Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 6, 2023
Monica Bravo Greater American Camera: Making Modernism in Mexico New Haven: Yale Universtiy Press, 2022. 256 pp.; 110 color ills.; 33 b/w ills.; 143 ills. Cloth $65.00 (9780300253634)

The past two decades have seen an explosion of interest in early twentieth-century Mexican visual culture and especially in photography, which has been the subject of a number of important books which include Esther Gabara’s Errant Modernism: The Ethos of Photography in Mexico and Brazil (Duke University Press, 2008), Roberto Tejada’s National Camera: Photography and Mexico’s Image Environment (University of Minnesota Press, 2009), and Andrea Nobile’s Photography and Memory in Mexico: Icons of Revolution (Manchester University Press, 2010). Other recent books include discussions of photography in a larger context that also includes painting, design, and literature, such as Tatiana Flores’s Mexico’s Revolutionary Avant-Gardes: from Estridentismo to ¡30-30! (Yale University Press, 2013) and Ageeth Sluis’s Deco Body, Deco City: Female Spectacle and Modernity in Mexico City, 1900–1939 (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

Monica Bravo’s Greater American Camera: Making Modernism in Mexico is the most recent addition to this growing bibliography on the cultural history of photography in twentieth-century Mexico. The title of her book rhymes with Tejada’s National Camera, though the novelty of her approach consists in enlarging the frame to include both Mexican and US-based photographers who worked in the three decades following the end of the Mexican Revolution and who jointly created a “greater American” photographic culture.

Each of the four chapters in the book is devoted to an American (or at least US-based) photographer who did important work in Mexico: Edward Weston, Tina Modotti (though she was born in Italy, she spent time in the United States before moving to Mexico), Paul Strand, and Helen Levitt. The chapters emphasize how most of these figures (with the notable exception of Levitt) immersed themselves in Mexican culture, befriended Mexican artists and intellectuals, and produced photographs that reveal a productive syncretism of two American and Mexican cultures. Bravo also includes discussions of Mexican figures, like the composer Carlos Chávez, who made the reverse journey, spent time in the United States, befriended American colleagues, and produced work that was marked by that experience. She emphasizes how cultural influence flowed in both directions, from Mexico to the United States, and also from the United States to Mexico: “Greater American Camera argues that Mexico was not simply a source of exotic inspiration to artists who relocated there after the Mexican Revolution. This narrative thus resists claims of Mexican passivity and emphasizes the bidirectional flow of ideas among the artists who shared—albeit briefly—common cause in forging a hemispheric sense of identity. As evidence of this reciprocal interchange, the book’s conclusion takes a closer look at some Mexican projects in the United States” (19).

This expanded geographical frame works extremely well in the chapters devoted to Strand and Levitt, but is less successful in the sections focusing on Modotti and Weston. Much has been published on these two photographers, who became lovers in California before traveling to Mexico in the early 1920s. Weston returned to the US, while Modotti stayed for years, published in Mexican journals and became integrated into artistic and political circles, until she was expelled in 1930. Scholars from Nancy Newhall to Sara Lowe have written about the Mexican period of these two photographers, taking into account that they came from the United States, where they were part of an emerging photographic culture in California, and that Mexico City confronted them with a political and social reality that left a deep mark in their work. Bravo discusses the links between the works of Weston and two of the muralists (Orozco and Rivera), and between Modotti and the Estridentistas, but these are connections that have been explored before, and in the end, these chapters do not change our understanding of these two photographers or their work.

The book comes alive in the last two chapters, devoted to Strand and Levitt. The canonical narrative of post-Revolutionary Mexican art found in most publications since the 1990s includes Weston, Modotti, the Muralists, and the Estridentistas. Strand is often mentioned as a footnote, and up to now he has been considered an American artist whose brief passage through Mexico had little impact on the local culture—or on his later work. Bravo shows that Strand’s Mexican photographs, with their focus on Indigenous subjects, continued a project that he had begun in the American Southwest: his interest in photographing Indian cultures across both sides of the border is an eloquent example of the Greater American photographic culture Bravo posits in her book. One of the book’s strongest sections discusses connections between Strand and Carlos Chávez: two figures, one American, one Mexican, who shared an interest in Indian culture and crossed the border in order to gain more extensive knowledge of the question from the other side. The results: Strand’s Mexican photographs and Carlos Chavez’s H.P. (Horsepower), a ballet inspired as much by New York modernity as by pre-Columbian rhythms.

