Certain photographs of battle become icons of their wars. A napalmed little girl is running screaming down a road. Piles of dead babies. The corpse of a GI is floating in the surf. Gen. MacArthur is returning to the Philippines. On a hill on Iwo Jima a flag is being raised.
Agusti'n Vi'ctor Casasola, a sort of Mexican Mathew Brady, did something of the sort for the Mexican revolution.
Casasola (1874-1938) served his country's revolutionaries. Yet he was no subversive. He was too formal, too obsequious, too reverent and attentive. He was a courtier of a sort. Before, during and after the revolution, he adhered to those with power. Stern generals with swords, factory directors, ladies dressed in ostrich plumes, Zapatistas with machetes, liberators, dictators -- for nearly half a century he photographed them all.
He was not quite a great artist. He was more dutiful than daring. When the official delegation visited, or rich ladies did good deeds, or victorious troops paraded, his camera was there. More journalist than poet, he did a lot of rote work. Yet the photographs he took, purchased or commissioned, include great works of art.
More than 80 images from the Government of Mexico's Casasola Archive are included in the touring show that premiered here last night at Fondo del Sol, the 11-year-old art gallery at 2112 R St. NW, which now bills itself as "Washington's first bilingual Hispanic/Multicultural Community Museum."
The photographs are telling. Some are unforgettable. A small orchestra of convicts wearing chain-gang stripes (some are little more than children) is posing with its instruments in the courtyard of a prison at Tlalpan. They play their cellos standing up.
Many of these pictures show the rulers of the land. In one from 1911, crowds rush through the cobbled streets swinging shiny, sharp machetes as Francisco Madero's army enters Cuernavaca. In another from 1913, Gen. Victoriano Huerta, playing the aristocrat and looking slightly evil, is posing against darkness with his stiff-necked and white-gloved military staff. In a picture made the next year, a delighted Francisco Villa has happily installed himself on the tall and gilded presidential throne. Emiliano Zapata stares into the camera.
If Casasola's archives offered only photographs of war they would be a national treasure. But they contain much more.
Atget, the French master, photographed the city squares and empty streets of Paris, and the tradesmen of the capital. Casasola -- who probably never saw an Atget -- did much the same for Mexico. One famous Atget image -- of a blank-faced peddler laden with furniture -- is mysteriously echoed by a 1914 Casasola of a peddler selling the effigies of Judas that Mexicans, each Holy Week, ritually destroy.
Casasola also portrayed street urchins and orphans and the workmen of his day. Women bend to sewing machines. A factory produces countless wire nails. A huge flywheel gleams. In one of his many incarnations, A.V. Casasola was a kind of Lewis Hine, though a Hine without much passion.
He was a sort of Jill Krementz, too. He photographed the poets and painters of his time, among them Jose' Juan Tablada (1910), Salvador Di'az Miro'n (1913), Diego Rivera and David Siqueros.
His camera was crude and large. Occasionally we see the shadow of its tripod at the bottom of a picture, silhouetted sharply on a dusty street.
"I am a camera" -- that famous phrase of Christopher Isherwood's -- suggests a certain lack of effect, a mechanical response, an absence of high feeling. Something of that sort is felt throughout this show.
Casasola photographed the rich and poor, the cunning and the simple, leaders of the right and leaders of the left with an equal hand. Soldiers howl in triumph, children suffer, lovers part, show girls flirt, but the photographer does not preach. He shows no interest in polemics. The present show is called "The World of Agustin Victor Casasola: Mexico 1900-1938." That caveat, "the world of," is apt. What one remembers most from this exhibition is not the artist's soul or eye, but Mexico itself.
The exhibit and associated events, says Mark Zuver of Fondo del Sol, cost $84,000. The money came from Ford, AT&T, CBS, the Meyer Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. Money from the Philip Graham Fund was used to spruce up the gallery, which needed it. The show will travel to Manhattan's International Center of Photography, to 10 additional museums in Canada and the United States, and then to the British Museum, London, after closing here Feb. 5