This article is from the July 2003 The Mexico File newsletter.
Back Issues and Subscriptions available.

Book Review : Not Just Another Coffee-Table Book About Oaxaca
reviewed by Stan Gotlieb and Diana Ricci

Oaxaca, The Spirit of Mexico

photos by Judith Cooper Haden with text by Matthew Jaffe, 2002, Artisan Press, $30.00 US. 

Judith Haden is a photographer with a great eye, a fine technical handle on her work, and her own website ( ) who recently produced yet another coffee‑table book about Oaxaca, one of several that have come out in the last few years. 

What makes this book special is Judith's connection with her subjects. There is an energy, a beauty, and a vibrant life‑affirming consciousness that comes through from the subject to the reader in a way that no amount of technique can account for. The result can be seen in haunting portraits of humble but powerful artisans and artists practicing their craft in much the same way as their parents and grandparents did, whose eyes are clear and amused and whose faces are lined and tranquil. Even the often elusive and sometimes reclusive Francisco Toledo posed for a picture, a coup in itself. 

Objects, ranging from walls to details from a woven basket, also seem to have a life of their own. Of her several photos of the Zócalo, a night scene showing the Alameda crowded with shoppers and stalls on Noche de Rábanos (Night of the Radishes, December 23), and another of the portales (sidewalk cafés) at dawn were Stan’s personal favorites. Her photo of the patio in the Alvarez Bravo photography gallery, a colonial building restored with funds that Maestro Francisco provided, should be hanging in a museum. 

One nice touch is her interest in the hands of the artisans she photographs. Two stand out in our memory: Rodolfo Morales’ hands at rest against his stomach; and the totally nimble fingers of a basket weaver who was well past 100 years of age. 

We were fortunate to have two brief moments with Judith while she was in Oaxaca.  While taking a cafecito together on the Zócalo, we exchanged views and information about Oaxaca and discovered that we see many things the same way. A few days later, we attended her slide‑show book presentation at Amate Bookstore, where we got to see a few of the hundreds of slides that did not make it into print, as well as many that did. Her comments on the pictures added to our enjoyment of the book, and made us wish that she had done more of the writing. 

We would recommend this book even if Judith were not a subscriber to our newsletter (there: full disclosure is good for the soul). If you wish to order it from Amazon, why not do it through our web site? You don't pay a penny more, and we get a cut. Just go to