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Zapata photo shrouded in mystery

For years it was thought that German-born Hugo Brehme took the famous shot of the Mexican revolutionary with crisscrossed bandoleers. But technology has pointed historians in another direction.

December 06, 2009|By Ken Ellingwood
  • "It's an emblematic image in the history of Mexico," says Mayra Mendoza, deputy director of the government's photographic collection in the central state of Hidalgo. "Who gave us this photo?"
"It's an emblematic image in the history of Mexico," says… (Associated Press )

Reporting from Pachuca, Mexico — The famous rebel poses in full regalia, his right hand gripping an Old West carbine, his left steadying a sword that dangles from the waist. You recognize the bushy mustache, broad sombrero, crisscrossed bandoleers.

It's an icon of Mexican history: a black-and-white photograph of Emiliano Zapata believed taken in 1911, a year after the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution.

Published in a Mexican newspaper two years later and reproduced since then in history textbooks and on postcards, T-shirts and shopping bags, the Zapata image is almost as famous as that of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

With so much exposure, you'd think the photograph had little left to reveal to the world. Yet an intriguing question hovers: Who took the picture?

That mystery resurfaced last month when a researcher at Mexico's National Institute of Anthropology and History announced that, based on her examination of a faint inscription on the photo, the image was not the work of Hugo Brehme, the well-known German photographer who had been credited.

The finding made headlines as Mexicans were marking the 99th anniversary of the messy, decade-long fight that turned Zapata, leader of a peasant army, into an enduring folk hero. He was gunned down in 1919 in an ambush.

"It's an emblematic image in the history of Mexico, and we don't know who took it," said Mayra Mendoza, deputy director of the government's photographic collection here in the central state of Hidalgo. "Who gave us this photo?"

Mendoza's conclusion ruling out Brehme sends the issue back to square one.

Brehme had been declared the photographer 14 years earlier, when researchers at another museum said his name could be seen in the inscription near the bottom of the image. Before that, credit for the photo was given to Agustin Victor Casasola. His family's well-known photo agency dealt pictures for decades until it sold the government its collection of more than 350,000 images, including that of Zapata, in 1976.

Modern Mexican textbooks credit Brehme, who moved to Mexico in 1905 and won acclaim mainly for his landscape shots. He died in 1954.

But Mendoza, who has studied the German photographer's work for six years, said Brehme couldn't have taken the picture. For one thing, he didn't take a single other photograph of the legend.

For another, she said, the inscription is in the wrong language. Working off a negative made from a print, Mendoza and fellow researchers employed computer technology to scrub away everything but the text that is all but invisible in the lower corner, below the tip of the sword.

There, in script, is a string of words -- in English. (Brehme signed in Spanish or German.) "Zapata, Photo and Copyright by". . . . And here comes the trickiest part. The name is too faint to make out clearly, but appears to be "F. Moray" or "F. McKay," or something similar. It is not Brehme, Mendoza said.

Her conclusion: The photographer probably was an American, perhaps one of the journalists and adventurers who flocked across the border into Mexico during the chaos that erupted after the overthrow of dictator Porfirio Diaz.

She figures that the photographer never became well known in Mexico. She has found no other evidence of a "Moray" or "McKay" working as a photographer in Mexico at that time.

Could an obscure U.S. photographer have ventured to Zapata's Cuernavaca barracks, south of Mexico City, and taken a portrait of the revolutionary without leaving any other trace? If so, who?

"Someone else can investigate that," Mendoza said. "The field is open."

Already there are murmurs. One scholar of the revolutionary period, Miguel Angel Berumen, agreed that the photographer was someone other than Brehme. But Berumen was coy, telling a Mexican newspaper that he'd unveil his hypothesis in a planned book on Zapata.

For now, we just have the photograph. Zapata looks defiant at the base of a stairway, his gaze aimed slightly to the left. A few onlookers take in the scene. Around them, Mexico trembles with unrest.

A photographer frames the rebel leader, who has turned the toe of his boot toward the camera. Then, in the blink of a mechanical eye, an image is born -- one the world will remember.

ken.ellingwood@latimes.com

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