Six Edward Weston Portraits of
Esperanza Velásquez Bringas (1896-1980)
By Fernando Castro
In the late nineties, the Center for Creative Photography in Arizona, which possesses the most important Edward Weston archive and collection, acquired from María Luisa de Gortari, a Houston resident, six 8x10-inch negatives. The negatives were portraits that Weston made of Esperanza Velásquez Bringas, a very important Mexican essayist, feminist and human rights activist of the 1920s. When Esperanza died in 1980, Mrs. de Gortari became her only heir. Given the vast estate of Esperanza, Mrs. de Gortari did not realize, until years later, that she had also inherited vintage prints signed by Edward Weston of those very same portraits. (1)
Except for one, five of the portraits frame the head and upper torso in a way that spells out a break with Pictorialism. Up to that time (1924) most Pictorialist studio photographers made portraits as academic painters would: full-bodied or complete trunk. But these six portraits are framed in a divergent way used by Weston and Margrethe Mather (who was also his collaborator, model and lover) circa 1920. They focus on the mass of a person's head as if it were an object: a nautilus shell, a book, or a bell pepper. For better or worse, to regard the head and the face (the most significant parts of a person's body) as objects is a thoroughly modern approach; fortunately, it is not the only modern approach. As in a passport photo or a Faiyum funeral portrait, there is little space left between the head and the edge of the picture. In Weston's portraits the object like treatment of the head is further underscored by the empty neutral background that isolates the face from all distractors, circumstances, and accidental features. They offer no clue as to the vocation or profession of the person; in other words, they are extremely decontextualized. What gives this type of portrait its identity is the character of the subject, and his or her facial features. Its particularity comes from the position of the head, its vantage point, its focus, its lighting, and not its passing expression, but its personal demeanor.
Who was Esperanza Velásquez Bringas? When Weston and Modotti moved to México in 1923, the country had been in the throes of political and cultural upheaval since the start of its civil war in 1910. The year of the portraits, 1924, is when Esperanza Velásquez Bringas became director of the newly-established national libraries. By then she had already forged a prestigious reputation as a journalist, educator, and advocate of women causes. At eighteen, she had started writing for El Universal, a newspaper founded in 1916 to voice the principles of the Mexican Revolution. She was put in charge of the women and children section of the newspaper. Under anybody else's command that section could have been trivial and inconsequential, but Velásquez Bringas had strong revolutionary beliefs about women's rights, childrearing, motherhood, pre-natal care, birth-control, education, nutrition, eugenics, and civism. She can rightly be called "a first-wave feminist." Esperanza fought against the idea promoted by the porfiriato of the woman as "angel of the home" and promoted that of "the modern woman." She was an unmarried working woman herself, with no children, fashionably dressed, and very outspoken in political and intellectual circles. Her gift as an orator is evidenced by the fact that on the occasion of Charles Lindbergh's visit to Mexico in 1927, president Elías Calles asked her to give a welcoming speech. Her ideas filled a void in the ideology of the Revolution and her charismatic personality endeared her to its leaders. She often wrote and voiced the profile of the Mexican regime for internal and external consumption.
But how did Weston's path cross hers? Was it simply from being part of the same bohemian and revolutionary milieu? Weston had two very successful exhibitions at Aztec Land thanks to which his prestige as an artist and his clientele grew rapidly. Did Esperanza commission the portraits after attending one of these exhibitions? Finally, both Weston and Esperanza published their work in the El Universal daily, where she had been writing for years. Was a friendship established through this newspaper? Or was that friendship achieved through their mutual friend Diego Rivera? There is a photograph, in which she is standing next to Diego Rivera, and there is a man holding a large format camera on his shoulder who looks like Weston. Did Esperanza bestow favors on Weston through her government or journalistic connections? Edward Weston destroyed his early journals, so there is no evidence about the exact nature of the relationship between Esperanza and him. Nevertheless, it is a telling fact that he made six 8x10 portraits of her and let her keep the negatives. Weston returned to California in 1927.
As for Esperanza she continued living freely, productively, and dangerously. Her popularity increased as the host of a radio show called "The National Hour." As a journalist, she pioneered the interview, that genre that years later would be made famous by the likes of Oriana Fallaci and Barbara Walters. As a lawyer, Esperanza was a public defender in criminal trials. After thirty years of service, she received a Gold Medal of Excellence from the Supreme Court of Justice. Her bibliography describes the gamut of interests along her life: politics, law, literature, women issues, education, and the world at large. That is who the person in these six Weston portraits was.*
(1) The Center for Creative Photography's Weston holdings include some 2,000 prints, nearly 10,000 negatives, original daybooks, correspondence, and an assortment of ephemera. CCP acquired the Weston Archive from Weston's four sons in 1981. The actual portraits that are the topic of this essay could not be published with it because of the prohibitive prices CCP charges for publication.
*A longer version of this essay that includes more historical context will soon be published at http://literalmagazine.com/
Fernando Castro R. is a critic, curator, poet, and artist. He recently lectured at the University of Cambridge about his photographic works titled “Elian” (2000). In 2015, the poem “The Sphere,” written collaboratively with his wife, the poet Teresa Bordona, became the first poem in Spanish in orbit on the skin of the satellite Ulises I. In 2014, he gave a workshop on curatorship during the Encuentros Abiertos festival in Buenos Aires. His most recent curatorial projects are “Prime Years: an exhibition about aging” (2009) and “The States of Pedro Meyer” (2008). In 1997 his own photographic work took a political turn under the title "Reasons of State." His exhibit “The Ideology of Color” (2004) is an on-line exhibition at the Lehigh University website. His photographic works are in the permanent collections of the Museum of Fine Arts Houston, The Dancing Bear Collection (New York), Lehigh University (Pennsylvania), Museo de Arte de Lima, the Harry Ransom Collection (Austin), the Nolden Collection (Chicago), etc. He is photography curator of Sicardi Gallery, and part of the international body of consultants of Aperture magazine, a member of the art board of Fotofest, and of the advisory board of the Houston Center for Photography. Castro is a regular contributor of Spot, Artnexus and Literal magazines.