Thursday, March 19, 2009

Gabriel Figueroa

For images in Mexican art that defined that country's artistic heritage, the names of Diego Rivera, Jose Clemente Orozco, Frida Kahlo, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Jose Guadalupe Posada, might spring to mind before the name of Gabriel Figueroa. I couldn't recall hearing Figueroa's name before but turns out he was responsible for the amazing cinematography one of my favorite films, Los Olvidados by Luis Buñuel as well as some of the greatest images to appear in popular culture. A new book from Editorial RM and Luna Cornea puts the life's work of one of Mexico's most accomplished artists in perspective.

Figueroa, born in 1907 studied photography and worked as a portrait photographer from 1927-1932. It was in a studio named Brooklyn that he worked under Jose Guadalupe Velasco, an early pioneer in artificial lighting and retouching negatives. Figueroa would put what he learned to good use when he opened his own studio that would gain fast recognition as the place for actresses and actors to have their portraits done. While fine-tuning his craft, he was introduced to many of the principle cinematographers in the nascent Mexican film industry.

By August of 1936 he had worked on several films as a key grip, still photographer, camera operator and assistant cameraman and finally had been given the chance as a director of photography on the film Allá en el Rancho Grande. His new found role as director of photography would become his main career for the next 50+ years and make him one of the most recognized artists working behind a camera.

At over 600 pages, Gabriel Figueroa is a complete trip through the history of Mexican film and photography. Beyond, the films he worked on, the most well known Mexican photographers; Nacho Lopez, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Hector Garcia, Augustin Jimenez, Antonio Reynoso were all associates of Figueroa. In the case of Bravo, they worked together while Bravo was employed as a still photographer on several of the films. Bravo, as is known, was initially fascinated with filmmaking and explored making films himself but only completed one. His film on the day-today life on the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, Diasparos en el Istmo was shown at the Mexican Film Club in 1935.

Besides the classic Mexican cinema that Figueroa was responsible - Cantinflas films, many of Luis Buñuel's films shot in Mexico - he also worked with the directors John Huston (Under the Volcano), Don Seigel and the famous Sergei Eisenstein on the unfinished masterpiece ¡Que Viva Mexico! where Figueroa is credited with the cinematography alongside that of the legendary Eduard Tisse.

For those of you who do not know the photography quarterly Luna Cornea out of Mexico City, these are dense books that usually either feature several different works brought together under a theme or dedicated to the examination of one artist's life's work. They have produced individual volumes on Hector Garcia, last year saw one on Nacho Lopez, and this year, Gabriel Figueroa. All follow the same format although these more recent books have been cased in hardcover boards. Past issues of Luna Cornea were only released in softcover. Nicely printed, these are important contributions to the study of many artists whose work should be more well known outside of Mexico.

Each book is Spanish language with English translations appearing in the back. Unfortunately not all of the texts are always completely translated so brush up on your Spanish for the full experience. Highly recommended. If anyone happens to be visiting Mexico City, the Centro de Imagen has a bookshop where back issues of Luna Cornea can be found for around 5-8 dollars depending on the issue. Also, the street directly in front of the Center is lined with dozens of outdoor booksellers. I've never found anything overwhelming there but it is always worth a look.