DIEGO RIVERA AND HIS CONTEMPORARIES SO COLORFULLY conveyed the struggles of a proud people that their work has long monopolized the concept of modern Mexican art. Bill Wittliff wants to change that. To Wittliff, Mexican art is a black and white issue: The Austin screenwriter, producer, and publisher is a champion of Mexico’s modern photographers, and he and his wife, Sally, have gathered scores of signed prints for the brand-new Wittliff Gallery of Southwestern and Mexican Photography at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. The archive includes many of Mexico’s finest—from veterans such as Manuel Alvarez Bravo, the abuelo of the medium, to Young Turcos such as Marco Antonio Cruz and Antonio Turok, chroniclers of the bloody Chiapas rebellion. Whether old or young, known or unknown, Mexico’s practitioners of la fotografía focus on many of the subjects that inspired the country’s painters: Aztec deities, the Virgin of Guadalupe, the Day of the Dead, and most especially, the strong faces of the people.
The collection, which opens to the public October 7, is housed at the university’s Albert B. Alkek Library, where it occupies a handsome, airy gallery that is regionally ritzy with Saltillo tile and old pine paneling. Next door is its sister space, the Southwestern Writers Collection, which Wittliff founded in 1991; that archive contains letters, notebooks, first drafts, and so on from J. Frank Dobie, Larry L. King, Larry McMurtry, and dozens more of the region’s best writers. There are even costumes and props from the beloved television adaptation of Lonesome Dove (notably Gus’s remains), which Wittliff co-produced, and the paddle John Graves used to mosey down the Brazos in Goodbye to a River (Wittliff retrieved it, in two pieces, from the bottom of Graves’s woodpile).
Wittliff has always been interested in photography. In 1972 he published a series on the Mexican vaquero, and the seeds of the new collection were works that he and Sally hung in their home. So far, the assemblage includes more prints by the great Depression documenter Russell Lee and gallery star Keith Carter of Beaumont than can be found anyplace else. There are also works by historical greats such as Edward Curtis, the portraitist of Native Americans, and Erwin Smith, the trail-drive photographer, and modern regionalists like James Evans, Geoff Winningham, Laura Wilson, and Jim Bones. No fewer than half the artists in the collection are Mexican. Some, such as Bravo, need little hype. Now 93, Bravo is Mexico’s Alfred Stieglitz; he “personified the possibilities of photography in Mexico,” Wittliff says. Bravo’s first wife, Lola Alvarez Bravo, left him to escape being relegated to the role of assistant and went on to produce her own powerful images, such as El Baño, an elegant rendering of a casual subject—children sunbathing at a public pool.
A generation after the Bravos came Nacho Lopez, Graciela Iturbide, and Mariana Yampolsky. The late Lopez “is not widely known,” Wittliff says, “and yet the strength of his images is world-class.” In one, Confession, a wrinkled hand pulls forward a black shawl to mask the petitioner’s face from the lens. Iturbide captures striking portraits such as one of an iguana vendor with her scaly wares perched surreally atop her head. And Wittliff has amassed more than a hundred of Yampolsky’s prints, including Mujeres Mazahua, in which the viewer’s attention is riveted by the subjects’ stern, sharp-boned beauty.
Wittliff has dubbed Yampolsky the godmother of the collection because she has brought to his attention the work of up-and-coming photographers such as Marco Antonio Cruz, whose images range from grisly (a headless rebel in Chiapas) to lyrical (a blind child thrilled by a swim). “He’ll be one of the greats,” Wittliff says, “if he doesn’t get killed.” Cruz’s contemporaries include Eniac Martinez Ulloa, who has photographed timid teenagers, scraggly-haired elders, and intense curanderos (folk healers) in what Wittliff calls “a very painterly style”; Francisco Mata Rosas, whose quirky shots include a peek at an actor dressed as Jesus in a light-filled room; and Antonio Turok, another Chiapas photographer, who shines with such works as Espejo de la Vida, an unsettling portrait of a short-haired little girl and a shabby old man. Turok’s talent is undeniable; no wonder he recently won a Guggenheim fellowship.
Some of Wittliff’s favorite photos, however, are anonymous. They are snapshots taken by street photographers in a border-town prostitution district, as souvenirs for drunken patrons. Wittliff discovered the Boys Town photos in 1974 while he was researching a screenplay called A Night in Old Mexico. “They’re stunning, with not one whiff of artifice,” he says. Friends helped him smuggle more than six thousand negatives, many marked by shimmery chemical stains, past the resident federales and across the border. Printed, they revealed a grim world of painted, powdered, and polyestered whores—including shockingly underage girls and mother-daughter groups—and an equally diverse spectrum of customers, from sombrero-topped college boys on a spree to toolbox-toting workmen headed home. “Their pictures are ten thousand times better than anything I could have done because they were taken by a group that is part of that world,” Wittliff says. The same authenticity emanates from the work of all the Mexican photographers. “You can’t help but build stories around every single picture,” Wittliff says. “These photographers give their subjects honor and authority. They show Mexico’s heart and soul.”