I have travelled to Mexico many times since the 1970’s and have always been struck by the vibrance of its culture and society. The history of Mexico has always been a fascinating one from the earliest days of its Mayan culture, the destructive influx of European culture and religion [initially via the Spanish under Cortez] and removal of the great Mayan and Aztec cultures along with the pervasive influence from Northern America. Mexico in many ways, has retained this mixed exciting and vibrant society, that continues to evolve today.
One still feels the scorching influences of Mayan and Spanish history in Mexico City. The same can also be said for smaller cities such as Oaxaca, Merida and Veracruz in its politics, religion, architecture, art and of course photography. Mexican art tells a story. From the earliest Mayan murals and sculpture, to the soaring murals of Diego de Riviera, a narrative exists that has helped illustrate and shape the Mexico we see today.
During the early 20th Century a new wave of expression was sweeping the world and Mexico was no exception in its take up of photography. Great practitioners from outside Mexico were also drawn to its unique and seductive blend of culture. Edward Weston and Tina Modotti come to mind, along with Henri Cartier-Bresson and Kati Horna. Their photographs tell stories and are part of this larger narrative. The Cartier-Bresson image we show here is one that I have always found so haunting and alluring; it is also a surreal image which begs so many questions.
Enriqué Metinides the legendary crime and street photographer provides us with a more visceral side of Mexican life and tragedy. His searing photographs leave little to the imagination and have captivated me since I first met him.
Manuel Alvarez BravoEspejo Negro (Black Mirror), 1947
Manuel Álvarez Bravo developed his career as an art photographer from the late 1920s onwards, teaching photography at the Escuela Central de Artes Plásticas, Mexico City. In 1938–9 and during the 1940s he worked in the Mexican film industry taking production stills. Curator Susan Kismaric has argued that Álvarez Bravo’s work both addresses 'the theme of Mexican history, culture and identity’ and explores the ‘conception of photography as a fluid medium of observation, in which episodes of everyday life are distilled by the alert eye of the photographer into emblems, or fables, of experience’ (Kismaric 1997, p.24). These two features are discernible in Black Mirror in its allusion to Aztec spiritual practices and its almost cinematic portrayal of a celebrated model at rest in an intimate pose and setting.
Álvarez Bravo made Black Mirror in Mexico in 1947. The sitter is the American model and dancer Maudelle Bass, who was visiting the country at the time. Álvarez Bravo photographed Bass with a Graflex camera, a large-format, single-lens reflex device that gives the photographer a full view of the ground glass within the camera – upon which the image being photographed is reflected – until the moment of exposure. This allowed Álvarez Bravo to see the proportions and layout of the image much more clearly prior to pressing the shutter than was possible with other cameras available at this time. The size of the negatives used in large-format cameras also allowed the photographer to create a more detailed image than could be achieved with smaller negatives.
The title Black Mirror is in reference to the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca, a name that translates to English as ‘Smoking Mirror’ (see Museum of Photographic Arts 1990, p.23). The Aztecs, who occupied parts of central Mexico in the thirteenth to the sixteenth centuries, understood Tezcatlipoca to be a god of contradictions – both good and evil, and both prosperous and poor – although he was also associated with a wide range of other meteorological, moral and physical concepts. In Aztec art Tezcatlipoca was usually depicted with a mirror made of obsidian – a kind of volcanic rock that is deep black in tone – that symbolised his ability to see everything that was happening in the world. As well as making reference to the colour of Bass’s skin and its reflective surface in the bright sunlight, the title Black Mirror implies a further significance for her physical qualities, suggesting their connection to a higher spiritual power that is native to the location in which the photograph was taken.
Print Information:Manuel Alvarez BravoEspejo Negro (The Black Mirror), 1947Signed and titled on recto.
Print Date: 1981Platinum printPaper Size: 29.5 x 25.4 cm
Enrique MetinidesMexico State, 1965
From 1948 until his forced retirement in 1979, the Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides took thousands of images and followed hundreds of stories in and around Mexico City. And what images and stories they were: car wrecks and train derailments, a bi-plane crashed on to a roof, street stabbings and shootings in the park, apartments and petrol stations set alight, earthquakes, accidental explosions, suicides, manslaughters, murder.
When he was ten years old, his father gave him a brownie box camera. Soon after, he began taking pictures of car accidents on the streets of the San Cosme neighbourhood of Mexico City where he lived. He expanded this to opportunities found hanging around the police station, going to the morgue and becoming a Red Cross volunteer to ride with ambulances. He photographed his first dead body and published his first photograph when he was only twelve years old. At age thirteen, he became an unpaid assistant to the crime photographer at La Prensa, and gained the nickname “El Niño” (the boy) from the regular press photographers.
He has won numerous prizes and received recognition from the Presidency of the Republic, journalists’ associations, rescue and judicial corps and Kodak of Mexico. In 1997 he received the “Espejo de Luz” (Mirror of Light) Prize, awarded to the country’s most outstanding photographer. His work has been shown at numerous international venues, including The Museum of Modern Art, Photographers’ Gallery, London; and Les Rencontres d’Arles Photographie, Arles, France.
