Mexico’s finest 20th century photographer was actually a German immigrant
Politically turbulent for decades following its war of independence with Spain, Mexico achieved a long period of stability from 1876-1911 under the dictatorship of President Porfirio Diaz. Operating under the slogan “Pan, o palo” (Bread or a beating), Diaz kept the nation on his track until an outrageously fraudulent presidential election triggered a series of revolutions, which devolved into a civil war pitting region against region, social class against social class and ideology against ideology. By the 1920s, the violence simmered down and Mexico settled into a long period of governance by the Institutional Revolutionary Party. The upheaval stimulated the imagination of the country’s artists, who celebrated their nation’s traditions while depicting the possibility of a new society with justice for all of Mexico’s citizens.
Mexican artists may have been introduced to modernity through photography, and one of the foremost Mexican photographers of the early 20th century, Hugo Brehme (1882-1954), has been cited as an influence on the country’s best known artist from the period, Diego Rivera. Brehme was a German immigrant imbued with the European Romantic tradition, which sought the sublime essence of nature and reveled in the beauty of ancient ruins.
Brehme was known internationally during the 1920s and ’30s for his photography books, but made a living executing beautifully composed tourist postcards of Mexican scenes – collectors’ items then and now. Because photography was a mass-produced medium, it appealed to the sensibility of revolutionary artists who hoped to inspire the masses rather than decorate the homes of wealthy patrons.
Studying photography in Germany, Brehme sought to explore his craft by traveling to Africa where he worked in the German colonies until a brush with malaria brought him home. After recovering, he set his sights on Central America and Mexico, where he remained for two years before returning briefly to Germany. He married in 1908 and brought his German wife with him to Mexico, eventually settling in the nation’s capital.
Brehme established his studio shortly after his arrival. Assembling a talented staff of German emigres and Mexican locals who performed everyday business tasks, Brehme freed himself to continue his profession as a skilled photographer, traveling throughout the country and capturing the landscape, colonial architecture and the local color. He thrived against competition from other foreign-born photographers, including his fellow German, Guillermo (Wilhelm) Kahlo, father of the famous painter Frida. When the revolution broke out in 1913, Brehme was there, documenting the violence and destruction of a country under siege from within. As a foreigner and considered neutral from the politics of the parties, Brehme posed no threat as he encountered the various revolutionary groups, whose leaders understood the advantage photography held for promoting and publicizing their causes. And photography was an important way to reach the largest number of people. His notable portraits from this era include the Zapata brothers, who dominated large swaths of Mexico during those turbulent years.
Frightened by the mounting instability of the country, Brehme planned to emigrate to the United States in 1914 but his bid failed when he and his wife were robbed prior to their departure. He decided to remain and continued to work, even taking pictures for National Geographic.
Despite the unrest, these were profitable years for Brehme as his photographs of the newsworthy region were in demand abroad. Brehme approached his work as a creative art form and did not consider himself a photo-journalist. A professional with a keen sense of marketing, he created and mass-produced picture postcards for the tourists, indelible images that identified Mexico throughout the world.
By 1919, he established a new studio in Mexico City called Fotografia Artistica Hugo Brehme. His clients included publishers of travel brochures and tourism guides. He also provided photography for the annual reports of railroad, mining and oil companies. In 1923, he published “Mexico Pintoresco,” a masterpiece book of 197 sepia-toned images with captions in Spanish, German and English. Other books of his work followed.
Auction offerings for vintage gelatin silver prints, signed and titled by Brehme, have fetched between $300 and $750. The Brehme collector can choose among many eras from his long career and find much of his beautiful work at affordable prices. A 1910 photo, “Popocatepeti Mexico,” signed and titled by Brehme, sold at William Doyle (New York) in May 2008 for $450. A 1943 hand-colored gelatin print, also signed and titled, “El Paricutin Mexico,” sold in Germany in June 2011 for $500.
For the casual collector, eBay is the go-to place for a selection of affordable photogravure prints originally from Brehme’s studio. On any given day, a Brehme can be had for less than $100.
A variety of the travel guides, manuals and handbooks, many first editions, should be added to the flea market patron’s lists of great “finds,” as they can show up almost anywhere. Online stores, such as Amazon, feature many of the travel books as well, with prices starting at around $20 for a 1922 edition of “The Revised Guide and Handbook for Travellers to Mexico City.” Brehme’s seminal book, “Mexico Pintoresco,” is available on several online sites for $250 to $1,000, depending on condition.
Interest in Brehme continued with the publication late last year by the University of Texas Press of “Timeless Mexico,” authored by scholar and collector Susan Toomey Frost.
Showcasing Brehme’s work as a remarkable survey of a country’s coming of age amidst the splendor and the beauty, the turmoil and the violence, Brehme focused his lens with an artist’s vision. Noteworthy also is a 2009 book by Frost on Latin American tile making, “Colors on Clay: The San Jose Tile Workshops of San Antonio,” which credits Brehme’s photographs as instrumental in identifying the origins of specific tile designs.
Brehme hasn’t yet been ranked with the most important artists of the 20th century, but his worldwide reputation is rising.
In 2002, the Brehme Collection at Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History was recognized by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Program for its importance in documenting the image of a nation.
Mary P. Manion is acting director of Landmarks Gallery and Restoration Studio in Milwaukee, and director of its framing department. For more information, visit www.LandmarksGallery.com, or call 800-352-8892.
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