Amazing but True
Last spring, as part of a New York Times series 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?
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."
Like Yampolsky, Flor Garduño focuses her lens on the lives of peasants in Mexico and South America. At 43, Garduño is the youngest and most prominent (read: expensive) of the three. The subject of a Meadows Museum show in 1993, Garduño studied at the Academy of San Carlos, the famous government-sponsored art school, and began her career as Manuel Alvarez Bravo's darkroom assistant. Garduño's work, like the other photographers', has appeared in a monograph, and many photos in the current show appear in that volume.
Unlike Yampolsky's work, however, Garduño's photos are very self-consciously "art." From conception to development, Garduño packs in as much pathos as she can. You can see it in her subjects--peasants carrying small coffins on their backs--and in the desolation, the mist, even her subjects' size, shrunken by malnourishment. You can even see it in print; Garduño's monograph gives her the full artiste treatment, with an impenetrable and criminally self-indulgent introduction by no less a literary light than Carlos Fuentes.
By and large, she lives up to the billing. Garduño's most evocative works are pictures of peasants, who are not individuals so much as ancient and indigenous archetypes. Here, an Indian Venus, there, a modern-day Mayan priest in feathered costume. Garduño dares the viewer not to be moved by the dignity, the stoicism in the people she photographs, carrying children into the mist and to the grave, or lying on woven mats dreaming ancient dreams. Even the agonized faces of carved crucifixion scenes seem to reflect real suffering. Hell yes, we're being manipulated, but when manipulation is as mesmerizing as this, who can complain?
But it is the third photographer, Cristina García Rodero, whose work steals the show. Like the others, Garca focuses on folk customs--this time of her native Spain, where the 50-year-old was born and educated, earning a master's degree in painting. Unlike the others, however, Garca has that rarest of gifts: the ability to capture what Cartier-Bresson termed "the Decisive Moment."
This talent lends Garca an astonishing range. She is equally adept at true photojournalism, say, capturing the anger and grief of a Georgian mother as she buries her son, and at work in a more documentary vein, such as a Spanish priest leaping over a gaggle of infants in an ancient rite designed to deliver them from evil. In photographs such as "The Powers of the Soul," she manages to pack a narrative into 1/400th of a second. And she has a keen eye for the absurd, for the surreal, for the human. In photographs such as "The Bullfighting Team," a deadpan shot of a troupe of bullfighting dwarves, her work displays humor and perhaps even a disturbing touch, suggesting a kinder and gentler version of photographer Joel-Peter Witkin's sideshow horrors.
Garca forces us to see the sacred in the profane and the profane in the sacred, enlarging everyday juxtapositions we pretend not to see, or simply overlook. She reminds us that life produces moments far more surreal than anything concocted in the darkroom, or the studio, or in the imagination of writers. And she knows enough to play it straight. What more can we ask of great art?
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