Print Information:Enrique MetinidesMexico State, 1965Signed and dated with edition number on verso in ink
Print accompanied by signed certificateSilver Gelatin PrintPaper Size: 40 x 50 cmEdition of 15
Paolo PellegrinTijuana - A girl celebrating her quinceañera along the U.S.-Mexico border. Tijuana, Mexico, 2019.
In 2019, Paolo Pellegrin visited towns along the highly politicised US - Mexico border, focusing on the social and political issues of this region, which has so often been subject to crude generalisation at the hands of the mass media. This picture shows a young woman celebrating her quinceañera, a moment which marks her coming of age and coincides with her 15th birthday, on a beach in the border town of Tijuana.
This photograph is an example of what Pellegrin has termed as ‘an open picture’, in which he deliberately exploits an ambiguity (in this case, the absence of her face) to encourage a deeper engagement on the part of the viewer, who can imagine their personal journey to that moment and make it their own. Whilst many photojournalists have perceived their role as creating records which illustrate and testify to particular historical circumstances, Pellegrin believes in the importance of photography which points towards less definite conclusions, and which possesses the power to inspire a dialogue with his audience.
After briefly studying architecture at L’Università la Sapienza, Pellegrin pursued his interest in photography at Rome’s Istituto Italiano di Fotografia. He was soon taking on international commissions from publications including Time, National Geographic and Newsweek, for whom he worked as a contract photographer for ten years. He developed a particularly enduring and fruitful relationship with the New York Times, whose Director of Photography, Kathy Ryan, has praised his ‘poetic photojournalism.’ Over the course of a career which spans three decades, Pellegrin has received accolades including the W. Eugene Smith Grant in Humanistic Photography, the Robert Capa Gold Medal Award, the Dr. Erich Salomon Award for lifetime achievement in the field of photojournalism, and 11 World Press Photo Awards
Henri Cartier-Bresson, Mexico, Santa Clara (Natcho Aguirre), 1934
Henri Cartier-Bresson began traveling in 1930, at the age of twenty-two. For nearly half a century he was on the road most of the time, and the geographical range of his work is notoriously wide. Its historical range is just as broad, from ancient patterns of preindustrial life to our contemporary era of ceaseless technological change. In the realm of photography Cartier-Bresson's work presents a uniquely rich, far-reaching and challenging account of the modern century.
The two most important developments in photography in the first half of the twentieth century were the emergence of lasting artistic traditions and the rise of mass-circulation picture magazines. Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) was a leading figure in both domains. In the early 1930s he helped to define photographic modernism, using a handheld camera to snatch beguiling images from fleeting moments of everyday life. After World War II, he turned to photojournalism; the magic and mystery of his early work gave way to an equally uncanny clarity and before the dominance of television, most people saw the world through the eyes of picture magazines. Early in Cartier-Bresson's postwar career, his photographs of Gandhi's funeral and the Communist revolution in China were journalistic scoops. But the vast majority of his photographs describe the social reality of the everyday for that was his essential subject. His work is included in nearly every significant photographic museum collection world-wide.
In 1934, Cartier-Bresson signed up for a French ethnographic mission which was supposed to take him to Argentina. In the end, the mission was suspended and the twenty-six-year-old photographer spent a year in Mexico, literally fascinated by the country. He worked for several newspapers there, moved in intellectual and artistic circles together with his sister and worried about his future. In March 1935, he exhibited his work at the Palacio de Bellas Artes with Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo. This portrait of a man with a naked torso and folded arms is juxtaposed against the two boxes of shoes; neither side of the image seems to relate to the other and it certainly poses more questions than it answers.
Print Information:Henri Cartier-BressonMexico, Santa Clara (Natcho Aguirre), 1934Signed in Ink
Print Date: 1980’sSilver Gelatin PrintPaper Size: 30.5 x 40.5 cm
Kati HornaUntitled. Cuidad de Mexico., 1949 Vintage silver gelatin print
22 x 19.5 cm
Kati HornaUntitled. Cuidad de Mexico., 1949
Both cosmopolitan and avantgarde, Kati Horna (1912-2000) is mainly known for her photos of the Spanish Civil War taken between 1937 and 1939 for an album commissioned by the Spanish Republic, as well as her friendship with Robert Capa. Her work is characterised by the influence of the principles of surrealist Photography and her own moving approach to photojournalism and documentary photography. Kati Horna began her photographic career in the young Republic of Hungary in 1933. Newly-fatherless and staunchly political, photography offered Horna the means to earn a living and the chance to fulfil her political ideals. After enrolling at the most prestigious school of photography in Budapest, led by József Pécsi, she moved to Paris in 1933 where she turned her attention to the life she saw around her in the streets and cafés of the French capital. Her series Les Cafés de Paris (1934) captures her brilliant eye for irony and fun. This lighter mood however was soon overshadowed by the more serious images that history would dictate, namely the Spanish Civil War in 1936.
