Past Made Present in Mexican Photography

Multiple exposure of a person standing under fronds hanging from bamboo sticks.There is no “typical week” in a Princeton University classroom. When I learned that the major traveling exhibition Christina Fernandez: Multiple Exposures would be opening at the Museum’s Art on Hulfish gallery during the spring semester, I knew immediately that it would appeal to students in both my courses: “Re-Reading American Photographs” and “Mexican Modernism.” I had the opportunity to see the exhibition at its first venue, the California Museum of Photography at the University of California, Riverside, and was struck then by the breadth and depth of Fernandez’s oeuvre. Breadth in terms of the variety of Fernandez’s subjects—laundromats, clothes manufacturing workshops, and restagings of the past—and depth in terms of her themes, such as unseen labor, gentrification, and migration. The Chicana artist’s practice is deeply rooted in the canon of American photography as well as in the history of Mexican modernism. I was excited to share the exhibition with my students.

A woman holding a newspaper under her arm with a pot in her hand stands at a stove looking out at the viewer.The course on Mexican modernism explores the nationalist and cosmopolitan dimensions of Mexican culture from roughly 1910 to 1970 and further considers the relationship of art to revolution—as well as how history works to make meaning from the past. We were privileged not only to visit the exhibition together as a group but also to tour it with Fernandez on April 2, prior to a public conversation between the artist and my colleague James Welling, a photographer and faculty member in Visual Arts. I organized the syllabus for that “typical week” with the theme of photography in Mexico, such that the class would visit the Art Museum’s off-site classroom to view a selection of twentieth-century Mexican photographs on Tuesday and tour the exhibition on Thursday. We read a short primary text by the photographer Tina Modotti (1896–1942) along with a chapter from my first book, Greater American Camera: Making Modernism in Mexico (Yale University Press, 2021), in preparation for our Tuesday session. The prints from the Museum’s collection that I selected included photographs by Edward Weston (1886–1958), Paul Strand (1890–1976), and Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902–2002), all artists featured in my book. The students could readily identify differences in these artists’ chosen subjects, approaches to their compositions, and printing methods. Discussion of the latter surprised me: it was prompted by a student’s question about how to look at photographs. What followed was an impromptu discourse on the nature of collection building, photographic processes (photogravure vs. gelatin silver printing, for example), and what I call looking at rather than looking through photographs—that is, solely through to their subjects rather than at the photographs as a material objects.

A group of people looking at art led by one person pointing at pictures on a wall.Armed with that exercise in close looking—this was the second of three visits to the Museum’s collections during the course—we gathered at Art on Hulfish two days later, having prepared for the artist’s session by reading essays from the accompanying exhibition catalogue. Among the many bodies of work assembled in this retrospective exhibition, two series stood out. The Museum recently acquired one: María’s Great Expedition (1995–96), consisting of seven photographs and text panels. Fernandez explained that she restaged events from the life of her great-grandmother María through photographs featuring herself, Christina, in the guise of her relative. María crossed the US-Mexico border various times and moved throughout the southwestern United States. Fernandez places these migrations against the backdrop of larger social trends throughout the twentieth century, from Japanese incarceration to the Bracero program, identifying the political dimensions of even the most personal of family stories.

A group of people looking at objects in a case.The other series with particular relevance to the course was Untitled Multiple Exposures (1999), in which Fernandez created double exposures, an analog process requiring explanation—using the artist’s photographic contact sheets—for this born-digital generation of students. To create these multiple exposures, Fernandez layered images of her own body over canonical images of Indigenous women from Mexican photographs by Modotti and Álvarez Bravo as well as films by the cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa (1907–1997) and the director Nacho López (1923–1986), who would figure prominently in the subsequent week of our course, focused on the golden age of Mexican cinema. Fernandez explained that she was inspired to consider her own place in this canon and in relation to Mexican Indigeneity, upon a visit to the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca. Through her photographs, and through our conversation with Fernandez, the past was made present in Mexican modernist photography.

Monica Bravo
Assistant Professor of Art and Archaeology