Politics runs through "Photography in Mexico." The exhibit, at SFMOMA through July 8, includes shots taken in the 1920s following the Mexican Revolution, ones documenting social injustice, and those of the border region between the United States and Mexico.
The photos of Tina Modotti and Edward Weston open the show. These include Workers Parade (Modotti) and Pirámide del Sol, Teotihuacán (Weston). The photographers went to Mexico City in 1923, and while there were studios on every corner, photography was not considered an art form, says Jessica McDonald, the curator of this show. Modetti and Weston held exhibitions and encouraged photographers that art photography was a viable path. One person they encouraged was Manuel Álvarez Bravo, later one the most influential photographers in Mexico.
Bravo, whose iconic photos include a striking worker, shot, lying in a pool of blood,
was struggling to document the events in his country and find an identity, McDonald says.
"Post-revolution, people were trying to find the essence of Mexicanness," she says. "They were trying to think about Mexican identity after centuries of colonial oppression."
The cultural, social and intellectual movements going on in Mexico interested artists in other parts of the world, McDonald says. For instance, the leader of the Surrealist movement, Frenchman André Breton, a friend of Bravo's, visited Mexico City and later said that in Mexico, Surrealism -- considered by Breton to be a philosophy for living rather than just an artistic movement -- was a part of everyday life.
McDonald says one of her favorite parts of the exhibit is "Mexico in Print," which covers photography done for magazines, because it was new to her.
"You couldn't just be an art photographer yet," she says. "To make a living, often they had to work for the established press such as Look or Life."
McDonald says crime photography, known as the "bloody news," is to Mexico what celebrity photography is here. One example is Enrique Metinides' photo of a man's body being retrieved from a lake, with the crowds watching reflected in the water. This is a favorite of McDonald's. She's scheduled to give a talk about it on Thursday, April 12, at 6:30 p.m. at SFMOMA.
After the Tlatelolco student demonstrations and massacre in 1968, photographers in Mexico reassessed what they were doing and the stories they wanted to tell. McDonald says at a meeting, photographer Pedro Meyer exhorted others to stop taking what he considered idealized pictures of happy people and women with babies, and rather to expose a fragmented society.
"He said, 'C'mon, people, we've got cameras! Let's do this!'" McDonald says.
This led Gabriela Iturbide to spend time with indigenous people and document their lives, while Lourdes Grobet decided to take pictures of the wildly popular Mexican wrestling, known as lucha libre.
Part of the exhibit includes contemporary color photography depicting the environmental devastation, such as in Pablo López Luz's aerial views of Mexico City. Alejandro Cartagena took photos of the sprawling suburbs rather than the teeming cities or idyllic countryside. In his Fragmented Cities, Juarez #2, McDonald points out the black water tanks visible on the roofs while residents wait, sometimes years, for regular water service. In the rush to provide housing, McDonald says, structures were constructed quickly without any services.
"There's no trees, no parks, no schools, and no water," McDonald says.
Rather than document the poverty in Mexico, Daniela Rossell chose to shoot wealthy young women, many married to government officials, in their over-the-top houses in her series Rich and Famous. McDonald says that the women in the photos reacted badly to having their lives exposed, and Rosell has since moved to New York and is now painting rather than taking photos.
The show's final component is made up of photos by international photographers of the U.S.-Mexico border -- focusing on the landscape as well as the experiences of the border patrol and those trying to cross into the United States.
"It's an interesting dialogue with what comes before," says McDonald about the contemporary photography in the show. "It's like they're saying, 'This is Mexico too, for better or for worse.'"
"Photography in Mexico" continues through July 8 at SFMOMA, 151 Third St. (at Minna), S.F. Admission is free-$18.