A Shadow Born of Earth: New Photography in Mexico

by Elizabeth Ferrer

ISBN: 0917418964

This book is a catalogue for an exhibition of the same name that toured mostly in the American west and midwest in the early and mid-nineties. The production values were quite high, and it weighs in at a little over 140 pages.

I’m suspicious of any collection that aims to provide a survey of what I would think is such vast territory. Can you imagine less than 200 pages devoted to new work by contemporary American or English or French photographers? So I picked up this book (remaindered tables are a wonderful thing) hoping to find interesting work, more than I expected an accurate primer on Mexican photography.

Yet I wish it had been shorter — not the volume itself, just Ferrer’s textual explications. She was at her best when presenting more factual information, such as the time period different photographers worked in or the organization of artists’ groups. She could be grating when writing about particular photographs. I was frequently reminded of Robert Adams’s statement that the ideal book of photography — for photographers, at least — would have no words. The “‘substantial’ texts” that get printed along with the photographs result, Adams feels, in a concoction sandwiched “between slabs of social-scientific balloon bread.”

“The photographs of the Hidalgo series are powerful social documents because they testify to the remarkable resiliency of people living in a world that offers them few prospects for better their lives.” “These photographs document the growing prevalence of “gringo” (United States) culture in Mexico…” “Song of the Heart reflects a stance toward femininity that is both emotional and analytical. By utilizing lipstick and a kitchen knife as props, Gonz&#225lez symbolizes the traditional yardsticks by which women have been judged: either for their physical attractiveness or for their domestic skills.”

I mean, could these explanations add anything? Does it make you want to go look at the pictures? The photographs from Hidalgo series by Alicia Ahumada reprinted here are strong enough — and more interesting — without the viewer being told they are “powerful social documents.” As for “gringo” (since when does that need to be explained, or in quotes?) culture, that is made painfully obvious enough already by the content of Lourdes Grobet’s photographs. In one American, Mexican, and Texan flags fly in front of McDonald’s golden arches; a giant Coke billboard is shown behind a statue in another. Just in case the viewer doesn’t get it, they are both from a series called What Conquest Are We Talking About? And as for the “stance toward femininity” — that explanation just sucks the life out of Laura Gonz&#225lez’s photographs. The visual compelling (twelve color images set in a grid) and the time lapse between the images make clear the progression of the story they tell.

Really, what I liked best about the text was one thing I couldn’t fully appreciate: the column on the left was in English, the column on the right in Spanish. This was appropriate, given that the intended audience for this exhibition catalog could be fluent in either Spanish or English (or both). (My Spanish isn’t strong enough to comment on the quality of the translation.)

There were many photographs I did like — and it was the photos that originally drew me to this book. Carlos Somonte’s fuzzy, other-worldly black and white prints invite questions and invented stories; Eniac Martínez’s work at first seems to be all about people, but then seems to be about the ways people are seen and not seen; Adolfo Pati&#241o’s paper and print collages and Pablo Ortiz Monasterio’s manipulated prints both raise questions about what “counts” as photography, about how it can be used and still called photography.

More photographs, and more photographs reproduced at larger sizes would have been welcome, though I suppose that would be the case for any book where I liked the images. I suppose it is more obvious in this volume, because more weight was given to text than was necessary.

I am interested in reading through collections like because it helps me to analyze what it is that I find attractive, compelling, or somehow moving in photographs; it gets me thinking about what “counts” as photography and why I or others think that, and lastly it gives me ideas for own my (beginning) photographic expression.

If you have similar interests, this book is worth checking out — just read it for the pictures.

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