Susan Toomey Frost was researching the history of tile-making in San Antonio when she came across an image of a young woman in traditional folkloric dress in a Mexico doorway.
At first, she was mainly interested in the tile surrounding the door because that would help her figure out what kinds of tiles were being made in Mexico at the time and would help her distinguish whether tiles in San Antonio were made locally or imported.
But during her research, she began to acquire more images of Mexico, primarily on vintage postcards, and realized that she was drawn to the photographs not because of the tiles but because of "the inherent beauty of the subject matter."
And that's when she began to notice that the same photographer — Hugo Brehme — was responsible for nearly all of the images.
"Thus, a new obsession had begun," Frost writes. "I had to find out who Brehme was, and I had to collect more of his work."
By 2009, Frost had more than 1,900 Brehme items that she collected over 15 years.
That archive of images, which Frost donated to the Wittliff Collections at Texas State University in San Marcos in 2009, makes up the bulk of the new book "Timeless Mexico." The book is part of the Southwestern and Mexican Photography Series edited by Wittliff.
Brehme, a German, arrived in Mexico in 1906, only to leave two years later for Germany, where he married. He returned in 1908 and within a few years had established a studio in Mexico City.
Brehme considered photography an art — not a universally accepted notion at the time. And he saw his work in Mexico as celebrating that nation's "natural beauty, its indigenous heritage, and its pyramids and archaeological artifacts," Frost writes.
Brehme's work, however, seldom focused on the rich and powerful. Instead, he showed everyday people in everyday situations, typically including human figures in the compositions to give a sense of scale.
Most of the Brehme studio's photos were shot on black and white film, but Brehme and his assistants, including his son Arno, would sometimes hand-tint photos for large-format use.
Brehme's photographs proved highly popular and appeared in tourist guides, magazines and advertisements, eventually becoming iconic representations of Mexico.
Most of Brehme's postcards include real photos printed in either sepia tones or black and white, in either a glossy or matte finish. The postcards were numbered and identified by subject matter, but some of them were not signed.
Brehme also printed images in brown or gray on durable paper stock that were commercially mass-produced, unlike the real photo postcards that display a wide range of tones and finishes, Frost says.
The vintage cards in the Wittliff Collections range in date from about 1912 to 1951, but most do not bear postmarks, indicating that the buyers regarded the postcards as worthy of preservation.
Frost says the Brehme images are important partly because they helped reinforce a national identity for Mexico after the revolution of the 1920s and reconnected citizens to their roots. They also helped shape notions of Mexico for the rest of the world.
"We look at the world through the eyes of our image makers," Frost says, "and Brehme's prototypical images became what people, especially tourists, expected to see in Mexico, and thus what they saw when they visited."