Axel and Roslyn Poignant’s Double Image of Mexico City

8 minute read

But photographs are not bound by intention; their ambiguity ends them considerable narrative-making potential, and the passage of time brings other elements into play

Roslyn Poignant [1]

A Hidden Chapter: Mexico City, 1969

In 1969, anthropologist Roslyn Poignant and her husband, photographer Axel Poignant, embarked on a lengthy research project in the Pacific Islands. Roslyn (1927-2019) was an independent scholar now celebrated for her innovative work at the intersection between history and visual anthropology [2]. Axel (1906-1986) had a long photographic carrier in Australia, where he worked with Aboriginal people and developed his distinguished visual story-telling skills [3]. They met in Australia in 1950, married in 1953, and moved to London in 1956. As a couple, the Poignants collaborated on several projects, including the path-breaking children’s picture story Bush Walkabouts (1956). Their 1969 trip to the Pacific Islands was another common mission, where they collaborated with local communities to create new stories through the joint powers of photography and anthropology.

During their 1969 journey to the Pacific Islands, they took thousands of photographs and detailed records recently donated to MAA. Thanks to the museum’s work of cataloguing the Poignants’ photographic collection, I have been able to explore a hidden chapter of their 1969 trip across the Atlantic and into the Pacific: their visit to Mexico City. 

View of people walking in front of Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven in Zócalo, also known as Plaza de la Constitución, the main square in Mexico City. [

Figure 1. The Metropolitan Cathedral facing the Zócalo, a view from the Hotel Majestic’s terrace. (Roslyn’s notes: “3. Mexico. (colour) 35mm. 2. Cathedral.”). MAA T.152565.RPT.

During their journey in the Pacific Islands, Roslyn kept detailed diaries that accompanied Axel’s photographs. From Mexico City, however, there are only six pages of scattered information on places, objects, food, and some of Roslyn’s thoughts on the urban space, the people, and the local culture. The lack of extensive records suggests that their visit to Mexico was not part of their professional project but a personal travel choice, a quick stop on their way to the Pacific. It also means that we mostly rely on the images and what they say by themselves to revisit the Poignants’ encounter with the Mexican capital.

Why they stopped in Mexico remains a mystery–they never showed a connection to the region. Their photographs of Mexico City and the archaeological sites of Teotihuacán and Cuicuilco, however, are a window into the Poignants’ photographic practice and anthropological sensitivities at large. Also, the duality of their photographs holds a mirror to the contradictions of an anxious period in Mexican history.

In Mexico, as for the rest of their 1969 trip, the Poignants carried two film cameras, one loaded with colour transparencies and the other with black and white negatives. Colour transparencies are unique in several ways. They are known for their finer grain, higher resolution, and better sharpness. To achieve great results, however, transparencies require more precision than negatives, and thus, they might not suit demanding lighting conditions such as dark indoor spaces and moving subjects. Also, colour transparencies are (and have been) rarer and pricier than black and white negatives. All of this leads me to believe that the Poignants’ used their colour transparencies more selectively, and thus that their distinct use of colour and black and white reveals different ways of seeing.

A portrait of Roslyn Poignant wearing a red jumper and head scarf, sitting at a table with a red and white chequered tablecloth at the Majestic hotel in Mexico City.

Figure 2. Roslyn Poignant studying a map in the Hotel Majestic. (Roslyn’s notes: “3. Mexico. (colour) 35mm. 3. Majestic Hotel.”). MAA T.152566.RPT.

The Colour Transparencies

In Mexico City, the Poignants went straight into the historical heart of the city, which they photographed in colour. Several images suggest that they stayed in the Hotel Majestic, a traditional hotel facing the Plaza de la Constitution (Constitutional Plaza). In and around the Plaza, they photographed typical postcards: the ruins of the Templo Mayor (Main Temple) of Tenochtitlan, the Metropolitan Cathedral, and the National Government Palace. Roslyn’s notes on the transparencies’ cardboard mounts, however, show they quickly embraced local categories, like the colloquial, ‘Zócalo’, which she used to identify the Plaza. Throughout her annotations on colour transparencies, Roslyn registered the local context of the scenes, places, and objects depicted.

Axel Poignant's colour transparencies with captions identifying people and places depicted in the images.

Figure 3. Colour transparencies 3-1MX, 3-2MX, and 3-3MX on cardboard mounts, made in and around the Zócalo.

