Paradoxes / Paradigmas PDF
Written by Juan Antonio Molina   


Andrés Carretero. Rebeca Cárdenas. From the series Phenotypes. Chromogen Print. 2007

What’s up with photography in Mexico?


My first impulse is to suppose that the Photography Biennial could answer that question. And maybe it can indeed, but not necessarily. Or perhaps not necessarily in the way we usually think.


I’d like to say that the selection of works selected by the jury for the 13th Photography Biennial is representative of Mexican photography, but not in the essential sense that is generally attributed to the term “representation.” This group of works does not stand in place of Mexican photography. Its representative nature arises from the fact that it seems to sum up a norm. So, what is “normal” in contemporary Mexican photography?.


Almost a decade ago, I was naïve enough to write a text in which I reviewed the notion of “constructed photography” and its relation to an array of artistic traditions, ranging from Surrealism and Constructivism to Conceptualism and Post-Conceptualism. All of this to find a place, within what was regarded as normal, for several tendencies in Mexican photography, which to me, perhaps because of my foreign or “odd” way of looking at things, struck me as extremely coherent in terms of their times, as well as with their history.


At that time, it seemed not at all unusual to find some keys in Mexican photography that were common for photographic and artistic practice in many other cultural contexts. And it also seemed not particularly surprising to discover that these keys had ties with a tradition (a tradition of rupture, but nonetheless a tradition) that dated back probably to some of the modernist experiences. Now I find that these keys persist, with the sole difference that they have moved away from “normalizing” a situation that seemed much more subversive a decade ago.


I can almost literally repeat the words I uttered eight years ago: It has changed the way of conceiving of relationships of the image with reality, probably because it has changed the way of conceiving reality itself. The photographic image has ceased to be regarded as an object enclosed in its technical and linguistic specificity; now it is regarded as a mixed object, open to exchanges in languages and textual references. Events are staged, objects are invented, and subjects are disguised. The fiction may be simultaneously the subject, the support, the origin, the context, the epidermis, and the significance of the photographic image. The photo is presented as a document of a prior aesthetic event. The visual experience sums up a cognitive act that is in itself a sort of invention of the object of knowledge. All of this is in order to reconstruct its identity or to convey a highly subjective identity. The image exists as a paradox more than as a paradigm.


Gerardo Montiel. Volute smoke. 2006-2007. (Detail of photographic scenery).


Beyond appearances and particular forms of intelligence employed in each creative process, these are some of trends within contemporary photography on an international level. They correspond to a state of visual culture that is transnational and eclectic. In that situation, local contexts open up, expand, and are juxtaposed. And it is easy to suppose that the illusion of “globality” in which we live has come to standardize all processes of representation in accord with a single referent, or even worse, an absence of a clear referent.


Nonetheless, what this body of photographs shows—if there is some utility in extracting a hypothesis for a display that is so “unrepresentative”—is that globalization entails its own counterpart: the tendency to emphasize minimum identities, micro-accounts, local contexts, which certainly are incomprehensible for ambitious nationalist discourses, but that also refuse to be dissolved into a suspect universality.


What is happening with Mexican photography is that it is defining its “Mexicanness” based on fragments, through shifting terrains (still not yet institutional), through discourses that are “fragile,” compared with the grandiloquence of the epic of times past.


In these processes, a weak realism is produced, that no longer seeks a specific paradigm to reinforce itself, and that, nonetheless, serves to explore specific cultural spaces and subjects that have historically been at the margins of representation. In those variants of realism, the portrait has assumed inevitable importance, because it seems to be one of the most appropriate tools for certain enquiries and lines of questioning regarding identities.


Carlos Álvarez. From the series GYM Barrera. Digital print. 2007


For example, Carlos Álvarez Montero makes portraits of young people of both sexes who are trained in boxing. In the same gym where they work out, these kids, who are barely older than adolescents, pose in front of the camera with expressions that show they are highly aware of the fiction. It is extremely interesting, because it seems as if each subject were aware that the result of the photographic act will only be a representation alien to him or her. Carlos Álvarez entitles each photo with the name of the subject, as if seeking to recover some part of those identities that the camera has placed in crisis. However, the swollen faces, the expressions of exhaustion, the detached (or alienated) air of the poses and the absence of sympathy toward the camera, could be more shocking to the viewers.


