Strand's images from Mexico can be roughly grouped into four subject matter genres: portraits of people, landscapes, architectural details, and images of religious folk sculptures and icons. Many of the essays in the accompanying monograph see these images coming together to provide a portrait of the country's character, or as a visual document of a specific place and time, and I think that analysis has some validity; as a whole, when seen in sequence, Strand's photographs have clearly captured an interplay of cultural and natural forces that coalesces into a common environmental mood. What I found most striking was the mixing of documentary and artistic sensibilities, where Strand's rigorous aesthetic control has been combined with the emotional suffering of the religious artifacts, the severity of the land and its buildings, and a subtle patina of nationalist fervor.
To my eye, the portraits of the people (whether we call them local, indigenous, native, or just the rural poor) are the standout pictures in this project. Men, women and children stand against pock marked brick walls and wooden doors or sit on the ground holding baskets. They wear everyday clothes: hats, capes, ponchos, cotton wraps, covered in dust and full of holes, bare feet sticking out. The images mix textures rich in tonality, and find contrasts of dark and light, with shadows slashing across backgrounds. But is the harsh power in the faces that makes them memorable; there is heroism, grace, patience, and dignity in these portraits, with an undercurrent of steely strength. The consistent dynamic quality and intensity of these photographs is truly astounding.
I am very pleased to see Aperture really pushing the scholarship ball forward here. The monograph is really a catalogue raisonné of Strand's Mexican work, documenting every single image in the Archive and providing further historical context for his relationships, influences, and activities. It is an invaluable reference tool for this specific Mexican work, and provides a surprisingly extensible framework for thinking about Strand's work in other locations around the world. So come for the show and see the unknown back story to The Mexican Portfolio, and then take home the wrist breaking book for further study.
- Reviews: New Yorker (here), Wall Street Journal (here), Artinfo (here)
- Exhibition: Bronx Museum (here)
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