Monday, December 10, 2007

Enrique Metinides from Ridinghouse and The Photographer's Gallery

I have heard Enrique Metinides referred to as the ‘Mexican Weegee’ linking him to Arthur Fellig, the famous New York crime photographer of the 1930’s and 40’s. I think this is understandable since, if you photograph crime scenes or accidents well, the comparison is just waiting to be made. But ultimately, that comparison doesn’t allow Metinides to be his own man. Metinides photographed for Mexico City’s daily paper La Prensa and other ‘notas rojos’ tabloids that depicted the suffering, catastrophe and violent deaths of mostly average citizens. The book, Enrique Metinides, published by Ridinghouse in collaboration with The Photographer’s Gallery in London brings together 73 of his photographs spanning over thirty years.

Metinides started photographing at twelve. The son of a camera salesman, it almost seemed inevitable that one would fall into his hands. The fact that he would specialize in photographing crime scenes and accidents later in life was also as fortuitous as his childhood home sat on a street corner that was plagued by car accidents and pedestrian deaths.

Similar to Weegee, Metinides kept a radio tuned in to the frequencies used by the Red Cross and police- making himself available to cover any breaking news at all hours. And interestingly, when 23, he developed a system of codes for the Red Cross so that any situation could be explained in a matter of seconds.

Not surprising, Metinides’ photographs cover a wide swath of catastrophe from building fires, bus and airplane crashes to accidental electrocutions, drownings and suicides. Many of his images seem to tease at the idea of the existence of fate or at least a desire to explain the sudden appearance of death. Disasters will happen, what is not easy to divine is what leads up to them crossing with our lives. (After seeing a man get hit by a falling air conditioner, I often think of the seemingly insignificant fractions of time that can be contributing factors between life and death.) My older brother, when promising to follow through with retribution used to perversely warn, “when you least expect it…expect it.”

Mexico, as a part of the culture, rejoices in mocking and making fun of death but in this collection, the spectators on the scene seem to be looking for clues that unlock the mysteries of the circumstance. In Geoff Dyer’s fine introduction, he speaks of them (and us) as participating in a kind of vicarious participation. As he states: “The gathered crowds often have something in common with the people glimpsed in the background of photos of fisherman who has the good fortune to land a record-breaking marlin.”

Two of the most saddening photos are of suicides. One is an attempt caught mid-drama and the other is after the fact. In the first, a woman stands on the ledge of a building while rescue workers try to talk her down. Shot from street level and looking up, the woman is such a small part of the photographic frame yet her taut body language carries the weight of the picture. The second photo I mentioned is of a woman after she has hung herself in Chapultepec Park, Mexico City‘s equivalent of Central Park. This photo (see my composite above) has a tone that is so lonely I can hardly stand looking at it. The small detail of her handbag, hung for safety-sake around head and shoulder is a heartbreakingly human touch that is both confusing and yet entirely understandable. If she was knowingly going to die then why not put the purse on the ground?

The most famous image from Metinides is of a woman killed by a white Datsun while crossing the street. Her body is contorted and held awkwardly aloft by a fallen lamp post while her open eyes and blank expression belie the violence that had just taken place. It is often this reality is stranger than fiction quality that gives some of the images an intensely dark touch of humor.

Published in 2003, the book is nothing much to get really excited about with its straight forward design but it isn’t the worst home for a group of photos. Both the color and black and white reproductions read very well. It includes essays by Geoff Dyer and Nestor Garcia Canclini and an interview between Enrique Metinides and Gabriel Kuri.

Buy online at The Photographer’s Gallery