With equally ambiguous results, Andrés Carretero offers a series of portraits of albinos, entitled Phenotypes. They are also images in which the identity of the subjects, which should depend on their physical appearance, contradicts the fictitious air of many of the images. The poses add to this effect, because they display the theatrical approach of the subjects to representing themselves and to defining themselves in front of the camera. But the way the photographer himself also modified the relationship of coherence between each subject and context also has an effect, seeking settings in which the individuals photographed seem to be transplanted, as if it were their fate to feel uncomfortable in any situation.


At a certain point Carretero’s work touches on the ethnographic and that is where it is related to other projects, such as that of Lizzet Luna Gamboa, who started out with a survey and a computer program to develop a fictitious portrait (more of a model) of the ideal Mexican male and female. This work (in some ways recalls the series Anthropology of the Modern Body, executed by Marianna Dellekamp a decade ago) manages to filter, through forensics and anthropology, a gaze that does not cease to be ironic and critical when it comes to the induced and artificial character of patterns of beauty. In addition, José Luis Cuevas, with his series The Average Man, deals with that element of classification and typology inherent to ethnographic representations, maintaining an ironic tone. Even work such as that of Tania Jiménez D’Sahagún starts out with a methodology characteristic of sociological studies, and that is what determines the selection of subjects photographed and the formats that are shown in the portraits.



José Luis Cuevas. Untitled. From the series The average man. Digital print. 2007


As can be seen, these approaches posit a notion of realism that is paradoxical, for it rightly points to the issue of “reality” in the photographic subject. It is a realism that takes on identities as representations, as aspirations, as staging or as transitional situations, never as permanent states. This notion of realism continues to be open to works that question the cultural, political, and social reality of Mexico and Latin America, with an ambivalent tone, as in the respective projects of Carla Verea Hernández and Arelí Vargas Colmenero (who, by the way, also play with typologies) or in a more direct way, such as the series by José Hernández Claire on migration in Mexico, or the photos of Livia Corona, on urban settlements in the northern part of the country.


Some of the works arose from that affinity that photography has always had with the fantastic and the mysterious. In the case of Gerardo Montiel Klint, this particular visual approach seems to be linked most evidently with his predilection for narratives that border on the absurd, that explore the limits of tragedy, and that always suggest a possibility of latent violence. In the works of Lucía Castañeda Garma, Oswaldo Ruiz Chapa, Miguel Ángel Ortega Bugarin, and the collective Sector Reforma, the photo emerges from a more “primitive” relationship between the subjectivity of the photographer, the contemplated reality, and the photographic tools, even when manipulation is a possibility. The photos of Fernando Montiel Klint, composed of multicolored settings and strident colors, have a mixed mood, hovering between unreality and hyper-reality, which blurs the distinction of the limits between manipulation and documentation.


There are also some examples of an almost obsessive fixation on the visual, in which the aesthetic effect comes from ambiguous, volatile, almost ungraspable structures, such as those produced by Zony Maya Zetune and Oritia Ruiz Pulido. And there are works, such as those of Sandra Valenzuela and Enrique Balleza Dávila that seem to be hypnotic reconstructions of light and color, semi-abstract reformulations of natural forms or proto-organic references to certain motifs already “marked” by modern art history. The video by Claudia Flores Lobatón also enters into this range, with an intensity that is derived from the combination of sound, fixed image, and moving image, which ultimately is a means of crossing different time frames.


Zony Maya. Frog. From the series Paper. Chromogen Print. 2006-2007


The survey of all of these variants makes it clear that the list is not as brief as might seem at first sight. And that the whole, although articulated, does not fall into monotony. The options of realism achieve extremes, such as the video by Mario Héctor Gómez; it is an excellent example of a documentary short. Working with portraits becomes subtle and metaphoric in the domestic interiors by Blas Yuri Manrique. The snapshots in the public space shows Misael Torres as a photographer with intuition and talent. Marianna Dellekamp offers a sophisticated work that localizes the human being as the ultimate referent of the document. Fernando Etulain converts research on perspective into a refined interplay, recreating planes and textures, suggesting new possibilities for the collage, the intervention and appropriation of historical images.


