Isabel Muñoz

Galerie Jean-Pierre Lambert: Cour Intérieure

The only photograph in Isabel Muñoz’s “Tango” series that has a title is The Woman with the Red Shoes, 1989, an elegant black-and-white fragment of a couple dancing on a strip of Buenos Aires sidewalk. Muñoz saw the woman (and her shoes) dancing in a flea market the first day she arrived in Buenos Aires; she found her again in a stage show and convinced her to pose. But the result is hardly a portrait: the camera angle is high, the depth of field is shallow, and the woman and her partner are cut off above the hips. The image, like the dance, is a distilled metaphor of seduction: the thrust of a leg, the grasp of a hand, the jaunty bow of a dancing shoe. In other photographs, but only rarely, the full figures of the dancers are seen; in one image, there is even an onlooker, standing in a doorway, unaware that he has become a part of the picture as he watches a retro-clad couple recreate their dance to the music of a portable cassette player. More often, though, Muñoz has chosen to heighten the artifice with truncated bodies, provocative poses, dramatic lighting, and, in a number of studio shots, the juxtaposition of costumed and nude models.

“This is not a history of the tango,” Muñoz insists. “It is my tango.” And her tango, she has explained, is a dance with photography, a dance with the medium in its palpable, physical state. Like an earlier series of fragmented figures that she called “Toques” (Touches, 1986), the tango photos are large-format contact prints made directly from enlarged negatives; this accounts for the extraordinary definition of the image. Similarly, the quality of the textures and tones—deep, satiny blacks, luminous whites, metallic grays—comes from printing on watercolor papers that Muñoz herself prepares with platinum or albumen emulsion.

She began experimenting with these and other nonindustrial processes as a student at the Foto-Centro in Madrid, where she has lived since 1970. In the mid ’80s, after establishing herself as a commercial photographer and photojournalist, she made several visits to the United States to study with specialists in the historical techniques that have been bypassed by modern technology. Since then, she has pursued the image of seduction and the seductiveness of the image as a single project.

In this very large but unconventional gallery space (the exhibit was sponsored by Jean-Pierre Lambert but held at the Cour Interieure because of the scale of the photos), there is still something of a high-fashion look about Muñoz’s arrested figures, exquisitely stylized in their contrasts of flesh and fabric, curve and angle, male and female. But in their incompleteness, they are both so mysteriousand so modest that the advertising esthetic is completely subverted: there is no story, no sex, no sell. Rather (and this is what no reproduction can hope to reproduce), there is the pure sensuality of the image. If, as Muñoz suggests, her artisanal pursuit of the perfect tones and textures recalls the medieval alchemist, there is a very contemporary logic behind her practice, which involves the rehumanization of a mechanically produced image. In this sense, she has not only created “her” tango, but also “her” photography.

Miriam Rosen

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