Reviewed by Brian Harkin
The Mexico City issue of Aperture—the glossy photography magazine that publishes a themed issue every quarter—opens with a feature on Graciela Iturbide, the celebrated Mexican documentarian of life in black and white. In one of her photographs from 1972, a car under a flower-print sheet is parked in front of a small storefront whose textile products fade into the darkness of the store’s interior. It’s an archetypal Iturbide image: textures of the everyday are displayed but not pinned down. Life moves outside the frame.
In an interview accompanying a selection of her photographs, Iturbide says, “my camera was a pretext for getting to know Mexico’s traditions and culture.” Similarly, in this issue of Aperture, photography is not the object but the pedestal, an authoritative suggestion on how to consider a city so massive it can resist being seen the same way from any one angle.
The editors avoid simplifying Mexico City’s breadth by juxtaposing photography from across time, culture, and geography. There are photographs of transvestites originally published in mid-century crime magazines; a chronicle of mixed traditions in wedding photography from the northern border; a study of volcanic rock in urban architecture; a series on pedestrians climbing a freeway median to reach public transportation; and flash-heavy reports from the pre-Instagram party scene, back when party photographers coronated as much as they photographed.
Each essay reflects an understanding of place and people that comes from artists working close to their own culture, and Aperture, by sticking to these views, manages an intimate look at the city, its artists, and their concerns. Among the most nuanced work in the issue is a documentary series by Maya Goded and Mayra Martell about violence against women in Ciudad Juarez. Martell, whose spaces without people haunt, speaks of her upbringing on the border and the loneliness she felt upon being forced to leave. On facing pages are two photographs by Goded: a sex worker looks into the camera as she takes the first drag from a cigarette, her hand to her mouth in the same way a mother in the next photograph brings a tissue to her nose. Beside her in the backseat of a taxi is a framed portrait of her missing daughter.
Daniela Rossell’s late-nineties photographs of the ultra-wealthy are a portal into the lives of a minority whose domestic life wasn’t typically depicted outside of society magazines. The curator Kit Hammonds writes that it was Rossell’s membership in the same class that gave her access to her subjects, but not protection once the images became public and some balked at the attention. For a country of extreme inequality, the images are audacious. In one photograph, a young woman in an opulent house shows off her platform tennis shoes above the mane of a taxidermy lion. In the foreground there’s a golden rooster, and almost everything else is corniced. (The inanity reminds me of a photograph by Lauren Greenfield that a college acquaintance kept framed on his mantle. Greenfield had photographed him and two friends at sixteen wearing togas and laurel wreaths as they stared at a centerfold of a naked woman.)
Reading this issue brought to mind the South African Pieter Hugo’s recent photographs from Mexico, which he made in a series of visits over the course of two years. Compared to the contextually rich photography shown in Aperture, Hugo seems to have gone in for raw materials alone. His images are straightforward—they depict people or objects among recognizable markers of Mexican culture—but his direction is sometimes so heavy that the subject matter is excised from anything around it. The photograph itself, or the photographer, becomes of primary importance.
Some of the most playful images in the Aperture issue belong to Gabriel Orozco, whose worn chairs, restaurant knives, and cinder blocks are the grace notes of running an errand. His camera tends to point down, like someone reluctant to make eye contact, and there are no people. When he does look up, he goes all the way, placing the sun in the center of the frame. In an essay by María Minera, she writes that one of his photographs is “collateral, in that it accompanies a cultural event,” making the agreeable implication that a cultural event can be something as simple as strolling around town observing the eddies of urban life.
In considering Orozco’s idea of found art, Minera further emphasizes photography’s secondary role: “Here we are seeing an image act as a transportable doppelgänger of a momentary sculpture.” The real subject, whatever it is, exists outside of the camera. Photography is a vehicle, and in this issue of Aperture, a way to get a view into a vast and varied city.
Brian Harkin is a photographer in Mexico City.
Featured image (at top): Graciela Iturbide, Carro (Car), 1972. From Aperture magazine, Issue #236, Fall 2019, “Mexico City,” courtesy the artist.