Another day off, another trip to SFMoMA. This time to see the newly-opened Photography In Mexico exhibition. It’s interesting and worth seeing. I had almost the opposite reaction to my reaction to Dijkstra. Rather than really enjoying the exhibition but not being grabbed by the photos, I found myself really liking a lot of the photos but not feeling it with the exhibition as a whole.
Granted, part of this was by design. The exhibition is meant to be a survey of Mexican photographers over the past century with a specific slant toward political work. This is a huge topic and the result feels thin. Can you really synthesize a century of a county’s history and politics without lumping things into really big buckets and oversimplifying the results? Probably not.
It’s interesting to compare this approach with the approach the Whitney took in its Visions From America exhibition a decade ago. The Whitney show featured American photography as being the vanguard of Modern Art—not merely an integral part of art movements; photography and photographic reproduction can be seen as the leading edge in introducing pop, conceptual, and post-modern art.
Politics doesn’t enter the discussion at all and the focus is art. So to have politics be featured as the common thread is a very different way of seeing things. It’s an ambitious approach, even if we accept the limitations of presenting just a high-level survey of the century.*
*SFMoMA’s Provoke exhibition took a similar point of view with post-war Japan. But that exhibition covered a much smaller time period (~25 years) and involved images which skewed away from (rather than toward) the documentary.
I don’t think they quite pulled it off. I left the exhibition feeling bothered by something in the curation and thinking about what exactly bugged me. At first it felt like the curator stretching too far—a critique which quickly broke down since the exhibition did fit together well. The main categories all make sense and serve as very good mini exhibitions. It took me a while to figure it out but what rubbed me the wrong way was that I didn’t get a sense of Mexico from the exhibition.
I was seeing what liberal Americans think of Mexico.
It’s a question of point of view. The exhibition comes across as an American view of what we think Mexican politics are. Photography in Mexico* is almost the best standard example of the insider vs. outsider dilemma since almost every photographer of note seems to have spent time traveling in Mexico with a camera. Many of these photos come across as treating Mexico as sort of a human zoo.** This exhibition avoids getting too sidetracked into the issue from the photographer point of view***—the photos of Mexico are definitely taken by Mexicans—but proceeds to fall into that trap with the curation.
*The practice, not this exhibition.
**Sort of the National Geographic effect on travel photography. As much as National Geographic has been a fantastic proponent of good photography to everyone, its photojournalistic travel photos have inspired too many travelers who think that travel photography is all about taking photos of the locals without regard to them as humans.
***This is not to say that an exhibition of insider vs outsider views of Mexico from the same time period would not be interesting. If it were done correctly, such an exhibition would be very interesting since it would actually critique both the photos and the photographer. And the audience.
At the same time, despite my issues with the way the photos are presented, the photos themselves are worth seeing. I just feel like the context provided has to be either adjusted or ignored.
Taking the buckets and mini exhibitions one by one:
The bucket I have the least problem with because it’s the most like standard art exhibitions. The interchange of ideas is very interesting and, like most things photographic before World War 2, the act of just documenting is a worthwhile endeavor in and of itself. Many of the photos displayed would work just as well in comparison with the photos of the dust bowl or poor south from the same time periods. There is also a lot of architecture, signage, pattern, texture, etc. going on with these photos. Nothing too political, just straight photos* displayed as art.
*Paul Strand is also featured here.
In the greater context of this exhibition, a lot of the photos—including all of Weston’s—don’t seem to fit since they’re not making a political point (another reason why I have the fewest issues with this section). In the context of this subsection, everything holds together. I get an especially good sense of Mexico in the first half of the century with Manuel Álvarez Bravo’s work too.
Poor Mexicans deserve our sympathy
Specifically, Mexico’s poor people work hard and don’t deserve this lot in life. These photos are just begging for backstory. Not all are as clear as the fisherman with the nets and since they’re presented as being empathetic portraits of the working class or photo-essays by photojournalists, without knowing the context, it’s hard to truly empathize.
The exhibition even references things like the Tlatelolco massacre and general upheaval in Mexico contributing to the desire to document and investigate Mexican culture. But there’s never any explanation about what these events are and why they matter.
As a result, it’s difficult not to view these photos as going for cheap emotional responses* rather than actually telling us anything. Not everything in a museum requires tons of context in order to properly understand it, but documentary work presented as political art is an area which absolutely does. All I’m left with is some nice-looking photos which make me feel a little guilty about my situation in life.
