Mexican Photography Now
Words: Richard Pitnick
There are 22 million people living in Mexico City, a metropolis of dreams, myths and metaphors through whose streets flow an endless stream of imagery and symbols. It is the graphic images encountered throughout the streets of the city — the garish tabloids with their photos of violence and sexuality; the T-shirts, advertisements and posters adorned with pictures of Mexican wrestlers, history’s martyrs and incarnations of death; the graffiti gracing the walls of the city, rich in symbols of revolution, faith and hope and new messages for the future — that help the inhabitants of Mexico’s capital navigate through the pall of suffocating anonymity that inflicts any large and overcrowded city, to find connection and meaning.
“Mexico is so intense, so constantly changing and evolving, that trying to understand the world outside and how to belong to it is very complex,” explains photography dealer Patricia Conde, who owns and operates the only gallery in Mexico City specializing exclusively in contemporary fine art and documentary photography.
“As residents of Mexico City we have so much to say, and so many stories to tell that speak to a knowledge and understanding that comes from our souls and is expressed through the rituals, colors, habits and patterns of behavior that are central to Mexican culture. Documentary photography offers a fascinating way of understanding and telling these stories, and creating new identities.”
In a country where history and time are compressed, where symbols, dreams and myths are united as one, documentary photography, by nature and circumstance, is inherently concerned with poetry and the imagination.
“I think Mexico is a country with great strength, and this is reflected in our photography and our way of looking,” says Patricia Aridjis, whose photographic studies chronicling the struggles of women engage the broader issues confronting most individuals in Mexican society.
“Currently, there are many photographers with very diverse styles or ways of looking at our own culture. Contemporary and classic, young and old. Mexican photography is special because there are very unique issues in our country. I think we have a very good standard, as good as anywhere in the world.”
Building upon the traditions of all the graphic arts in their country, Mexican photographers are mining their own experiences in both autobiographical and socially topical ways, recontextualizing historic images and symbols found throughout the city in ways that find new meanings and relevance in the rich visual legacy of Mexican culture.
“I think documentary photography remains such a strong element among Mexican photographers because of the contradictions of our society and our political system, and the huge inequalities and our need to tell our stories to understand the roots of our conflict,” explains Francisco Mata Rosas, an accomplished Mexico City-based photojournalist and documentarian who has chronicled the social complexities of life in urban Mexico for several decades.
But to fully come to terms with where Mexican photographers are taking the medium, one must first look to the past. Specifically, to a December morning in 1531, when legend has it that a poor Aztec Indian named Juan Diego had the first of several miraculous encounters with the Virgin Mary on a hilltop overlooking the city of Mexico.
The Virgin asked Juan Diego to go see church authorities and request that a place of worship be built upon the hill in her honor. Despite repeated encounters and entreaties by her emissary, church officials remained skeptical, insisting that Juan Diego return with proof of his encounter with the Virgin. Juan Diego returned the following day with the requested sign — a rose and thorn-filled cloak, that when emptied at the feet of the archbishop revealed an image of the Virgin Mary miraculously imprinted on the inside of the cloak.
Although decidedly apocryphal, the cloak with the image of the Virgin Mary (its method of creation and longevity still unexplained) is still displayed in what is the largest and most important religious shrine in all of Mexico and Latin America atop the very hill where Juan Diego first encountered the Virgin. Beyond its religious meaning, the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe is significant as the first link in a continuous chain of iconic imagery and graphic arts practices unique to Mexican identity, art and culture and that lead directly to the practice of photography in Mexico.
Just two years after the events surrounding the legend of the Virgin, the first printing press in the Americas was set up in Mexico City, and by 1722 the first true newspaper in the Americas, La Gaceta de México, made its appearance, launching a tradition that remains vibrant to this day, as witnessed by the wealth of newspapers, magazines and tabloids displayed for sale at newsstands throughout Mexico City.
Given Mexico’s complex and historically challenging mix of cultures and socioeconomic inequalities, it was imagery that was most accessible, affordable and easily reproduced that inevitably had the deepest and most wide-ranging influence. The engravings and calaveras (representations of skulls) of Jose Guadalupe Posada, disseminated widely in penny broadsides in Mexico City, linked the city’s diverse peoples, revealing the realities of their shared circumstances through art, symbolism and no small amount of dark humor that has become an essential ingredient in Mexican art.
