In the 1890s, gritty miners in overalls shared the same wealthy Mexican mining city—and the same photography studio—with dapper businessmen toasting the camera with a beer, while Emiliano Zapata look-alikes menacingly brandished pistols. And for 25 years, photographer Romualdo García captured them all.
Today, art historians consider García an abbreviated genius, and the Guanajuato state government zealously promotes his portfolio across Mexico. García could have achieved worldwide fame if not for the chaos of the 1912 Mexican Revolution; now there's the chance to see a rare American exhibition of his work at the Centro Cultural de México in Santa Ana.
Each of the 33 pieces from between 1905 and 1914 is a rhapsody of muted grays, soft lighting and the same simple background. It's hard not to search them for evidence of the coming deluge, looking hopelessly into the eyes of the characters for signs they knew the three-decade dictatorship of Porfirio Díaz was running on empty and would be replaced by a decade of savage warfare.
If the photos seem rudimentary, they work as a primer on the principal reason for the revolution—the headache-inducing nexus of race and class. The class of García's subjects is indicated by skin tone: most of the dark-skinned subjects wear peasant clothing like sombreros and shawls, while lighter-skinned individuals proudly show off their American-style suits and Victorian dresses.
García also clues us in to the miscegenation that makes Mexican conceptions of race and class even murkier. One shot shows a bronze-toned man with his three children, each lighter than the other until the toddler in his lap looks like he stepped off the Mayflower—and he's dressed like it, too. More intriguing is the Indian-looking boy standing on a chair wearing a kilt better suited to the Scottish Highlands.
The only problem with the García exhibit is that none of the photos has a name or story attached. But this is understandable: García himself never took down the names of his subjects, perhaps assuming that only his subjects would ever look at his work again.
Revolutions produce extraordinary art, and Mexico's was no exception. The country's 1912 revolution radicalized an entire generation of creative Mexicans—the muralist Diego Rivera, author José Vasconcellos and composer Carlos Chávez—individuals who during the 1920s incorporated the revolution's socialist and indigenous rhetoric into their respective disciplines to make works celebrated the world over.
But warfare can crush artists who don't adjust to chaos, and that's the depressing case of Romualdo García. García set up his photo studio in Guanajuato in 1889, and during the next 25 years became renowned for his set-piece portraits of Guanajuato's disparate residents. He shuttered his studio when the revolution's ruthless battles reached western Mexico in 1914, and although his two sons continued the family business after the war, García never shot again.
Romualdo García Exhibit at the Centro Cultural De México, 1522 S. Main St., Santa Ana, (714) 953-9305. Call for exhibit hours. Until July 31. Free. All Ages.