‘Photography in Mexico’ exhibits diverse talent in various visual styles

'Our Lady of the Iguanas, Juchitan, Oaxaca, Mexico' by Garciela Iturbide (1979)
Garciela Iturbide/Courtesy
'Our Lady of the Iguanas, Juchitan, Oaxaca, Mexico' by Garciela Iturbide (1979)

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A man stands at a crossroads. Hunched over, at the point of intersection between two large steel bars, he is perched on Toreo Stadium, about to commit suicide.  Slowly, two men inch toward him hoping to stop him.  But he puts his arm out, telling them to stop where they are.  They ignore this and inch closer.  He leans forward, ready to jump. At last, they reach out and grab him before he can do it, the three of them forming a human chain.  Their “reaching out” then is both literal and symbolic — preserving the life of a man poised on the point of death.  This story is translated from Spanish as “Suicide Rescue from the Top of Toreo Stadium” and it unfolds in a series of jaw dropping photographs taken by Enrique Metinides in 1971. The narrative voice of this photography is deafening.

These photographs are part of the exhibit, “Photography in Mexico,” currently at the San Fancisco Museum of Modern Art.  Walking through the exhibit is like walking through decades of life in Mexico.  It begins in the 1920s with Edward Weston and Tina Modotti, two photographers who documented the life of indigenous people in Mexico for an American anthropologist, and ends with contemporary photographers like Oscar Fernando Gomez, who shoots street scenes from taxi windows.  Both broad and deep in its coverage, the exhibit harnesses the diversity of Mexico through snapshots of daily life.

The exhibition begins with a couple of photographic forays into the indigenous cultures of Mexico depicting toilets, toys and the weary feet of men with worn out sandals. Later, the tone shifts.  Photojournalism is present in photographs such as, “Retrieval of a drowned body from Lake Xochimilco with the public reflected in the water.” Yes, it is as incredible as it sounds.

The tone shifts yet again, this time towards the surreal, with photographers such as Lourdes Grobet.  In her photograph, “India Sioux in her Bedroom,” India Sioux stares at the camera in a typical girl’s bedroom wearing an eery Mexican wrestling mask.  The juxtaposition is jarring.  According to the exhibit, “Lourdes Grobet insisted that depicting indigenous groups or the underclass serves to exoticise or aesthetize poverty,” so she chose to focus her photography on  Mexican wrestlers and the role that masks play in their daily lives.  Her work engages in direct debate with other photographers who chose to photograph poverty in Mexico with intentions of social justice.

It is precisely this dynamic dialogue that makes the exhibit a marvel.  The images are so striking, so carefully composed that each turns the ordinary event of daily life into a spectacle.  With these photographs, it becomes evident that the argument is about the way in which one chooses to notice the world — whether it is depicting poverty or high class parties, whether it is photojournalism or surrealism, whether it is indigenous Mexican culture or contemporary urbanization.

It seems as though the wall on the border between the United States and Mexico is never-ending.  It has been imposed upon the earth— manmade, dirty and brown, snaking indefinitely across the flat terrain. It was photographed in 2010 by Victoria Sambunaris and this photograph is one of the final pieces in the exhibition. It depicts the wall as an affront upon nature, a stubborn structured division between two cultures that this exhibition has tried to climb over.  It surreptitiously sneaks the typical gallery goer into the alluring world of Mexican photography, with a lens untainted by prejudice, so we can see the other side of the border for what it truly is.


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