New York

Enrique Metinides

Visitors to Enrique Metinides’s recent show at Anton Kern Gallery were greeted by a sign warning, “Due to gruesome content parental discretion is advised.” The admonition was something of an oddity—not just because of its unexpected deployment amid the array of “inappropriate” things on view in Chelsea at any given time, but because it seemed to have more to do with the reputation of the artist’s lurid métier than with the carefully considered, generally restrained work actually shown here.

Metinides was Mexico’s most famous and finest crime photographer, a man who spent fifty years documenting violence and death for the millions who follow la nota roja, or “the bloody news.” A precocious child known even today, in his seventies, as “El Niño” (The Kid), Metinides spent his youth tagging along with fire trucks and photojournalists and reportedly snapped his first picture of a corpse when he was only twelve. Later, he worked as a volunteer for an ambulance squad so he could be first to arrive on the scene, toting the daylight flash and wide-angle lenses that gave his images their uniquely cinematic ambience.

Metinides retired in 1993; ten years later, his work found its way to the art world via a show at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. And the twenty images on view at Kern offer ample evidence of why he so easily made the transition from the infamously “low” to the famously “high”—his flawless eye for detail repeatedly captures moments of elegiac stillness amid the fresh chaos of fatal misfortune. The show’s most searing images lend everyday tragedy an almost classical air. His untitled photo from 1958, for example, described on the checklist as depicting “Jesus Bazaldua Barber, a telecommunications engineer, fatally electrocuted by more than 60,000 volts whilst installing a new phone line,” shows the charred body of a man cradled by the power lines that have just killed him—a deposition icon whose crucifixion takes place against a modern sky crisscrossed with cables. Across the room is a kind of bookend scenario: a woman who has committed suicide, her body hanging limply from a noose beneath “the tallest tree in Chapultepec Park,” recalling the fate of the betrayer of another Jesus.

Yet despite the blunt calamity of these “shock photos” it is, pace Roland Barthes, in the vivid punctum of each—the telephone worker’s anachronistically creased trousers and dress shoes, the woman’s handbag still slung across her shoulder like that of a shopper in line at the supermercado—that their full feeling seeps through. Small instances of poignancy suffuse nearly all of Metinides’s pictures, no matter how awful their subject matter—the red pump of the wife who weeps beside her slain husband; the gold bangle on the wrist of the woman killed in a traffic accident, her body draped over a light pole like a broken mannequin; the clasped hands of the policeman surveying the rag-doll body of the suicidal jumper.

On the whole, these are troubling, often deeply sad images, but rarely sensationalistic ones. So was the photographer an exquisite outlier in the world of the nota roja—imagine unearthing an Henri Cartier-Bresson among the crude paparazzi in the National Enquirer—or was what we saw here a strategically chosen aspect of his oeuvre? Perhaps both are true. Either way, Metinides’s images are unforgettable: not because they do the easy work of provoking revulsion with their gruesomeness, but because they accomplish the much harder task of evoking empathy through their fundamental humanity.

Jeffrey Kastner