Roslyn’s attention to local expressions and symbols reflects her anthropological attention and hints at her and Axel’s urban navigation methods. Despite being on a tourist visit, their Mexican photographs show dedication to cultural meanings in various forms and temporalities.

Beyond the Zócalo, the Poignants dedicated their photographic attention to a series of modernist buildings and monuments spread across the capital and essential to local discourses of the nation. Their colourful portrait of Mexican modernism shows the Poignants’ interest in concrete expressions of Mexicaness as a new, attractive, cultural form derived from the mixture of indigenous and European cultures. Their attentiveness to the discursive and material construction of the nation is best exemplified by their visit to murals at the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM). The monumental murals showed a unique monumental expression of mestizaje as a future-making identity.

Juan O'Gorman's mural at UNAM Central Library in Mexico City.

Figure 4. UNAM’s Central Library, mural by Juan O’Gorman (built in 1956). (Roslyn’s notes: “9. Mexico. (colour 35mm). 4. North side Library building, uses ancient Mexican symbolism. Artist: Juan O’Gorman.”). MAA T.152674.RPT.

In the UNAM, Axel photographed the murals from several angles, and Roslyn took detailed notes of their meanings, perhaps given by a local guide or acquaintance. For instance, on the cardboard mount of the colour transparency number 8-33MX, Roslyn took note of the materials that composed the mural, ‘mosaic’, its location, ‘[Faculty of] Medicine’, the symbolism of the image, ‘mask with 3 faces – Spanish father – Mother is Indian [and] mestizos in [the] middle’, and the author of the mural, ‘Francisco Eppens Helguera’.

Similar annotations are found in most cardboards, all written down by Roslyn after developing the film days or weeks after shooting the images. Her detailed notes suggests that Roslyn took notes in situ, while Axel shot with the camera, which shows their analytic concern for detail and meaning. I think it is fair to say that the photographs are the result of their shared sight. I imagine Roslyn pointing Axel’s camera, choosing the scenes worthy of attention.

Axel Poignant's colour transparencies with detailed inscriptions on the places depicted in the image.

Figure 5. Colour transparencies 8-33MX and 8-34MX on cardboard mount with Roslyn’s notes, the photographs show Francisco Eppens Helguera’s mural in the Faculty of Medicine in UNAM.

The Poignants photographed the murals in colour, which makes sense because they are so colourful. However, they also used colour transparencies to capture other modernist buildings. Mexican modernism, it seems, had a bright spell on them; their colour images capture the grandiloquence that these spaces held in the national discourse. These pictures share an aesthetic that meshes modern design with a cultural expressiveness showcased by idiosyncratic details and murals.

The places they captured, the Olympic stadium and villas, the sculptures of the Route of Friendship, the Insurgentes Theatre, the chapel of Santa Cruz del Pedregal, and the National Museum of Anthropology, all remain symbols of a–now fallen–utopian Mexican modernity. The car, of course, was also part of this utopian landscape.

Diego Rivera's mural on Teatro Insurgent.

Figure 6. Teatro Insurgentes (built in 1952), mural by Diego Rivera. (Roslyn’s notes: “9. Mexico. (colour 35mm). 15. Insurgentes Theatre with Diego Rivera murals. M. C. [Mexico City].”). MAA T.152685.RPT.

Santa Cruz del Pedregal in Mexico City.

Figure 7. Santa Cruz del Pedregal (built in 1956). (Roslyn’s notes: “9. Mexico. (colour 35mm). 13. Modern church – Pedragal [sic ‘Pedregal’] Garden Suburb. M. C. [Mexico City].”). MAA T.152683.RPT.

A woman in a bright red and pink dress stands on the entrance to the Museo Nacional de Antropología in Mexico City.

Figure 8. The entrance to the Museo Nacional de Antropología (opened in 1964). (Roslyn’s notes: “3. Mexico. (colour) 35mm. 25. Ext. of museum.”). MAA T.152587.RPT.

Four cars stand parked on the entrance to the Olympic Stadium in Mexico City.

Figure 9. Olympic Stadium built for the 1968 games. (Roslyn’s notes: “8. Mexico. (colour). 27. Olympic Stadium. Mexico City.”). MAA T.152661.RPT.

The Poignants’ colour photographs result from a tremendous anthropological encounter between Mexican anthropological knowledge–which gave form and content to Mexican modernism–and the Poignants’ persistent anthropological sight. When the Poignants visited Mexico City, Mexican anthropology, as a discipline, was at the height of its powers. As Claudio Lomnitz notes, intellectuals, artists, and public institutions relied on anthropological knowledge to engage with and represent the nation. The Poignants’ colour images evoke that moment of–a now dissipated–anthropological power. Their photographs witness how Mexican modernism evoked the grandiosity of the Pyramids of Teotihuacán, attempting to merge the past with the future.