*Akin to the all-to-familiar trope of “street photographers” photographing homeless people without making any point beyond “this person is homeless.”
Anthropological studies of specific subcultures
Indios, Lucha Libre, y los super-ricos
These photos, despite being presented as Mexican, are all also outsider studies of subcultures in Mexico. Many of them fall into the category of cataloging Mexico’s native people before they disappear. There is no mention of indígenismo here. The photos portray Indian culture either as something to be documented before it disappears or as just a strange melding of the modern and the past. In both cases, these images come across as images of non-Mexican culture.
This is a shame since there’s no reason the images can’t relate to Mexico and its trend toward increased pride and self-identification with its indigenous roots. From a political standpoint, the point that things like western beauty ideals and cultural norms are not always worth emulating is hugely important. As is the pride and increased presence of Indian imagery into the general culture.
The Lucha Libre photos by Lourdes Grobet and studies of the super rich by Yvonne Venegas and Daniela Rossell had me comparing the presentation with Colors Magazine’s Telenovela Issue. Mexican popular culture contains a strange duality where the super rich are part of Mexico’s problem but their lives are practically the definition of Mexican television. As the flip side of the aspirational images seen on Mexican TV, the images of the super rich, real-life novelas have a lot to do with the gritty images of Lucha Libre. Little boys aspire to be luchadors. Little girls aspire to be princesas. Yet those kids lucky enough to have their wishes come true end up isolated and lonely despite the privileges of the position.
The connection between popular aspiration and its less-rosy reality though is not made in this exhibition. The luchador photos aren’t presented with any political edge and the photos of the rich are provided as counterpoint to the images of the poor. The implication is that the rich need to be taken down a peg, but there is a lot more at stake culturally than just gross inequality.
Mexico’s built environment is dehumanizing and unsustainable
This section is presented as a departure from “traditional picturesque views” and stands on its own despite those picturesque views not being presented anywhere. But then I’m a bit of a built-environment junkie. The political point of view is debatable.* I love Pablo López Luz’s aerial views and Alejandro Cartagena’s suburban photography. I can see how the images can be used politically. I’m not convinced that they are inherently political though.
Those photos dovetail nicely with detail shots of city moments—whether they’re Oscar Fernando Gómez’s whimsical shots from a moving car* or Pablo Ortiz Monasterio’s dystopian view of Mexico City. The combination of details with high-level landscape views is the portion of the exhibition which came closest to giving me insights into the Mexican experience.
*A very Mexican way to see the city.
High level views have me asking, “How does one live there?”
Detail views answer the question, “Not easily. Keep a sense of humor.”
Yet even despite my appreciation for this section, by leaving out the picturesque views, the point that Mexico has transitioned from being a rural country to an urban one is completely missed. A large portion of Mexican history over the time period presented can be seen as the rural to urban transition. All we see on display though is urban life.
The Mexico-US border
Not the border in cities, the border as metaphor for American perceptions of Mexicans and the extent we have marked the landscape with a giant “you people are not welcome here” sign. The photos of the border, and its strange artificial arbitrary imposition on a giant tract of inhospitable land is Christo’s Running Fence taken to extremes of scale and industry.
It’s inherently political. It’s inherently absurd.
And it’s inherently impersonal. So it’s nice to see it personalized by Elsa Medina’s photos of the migrations and Susan Mieselas’s and Mark Ruwedel’s photographs of what migrants leave behind. Ruwedal’s work in particular captures the combination of personal details fitting into a larger-scale story by focusing on individually-abandoned possessions while making it clear that the trail those possessions are found next to is part of a larger narrative. Not trains this time but foot-traffic. Though the motivation remains the same.
At the same time, the border crossing is one of the last steps of the migration yet there is nothing on display to suggest this. Focusing just on the border misses the greater issue of migration from other regions of Mexico or the fact that many migrants come from Central America through Mexico to reach the border. The border, as displayed here, is how we think of it as Americans and how it has become politicized in the US.
Despite my reservations about the presentation, this exhibition has a lot of stuff to think about and a lot of good images to see. It’s very much worth going to. I’d like to see more stuff like Oscar Fernando Gómez’s or Katya Brailovsky’s work since they are more personal reflections of how they see their environment.
I’m also more underwhelmed than upset about the curation. It’s a very ambitious point of view which SFMoMa almost pulls off. So the result feels a little thin and wanting rather than being obviously upsetting. It took me a long time to figure out what bugged me and even longer to be able to articulate it. I can also see why a lot of people really like this exhibit. The photos themselves are very good and worth seeing.