Known as the “Beatnik Photographer,” Earl Leaf is known for his iconic candid photos of Hollywood stars, but he also captured some thoughtful, serene street scenes in Mérida at a fascinating, but often overlooked time in its history.
But before we say more about Mérida, here is a little backstory.
After starting his career in the 1930s, the goateed lensman aimed his camera more typically at nightclub denizens and glamorous locations. Leaf was also a keen documentarian, focusing often on everyday street life in New York, Los Angeles and other colorful cities. He was among the 20th century’s leading documentarian photographers, capturing small moments from everyday life.
In 1951, his portfolio started to fill with Hollywood stars: Gregory Peck, Kirk Douglas, and lots of blonde bombshells, most notably an ascendent Marilyn Monroe. In January 1952, Marilyn won a “Star of Tomorrow” award, and Earl Leaf was there.
Also that year, he toured Mexico, starting with capital, where he took candid photos of young people shopping, dining and otherwise painting the town red.
Eventually, after stops that included Cuernavaca and Tequesquitengo (the Getty archives include hundreds of photos of this tour), he headed south to Yucatán. He took some scenic, naturalistic shots at a then-sleepy Chichén Itzá and Uxmal.
Then, Leaf spent a day — Tuesday, April 1 to be exact — capturing languid mid-century Mérida. The sisal boom over at least 25 years, Leaf shows us a dignified, if downcast Mérida, in contrast with his pictures of Mexico City, Havana and Rio’s high life. A hint of modernity comes through. A modernist photographer has captured Mérida entering the Atomic age.
Leaf didn’t find glamour and night life. No sports cars, but plenty of horses and buggies trailing slowly down the streets.
He depicted a serene Plaza Grande and conservatively attired citizens going about their day.
He encountered quiet streets lacking flashing lights and chic storefronts.
Even the marketplace appears sleepy in Leaf’s small sampling of Mérida in 1952.
It’s hard to know what Leaf’s impressions of Mérida really were, but the few images he leaves us capture a sober, peaceful city in repose.
We are left with a paparazzo’s impression of Mérida in a period that follows the reign of the hennequin barons, but is well before the arrival of chain stores, high-rises and new arrivals from other states and other countries.
Leaf died in 1980 at the age of 75, never having become a household name, but most of his work mirrors his generation’s approach to unfiltered photojournalism and foreshadows today’s voyeuristic Hollywood culture.
Read more about Leaf’s career from the Getty archivist, and more here, excerpted from ‘Marilyn Monroe: From Beginning to End’ by Micheal Ventura.