The Casasola Studio Photographs: A collection that was almost lost

By on February 1, 2013

How do private collections come to be deposited at the UTEP Library’s Special Collections? Sometimes the route they take is mysterious and unexpected. An example is the large collection of negatives and prints known as the Casasola Studio Photographs.
Alfonso Casasola, a member of a famous family of Mexican photographers, came to El Paso in the 1920s after several years in the Mexican consular service. He established the Casasola Studio at 511 S. El Paso Street and was active in many civic organizations. He died on February 17, 1948 at the age of 59, but his wife, Emma Flores Casasola, continued the studio for many years.

Alfonso Casasola in his studio

When the former site of the Casasola Studio was being remodeled in the 1990s, workers found discarded boxes of negatives and prints in a closet. Ho Baron, an artist and trained librarian working at his family’s pawnshop, purchased the photographs. After holding the photos for a while and considering art projects that could have used the photographs, he decided that they could be handled better at a library, so he sold most of them to the University of Texas at El Paso.

At the University Library, the photos were cleaned and sorted by a graduate intern and staff members. The collection consists of about 50,000 negatives and several hundred prints, nearly all unidentified. Most of the photographs are portraits, but a few reflect Mr. Casasola’s work for El Continental, a Spanish-language newspaper, or copy work for customers who brought in old photos or important documents for duplication. Because the downtown studio was only blocks from the international bridge, the Casasola Studio also took many photos for identification cards and passports.

Urbici Soler, PH041-03-00190

Two examples of passport or ID photographs found in the collection are those of Catalan sculptor Urbici Soler, who taught for years at Texas College of Mines (now UTEP) and of Monsignor Lourdes Costa, the Smeltertown parish priest who envisioned the giant carving by Soler that tops Mount Cristo Rey.

Monsignor Lourdes Costa, PH041-03-00127

Even though some of the photographs were salvaged from the vacant building, not all did survive. Some of the negatives were recycled for their silver content during World War II, and some were already disintegrating when they were found decades later. Nitrate-based film was the norm when the Casasola Studio opened its doors. Unfortunately, nitrate cellulose base is very unstable and deteriorates rapidly in a warm environment. Nitrate film is also very flammable. Acetate-based film, known as “Safety” film because it was less flammable, replaced the nitrate negatives in the 1930s, but it was also subject to deterioration. Acetic acid (vinegar) would bubble up between the image layer and the base, making the pictures wrinkle and crack. Some of the pictures were so deteriorated that they could not be salvaged, but, with the help of a grant from the National Park Service’s “Save America’s Treasures” program, a grant-funded staff member, David Flores, has been able to flatten and scan some of the warped negatives.

Image from damaged acetate negative

The collection has been the subject of several newspaper articles and a collaborative project with the El Paso Times to try to identify the persons and places shown in the photographs. Each week the El Paso Times publishes one picture with the caption, “Do you know this person?” Since the project started in 2002, almost 400 of the photographs have been identified. Many of the identified photographs are available online at http://libraryweb.utep.edu/special/databases.php.

El Paso Times supplement about the Casasola Project

The UTEP Library has many of the Casasola photographs on display on the third-floor gallery. An opening reception for the temporary exhibit will be held on February 8, 2013, from 4:00 until 6:00. The reception will be free and open to the public. A photographer who worked for many years with Alfonso Casasola, José Andow, is expected to attend. Come and see if you recognize anyone in the pictures!

Claudia Rivers is the head of the C.L. Sonnichsen Special Collections Department of the UTEP Library. She earned both her BA and MLIS degrees at the University of Texas at Austin, and worked at the Benson Latin American Collection there before coming to El Paso in 1992. Her interests include the history of the Southwest and Mexico, ancient Meso-America, and detective fiction.