Found Photographs Give Rare Glimpse of Daily Life in 1930s Mexico — Opened February 4th!

The Santa Paula Art Museum’s latest offering is an exciting whodunit detective story-turned-exhibition entitled The 1936 Mexican Snapshot Mystery. Over 900 vintage photographs – captured by three different photographers while on a 1936 trip through central Mexico – were recently discovered in an estate in Santa Paula, California. The journey to discover the truth behind these historic snapshots forms the basis for the upcoming exhibit, and museum visitors will be invited to play the role of detective alongside the show’s curators. 

The snapshots – most of which have never been seen before – were commissioned in 1936 by Bess Adams Garner, director of the Padua Hills Playhouse in Claremont, California. She and several colleagues traveled to Mexico to collect inspiration for costumes and choreography for the “Mexican Players,” a popular performance troupe established at Padua Hills. Garner credited photographer Kenneth Forbes with capturing most of the images taken during their trip. Forbes was a Claremont citrus rancher and a photo-finish photographer at Santa Anita racetrack. While in Mexico, he also created 16mm documentary film footage of authentic dances, ceremonies, and everyday scenes. Forbes’ original films, on loan from The Pierson Family Archive at Claremont Heritage, will play alongside his still images.

All of the photographs in the exhibition come from the estate of industrialist and philanthropist Garfield Merner. Merner founded the Allied Arts Guild, a cooperative art space near Stanford University, in 1929. He was the second of three photographers to join Bess Garner’s 1936 Mexican tour. Many of Garfield’s photos are described and dated on the reverse, which will allow exhibit visitors to follow Merner’s travel itinerary exactly as he did. One riddle that remains to be solved is the identity of the third photographer included in the collection. It is a question that curators still hope to answer when they open the show to the viewing public.    

More than just a captivating mystery, The 1936 Mexican Snapshot Mystery is also an extraordinary depiction of everyday life in 1930s Mexico. Images of daily life in Mexico from that period are seldom found. Most contemporaneous photographs are professionally posed portraits of wealthy individuals. The snapshots in this exhibition, however, are incredibly candid and show honest portrayals of ordinary people and customs. The artistic black-and-white images will be accompanied by additional maps, illustrations, and decorative objects to help complete the collection’s story. Visitors can experience the mystery through June 11, 2017. 

Image credit: “Acapulco Boys Fishing” by Kenneth Forbes, 1936, photograph, Collection of John Nichols Gallery © John Nichols Gallery

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