resembling contemporary technology is visible until the end of the process, when the enormous containers bearing corporate logos are loaded aboard oceangoing vessels. The infrastructure of the "developed" world enters the picture only in the contact zone that links the site of production in the south with the location of consumption in the north. The corporate trademarks that identify the containers' owners and a scene of the enormous cargo ships' departure are represented in naïve paintings on the dilapidated bodegas of the town.
This, then, is a contemporary documentary vision of an industrialized Latin America, one that adds a measure of bitter irony to the Eisenstein quotation near the video's beginning and close. Leandro Katz' vision is a pessimistic one, depicting the brutal realities of our globalized age. It could not contrast more dramatically with the utopian enthusiasm that animates the conclusion of Que Viva Mexico!
Eisenstein's dramatically balanced compositions of Maya heads and Maya ruins at the beginning of his film, motionless and noble, illustrate the prologue of his unfinished film, described in his script as follows:

Time in the prologue is eternity.
It might be today.
It might as well be 20 years ago.
Might be a thousand . . .
The people bear resemblance to the stone images, for those images represent the faces of their ancestors (Eisenstein 27-28).

This is one of the treasured myths of Western history and of Marxist theory: prior to the arrival of European colonials, the rest of the world stagnated in a timeless eternity. To use Levi-Strauss' term, this was a "cold society," left behind by the forward march of progress, until roused from its inertia by the Conquest. In contrast, the analogous compositions at the film's conclusion are described in Eisenstein's script in these terms:

Modern . . . Civilized . . . Industrial Mexico appears on the screen.
Highways, dams, railways . . .
The bustle of a big city.
New machinery.
New Houses.
New people.
Agricultural experts . . .
Life, activity, work of new, energetic people . . . but if you look closer, you will behold in the land and in the cities the same faces—
Faces that bear close resemblance to those who held funeral of antiquity in Yucatan, those who danced in Tehuantepec; those who sang the Alabado behind the tall walls, those who danced in queer costumes around the temple, those who fought and died in battles of revolution.
The same faces—
But different people.
A different country.
A new, civilized nation (Eisenstein 85-7).

The significance of this sequence is not simply that Mexico has become the industrial, but that it is the same brown people, with their “characteristic” “disproportionate” faces, that operate these industries. Not only are faces the same, but so too are the diagonal compositions in depth and the heroic, low angle shots of the noble profiles in deep focus.
In creating this visual rhyme, Eisenstein offers the viewer a hopeful, optimistic answers the fundamental question of Latin American modernity: What about the Indians? Nineteenth Century positivists found it impossible to imagine the Indian as a full participant in the modern, industrialized world. Their proposed solutions to this dilemma ranged from the genocidal to various strains of benevolent assimilationism. Inspired in the overwrought rhetoric of José Vasconcelos and the nationalist iconography of the Mexican muralist movement, Eisenstein proposes a documentary vision of a future reality that was imagined more often than it was lived. Like the drill press emerging from the terrifying, stony Coatlicue in Diego Rivera's mural for the Pan-American exposition in San Francisco, the ancient and the modern fuse seamlessly. The dilemma of old, how does the Indian find a place in the modern world, is rendered moot. If Latin American modernity steers clear of the alienation associated by so many with North American consumer society, then it supersedes rather than imitates.
The stark reality that Leandro Katz offers us could not be more different. His work concludes not with triumphant proletarians but with the carving of the dismembered warrior found on the altar in front on the Dragon. Like the riches of the nation, this ancient victim has been sacrificed and dispatched in the four cardinal directions. Katz's paradox is one of the central riddles of Latin America: the region's abundant natural resources have brought political instability, destitution, naked exploitation and tyranny more often than they have brought the region any semblance of prosperity and stability. The explanations for this are multiple, but Katz does not offer a didactic discourse on the variety of credible explanations or the range of diverse factors involved. Instead, we are given a rich metaphor, a microcosm of a single time and place that speaks volumes to a range of more general concerns.
The ancient Maya are renown for their precise calendrical calculations and for their nearly obsessive fixation on dates. It is thought that the Maya calendar involved two, simultaneous systems--one of endlessly repeated, interlocking cycles of weeks and months, the other an ever-rising long count of days transpired from a fixed starting point in the distant past. Eisenstein's film similarly relies on a series of temporal metaphors, the "timeless" stasis beyond the forward march of Western history evoked in the opening sequence at the ruins, the Marxist narrative in which capitalism does away with the feudal mode of production, socialism in turn does away with capitalism, and the eternal return of a nation's rediscovery of its indigenous roots through industrialization and socialist revolution. Katz' video, whose most striking or challenging feature, especially for audiences unaccustomed to the rhythms of experimental media art, must surely be its deliberate pace, proposes another temporal frame within which to understand the paradox of contemporary Latin America. Counterpoised with both the seeming stasis of the Dragon, and the false promise of progress represented by the regimen of foreign capital, Leandro Katz' Paradox suggests we understand the processes at work as nothing so much as a slow drain, like soil erosion or some other geological transformation whose duration is so protracted that it can only be observed by special means. Paradox dictates a calculated, reflective tempo that allows us to see and reflect upon these larger processes at work in Guatemala and around the world.


1 After the producer Upton Sinclair halted production, footage shot for this film was released in a variety of unauthorized forms: Thunder over Mexico, by Sol Lesser, Donn Hayes, Carl Himm and Harry Chandlee, 1933, Time in the Sun, by Marie Seton and Paul Roger Bunford, 1939, Eisenstein’s Mexican Film: Episodes for Study, Jay Leyda, 1957, and Que Viva Mexico!, by Grigory Alexandrov, 1979. Currently Lutz Becker is at work at what promises to be a definitive reconstruction of the film.

2 See, for example, the treatment that Stephens receives in Roy Tripp Evan's doctoral dissertation, Classical Frontiers: New World Antiquities in the American Imagination, 1820-1915: "his primary motive for undertaking this first journey was more financial than scientific" (65).