As monumental as some of their photographs are, the Poignants’ visited Mexico during a grim period. The 1968 Olympic games had succeeded, but they happened in the aftermath of the Tlatelolco massacre, when the Mexican Armed Forces opened fire on a group of unarmed civilians in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas, killing over 300. The Tlatelolco massacre marked the end of an era; the coherent and monumental image of Mexicaness–led by the single-party regime–started to crack.

The Plaza de las Tres Culturas is a material and symbolic meeting point between the ruins of a Mexica settlement, a colonial church, and a modernist housing estate. The Poignants did not photograph the Plaza de la Tres Cultures, and perhaps they did not visit it. However, their colour transparencies are not disconnected from this unsettled period. The photographs have a rigid quality to them as if capturing something that–despite being monumental–is increasingly out of time.

From a historical perspective, the modernist scenes resemble archaeological sites, caged in their materiality. This impression is reinforced by the similarities between the Poignants’ photographs of modernist buildings and those of the archaeological sites of Teotihuacán and Cuicuilco–which make the mayoralty of the colour transparencies. In both cases, Axel paid attention to the built environment and consistently framed people out of the image. Similarly, Roslyn’s annotations about the Teotihuacán temples and frescos show the same interest in detail and meaning she dedicated to the murals at the UNAM.

Roslyn’s notes, however, show nuance. See, for instance, her annotations on a deity’s sculpture in Teotihuacán: ‘Tlaloc (or some say corn goddess) [and] feathered serpent Quetzalcoatl’ (my emphasis). Roslyn’s attention to the disputed meaning of a particular archaeological sculpture shows her care for preserving an open-ended view, one that the fixed image can often foreclose.

Axel Poignant's colour transparencies with detailed inscriptions.

Figure 10. Colour transparency 8-26MX on a cardboard mount with Roslyn’s notes, made in Teotihuacán.

The Poignants’ colour transparencies of the cities of Mexico and Teotihuacán highlight the overlapping layers of the city as a mutable being and as a monument. They throw into relief the double potential of photography to open and fix meaning.

People and cars pass a bridge built on the ruins of the Templo Mayor below Argentina Street in Mexico City.

Figure 11. The ruins of the Templo Mayor below Argentina Street. (Roslyn’s notes: “3. Mexico. (colour) 35mm. 7. Ruins of Aztec site. Argentina Street.”). MAA T.152570.RPT.

The Black and White Negatives     

Axel photographed in colour and black and white simultaneously. The black and white negatives, however, show a different image of the city. As they walked the streets of Mexico City, the Poignants used their black and white roll to capture fleeting urban moments: food markets, street sellers, children playing, and couples in parks. It looks as if they were more intuitive in black and white, as if control of their sight swung from their arithmetic hemisphere towards the right one, the creative one, and thus moved faster, closer to the rhythm of the senses.

Perhaps their black and white rolls were on a lighter, more agile camera, or maybe they just had more of them and could use them more freely. Anyway, it seems they saw and experienced the city differently in black and white; not only do Axel’s images capture more spontaneous moments, but Roslyn’s annotations on the back of the contact sheets are short and general–simply pointing to the location where several were made. Instead of recording a precise meaning, the black and white street images capture more fragile moments.

The way in which Axel framed people into the black and white picture reflects the humanist approach that won him recognition for his photographs of Aboriginal people in Australia [4]. His everyday life portraits presented a new form of anthropological representation framed by the chance encounter between the subject and a less authoritative camera. As Roslyn said about Axel’s photograph, Jack Michael and his family, ‘The directness and intimacy of the family portrait quite outweigh any element of social comment’ [5].

An Australian man and his wife pose with their children.

Figure 12. Jack Michael and his family, Pingelly, Western Australia, ca. 1938 [picture] / Axel Poignant. Image credit: National Library of Australia.

Axel’s black and white photographs in Mexico City show his search for connection, or, like Roslyn says, ‘collusion’ [6], with the everyday. Black and white is usually associated with depictions of the past. However, while the black and white pictures seem remote in time, they are closer in their feeling for urban life and cultural dynamism. The diversity of people and the creativity of the frames suggest a genuine concern for the human scale without any typological or aesthetical romanticisation.

