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by Kathryn Garcia
Enrique Metinides, Apr. 15-May 13, 2006, at Blum & Poe, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., Los Angeles, Ca. 90034

Sometimes it seems like Mexico City is built on layers of death, first the sacrifices of the sun-worshipping Aztecs, then the Spanish genocide in the name of Christ. Today, modern life adds another layer -- the violence, crime and suffering that permeate the world’s most populous city.

Such contemporary catastrophes are the subjects of Enrique Metinides (b. 1934), the Mexico City photojournalist who has an intuitive aptitude for framing compellingly gruesome images. Since age 12, he has dedicated his life to tabloid photography, snapping shots for La Prensa as well as following tragedy as employee of the Red Cross, capturing some of the darkest aspects of human existence.

More recently Metinides has entered the world of fine art, with several exhibitions at Kurimanzutto gallery in Mexico City and now a show at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles. Spanning 50 years of Mexico -- and 50 years of catastrophe -- via 47 works in sepia, black-and-white and color, the outstanding retrospective is, surprisingly, the photographer’s first solo show in the U.S.

Asked about what sets his work apart, the artist stated, "The picture of a fire -- anyone can do that. The thing is to capture the light of the flames upon the faces of the witnesses." Metinides’ photos often capture the hordes of onlookers, unified and mesmerized by disaster. His focus isn't only on the isolation of tragedy, but also on the ways that trauma forces human interaction. Shown together here, his photos convey a vision of humanity snatched narrowly from unrelenting, inhuman calamity.

In Untitled (Un voluntario rescata una mujer herida de un accidente de un autobús, México, D.F.) (1970), a hero stands before a mute crowd, facing Metinides’ lens, holding a woman in his arms (the title tells us she has just been saved from a bus accident). The image captures a stunned sense of community, a tragedy and a chance for heroics.

Untitled (Rescate mujer desmayada, Ciudad de México) (1965) is a black-and-white image of a busy street, with a fainted woman supported by a faceless bystander and flanked by Red Cross workers tending to her. Her hand still firmly clutches her purse. The photo has a sense of chaos, with gazes shooting in different directions. But what seems important is that the face of her rescuer is hidden, conveying the simultaneous anonymity of the vast metropolis as well as the potential of crisis to crystallize a community.

Tabloid photography is notoriously ruthless, and Metinides often betrays a compulsion that overflows the controlled parameters of the ordinary onlooker. A famous biographical anecdote has it that the photographer’s house is filled with hundreds of photographs, a collection of over 250 video cassettes that document car crashes, rape and murder, along with several TVs simultaneously broadcasting coverage of similar themes.

Thus, in a particularly cinematic color photograph, Primer plano de mujer rubia arollada y impactada contre un poste, en avenida Chapultepec, ciudad de Mexico (1979), a beautiful blond-haired woman’s lifeless body lies across a toppled metal pole, obviously thrown from her vehicle. Her dead eyes are open, gazing up past the camera. Blood drips across her cheeks; her limbs are skewed, broken. A Red Cross worker stands behind, preparing to drape the body with a blanket. It’s the sort of thing that Jean-Luc Godard used as an amoral, nihilistic contemporary backdrop in Weekend (1967).

At the same time that they appear immediate and visceral, Metinides’ photos also display the formal economy of a professional storyteller. In a piece entitled Papeles de una novia que se dio un tiro porque su novio la dejo en al altar, we are relayed the story of a bride who has shot herself in the head after her fiancé failed to appear at their wedding -- a near-universal narrative, packed into a hazy black-and-white shot of a few bloodstained personal effects and a pistol.

Finally, Untitled (Suicida en la Torre Latino y calló en una terraza a ocho pisos antes de llegar al suelo, policía observando el cadaver) (1975) stands as a perfect metaphor for Metinides’ relation to Mexican art. The photo depicts an image of a police officer, pictured from behind, solemnly contemplating the body of a suicide victim on a rooftop.

A viewer acquainted with the Mexican capital will know that the officer stands facing a vista overlooking the (then-unfinished) Palacio de Bellas Artes Nouveau exterior, an institution which houses works by the legends of Mexican art, names like Rufino Tamayo and Diego Rivera. Across from el Palacio -- not pictured -- are Mexico City's highest modern skyscrapers, dominating the skyline.

In between these two images is Metinides’ subject, uniting an artistic past and with a dynamic present in the solemn contemplation of death.

KATHRYN GARCIA is an art writer in Los Angeles.