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Vol. 8, No. 1, 2009
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Robert J. Lewis
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Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


Alex Waterhouse-Hayward



Alex Waterhouse-Hayward is a distinguished Canadian photographer and regular contributor to Arts & Opinion. For more of Alex's photography, visit his website at:

© Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

I met Nicte-Ha only once sometime in 1954. I have no memory of what she looked like except that she was exotic. The jewelry I had made of Sterling silver and the seed in the middle is from the Mexican tree called the Colorín. I planted the tree in my front yard around 1972 and when it flowered I kept the seeds to make the jewelry which consists of this necklace, earings and a ring. The Mexican rebozo is from a collection I inherited from my mother.

Some concepts are so obvious that one does not give them much thought. It came to me only recently when I felt nostalgia for Mexico. In a flash I realized that my feeling had all to do with not being in Mexico and that Vancouver rain was making me feel blue. The reverse of this idea is what stifles me when I want to take photographs in Vancouver. I miss European cemeteries, Mexican baroque churches and the birds of the Argentine pampa. If I were living in Venice right now I would be looking for a beautiful Canadian woman at Piazza San Marco. I would try to convince her to pose for me undraped under my Vancouver Umbrella Shop umbrella.

© Alex Waterhouse-HaywardIt was around 1952 when I was living in Buenos Aires that my mother went on an exploratory trip to Mexico. She returned with magical stories of volcanoes, exotic fruits (mangoes), Aztec pyramids and of ancient churches. She brought with her a blood-red rebozo made of rough cotton that has been part of my life (and in many of my photographs) since. We moved.

In those early 1950s, Mexico was experiencing a golden age of cinema and art. Two Mexican muralists, David Alvaro Siqueiros and Diego Rivera, were still alive. My mother and her Mexican friends often went to parties or gave parties at home. That is how I met Rivera and Alma Reid, an American journalist who had been the inspiration for one of the loveliest of Mexican songs, “La Peregrina,” which was a love story based on her relationship with Yucatán governor Felipe Carrillo Puerto, who was assassinated a few days before their marriage. In one of those festive evenings I saw the ugly chubby man that was Diego Rivera. I was more interested in a beautiful woman in native clothing. Her name was Nicte-Ha who told everybody she was a Mayan princess. I was too young to appreciate or understand my good luck.

© Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

La Santa Muerte patron saint of Mexican drug traffickers. My nostalgia for this figure comes from my enjoyment of the novels and poetry books of Mexican writer Homero Aridjis.

© Alex Waterhouse-HaywardIn those years I rejected anything that was Mexican, especially those “terrible” Mexican movies based on the wonderful stories of the mysterious B. Traven. But I enjoyed the rumours that Mexican actress María Felix (reputed to have had affairs with both Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and with Mexican president Miguel Alemán) would go to Paris (some said Switzerland) and would sleep for a month in a secret treatment that made her look young again. It was around 1960 that my mother took me to see Oscar Wilde’s Lady Windermere’s Fan in a Mexican stage production in Spanish that featured the beautiful Dolores del Río. The performance went over my head and all that remained in my memory was her wonderful voice.

It was in Mexico that I learned to take photographs. It was at the University of the Americas in 1964 that I obtained a first prize in photography. At the time, I didn’t realize that the judge who had signed my diploma was noted Mexican painter Rufino Tamayo.

In 1968 I married my Canadian wife Rosemary (New Dublin, Ontario) and by 1975 we decided that we and our two Mexican born daughters had had enough of Mexico: its uncertainty and failing economy, corrupt politicians and policeman. The ever present smog prevented us from seeing those two volcanoes, Ixtacciuatl and Popocatepetl that had so charmed my mother. I lusted after chocolate that did not contain cinnamon, 12 issues of the National Geographic (either pilfered or lost by the Mexican postal system), fresh air, clean water and a steady 110 voltage.

© Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

There are a few accepted spellings for this famous Mexican volcano, Ixtaccihuatl, known as la mujer dormida or the sleeping woman. This volcano and her mate Popocatepetl are seen sometimes in Mexico on those rare clear days.

