Born in Mexico City in 1906, Manuel Carrillo photographed Mexican culture from 1950 until his death in 1989. His street photography of campesinos, indios and mestizo men, women and children chronicles Mexico’s essential character as captured through his uniquely aesthetic eye—an eye with profound sensitivity—presenting a Mexico decidedly different, for example, from the work of Manuel Alvarez Bravo and the 26-year-old Magnum photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson. On the other hand, Manuel Carrillo’s Mexican portfolio is somewhat akin to and complements Paul Strand’s portraits in his visual archive of Mexico from 1932 to 1934, Photographs of Mexico (1940).

Manuel’s photographs are of rural Mexico as seen in that 20th-century window before globalization. He photographed the period when the peasants still wore traditional dress. Men wore huarache sandals, made from worn-out recycled rubber tires with leather straps, for footwear rather than plastic flip-flops or tennis shoes. Women were never seen without a rebozo, a shawl used as a wrap for the cold or shade from the sun and to carry babies or large, cumbersome and unwieldy bundles. Manuel’s adult subjects are proud and strong; his children are happy, inquisitive and optimistic; and his animals, more often dogs, are central to rural family life. In contrast, his photographic eye also captures the disconsolation and despair—the pathos—central to the character of these peoples. His images are a social documentary of Mexico’s marginalized impoverished rural farming, ranching and fishing communities just after the mid–20th century.

Manuel photographed his subjects with a Rolleiflex-film camera, which is a medium-format camera; thus, his black-and-white images are rich in detail. He did his own printing and was secretive about the location of his authentic Mexican shooting venues. It was only after the University of Texas at El Paso acquired the Carrillo archives in 1984 that the locations were revealed. It turns out that he photographed throughout Mexico, from Veracruz on the Gulf of Mexico to Guanajuato in the interior, as well as in his very favorite and magnificent spot on the Mexican Pacific coast, Zihuatanejo.

As a young man of 16 and speaking no English, Manuel moved to and found work in New York City. Eight years later, in 1930, he returned to Mexico, where with his proficiency in English he took employment in administrative positions with railroad companies and in tourism. At the age of 49 he married Consuelo Cadena, and for the first time he began taking photographs. He also joined the Club Fotografico de Mexico. With the help of friend and contemporary Frank Christopher, a photographer and collector, and Arnold Gilbert of the Gilbert Gallery in Chicago, his photographic career was launched. He had his first international exhibition, titled Mi Pueblo (“My People”), at the Chicago Public Library in 1960. The only monograph of his work, Manuel Carrillo: fotografias de México, was published in 1987. Manuel Carrillo’s work has been seen on four continents in 209 individual exhibitions and in 27 group exhibits. He died in Mexico City in 1989 at the age of 83.

Manuel Carrillo’s work is in the following collections: San Antonio Museum of Art; Museum of Fine Arts, Houston; Minneapolis Institute of Arts; Art Institute of Chicago; Smart Museum of Art, University of Chicago; Princeton University Art Museum; Rockford Art Museum, Rockford, IL; Museum of Art, New Orleans; San Francisco Museum of Art; Los Angeles County Museum; New York Public Library; Museum of Contemporary Photography, Columbia College, Chicago; National Museum of Modern Art, Kyoto, Japan; Center for Creative Photography, University of Arizona, Tucson; Boca Raton Museum of Art, FL; and the Carrillo Collection at the University of Texas at El Paso.