Zapata Was Here (Aqui Estuvo Zapata) is the name of a new cultural venue in downtown Cuernavaca, located in the former Moctezuma Hotel, the building stands out among its neighbors. It’s constructed entirely of un-plastered brick. Between 1911 and 1916 it was Emiliano Zapata’s headquarters, that is, whenever he was in control of Cuernavaca.
A photograph of Zapata taken in its courtyard in front of a brick wall at the base of a stairway holds the distinction of being the most frequently viewed photo of a Mexican.
Last Friday, on the anniversary of the Revolution, I climbed the stairway where Zapata posed. I was on my way to a talk by Sicilian photographer Ferdinando Scianna. His exhibit “Lux in Arcana: Ferdinando Scianna’s Baroque” opened this month (Nov. 14 to March 20) in Mexico City’s San Carlos National Museum.
The famous photo of Zapata was printed on the outside of my invitation but it seems to have been there to accompany the name of the hosting institution, not the topic of the lecture. Though generous in crediting other photographers’ work, Scianna made no reference to the portrait of Zapata.
I asked Scianna to elaborate on the difference between a painter’s portrait and a photographer’s portrait. Without mentioning Zapata’s portrait, I learned more about it than if he had projected it on the screen for analysis.
“Not many photographs of people are portraits. A portrait implies that the person being photographed is conscious of the photograph, knows about it, dialogs with the photographer and willingly poses. When people interact in this way they have an effect on one another.
“Let’s use Rembrandt as our example of a painter. Probably the most important portrait painter of all time, he also painted many self-portraits. When we see his portraits, even if we don’t know the subjects, we recognize them as his. Through his art Rembrandt gives us the presence of a person in his painting. He may have painted the portrait in the span of a month or a year — going back to the same image many times to end up with the final result — he brings that image out from within himself and offers it to us.
“A photographer, on the other hand, may spend a day, even a month, preparing a portrait of a person — telling him or her ‘angle your body this way or that’ or ‘turn your head a bit more.’ All this done before the moment the shutter is released. Regardless of the time invested preparing the photo it is still the product of an instant. In that moment the feeling — entelechy — has to be deposited in the image of that person.
“When photography works it is the miracle of an encounter which can be published and which a third-party can recognize when lining up the eye, mind, and heart. That’s complicated. Not all photographers are good portrait photographers. Nor are great photographers necessarily good portrait-takers. A good portrait photographer has to have passion for people — empathy. That could seem to say that one can only make good portraits of people one likes. However, making portraits of people the photographer detests also requires empathy. Some portraits can be manifestations of hate, others of love. Good photographic portraits tell us much about the person portrayed — just as they tell us about the photographer.”
The photograph of Zapata meets Scianna’s criteria of a great portrait. No wonder photography historian John Mraz says this photo has become a revolutionary icon. Mraz adds, “The image is of intriguing complexity and represents a startlingly graphic depiction of triumph. Zapata is dressed with the sash and sword that General Manuel Asúnsulo wore as a symbol of his status as the authority in Cuernavaca.” Asúnsulo headed the 1911 revolutionary assault on Cuernavaca but was killed shortly afterwards.
By wearing Asúnsulo’s sash and sword, Mraz explained, “Zapata was demonstrating the prerogative he’d acquired to determine who would govern the city and the state of Morelos. Wearing these emblems could also represent an attempt on Zapata’s part to legitimize his movement. He and his campesinos had been portrayed in the Mexico City press as cruel and ferocious savages. Zapata may have been attempting to counteract that mindset, presenting himself as a professional soldier, with the rank of general, and thus deserving of political recognition.
Seventeen years later, Diego Rivera would use this photo to paint Zapata in Cuernavaca’s Cortez Palace. The photo is in black and white but we assume the colors of the sash were the state colors of Morelos. Rivera uses the tri-color, thus promoting Zapata as the leader of the nation.
The portrait is attributed variously to the German Hugo Brehme or to U.S. photographer F. Wray. It is interesting that Zapata posed for a foreign photographer, perhaps because of his aversion to Mexico City’s press.
Zapata certainly made his statement in the portrait, but what was the photographer’s message with campesinos hunkered in the stairwell?