The chapter devoted to Helen Levitt is the strongest in the book. Levitt, a native New-yorker, traveled to Mexico in 1941. Unlike most other foreign artists and writers who made the trip, she found herself unable to connect with the culture and did not befriend any Mexican colleagues during her stay, which seems to have been marked by extreme isolation and melancholy. Levitt was a reclusive figure and very little is known about her life. Bravo puts her Mexican photographs—desolate street scenes, marked by extreme poverty and loneliness—in dialogue with those she shot in New York City in the late 1930s, and also with those by Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who also practiced street photography and documented Mexico City’s poverty, though in a more playful light than Levitt.

The chapter on Levitt includes a fascinating section comparing Levitt to other modern photographers—from Cartier Bresson to Walker Evans—who used their cameras to document scenes of urban poverty. Bravo successfully shows that Levitt’s project has much in common with that of Manuel Álvarez Bravo, who was also attuned to the themes of the city, the street, and the coexistence of different social classes in the same space.

One shortcoming in Greater American Camera is the lack of careful analyses of images. The author privileges larger conceptual categories—“greater American modernism,” “greater American surrealism”—at the expense of careful attention to the richness of the images she discusses. This is especially evident in the section on Modotti and Weston, given that the critical literature on these two photographers is filled with brilliant close readings of their photos, but also in the chapter on Levitt, where some of the photographs are presented without a careful discussion of the rich details they present. Levitt’s photograph of two poor women carrying stacks of newspapers (Mexico, 1941), for instance, is merely described as a portrait of gossip: “The posture of the young woman on the right, who looks imploringly at the older and makes a beseeching gesture with her left hand, clearly marks their activity as gossip. . . . They are completely absorbed in their private discussion, unaware of the photographer’s presence.” This reading misses the punctum of the photograph. The newspaper carried by one of these girls under her arm features a striking headline: “LA BATALLA EN GRECIA, INDECISA AUN” (Battle in Greece still undecided), pointing to the larger historical context. Levitt shot this image in the third year of World War II, as Allies and Axis powers fought over Greece. Though the girls are carrying the newspapers and spreading the news of the war, the image makes them appear as inhabiting a space that is cut off from historical time, a timeless world in which time seems to stand still. The photo is less about a greater American topic than about the dramatic contrast between tiny individual lives and momentous world historical events, between peaceful Mexico and a war-torn world.

At times, Bravo’s use of “greater American” as a concept seems forced, and far from contributing to an understanding of the material in question, it can hinder her attention to detail. For instance, when comparing Álvarez Bravo and Levitt, Bravo concludes that in their “use of the hand-held camera, they do not so much reproduce the world as produce a new picture of Mexico informed by their Greater American surrealism” (187). Neither Álvarez Bravo nor Levitt considered themselves surrealists, and the degree to which their work fits into the parameters of surrealist practice is a vast question that is open to debate (and which has been extensively debated by Álvarez Bravo’s critics), but such a question is elided by the use of the term “Greater American Surrealism.”

Bravo’s analysis also seems informed by a binary ethics. In her book, Mexican and American photographers are moved by a desire for empathy and cross-border understanding, while European figures are blinded by an exoticist drive. She argues, for instance, that “more than Evans or Cartier-Bresson, Levitt and Álvarez Bravo were interested in playing with their medium, in exploring what photography can and cannot represent” (201) and believes that they “come closer to the goal of breaking down the barrier between art and everyday life than Breton, Dali or any other European surrealists” (202). “European surrealism” and “Greater American surrealism” are rigid categories that do not do justice to a cultural panorama that is complex, marked by contradictions, and inhabited by figures that resist easy categorization. One such figure is the Peruvian artist and poet César Moro, discussed in the last chapter, who was one of the organizers of the 1940 International Exhibition of Surrealism at the Galería de Arte Mexicano, is a fascinating eccentric, who did not fit neatly into any categories, including that of surrealism. He is rarely discussed in studies of modern Mexico precisely because he does not seem to belong to any of the recognizable groups: he was Peruvian, not Mexican; a failed surrealist painter and a poet rejected by the Mexican literary world.

Despite these shortcomings, Greater American Camera is an impressive first book, the result of extensive archival research in Mexico and the United States. It brings to light many unknown documents, including rare installation photographs of exhibitions that are often mentioned but never discussed in detail, like the 1940 International Surrealism Exhibit in Mexico City or Sixty Photographs: A Survey of Camera Esthetics, presented in 1940–41 at the Museum of Modern Art, which included work by Levitt. By inviting the reader to think of an expanded photographic landscape in which Strand and Levitt worked alongside Álvarez Bravo, Cartier Bresson, and Walker Evans, Bravo has provocatively shifted our perspective on the canon of Mexican modernism.

Author’s note: In an effort to remain consistent with the language used in Greater American Camera, I use the term “Indian” throughout.

Rubén Gallo
Walter S. Carpenter, Jr., Professor in Language, Literature, and Civilization of Spain,
Princeton University