28 November 2012

Photography in Mexico at SF MOMA

‘Photography in Mexico’ at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art spans a century of photographic history, including Mexican photographers as well as outsiders’ visions of Mexico. Opening with the work of Tina Modotti and Edward Weston in the 1920s, the exhibit traces how photographers responded to cultural and political changes in the country. The show devotes substantial space to luminaries like Manuel Alvarez Bravo and Graciela Iturbide, but includes a number of lesser known artists as well.

On a recent visit, I was especially intrigued by the final two rooms of the exhibit. As the layout follows a roughly chronological order, the first half of the exhibit emphasizes familiar historical images, scenes of striking workers and village festivals. But more recently, contemporary Mexican photographers have turned the rapidly changing landscape itself into a subject of study. Alejandro Cartajena documents the rapid urbanization of the landscape around Monterrey. Rows of identical houses appear like a movie set, freshly painted but seemingly uninhabited. And Victoria Sambunaris shows how the desert landscape has been altered by the border wall that cuts through it.

These images are no longer unique to Mexico. Cartajena’s suburbia could just as easily be set Spain, Morocco, or any other dry landscape that has attracted property speculators. The tension here is not merely between an old way of life and new, but between humanity and nature.

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