The formal beauty of monochrome photography often supersedes its contexts. This can be as troubling as it is pleasing, as a new exhibition of senior Mexican photographers Graciela Iturbide, Antonio Caballero and Enrique Metinides at Nicholas Metivier Gallery in Toronto suggests. Throughout the trio’s impressive, diverse bodies of work, the grace and style of the mid-century black-and-white image prevail—across subject matter that is, by turns, tawdry, joyous and anthropological. One gets a sense, not so much of life being performed for the camera, but of the photographer performing life for her or his viewers.
The exhibition is a study of contrasts. On one side there is Antonio Caballero, whose large-format work is, in its mise en scène, highly and gloriously dated: clearly it comes from the 1960s and 1970s. It also seems, due to its willful and evident construction, confidently contemporary. A significant portion of it, which fills Metivier’s front gallery, was, in fact, printed in 2010. Caballero did work for Mexican fotonovelas—magazines that told soap operas in the style of comic books, but through photographs rather than drawings. The original work, back then, was printed small (as a narrative wall installation of older prints at Metivier indicates), but, due to the recent unearthing of negatives, has been reproduced at a larger scale, revealing Caballero’s powerful filmic vision (he produced, adapted and directed many of the fotonovela stories as well as photographing them) and lush artistry. “Camp” and “kitsch” are decent descriptors, but it is important to note that Caballero’s work is part of a storytelling process, and thus not so much about mimicry as about titillation and intrigue. There is a sense of ingenuousness and authenticity here, which startles as much as it entertains.
Caballero began as a photojournalist, and the two other photographers in this exhibition have direct and indirect ties to the trade as well. If Caballero’s work is an emotional construction, Graciela Iturbide’s is a sociological one. Iturbide—whose work is renowned, especially in her native country—seems inspired by Dorothea Lange, Sebastiao Salgado and other photographers who aim to lend a sense of lyricism to the disenfranchised or marginalized. In Iturbide’s case, this practice focuses on Mexico’s indigenous populations. The work of Enrique Metinides, which concludes the show in Metivier’s rear-office space, is, unlike Iturbide’s and Caballero’s, dehumanizing. It is also the most definitively journalistic: Metinides took photographs of car crashes in Mexico City for a publication aptly titled Nota Roja (Bloody news). Still, the photographs, with their depictions of twisted metal, mangled victims and swarms of onlookers, turn blemished reality into metonym—their wreckage encapsulating the broader dynamics of a crippling, chaotic modern metropolis.