A THOUSAND WORDS - Alex Waterhouse-Hayward's blog on pictures, plants, politics and whatever else is on his mind.


El Buen Tono
Monday, January 12, 2009

In 1964 I went to Valle de Bravo, a small town in the State of Mexico. I may have gone with my University of the Americas friends Roberto Hijar and Andrew Taylor. In those days when the 35mm film camera was king of the block we would go on photo expeditions. We didn't call them safaris yet. We would walk the streets with a couple of cameras hanging from our neck and shoot whatever moved or didn't. From the negatives (two here) I note that I was using that venerable Kodak 100 ISO film, Plus-X Panchromatic. To this day I still load my Nikons FM-2 with it and in 120 size with my Mamiya.

When I took this picture of the six white hatted men I felt like I was a painter and that they were posing for my brushes. The large sign painted on the wall, El Buen Tono , which can mean the good thing, a good tone (in sound) or even the right shade of colour, made my picture seem even better. I have always treasured it even though it is not quite as sharp as it should be. The men must have moved as this is the only exposure.

It wasn't until my Mexican friend Samuel Frid gave me, ten years ago, a book called Jefes, Héroes y Caudillos by the Mexican photographer Agustín Victor Casasola that I find out the true meaning of El Buen Tono. Casasola was the Matthew Brady of the Mexican Revolution. He, and photographers working for him, documented the revolution that brought down dictator Porfírio Díaz and ushered Mexico, through a blood bath, into the 20th century. In the book I found the photo (second from above) taken in August 1915 outside a railway station in Mexico City. On the left a sign reads Superiores Alfonso XIII El Buen Tono S.A. and on the right a sign reads Fumen Cigarros Mejores Superiores or Smoke Superior and Better cigarettes. The cigar and cigarette factory was founded by a Frenchman Ernesto Pugibet around 1884 and his company thrived even during the uncertainty of the Mexican Revolution. El Buen Tono was purchased by a larger Mexican tobacco company in 1962.

The third photograph is also one of my favourites from my era of street photography. I took it earlier in the day and I remember that the drink the woman was about to serve was agua de sandía or watered down watermelon. After taking the picture I got close to the boy and noticed that the coin in his hand was a 20 centavo piece.

El Buen Tono practiced the same shenanigans as other tobbacco companies around the world in making sure that they would always have new clients. It would seem that they also manufactured candy and chocolate cigarettes for children. Under the lovely smoking lady, it reads chocolates with fruit.


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