I insist that we are speaking of what is “normal.” And I emphasize this point, because I believe that beyond this group, bolder, perhaps less solid, but no less promising, approaches can also be found. And I understand that the Centro de la Imagen will not overlook those other possibilities, with which new routes can be staked out for photography in Mexico and Latin America. The origin of these routes is inevitably a zone of risks and the unexpected.


By assuming the task of organizing a new Photography Biennial, we start out by recognizing that much of the impact that the Centro de la Imagen’s work is focused on those inaugural moments, at times promising, and always unpredictable. In that sense, it is the Centro de la Imagen’s influence on the development and training of new photographers and new photographic visions may be understood. We might even say that the work of the Centro de la Imagen over the years is much more evident in the field of “young” photography, as long as it is possible to divest the term of excessively generational implications.


What is important is the zone of influence that the Centro de la Imagen has fundamentally preserved through its educational programs, even when concrete results are generally visible through exhibitions and other promotional programs and the circulation of art work, in which the Photography Biennial continues to play an important role.


With this perspective, we have sought to integrate the diverse programs in the 13th Photography Biennial, imbuing the entire project with a broad character. This has led us to shift the center of gravity from the competition to the rest of the complementary projects and activities. Although the competition continues to be a useful tool for the promotion and stimulation of contemporary artists who work in photography, it is also true that the Biennial must take on a much more complex program, whose scope and objectives might become banal if they depended exclusively on the mechanisms of judgment and selection imposed by any competition.


Our principal aim is to organize the Photography Biennial according to a model in which different curatorial, investigative, promotional, and educational projects interact, balancing their importance and impact with those of the competition. Thus, we seek to achieve greater coherence between the Biennial and the overall work proposal of the Centro de la Imagen for the years to come.


Therefore, it is important to mention that at least six exhibitions converge at the 13th Photography Biennial, several international in character. From the prestigious Fotofest comes the exhibition Discoveries of the Meeting Place, with the work of ten artists selected by different curators, through reviews of portfolios during the 2006 Festival. The list includes artists from England, the United States, South Korea, Germany, Denmark, and the Czech Republic.


From the 2007 Photo Poland festival is the personal exhibition of Konrad Pustola, a Polish artist living in London. His work, along with that of five other photographers, was also selected through the joint work of several contemporary photography curators and researchers to represent the festival at different international events.


The Art Gallery of Ontario contributes a project that follows a fairly exemplary model to the 13th Photography Biennial. The Grange Prize is a competition that has been held annually since 2007, in which photographers from Canada and other countries participate and are selected by a group of curators. Once the final selection is complete, the public votes, through a website designed for this purpose, to designate the winner of the prize, which consists of fifty thousand Canadian dollars. On this occasion, the winner will be chosen among several Canadian and Mexican photographers. The works that are competing will be exhibited in Mexico as well as in Canada.


The exhibition of works produced by students of the Centro de la Imagen’s Contemporary Photography Seminar is another example of the intersection between educational programs and curatorial work. Finally, the Brief Anthology, which brings together participating works from prior biennials, serves to establish links between contemporary approaches and others that belong to the history or “memory” of this event.


What I have described here seems to be a sampling of all the attitudes that could be assumed when one is confronted with the language of photography. But it would be overly naïve to suppose that all the possibilities on this point have been exhausted. We are only before a partial group within an art world that is much vaster and that merits equal effort to be understood. Reviewing this group of photos has been like contemplating one of the many combinations of a kaleidoscope. After this experience, the most coherent act is to continue trying out other combinations. It could be a poetic way of probing the other limits of risk.


Juan Antonio Molina
XIII Bienal de Fotografía



XIII Bienal de Fotografía. Centro de la Imagen/CENART/CONACULTA. México DF, 2008. Pp 9-13.



Share This