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Vintage Photos

El Paso’s Beautiful People:

Photographer’s Art Saved from the Dustbin of History

The Casasola Collection of UT El Paso
puts the “Special” in Special Collections

El Paso Texas Casasola Gisela Gonzalez Barney 1935
Gisela Gonzalez Barney
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection
Famous Southern Cousins

If the name sounds familiar, it’s because Augustin Victor Casasola was to the Mexican Revolution(s) what Matthew Brady was to the U.S. Civil War. Casasola was a newspaper reporter before he ‘developed’ an interest in photography. He can easily claim the title of Mexico’s first photojournalist.

With his brother Miguel, the two set up Mexico’s first-of-its-kind photo agency, where they could dispatch photographers across the country to record whichever revolution, current event or disaster was currently in progress.

Editor’s Note:
In rare motion-picture footage of a triumphant Pancho Villa riding into Mexico City, Augustin Casasola can be seen setting up his tripod and view camera and then shouldering both for a sprint down the street, barely avoiding being trampled by Villa’s horse. He photographed both Villa (who never met a camera he didn’t like) and the camera-shy Emiliano Zapata. The famous shot of the two men laughing together in the presidental palace was a Casasola print). Even after Villa and Zapata were assassinated (separately and years apart) it was Casasola or staffers who photographed the bullet-riddled corpses. To this day, heirs of the Casasola Brothers operate a business in downtown Mexico City, making prints from original glass-plate negatives.

After things settled down, and before the brothers started socializing with fellow photographer, Tina Modotti, muralist Diego Rivera, self-portraitist Frieda Kahlo, and other Mexico City artists, the Brothers Casasola helped their cousin Alfonso establish a photography business on “the other side” in El Paso, Texas in 1921. It is the quiet studio work of their cousin, Alfonso Casasola, that is featured here.
Alfonso Casasola

The Photographer Photographed
Alfonso Casasola

Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection

Alfonso Casasola and his Studio

Alfonso Casasola’s studio occupied a downtown building in the 500 block of S. El Paso Street; a stone’s throw from the International Bridge and right next door to the Colon Theater. Citizens of Juarez, El Pasoans, soldiers from Fort Bliss, visiting Mexican entertainers and even Border Patrol agents wanting a photo to send back home to Wisconsin or New Hampshire, dropped into Alfonso’s studio to have “the moments of their lives” recorded for posterity.

And so it went for decades. The pleasant, smock-wearing photographer sharing the simple joys and triumphs of people who wanted to be seen in their wedding best, their graduation robes, or (for soldiers) hard-won chevrons.

After Alfonso's in 1946, Miguel’s wife, Emma Flores, kept the studio operating until the doors finally closed in 1992. Snapshots and cheap cameras were muscling their way to the front of the line, pushing aside the maestro and his camera. Times had changed forever, but seventy-one years remains a remarkable run for a family business.

Back to 1992
In 1992 while the building at S. El Paso Street was undergoing restoration, workmen discovered thousands of negatives packed into cardboard boxes. Someone had the good sense to recognize the historical value of these discards and calls were made. The trove eventually found a home in the C. L. Sonnichsen Collection of the University of Texas at El Paso where they are currently being processed as time and funding permits. Out of an estimated total of 50,000 negatives, less than 3,000 have been processed to date (2007).
Mabel Moody - El Paso Texas Casasola

Mabel Moody
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection

These 3,000 are displayed on the University’s website. The first link will take you to the list of collections, while the following will take you to the Casasola database.

Braceros, Babies, Beauties and Border Agents

The photos are shown as thumbnails which can be enlarged and are categorized into categories of Ladies, Children, Groups, Soldiers, Weddings and “Braceros and Passaportes.”

This last photo category was not a vanity purchase, but one of necessity. Mexican workers (Braceros in Spanish - “Arms” in English) during WWII and through the fifties needed photos to accompany work documents. In some of these shots, total strangers would pair up to be photographed together (on separate sides of a single bench) to save the cost of separate photographs.
El Paso Texas Casasola Unidentified Child

Unidentified Child
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection

El Paso Texas Casasola Unidentified Woman

Unidentified Woman
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection

El Paso Texas Casasola Unidentified Woman
Unidentified Woman
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection
El Paso Texas Casasola Unidentified Woman
Unidentified Woman
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection
El Paso Texas Casasola Unidentified Woman
Unidentified Woman
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection
El Paso Texas Casasola Unidentified Woman
Unidentified Woman
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection
El Paso TX Casasola - Lt Bravo Francis Candelaria Martinez Capt Tobias Martinez 1942

Soldiers of the Salvation Army
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection

El Paso Texas Casasola Unidentified  Soldier
Unidentified Soldier
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection
El Paso Texas Casasola Unidentified  Soldier

Ist Cavalry PFC
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection

El Paso Texas Casasola - Border Patrol Agent

Border Patrol Agent
Courtesy UT El Paso, Casasola Collection

Today newspapers in both El Paso and Ciudad Juarez regularly publish photos from the collection in hopes of making connections. To date there have been something like sixty reunions of subject and photo – a recent match being a female septuagenarian who had once been photographed as a seven year-old girl.

Alfonso may have known how to operate a camera, but his services went beyond simple mechanics. He obviously was a patient man, for not a single child is shown with so much as a frown, let alone tears. (Of the negatives developed so far, that is). AC also managed to coax smiles from the soldiers. One stern-looking corporal had to be photographed twice.

For the women and children, Alfonso pulled out all the stops. In some cases extra lighting was added that would create artistic profile silhouettes. After-the-fact hand-tinting would restore a subject’s lost vitality and youth. Hand tinting turned everyday children (who had vitality and youth) into cherubim. It will probably never be known if the tiaras that some women wore were brought to the studio or provided by Mr. Casasola.

The final touch (when needed) was a clever manipulation of emulsion on the plate, where impossibly long eyelashes could be added without subjecting the woman to either pain or adhesive. Although it sounds like the results of this trick would appear tawdry, the finished product reveals improvement and, we might add, wise restraint on the part of Mr. Casasola or Emma.

While the men had rather no-nonsense poses, the women (perhaps under the direction of Alfonso) tended to favor hands prominently displayed which makes them look as if they are about to go to sleep, enduring a toothache or perhaps supporting a broken jaw.

The collection is a fascinating look back at a time before celebrity-worship when everyday people felt an obligation to provide glamour, beauty and dignity to the general public - with a little help from a talented enabler named Alfonso Casasola.

They Shoe Horses, Don't They? June 5, 2008 Column

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