Amazing but True

Three photographers choose Spain and Latin America as their subjects, with breathtaking results

Last spring, as part of a New York Timesseries titled "Writers on Writing," mystery novelist and satirist Carl Hiaasen groused about what must rank as one of the central artistic problems of the late 20th century.

"Real life," Hiaasen noted, "is getting way too funny and far-fetched...Fact is routinely more fantastic than fiction." Like many artists, Hiaasen looks to real life as inspiration for his deliciously twisted fiction, and it is a source he finds increasingly hard to crib. "These days writers of satire must be exceptionally choosy about their material, and their targets," Hiaasen warns, for "true life is inclined to trump you"; more and more, he says, reality is perfectly absurd. Thus many a true-life imbroglio will never have the chance to be embellished in a novel. Often, the bizarre stuff of everyday life simply "cannot be improved upon."

Hiaasen argues that the dilemma is borne of living and working in south Florida, where the sublimely surreal is just one more natural resource, like oranges and election fraud. But he is wrong. The hyper-absurdity of life presents a conundrum for anyone in the business of creating fiction, in writing or on canvas. In an age in which characters like Monica Lewinsky, Idi Amin, and Ross Perot walk the Earth, what role is left for the artist's imagination?

“Maria Veronica Is Dead,” a 1988 photo by Flor Garduño, now on display at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery.
“Maria Veronica Is Dead,” a 1988 photo by Flor Garduño, now on display at Photographs Do Not Bend Gallery.
“Way to the Cemetery,” another 1988 photo by Flor Garduño
“Way to the Cemetery,” another 1988 photo by Flor Garduño

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Indeed, the stranger-than-fiction phenomenon has wrought special havoc in the visual arts. Painting long ago lost its ability to shock, to outrage; in short, to move the vox populi. Nowadays, the shocking, moving stuff takes place in the realm of the real--territory ceded to photography 150 years back. To a large degree, contemporary art is all about responses to this problem; thus we get pickled sheep and basketballs suspended in fish tanks and chocolate-coated performance artists. The failure of these strategies was shown up by the 1999 squall over the Brooklyn Museum's "Sensation" show; not even Mayor Rudolph Giuliani's full demagogic fury could rouse the rabble to more than a brief yawn. If you want to create a real sensation, your best bet is the camera. Hang some homoerotic Mapplethorpe or a picture of a crucifix in urine or even nude shots of 12-year-old girls, and watch the fun begin.

Thus it is no accident that many contemporary artists dabble in emulsion. Yet the finest photographic art is still being turned out not in the art world's high-rent districts, but by the working stiffs, photojournalists such as the three included in Parallel Journeys, the current show at Photographs Do Not Bend.

As the title suggests, PDNB's show presents the work of three women engaged in similar missions: capturing the lives and rituals of peasants in Mexico, Spain, and Latin America. They toil in the netherworlds of documentary photojournalism--as a wag once put it, photojournalism for the shooter "whose deadline is a hundred years hence"--seeking amazing-but-true moments, perfectly surreal pockets of medieval life that have survived into the 21st century. For the most part, they give their subjects the respect they deserve; they play it straight.

At 75, Mariana Yampolsky is the most senior of the three, and the lone gringa. Born to Russian immigrants and raised in Chicago, as a young woman Yampolsky attended the University of Chicago, where she was greatly influenced by a lecture on the Mexican mural movement given by lithographers Max Kahn and Eleanor Coen. In 1944, armed with her degree, Yampolsky went to Mexico City and, the way she tells it, immediately decided to stay. She joined the Taller de Grafica Popular, the Mexican print workshop made famous by Jose Clemente Orozco and others. She designed textbooks for the Ministry of Education. Along with the photographers Leopoldo Mendez and Manuel Alvarez Bravo, she collaborated on a book about Mexican folk art. Finally, in 1960, she took up photography herself.

In the finest tradition of the Taller, she chose the people as her subject. The humbler, the poorer, the more rural, the more they interested her. In The Edge of Time, a 1998 University of Texas monograph on her work, Yampolsky explains her fascination with Mexico, sounding a bit like an amateur anthropologist: "People, always people," she said. Yet Yampolsky's best photos are not of Mexico's inhabitants but of its landscape--implacable, harsh, and unspeakably beautiful. In pictures such as "Entrance to the Cemetery" and "The Water Tower," one sees only the dead and their edifices, standing silent against the desert and the mountains. Thus we feel the timelessness and desperation of the people who toil against this terrible landscape, full of majesty and death. Similarly, it is the very smallness of the girl huddled in "First Communion," lost amid the cobblestones and adobe of an ancient village, that says volumes about her life. As in most of Yampolsky's photographs, the people and the setting are virtually untouched by time; this photo could have been taken yesterday or 50 years ago.

This is terribly romantic stuff, evoking the mood of film noir or the hard-boiled detective novel, the sort of "realism" that writers like Raymond Chandler and directors like John Huston sought to create, full of death and squalor and sorrow and redemption. Especially this last. "In everything that can be called art," Chandler once wrote, "there is an element of redemption," and documentary photojournalism such as Yampolsky's is no less art for being true. For her part, Yampolsky claims not to be interested in the question. "It's not important to me if something is art or not. When I see a photograph that moves me, I don't wonder if it's art but rather how vital these people are, captured by the wizardry of someone like Henri Cartier-Bresson or Eugene Smith. It doesn't occur to me to ask whether or not something is documentary or any of the other labels people tend to put on photography."

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