I’m just finishing up a long and complex project on the worldwide history of black and white cinematography, and throughout writing the book, I’ve continually been struck by how undervalued cinematographers are by most critics and directors, and yet how much they contribute to the finished product – often without more than a few lines of acclaim. One of the very greatest DPs (directors of cinematography) in the history of the cinema is undoubtedly Gabriel Figueroa (1907- 1997), whose work is now the subject of a traveling exhibition, which was presented at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), and now makes a welcome stop at Manhattan’s El Museo del Barrio. As I write in my forthcoming book, Black & White Cinema: A Short History, on Figueroa’s work,
“Born in Mexico City in 1907, Figueroa was orphaned at the age of 7, and became involved in the Mexican industry in his teens. After working as an assistant on various films, he photographed Grigori Aleksandrov and Sergei M. Eisenstein’s ¡Que viva Mexico! (1932) with Eduard Tisse, and then studied cinematography for a year in 1935 with Gregg Toland in Hollywood. Returning to Mexico, Figueroa photographed his first solo effort, Allá en el Rancho Grande (Out on the Big Ranch, dir. Fernando de Fuentes, 1936), after which he worked with several generations of legendary directors from around the world.
In his long career, Figueroa served as the director of cinematography for such eminent directors as Emilio Fernández, most notably on his gorgeous romantic drama María Candelaria (1944); John Ford on The Fugitive (1947); Luis Buñuel on his breakthrough study of life in Mexico City’s notorious slums, Los Olvidados (1950), as well as Buñuel’s Nazarin (1959) and the forty-five-minute featurette The Exterminating Angel (1962); in addition to working with John Huston on The Night of the Iguana (1963) and twenty years later, on Huston’s Under the Volcano (1983). . . .
As he told Elena Feder in 1996, ‘It was with Fernández that I really began to develop my own style. He allowed me to compose a scene anyway I wanted. He would describe the set-up initially, explain what he wanted to convey, and then say something like, “There, now set up the lights and put the camera wherever you wish.” So I would place the camera, choose the angle, and illuminate a scene, always looking for the desired effect. From the very beginning, when we shot the opening scene of María Candelaria, where she holds the piglet in her arms, Fernández told me to place the camera wherever I wanted. He couldn’t believe his eyes when he saw the rushes; they went beyond his wildest imagination. Since that point I had complete freedom to continue developing my own style.’”
On the Museo del Barrio’s website, the museum notes that “from the early 1930s through the early 1980s, the Mexican cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa helped forge an evocative and enduring image of Mexico. Among the most important cinematographers of the Golden Age of Mexican Cinema, Figueroa worked with leading directors from Mexico, the United States and Europe, traversing a wide range of genres while maintaining his distinctive and vivid visual style.
In the 1930s, Figueroa was part of a vibrant community of artists in many media, including Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Edward Weston and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, who sought to convey the country’s transformation following the trauma of the Mexican Revolution. Later, he adapted his approach to the very different sensibilities of directors Luis Buñuel and John Huston, among others. Figueroa spoke of creating una imágen mexicana, a Mexican image. His films are an essential part of the network of appropriations, exchanges and reinterpretations that formed Mexican visual identity and visual culture in the mid-twentieth century and beyond.
The exhibition features film clips, paintings by Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Manuel Rodriguez Lozano and José Chavez Morado, photographs, prints, posters and documents, many of which are drawn from Figueroa’s archive, the Televisa Foundation collection, the collections of the Museo de la Estampa and the Museo Nacional in Mexico. In addition, the exhibition includes work by other artists and filmmakers from the period such as Luis Buñuel, Sergei Eisenstein, Edward Weston, and Tina Modotti that draw from the vast inventory of distinctly Mexican imagery associated with Figueroa’s cinematography or were heavily influenced by his vision.”