New York

“Image and Memory: Latin American Photography 1880–1992”

While the clichéd title “Image and Memory” could be (and has been) applied to photography shows from virtually anywhere, the subtitle “Latin American Photography, 1880–1992,” for an exhibition of 141 photographs from nine countries, was clearly a misnomer. The idea that anyone could do justice in a show of this size to the whole field of Latin American photography from the dawn of the medium to the present is unrealistic at best, and arrogantly condescending at worst. In her introduction to the exhibition brochure, curator Wendy Watriss attempts to take herself off the hook with the extraordinary claim that “as there is no such thing as a Latin American identity, there are no paradigms within its photographic art.” If there are no examples or models, and no comparisons to be made in Latin American photography, then why in the world would one bother to organize a show such as this? Unfortunately, the absence of paradigms did not prevent the curator from organizing the show into thirteen overdetermined thematic sections (five historic and eight modern), from “The Opening of the Frontier” and “Crossing of Cultures” to “The Afro-Caribbean Heritage” and “On the Edge—Venezuela—New Visions, 1987–1990.” This, added to a confusing layout, resulted in an indecipherable tangle, seemingly without beginning or end.

Baffling curatorial maneuverings aside, there were a number of extraordinary images to be seen here, in both the historical and the contemporary sections. In Martín Chambi’s Luis Vélasco Aragón Speaking to the Butchers’ Union, 1928, a young man engulfed in huge heavenly white collars is caught midvowel in his address to the assembled butchers, who surround him, hands in their laps, trying gamely to attend to his speech but unable to take their eyes off the camera. The early portraiture of Chambi, a photographer active in Cuzco, Peru, from about 1920 to the early ’50s who was featured in a full-scale 1979 MoMA retrospective, is a testament to anti-colonial indigenista consciousness in Peru. In Juan Manuel Figueroa-Aznar’s Kero Indian Playing the Quena, 1915, the Kero model, barely able to keep a straight face, reclines like some woodland nymph before a lovely painted backdrop, its edges clearly visible. Many of these early portraits from Peru revel with penetrating wit and directness in their own utter artificiality.

Other historical work stands out. The boom years of Medellin, Colombia, produced extraordinary works by Meliton Rodriguez, Benjamin de la Calle, and Jorge Obando. Obando used a Cirkut Kodak panoramic camera to photograph a political demonstration in 1946. The stillness of the crowd filling the streets of Medellin is haunting, coming as it does on the eve of the bloody peasant wars in Colombia that stretched from 1948 to 1957, in which nearly two hundred thousand people died.

It has been said that the 1979–91 war in El Salvador was one of the most photographed in history. The Salvadoran opposition kept a secret archive of photographs—eventually numbering over eighty thousand—documenting the crimes of the government. The small selection shown here was effective and sobering. In an image from November 1989, a prisoner slumps in a corner with his hands tied behind his back and a black scarf covering his head. To protect their lives and those of their families, the photographers of these images remain anonymous.

The contemporary selections were uneven in quality, and organized into vague and arbitrary categories. But there were enough eye-openers to make the whole worthwhile. Fernell Franco’s “Prostitute Series,” 1972, exhibited a mixture of voyeurism and frankness not unlike that found in E.J. Bellocq’s Storyville portraits. Miguel Rio Branco’s photographs exude a dark lyricism that comes as much from his handling of supersaturated and blended colors as from his street-scene subjects. Flor Garduño’s classic black and white documentary images have lost none of their brilliance, while Alexander Apostol seems to be drawing photography back out through the birth canal, all scars, blood, and potential.

David Levi Strauss