Agustín Víctor Casasola was a Mexican photographer and partial founder of the Mexican Association of Press Photographers. He was born in Mexico City on July 28,1874 and apprenticed as a typographer. He later became a reporter for El Imparicial, which was one of the official newspapers of the Díaz government. Typography demands precision, a sense of form and style, and an understanding of the need to communicate. This early training served him well in his later incarnation as a photographer.
With innovations and improvements in photography and printing presses at the end of the 19th century, Casasola soon became a photographer. His early photographs document the comfortable lives of the elite, and he was even there to photograph Porfirio Díaz during the inauguration celebration that led to his last days in office. With the fall and exile of the dictator, Casasola’s camera would soon record images of greater social and historical significance.
In 1904 Casasola left El Imparcial to work for El Tiempo, which was owned by Rafael Reyes Spindola, a publisher with vision who saw the great potential of newspapers. He purchased the newest machinery to assure the highest visual quality in the production of his daily paper, and he saw the value of creating more space for photographs.
Casasola also saw the growing potential of photography, and his commitment grew accordingly.
In 1905, Casasola along with his younger brother Miguel, started their own photo agency called Casasola Fotograficos. Within two years, he would receive a special award for his photographs of the execution of three assassins of the former president of Guatemala, General Lisandro Barillas, as they faced a firing squad in Belen Prison. News coverage of the execution had been prohibited, however, Casasola climbed a telephone pole which allowed him to shoot over the prison wall. This incredible feat won him a special award.
With the outbreak of the Mexican Revolution in 1910, the photographers found themselves on the battlefield. This new reality compelled Casasola to look behind the image to the unseen.
He still focused on powerful men as he did in the time of Porfirio Díaz, though now the power belonged to men like Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata but he was changing.
He now also focused on the human price of war. He photographed armies attacking railroad trains, rough hewed soldiers replacing the upper class in what was once forbidden territory in the better parts of the conquered capital, soldaderas giving comfort and food and fighting along side their men, and the wasted bodies of the dead strewn haphazardly along the countryside.
He photographed groups of armed children, the cold faces of executioners, the last moments of those being executed, and the hardened indifference of the living who had seen too much. He photographed with a clear impartial eye the men doing battle on both sides of the fight.
In 1911, he would founded the Mexican Association of Press Photographers and a year later, the Graphic Information Agency, which would become the first photo agency in the world to include other photographers.
Casasola’s motto for the agency was, “I have or can produce the photo you need.” The agency soon grew to include 483 photographers. With this many photographers, it became unclear which photographs were made by Agustín Víctor Casasola and which were made by other member photographers, including his brother, a great photographer in his own right.
It eventually became large enough to include 483 other photojournalists. In many cases, it’s hard to distinguish how many of Cassola’s photos were shot with him behind the lens and how many were done by others, including his brother whose own name never appeared on his work.
All aspects of Mexican life were now being captured and frozen in time. Great revolutionary heroes shared a place before the lens with criminals and women of the night.
It became evident that Casasola was more than just a recorder of facts. His portraits, particularly of groups, show great skill and outstanding artistry. It probably helped that he was over 6 feet tall, which certainly gave him a perspective not available to most Mexicans. His photographs reveal a refined handling of space, gesture and interpersonal relationships, and there is a luminous quality to his portraits.
Between 1920 and 1930 with the years of the revolution behind him, Casasola again looked to his city, this time with the help of the 35 mm camera that saw its debut in 1925. The fantasy world of Porfirio Díaz was long gone and his interest in the rarefied world of political leaders and artistic celebrities was on the wane.
He turned is eye to the common man. Loneliness, alienation, separation from others. The world of those who left their ravaged countryside to find hope in Mexico City was the new reality, and his photographs caught these images in a humane and compassionate way. They showed every Mexican worthy of attention. In the process, he saw Mexico’s transformation from ancient tradition to modern times, and he tried to capture that, too.
Casasola felt a great need to preserve this part of Mexico’s past. The photographic archives he assembled with his brother comprise nearly 500,000 images and are considered the finest collection available on Mexican history documenting the first part of the twentieth century. The archives are housed in the Convent of San Francisco in the city of Pachuca in Hidalgo.
Filmmakers and writers have all taken their images of the revolution from the photographs in these archives, and it is the images of those times that we have internalised. These images are seen in hundreds of tourist shops all over Mexico and in the gift shops of museums. They have been reproduced on t-shirts, post cards and ash trays.