Early Mexican Photography (Part I)

Early Mexican portraits have much to tell us about the upper echelons of 19th-century society and the competing social and political forces at play during a tumultuous time.

These familial keepsakes—so small that they can fit in the palm of your hand—portray the Mexican upper class of the 1840s-1870s. Cased and framed, these objects also offer insight into the beginnings of photography and how it quickly gained a foothold in a country halfway around the world from France and England, where it was invented.

The Getty Museum acquired this collection of 72 photographs from Californian collector and former camera store owner Graham Pilecki in 2015. He purchased the images at flea markets and through dealers in Mexico City, Guadalajara, Juarez, and Veracruz between 1992 and 2010.

[Portrait of a woman in a black dress and white lace collar], Unknown, about 1850s-1870s, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
[Horizontal Portrait of Two Seated Women and a Boy] [Horizontal Portrait of Two Seated Women and a Boy], Unknown, about 1850s, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
[Portrait of a man standing in a studio with hat], Unknown, about 1850s-1870s, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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[Portrait of a man] [Portrait of a man] (about 1850s) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

The Pilecki collection includes daguerreotypes (photographs on copper plates coated with silver) . . .

[Young woman in a pink-tinted skirt standing next to an elaborately carved chair] (about 1850s-1870s) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

ambrotypes (photographs on glass) . . .

[Close-up portrait of a young boy in a hat] (about 1850s-1870s) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

tintypes (photographs on metal coated with enamel or lacquer) . . .

[Portrait of man] (about 1850s-1860s) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

. . . and one pannotype (a photograph on leather). All are unique one-of-a-kind objects. Daguerreotypes cameras and materials became available to the public in 1839, while ambrotypes, tintypes, and pannotypes were invented in the 1850s.

The photographs came in six standard sizes from the smallest, a “sixteenth plate” at 1 ¾ x 1 ½ inches, to the largest, a “whole plate” at 8 ½ x 6 ½ inches. (To learn more about these processes, and the sizing of plates, see the resources listed at the end.)

Let’s take a closer look at a selection of the photographs to see what they reveal.

[Portrait of a seated man holding a cane] [Portrait of a seated man holding a cane] (1852) by Emil Mangel du MesnilThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Tracking Down Traces of Nameless Faces

As is often the case with 19th-century daguerreotypes, ambrotypes, and tintypes, the names of the photographers in this collection remain unknown. Out of the 72 objects in the collection, we know the photographers of just two of the works. Frenchman Emile Mangel du Mesnil (1815–1890) made the daguerreotype of this debonair, unidentified man who sports a silk waistcoat and a cravat around his neck. 

The metal plate is inscribed at the bottom center: "Guadalajara/1852” and signed along the right edge: “Em Mesnil.” Mangel du Mesnil must have traveled from Mexico City, where he was based at the time, to Guadalajara to make this portrait. He was one of the many European photographers who came to Mexico around this time with entrepreneurial dreams. He later moved to Montevideo, Uruguay, where he served as Vice-Consul of Mexico.

[Portrait of a seated woman] (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Thanks to a signature on a rose-colored form that accompanies this daguerreotype, we believe that E. C. Black made it. We have not yet located additional information about Black, whose name may indicate he or she was American or British.

[Portrait of a seated woman] (Interior spread, with paper unfolded)The J. Paul Getty Museum

During this period men usually were credited with having made the photographs. However, women sometimes worked in the studios as well.

[Portrait of a man at a table] (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Unfortunately, most of the sitters in the collection also remain unidentified. Only a few works offer clues to the sitter’s identities. For example, a handwritten note was found in the case of this daguerreotype portrait of a young man dressed in European-styled clothing. 

Enclosed Card from [Portrait of a man at a table] (October 21, 1847)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The note reads: “A mi querida Pilar / su hermano Pedro / 21 de octubre de 1847.” [To my dear Pilar / her brother Pedro / 21st of October 1847]

[Portrait of woman in simple dress with elbow on table] (about 1850s-1870s) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

This ambrotype of a somberly dressed woman has two stickers adhered to the frame that give the name Estella Gonzalez.

The Photographers’ Formula

On December 3, 1839, just months after the French government had made Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre’s photographic process available to the public, a ship called La Flore sailed from France to the port of Veracruz, Mexico, carrying a French photographer with his daguerreotype camera. The ship also brought several other cameras in its cargo hold for the importers Leverger Hermanos, who planned to sell them to fledgling photographers.

During the North American Intervention of 1846-1848, American photographers followed the U.S. military to Mexico. This was the first time in history that photography documented an armed conflict. The U.S. joined the ranks of foreign countries, including Spain and France, exerting their power in Mexico through colonization and the imposition of their cultures. American photographers created daguerreotypes of the battle sites as well as portraits of soldiers and eventually of citizens.

Mexicans also took up the new art form. Some had studied art at the Academia de San Carlos in Mexico City. They trained with foreign photographers or followed instruction manuals. Many photographers lived an itinerant existence, traveling to different parts of Mexico with over 150 pounds of fragile photographic equipment, while others settled in one city and set up portrait studios.

Because of their prohibitively high prices, daguerreotype portraits were reserved for Mexico’s upper stratum that was generally made up of Europeans and Mexican citizens of European descent. Priced by size, daguerreotypes typically cost between two and sixteen pesos. They were far beyond the reach of a housekeeper whose monthly wage was twelve to fifteen pesos, or a chambermaid who earned five to six pesos a month. With time, more affordable photographic processes such as the ambrotype and the tintype became available, but they were still out of reach for people of more modest means.