While I now receive my 12 issues of the Geographic, and we have good electricity, relatively fresh air and clean water in Vancouver, I have come to realize that our politicians are not really all that better and that our police force is not squeaky clean. I now long for Mexican chocolate bars with luscious cinnamon, hand made tortillas, and houses and churches that are older than 100 years.

I miss Mexico’s two changing seasons. During the rains the mountains are green. In the dry season they become rich ocher and brown. But most of all I miss the heat, the smells and a sense that when one walks the streets of Mexico City or in the countryside, that one is passing through invisible ghosts -- Aztecs, Mayans, Olmecs, Spanish conquistadors, Zapatista soldiers; and in the port city of Veracruz I often imagined the ghost of a young captain, Robert E. Lee, who had landed there and master-planned the siege of the city in 1847 in the Mexican-American War.

In the early 1960s I lived on Tamaulipas Street in Mexico City. I did not know then that the house where American photographer Edward Weston had lived in the 1920s was a block away. It was on the azotea (roof) of that house, under a hot Mexican sun, that Weston had often photographed Tina Modotti in the nude . She became a photographer in her own right. When she was expelled in 1930 for her leftist leanings, she gave her 4 x 5 camera (a gift from Weston) to a young Manuel Álvarez Bravo (1902-2002). It was in 1986 that Bravo took what I believe is the most wonderfully erotic photograph I have ever seen – a shot suffused with the heat and dramatic light of Mexico. I can smell the land when I’m in the presence of this photograph. I can imagine the proud face of the woman even if it is not part of the photograph. Until his death, Bravo’s daily routine began with breakfast (coffee and bread) and then going to his studio to photograph a female nude.

© Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

This is my version of Manuel Alvarez Bravo's photograph. Since I didn't have a hot Mexican sun I had to make do with my fake projected clouds and the use of a spotlight to imitate the sun. It was exciting to try to get into Bravo's head and determine where he had placed his camera.

When I met Ivette Hernanez (she works as a construction worker in Vancouver) some 6 months ago and found out she was from the city of León in Guanajuato (Mexico), I immediately told her of my project to project on her my visions of Mexican nostalgia that would transform her into a Mayan princess, La Malinche or as the Spaniards called the woman who translated for Hernan Cortés, Doña Marina, la Santa Muerte (the patron saint of drug traffickers), a Mexican cook with a device, a molinillo, to froth up Mexican chocolate, the volcano Ixtaccihuatl (the sleeping woman), María Felix asleep in Paris, Dolores de Río as Lady Windermere and even a Dolores del Río as the Mexican woman in the John Ford film “The Fugitive” with Henry Fonda and Pedro Armendáriz.

© Alex Waterhouse-HaywardAs for the picture of Hernandez dressed in my Puerto de Liverpool (sort of a Mexican Eaton’s) suit at a Remington typewriter (my grandmother bought it in New York City around 1930), it represents a more obscure Mexican nostalgia. Sometime in the beginning of the 1970s we received a huge electric bill from the Mexican power company. It was obviously a mistake. We went to downtown Mexico City and under the portales (covered arched sidewalks) we found an evangelista. Evangelistas (always men) compose letters for those who cannot read or write. They write wonderful love letters if you’re not a Cyrano but best of all they master bureaucratic Spanish. This is what we needed to get our money back. And we did.

I have attempted to satisfy some of my nostalgia for Mexico by going to Mexico. With my wife Rosemary we have taken our granddaughter Rebecca, 11-years-old, to Guanajuato, Morelia and most recently Mérida in Yucatán. Perhaps some day she will feel a nostalgia for Chichen-Itzá, the humid heat of Mérida and might even become curious to find out about Frida Kahlo, who is on the wall of that Mérida restaurant when I photographed her in 2007.

As for Ivette Hernandez, she has a face and way about her that with very few props she becomes my nostalgia for Mexico in flesh and blood.

© Alex Waterhouse-Hayward

This picture mimics a photograph that Edward took of Tina Modotti on the roof of his house/studio. My version is on the roof of my downtown studio.
Photo Essays of Waterhouse-Hayward that have appeared in Arts & Opinion:
Live Art/Acto Vivo
Wonderful Tubs
The Photographer's Model
Boot Camp
One-Armed, Double-Breasted Pam
In the Company of Argentines
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