On print reverse for duplicate image P.163155.RPT: "Ave Hidalgo." [Poignant's manuscript] View down Avenue Hidalgo in Mexico City. People are walking along the pavement and crossing the road. A man and a woman are standing close to the camera, waiting to cross.

Figure 13. Roslyn’s notes: ‘Ave Hidalgo’. MAA N.163174.RPT.

View of people walking in front of Metropolitan Cathedral of the Assumption of the Most Blessed Virgin Mary into Heaven in Zócalo, also known as Plaza de la Constitución, the main square in Mexico City.

Figure 14. Roslyn’s notes: ‘Cathedral Zocolo [sic “Zócalo”]’. MAA N.163187.RPT.

Portrait of a woman and a man embracing on a bench in Alameda Park in Mexico City. Another man is sitting on the next bench and other people are walking through the park.

Figure 15. Without note. MAA N.163181.RPT.

Three women and a young girl standing on a pavement beside trees, possibly in front of the National Museum of Anthropology?. One of the women is holding a camera.

Figure 16. Roslyn’s notes: ‘Entrance to M. [Museum] of anthropology’. MAA N.163147.RPT.

Two women standing on either side of a vegetable stall at a Market in Mexico City. One of the women is handing a bunch of radishes to the other.

Figure 17. Roslyn’s notes: ‘Mexico City market’. MAA N.163132.RPT.

Portrait of a man wearing a white hat leaning on the counter of possibly a butcher's? stall at a market in Mexico City.

Figure 18. Roslyn’s notes: ‘Mexico City market’. MAA N.163140.RPT.

Five people on a pavement in Mexico City. One man is sitting on the edge of a planter holding a bunch of flowers. A girl wearing boots and a dress and carrying a small handbag is gesticulating with open arms.

Figure 19. Without note. MAA N.163141.RPT.

Six boys playing on a pavement in Mexico City. Four of the boys are crouching down in a circle.

Figure 20. Without note. MAA N.163142.RPT.

Besides their empathetic monotone cityscapes, the Poignants also used their black and white film for cataloguing purposes. Their black and white photographs within the National Anthropology Museum and Teotihuacán show concern for reproducing objects and landscapes adequately. In these cases, Axel took two or more pictures of the same motive, a common photographic practice to ensure correct film exposure.

Two images of two carved stones statues of Cōātlīcue, Aztec deity associated with the birth of the sun, moon, and stars in the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City.

Figures 21 and 22. Roslyn’s notes: ‘Goddess Fertility & Death Coatlicue’. Left: MAA N.163224.RPT. Right: MAA N.163223.RPT.

Even the striking landscapes of Teotihuacán, where the pyramids blur with the mountain range, seem part of a cataloguing effort–much as the colour images of Mexican modernism. In these cases, the Poignants used black and white and colour film in a similar fashion. While the black and white images of museum objects and Teotihuacán landscapes are not as bright as the colour transparencies of the UNAM murals, they nevertheless create a corresponding effect: a monumentalization of culture.

Two views of Quetzalcoatl's Temple.

Figures 23 and 24. Roslyn’s notes: ‘Quetzalcoatl’s Temple. within the citadel mound the plumed serpent Tlaloc the rain god’. Left: MAA N.163285.RPT. Right: MAA N.163286.RPT.

The Double Image

Swinging between hemispheres, the Poignants’ photographs in Mexico show their diverse ways of seeing, from their nuanced attention to detail and monumentality, to their sensitive lens for everyday life. Their Mexico City series conforms to a contradictory anthropological representation of an era. Together, black and white negatives and colour transparencies draw two images: the image of a living city and the image of an archaeological culture. These images capture a sense of irresolution, of belonging neither to the past nor to the future, that is tangled up at the heart of Mexicaness to this day. Therein lies, I believe, the nostalgic nature of the Poignants’ double image of Mexico City in 1969, which also stands as evidence of the depth of their collective work.


[1] Poignant, Roslyn. ‘The Photographic Witness?’ Continuum 6, no. 2 (January 1993): 178–206.

[2] Edwards, Elizabeth. ‘Roslyn Poignant 1927–2019’. Anthropology Today 36, no. 2 (2020): 21–22.

[3] Poignant, Roslyn. ‘Poignant, Axel’. In The Oxford Companion to the Photograph. Oxford University Press, 2005.

[4] ‘The Photographic Witness?’, op. cit.

[5] Ibid., p. 194.

[6] Ibidem.


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