[Portrait of a seated woman] (Interior spread, with paper unfolded)The J. Paul Getty Museum

The form tucked into the case of the portrait by E.C. Black gives other rare clues into some of the business practicalities of early photography. We find an inventory number at the top, followed by descriptions about the sitter’s physical traits: she had blue eyes,  “very blonde” hair, and an “English” complexion.

In the section titled “Observations,” someone at the studio noted that the woman had blonde eyebrows and gave much detail about her clothing and jewelry. She wore shiny gold earrings, a black dress made of moire (a rippled silk), and a lace bodice. Her long necklace and rings are also noted. Her face and jewelry were well highlighted in the daguerreotype through hand coloring. 

These detailed notes were probably made to give the hand colorist guidance in his/her enhancement of the photograph. In this case, the hand colorist used oil paint as indicated in the third line of the form.

[Portrait of a man with a child on his lap] (about 1850s-1870s) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

French and other foreign photographers brought many portrait studio conventions with them to Mexico. Using their full bag of tricks, they collaborated with their subjects to create a standardized visual image of the Mexican upper class.

In this hand-colored ambrotype, you can make out a metal head clamp just to the right of the man’s head. This device was used to keep sitters from moving during the camera exposure. Despite not keeping his head properly aligned in the headrest, this sitter's image still came out clearly.

The photographer also attempted to steady the girl’s head with a pillow, but her movements were captured as seen by her blurry arm and the fuzzy left edge of the pillow. The father and his daughter sit in front of a skillfully painted backdrop of a verdant, hilly landscape.

[Portrait of a man in a studio with rifle and hat] (About 1850s-1870s) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

Here, a man stands in an elaborate setting that replicates a balcony scene with a balustrade, a drawn-back curtain, and a painted backdrop of a garden. He leans his arm on a tall console that holds a highly decorated plaster or stone vase. These accoutrements were familiar elements of a French photographer’s studio.

[Portrait of a woman] (Main View)The J. Paul Getty Museum

Striking a Pose

Photographers quickly developed standard poses that worked well with indoor lighting, long exposure times, and the scale of the metal plates. Certain poses repeat themselves throughout the Pilecki collection. Many of the individuals are seated, looking directly into the camera, in a half-length or three-quarter length view. They often rest an arm on a table or chair to keep themselves steady over the many seconds, or even minutes, it took to make an exposure. 

[Portrait of a woman] (Interior, image side only)The J. Paul Getty Museum

In this image, the woman angles her arm on the table in such a way that our attention is drawn to a thick book beside her. The book—whose title The Indian Races of North & South America appears in reverse—carried symbolic significance. It gave the wealthy sitter an air of scholarly seriousness and connection to Mexico and its Indigenous people.

[Close-up portrait of a young boy in a hat] (about 1850s-1870s) by UnknownThe J. Paul Getty Museum

In this unusual example, the photographer chose to come in quite close to the young boy wearing an ornate charro-style sombrero. In the 1840s it would have been nearly impossible to make a photograph this close-up because the sitter wouldn’t have been able to keep still through a minute-long exposure. This tintype was made sometime in the 1850s or later, when exposure times had been shortened significantly.

It’s All in the Packaging

The preciousness of a portrait could be enhanced by the case or frame in which it was presented. A typical case was made up of several parts. A brass mat could be cut with scalloped or angled edges or embossed with intricate designs. It sat atop a piece of glass that was laid over the photograph. This package was inserted into a shallow, hinged case.

[Portrait of a woman with two young women on either side], Unknown, about 1850s-1870s, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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The earliest cases were made of wood covered in leather; they were kept closed with minute side fasteners. The inside of the front cover was lined with velvet or silk. The case contributed to the photograph’s value as a precious luxury good and, at the same time, protected it.

Below, a quarter-plate daguerreotype is encased in an extravagant wood frame painted gold and inlaid with tortoise shell.

[Portrait of girl and boy], Unknown, about 1850s, From the collection of: The J. Paul Getty Museum
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Much like today, these early photographs represent a collaboration between the photographer and the sitters who brought their own desires for how they wanted to be portrayed. They chose the clothing they wore and may have come with particular poses in mind. The photographer’s skillfulness and aesthetic sensitivities made a sitter’s experience easier and the resulting picture more successful.

To learn more about the ways in which members of the upper class, soldiers, and monks in 19th-century Mexico presented themselves, please visit Part II of this exhibition.

Credits: Story

© 2021 J. Paul Getty Trust, Los Angeles

For more resources
Plate Sizes 

Photographic Process Videos

Further Reading
Idurre Alonso and Judith Keller, eds., “Photography of Argentina, 1850-2010 (Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2017)

Rosa Casanova and Adriana Konzevik, Mexico: A Photographic History, A Selective Catalogue of the Fototeca Nacional of the INAH (México, D.F. : Consejo Nacional para la Cultura y las Artes ; Instituto Nacional de Antropología e Historia ; Editorial RM, 2007)

Olivier Debroise, Mexican Suite: A History of Photography in Mexico, trans. Stella de Sá Rego (Austin, Texas: University of Texas Press, 2001)

John Elderfield, Manet and the Execution of Maximilian (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2006)

Beth Guynn, “Mexico,” Encyclopedia of Nineteenth-Century Photography, ed. John Hannavy (New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group, 2008) 922-924

Manuel De Jesús Hernández, Los Inicios de la Fotografía en México 1839-1850 (México, D. F.: Editores Hersa, 1989)

John Mraz, “War, Portraits, Mexican Types, and Porfirian Progress 1847-1910” in Looking for Mexico: Modern Visual Culture and National Identity (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2009) 13-58

To cite this exhibition, please use: "Early Mexican Photography" published online in 2021 via Google Arts & Culture, Getty Museum, Los Angeles

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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