With the coming of the Mexican Revolution and improvements in offset printing, photography became the country’s most important graphic art. Documentation of the revolution spawned a series of hugely important and symbolic images. Through reproduced photographs, Emiliano Zapata, Pancho Villa and the soldaderas (female soldiers) all became heroic, historic and enduringly iconic symbols of solidarity and Mexico’s seemingly eternal struggle for social justice.
“The traditions of journalism and the graphic arts in Mexico have been decisive in influencing the role and perception of art photography in Mexico,” affirms Conde. Since opening her Eponymous gallery in 2009, she has worked closely with artists and an international roster of private collectors and institutions to promote the level of appreciation for the documentary tradition in Mexican photography, both locally and abroad.
“The market for photography is still new and somewhat untested in Mexico itself, but working with private collectors has been key to developing a market for documentary work and promoting its importance and broader value and meaning in the field of art,” Conde adds. “There is no doubt that Americans have a better understanding of photography, generally speaking, and seem more interested in the documentary traditions. In Mexico there are great collectors specializing in photography, but they are few in number, and it is only recently that new collectors in Mexico are being drawn to photography.”
What remains unique to Mexican photography, according to Conde, is the ability of each succeeding generation of artists to reshape their country’s history in ways that remain insightful and relevant to the present while honoring the traditions of the past.
“Mexican photography is still concerned with examining the same things it always has in Mexico — social differences, poverty, magic, taboo, rituals and religious attitudes,” says Conde. “Photography remains a great means of expression in its immediacy and ability to register emotions and reveal feelings as seen through the lens and perspective of the artist. I believe in the work of my artists and understand their legacy. I think that photography is succeeding in earning the place it deserves among the other arts in Mexico. By looking to the past to try to understand the present and live in a coherent way, Mexican photographers are creating new images that can be amazingly profound.”
Herewith are capsule profiles of four innovative photographers represented by Conde’s gallery.
Forging an aesthetic link to the past combined with a more modernist inquiry into the nature of being and photographic representation are the hallmarks of Cannon Bernáldez’ art. In her series “Miedos,” she constructs an autobiographical narrative that is part Victorian flight of fancy and part psychologically fraught fairy tale. In “Botanica,” a series of imaginary, otherworldly landscapes, Bernáldez also looks back to the Victorian era by paying homage to 19th-century exploratory photography.
“I like to tell stories and create fantasy worlds in which there’s an element of terror or a subtle violence,” she explains. “I’m also interested in the photographic act and the process of acting out these fears, partly as exorcism, and partly as a way to live in peace with the real world. I want my self-portraits to reflect these fears that I have of dying or being abandoned.”
Like many contemporary Mexican photographers, Bernáldez is profoundly influenced by the dynamic and at times violent social realities of life in Mexico.
“I’m interested in telling stories that are familiar, that reflect the constant preoccupations I have living in a city like Mexico City,” she says. “Unfortunately, we live here in an everyday reality that’s very violent, so I support myself in the information around me, the tabloid press and its photojournalism. I always have a notebook and a small digital camera with me wherever I go, so I can take photographic notes of things that catch my eye. Reviewing my notes, I’m always surprised by the recurring elements and central themes of violence, death, abandonment and fear.”
Beyond contemporary issues and concerns, Bernáldez also delves into the history of photography and photographic techniques, particularly 19th-century antiquarian processes.
“I’m inspired by historical photography, and depending on what I’m working on, I research techniques, form and content in a way that allows me to immerse myself in anything from the stories of itinerant photographers of the 19th century to contemporary work.
“In ‘Botanica’ I wanted to represent the personal and ideological vision of the landscape of 19th-century photographers by inventing scenarios and models and imagining myself as an expeditionary photographer from that era. Working with notes and samples, and gathering huge quantities of organic material, I integrated these elements into installations that I painted and assembled. I used a large-format camera and 19th-century printing techniques to give the images historical references.”
Regardless of subject matter, Bernaldez emphasizes her desire to forge a creative continuity with the past, and to frame contemporary concerns within the history of the medium in ways that make the case for the continued relevance of fine art photography. (www.cannonbernaldez.com)
The struggle for personal identity and redemption assume broad metaphorical significance in “The Black Hours,” Patricia Aridjis’ powerful and insightful study of women in prison.
