21 December 2006

Enrique Metinides

In The New York Tines today there is a report by Michael Kimmelman on an exhibition at the Anton Kern Gallery (NYC) of work by Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides. The pictures deal almost exclusively with random and "senseless" death and violence and suffering. The first of the images here (both © Enrique Metinides) shows the bad ending of a training flight that killed both student and instructor. The second records the grief of men at an undisclosed tragedy. And these are hardly among the most gory and graphic of his photographs.

What are we to make of this work? It brings to mind a criticism that Susan Sontag leveled at Diane Arbus.
"Arbus photographs people in various degrees of unconscious or unaware relation to their pain, their ugliness. This necessarily limits what kinds of horrors she might have been drawn to photograph; it excludes sufferers who presumably know they are suffering, like victims of accidents, wars, famines, and political persecutions. Arbus would never have taken pictures of accidents, events that break into life; she specialized in slow-motion private smashups, most of which had been going on since the subject’s birth."
Sontag faults Arbus for rendering "history and politics irrelevant," for remaining resolutely "not interested in ethical journalism," for "concentrating on victims, on the unfortunate - but without the compassionate purpose that such a subject is expected to serve." Well, compassion is perhaps not the appropriate motivation for a political project. But what of Metinides' lifelong project of recording accidents and personal tragedy? There is no sense in which it is political. Is it ethical? Kimmelman claims that "sometimes" the photographs register compassion, but "not too much." So, if ethics centrally involves compassion (a contestable claim) it hardly is ethical either.

Some time back I posted on a short essay by Susie Linfield in which she asks about the market for pictures of atrocity. She has in mind photographs of war and famine and other large scale, man-made disasters. And she wonders aloud what would prompt someone to buy and own such an image. Here the question presses itself even harder insofar as Metinides records the random and arbitrary things that befall individuals - car crashes and accidents and so forth. What would prompt someone to buy and own graphic images of such fatalities? These are not Arbus' images "slow-motion, private smashups," they reveal the excruciating outcome of real time catastrophes, making certain they are put on public display, depriving those involved, alive or dead, of privacy and solitude and whatever dignity that might afford them. Why would someone choose to buy such an image? Why would someone spend a lifetime recording them? I am perplexed.

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Blogger Stan B. said...

The very nature of photography is to record that which is memorable in life- tragic, joyous, whatever... different strokes for different folks. You can argue, analyze and dissect it all you want- but ultimately you'll just come full circle.

22 December, 2006 14:47  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why would someone choose to buy such an image? Why would someone spend a lifetime recording them? I am perplexed.

i like the questions you're asking. these are the kinds of things i ask often...

photos like this, to me, are problematic. i mean, what is really accomplished by showing image after image of something like this? all context and story is stripped, and the narrative is reduced to a very narrow meaning.

the work of this guy is interesting, i think, but limited. yes, death and tragedy grab your attention, but after a time the audience will burn out, since that's not really the way things play out in life; there is always more to it than the tragic moments this guy depicts. also, there is the fact that not all death is tragic, gruesome, or violent. his presentation is sensationalist, one-sided.

i have no idea why someone would spend a lifetime recording things like that. it would drive me insane, literally. it smacks of obsession to me, somewhat, kind of like the work of arbus. something personal there being worked out, explored.

glad i found your site by the way. i like what you've got going on here.

23 December, 2006 00:30  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Stan & Ryan. Thanks for the comments. I am still perplexed. Here is why. Metinides doesn't go out and try to capture (as Stan says) "whatever;" he is seemingly obssessed solely with the arbitrary disasters and calamities that befall others. He is not concerned with the random or even the predictable joys others might experience (for instance). Perhaps one might say he is trying to remind us of our common humanity, of our susceptibility to such arbitrary, meaningless tribulations. He clearly is a talented photographer - that is not my complaint at all. It is his relentlessness in picturing the suffering of others that I find inpenetrable. And part of my difficulty is that, as I mentioned in the post, these are people to whom tragedy is largely individual and unsystematic- not those who are part of some larger population whose hardships might be remedied (by, say, building and maintaian levees or dikes). But Metinides tried systematically to capture such unsystematic pain and misfortune.

In any case, I agree with Stan that people can photograph whatever they like. But I am no more interested in Metinides images of death and injury than I am in his pictures of his own fammily gatherings (to say nothing of most photos of my own family gatherings!). I see no more justificaiton in exhibiting his photos of suffering and pain than there might be for exhibiting his (eqaully well composed, I'm sure) photos of his son's birthday party or wedding or first communion.

23 December, 2006 11:19  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

PS: Ryan, I hope you'll come by periodically.