Between 1958 and 1968 she was the photography editor for Mujeres, a publication dedicated to women writers, artists, and other cultural agents. For Horna, Mexico was her ultimate motherland; her patriotism was felt only for this country. This series Mujer y Máscara (1963) is amongst Horna's most well known works and coincided with a period when Horna came to have an intense interest in theatrical productions. In 1963 her husband José Horna passed away and her friendship with Leonora Carrington became even closer.
In 1985, Horna donated some 6,750 negatives to the Centro Nacional de Difusion e Investigación de las Artes Plásticas (Cenidiap) in Mexico. After her death in 2000, Horna's extraodinary archive has been managed by her family which includes 20,000 negatives alongside vintage prints.
Print Information:Kati HornaUntitledSigned in pencil on versoVintage gelatin silver print22.0 x 19.5 cm
Peter BeardKaren Blixen, Rundstedlund, Denmark, 1961
Peter Beard (American, 1938-2020) was a photographer and writer known for his collage work and extensive diaries. Whilst travelling between Long Island, New York City, and Alabama during his childhood, Beard began the habit of keeping diaries that later became a great source material for many of his collage works.
Beard documented his travels and photographs within his diaries from the age of 12, shortly before his first trip to Africa in 1955. In 1957, Beard applied as a pre-med student to Yale before switching to art history, studying under the influential art historian and theoretician, Joseph Albers. After graduating, Beard returned to Kenya, where he made his home in East Africa, acquiring “Hog Ranch,” the property adjacent to author Karen Blixen’s, near the Ngong Hills.
In the early 1960s, he worked at Tsavo National Park, where he photographed and documented the demise of elephants and Black Rhinos, and published multiple books on the subject. During this period, he began to create photographic collages that explored the interconnectedness of humans and animals. It was whilst sailing to Africa on the Queen Mary that Beard read 'Out of Africa' authored by Isak Dineson [Karen Blixen]. They met in 1961 at her home in Copenhagen and later again in June 1962, shortly before she passed away. On both visits Beard made portraits of Blixen.
Tim WalkerJames Crewe, Fashion: Valentino Haute Couture, Dorset, 2018
Tim Walker's photographs are nostalgic for an era of innocence and exuberance; youthful imagination and a uniquely British aesthetic. At once modern yet familiar, his world is reminiscent of a childhood spent dressing up in ancient couture, dragging family heirlooms down to the bottom of the garden to furnish tree-lined ballrooms. These memories are retold with a sublimely reminiscent matured eye for drama and intrigue. Walker painstakingly stages each picture in camera, which reinforces the home-spun magic and texture shown in each image.
In 2018, Walker was commissioned by the V&A Museum to create ten new photographic series inspired by objects in their collection. He had access to their whole archive and chose ten items from it in order to create what has become his biggest solo show to date, Wonderful Things. Anyone that knows the V&A can only imagine how hard it must have been to make that selection.
This photograph takes inspiration from a 19th century circular concave mirror originally belonging to renowned early photographers David Octavius Hill and Robert Adamson (see installation shot). Hill and Adamson formed Scotland's first photographic studio and for early photographers like them, natural daylight was crucial to creating the perfect portrait: this mirror would have been used to reflect sunlight onto the faces of their sitters. Tim Walker's James Crewe, Fashion: Valentino Haute Couture, Dorset, 2018, shot with fish-eye lenses, framed in a circular frame with a domed glass, is presented in the museum as the matching half of the mirror, one almost feels that the photograph was born from it.
Walker was especially drawn to the moon-like shape of the mirror. The moon has always been a source of inspiration for him, as cited in the title of his recently released retrospective book, Shoot for the Moon. The phrase originated from a quote by American author Norman Vincent Peale: 'Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you will land among the stars.' This is a message that Tim Walker wants to share with all of us, as creatives around the world.
Tim WalkerJames Crewe, Fashion: Valentino Haute Couture, Dorset, 2018Archival pigment printAccompanied by a signed, titled and editioned artist label100 cm (diameter circle)Edition of 10 + 2 APs
Siân DaveyThe Garden, 1, 2021
Siân Davey is a photographer with a background in Fine Art and Social Policy. She has worked as a humanist psychotherapist for the past 15 years, and it is this training that has helped facilitate an acute and nuanced awareness of both herself and her immediate worlds. Her work is an investigation of the psychological landscapes of herself, her family and her community, all of which are central to her practice.
In this latest body of work, ‘The Garden’, Davey states that ‘the pandemic forced me to reflect on what was creatively possible again in my existing space. What was happening globally, politically and spiritually demanded that I translate this paradigm in my work. My son returned from his monastery, together in February we decided to rewild our abandoned back garden. My family alongside this was in personal crisis, pulling together in unchartered territory. The garden showed us the way through. The garden is now a constant revolving door of people entering, seduced by colour, bees and love. Everybody has a place in the garden - those who enter are now connected by their presence here. The image here is my first photograph taken as the seeds were germinating.’
Siân DaveyThe Garden, 1, 2021Accompanied by a signed editioned label from the artistC-type printPaper size 78 x 94.2 cm
Image size 62.5 x 79.6 cmEdition 1/5 + 2 APs
We hope you have enjoyed these highlights for this edition of Photo London.
To view the full presentation please follow this link: Michael Hoppen Gallery | Photo London 2021
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