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Portrait of Manuel Hernandez Galván, Mexico 1924 is a medium-size black and white photograph of the Mexican general and senator Manuel Hernandez Galván taken by the American photographer Edward Weston. The photograph shows the left side of Galván’s face and neck, which fill most of the frame and are set against a plain, pale background. The sitter is shown squinting and looking forwards, towards the left of the frame, with an expression of concentration on his face. Galván’s dark hair is pushed back in a windswept manner and his neck is clad in the collar of a thick woollen jumper, and these elements, together with the bright light that falls on the sitter’s face, suggest that the photograph was taken in an outdoor setting. The close-up nature of the composition and the sharp focus on the face and its expression lend the image a psychological intensity.
Portrait of Manuel Hernandez Galván, Mexico was taken in 1924 during Weston’s first extended stay in Mexico – he had arrived there in 1923 and would leave at the end of 1924. Weston took the portrait during a shooting trip with Galván, who was a close friend of the photographer, and he captured it while Galván was aiming at a target, although Weston chose to focus only on his friend’s face, thereby intensifying his expression of concentration. Prints of the work are held in several other collections, including one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York that has the alternative title Galván, Shooting.
During the period in which Weston made this portrait, the photographer was living with his lover, the Italian photographer and actress Tina Modotti. She and Weston had travelled to Mexico together with Weston’s son, Chandler, in the hope of finding new subjects and inspiration for their photography. Following his 1923–4 stay in Mexico, Weston returned to live there again in 1925–7. He established a good professional reputation in Mexico and in 1928 was given an important solo exhibition at the Palace of the Legion of Honor in San Francisco.
According to the art historian Sarah M. Lowe, Portrait of Manuel Hernandez Galván, Mexico and other photographs by Weston from this time can be considered indicative of the photographer’s enjoyment of the creative freedoms he witnessed in Mexico at the time. Lowe observes that
the lure of Mexico in the early 1920s was powerful. The post-revolutionary government was forging a democracy based, in part, on patronising the arts, specifically, commissioning artists to paint the walls of Mexico’s public buildings. This cultural flowering, dubbed the Mexican Renaissance, attracted both artists and activists.
(Lowe 2004, p.9.)
However, Lowe argues that Weston felt the need to avoid portraying Mexico in an idealised manner in order to prevent his work from presenting an exoticised view of its culture, observing that he consciously ‘responded to the landscape and folk art and continually fought against the picturesqueness of Mexico’ (Lowe 2004, p.9). This approach may be reflected in Portrait of Manuel Hernandez Galván, Mexico, in which Weston has cropped out the landscape, concentrating purely on Galván’s expression in the moment he takes aim.
In 1932 Weston inspired the formation of – and subsequently joined – the photographic collective Group f/64, which championed the ‘pure photography’ of natural objects and landscapes that would possess ‘no qualities of technique, composition or idea derivative of any other art form’ (quoted in Fineman 2012, p.32). This was partly based on Weston’s own formalist approach to photographic still life, as is seen in his Shells 1927 (Tate P13096). Although Portrait of Manuel Hernandez Galván, Mexico was taken much earlier and depicts an individual rather than an object or scene, it bears similarities with this ‘pure’ style through its deep contrast between light and dark tones, its high level of detail and the way in which it presents the form of Galván’s head in isolation against a plain background.
Edward Weston, exhibition catalogue, Arts Council, London 1977.
Sarah M. Lowe, Tina Modotti and Edward Weston: The Mexico Years, exhibition catalogue, Barbican Art Gallery, London 2004, reproduced p.55.
Mia Fineman (ed.), Faking It: Manipulated Photography Before Photoshop, exhibition catalogue, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York 2012.
Supported by Christie’s.