“Jail is a microcosm, a reflection of what is happening outside,” agrees Aridjis, a self-described social documentarian, much of whose work focuses on the concerns of women navigating the complexities of Mexican society and culture.
“I think that photographers are witnesses of our time, so I am interested in topics that deal with the problems that plague us as Mexicans. Ancestral problems are not solved despite modernity or the passage of time, and some have even worsened, as is the case with social inequalities and violence.”
Aridjis spent seven years working on “The Black Hours,” and recognized immediately the significance of the project as a broader commentary on women’s lives in Mexico.
“Though I touch on various aspects of life in confinement, and tried to find a more intimate view that show the emotions that are under the skin of the women, I wanted to break some of the myths and stigmas around prison and show how most of the women who are there have had very hard lives, and that their ‘prison’ is beyond the time they enter jail.
“Some of the girls have suffered abuse and mistreatment, and that doesn’t help them value their own life or that of others,” Aridjis elaborates. “I think that in jail they find some kind of shelter, but when they are released from prison they are stigmatized by their families and have a hard time finding employment. I wanted to show these cyclical stories and how the women often fall back into crime and imprisonment.”
It is the emotional engagement with her subjects that attests to the depth of Aridjis’ compassion and understanding.
“Getting the trust of the inmates was the biggest challenge. I wanted to show them that being photographed was an honest act, and for them to know that through my eyes, people outside the prison could see and understand what happens inside.” (http://zonezero.com/exposiciones/fotografos/aridjis/index.html)
Francisco Mata Rosas
“The complexity of cultural hybridizations, the mixture of ancient and modern, and the ritual of daily life and politics form the axis of my projects and are some of the factors that have motivated my work,” says Francisco Mata Rosas, an accomplished Mexico City photojournalist who has lived his entire life in Mexico City.
In projects like “Metro,” a study of the city’s vast underground subway system, Mata Rosas illuminates the dialectic syncretism that informs all levels of Mexican culture and society.
“Being a regular user of the subway, I was curious to observe and develop a chronicle of the city from this angle, comparing attitudes of people in other spaces while creating a fiction on my own journey. My vision tries to incorporate a traditional reference in a contemporary context, showing the cultural blends that are a product of the great diversity in our country,” adds Mata Rosas.
“In Mexico City in particular, urban popular culture as a product reflects the combination of identities and cultural and ritual practices of our diverse origins. The metaphoric or visual contradictions are generated involuntarily, and it is precisely the metaphorical nature of the language of black and white, the theatricality and drama that is obtained by translating ‘real’ color to grayscale that appeals to me.”
Given the depth and complexities of Mexican society, Mata Rosas believes that photography remains the preeminent medium to explore the tensions and issues that continue to shape and influence the country. (www.franciscomata.com.mx)
No contemporary Mexican photographer has delved deeper into the psychology of the Mexican experience than Yolanda Andrade. For more than two decades, she has chronicled the carnivalesque atmosphere of life in Mexico City in ways that illuminate the unique intersection of modernity, history, faith and tradition that form the basis of the city’s culture.
“Mexico City is a fascinating place to take photographs,” acknowledges Andrade, a former Guggenheim Fellowship recipient and recipient of the National Endowment for the Culture and the Arts in Mexico, which in 2002 published a book of her Mexico City work, Mexican Passion.
“You find in the streets a mixture of political, social, religious and traditional celebrations all going on at the same time. My main subject matter has been images of death, the role of masks in Mexican culture, sexual identity, religious celebrations, and the use of images in social and political demonstrations.”
In her ongoing documentation of Mexican culture, Andrade explains that her viewpoint and interest have evolved to incorporate the broader range of cultural and sociological influences that are shaping and redefining her country.
“My wish is to integrate into my photographs the various disciplines that interest me, such as theater, literature, film, visual arts, popular culture and mass media. I also want to explore more fully the influence that high art has on popular art, as well as how the latter influences the traditional visual arts.”(http://yolandaandrade.viewbook.com)
(All photographers whose images appear here are represented by the Eponymous Gallery. Our sincere thanks to Patricia Conde for her valuable assistance in the preparation of this article. For more information, please visit: www.patriciacondegaleria.com.)