23 December, 2006 11:20  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

hey jim. i just found your site via conscientious, and i linked up to mine. ya, i'll be around here, since im really interested in what you're talking about here.

i started off by studying photography, then about 4 years ago I switched and became a cultural anthro major, which was the perfect switch. i became a lot more interested in the kinds of ideas that you're talking about on your site...the use of imagery, thinking about what is produced by it, etc. im pretty interested in keeping an eye on what can be done with photography, and what is being done with it.

i do think that Metinides is talented; clealy he knows how to wield a camera. He's good. But the idea of what he is doing is a little disturbing, along the lines of Joel Peter Witkin maybe. A continual focus on death and violence, presented in a very repetitive way.

I'm not really against what he is doing, I'm just not exactly sure what the results are for his audience. And I wonder what his main intentions are vs. what people come away with.

In some ways it reminds me of TV news where they just keep showing violent imagery and the audience falls into this somewhat oversaturated stupor. At some point, there has to be an effect upon the audience, and I'm not sure if it's always good.

Salgado photographs a great deal of suffering, but then, in his writings he makes it clear that he wants to do something about it, alleviate it. I'm not sure what Metinides is trying to do with these...

I might be being somewhat irresponsible by making all of this analysis without really looking into this guy's work a little more. I think I'll have to take the time to read up on him and his work a bit before I keep sounding my mouth off.


23 December, 2006 14:36  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

on another little side note, the whole idea of copyrighting imagery like this is, to me, incredibly strange, and borderline in the ethics department.

it never seems right to me, especially since it reveals the underlying point of the image, which is the fact that people are making money from it.

23 December, 2006 14:52  
Blogger Stan B. said...

That Ansel Adams, always taking those nature photos... what was he trying to prove?

24 December, 2006 12:59  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


if you read some of what ansel wrote, then you'll know what he was trying to accomplish. or at least what he said he was trying to accomplish.

but then, you might take something different from his pics than he intended. everybody has their own take and impression. all part of the fun.

everyone has some kind of intention,whether it's a purely asthetic pursuit of form and bueaty along the lines of brett weston, or the more political intentions of someone like sabastao salgado.

its all good, in my opinion.

24 December, 2006 16:35  
Blogger Jim Johnson said...

Funyy you should ask Stan! On the Ansel Adams front, there is a book I posted on a short time ago by Finis Dunaway called Natural Visions and he explicitly discusses Admas and other 20th C American "nature" photographers and their attempt to use "the sublime" for reformist (environmental conservation) purposes. Whether that intention was actually fulfilled is another matter, of course. But the intent was there - Adams was not simply making pretty pictures.

One might ask the same sort of question and come up with a similar interpretation of the contemporary Adams (Robert) .... so too with contemporary Europeans like Josef Koudelka - although he seems to have a considerably bleaker vision ...

Have a good holiday all.

24 December, 2006 17:04  
Blogger Stan B. said...

Exactly- all good! And Happy to all!

24 December, 2006 21:40  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


ya, ansel wasn't just going around taking pretty pics...hence the meetings reagan, etc.

25 December, 2006 11:42  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"with" reagan that is...

happy holidays; i need some coffee. hehe.

25 December, 2006 11:43  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

metinides took such photos orginally to make a living he started working at the age of 14 for la prensa and and this style of photography known as nota roja is what is in most demaind in mexico, he had the job for 50 years and in comparision to many other photographer in the mexican press metinides is work is greatly composed and he also captures the over all seen and the

08 January, 2007 08:19  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps Im too late to join in this discussion but I have just read your posts and wanted to put in my perspective, having studied Metinides work for my MA Thesis.

In response to why someone would record these subjects and what they accomplish you have to take into account the nature of living in a place like Mexico City, one of the most inhabited cities in the world. I look at Metinides images and relentless recording as an attempt to bring order to the chaos of the city, and a way of understanding the senselessness and arbitrary nature of fate. Many of the events/lives he records would otherwise pass by into insignificance. He elevates these events, affording every human life (and death) importance. In this way I find his work very compassionate. The image gives the event and the life long lasting resonance, and the stripping away of context serves to universalise these very personal dramas.

To dismiss the images as sensational misses the point of his work entirely. Why are images of tragedy only worthy if they illustrate a problem that needs to be fixed? Is this some sort of Western ideal of bringing aid to those less fortunate? Tragedy depicted for tragedy's sake is far more interesting and far less likely to be treated/viewed in the nonchalant, disinterested way in which we consume media images of war and disaster. The sensationalist nature of his photographic style serves to give us a shock, a jolt to take us out of this mindset and really start looking.

If we can get away from the negative and uncomfortable side of voyeuristic viewing which tells us that we should not be looking at these images unless we can heal or allieviate the pain experienced by others we can start to see the surreal beauty and skilled compositional quality of his body of work.

20 July, 2007 06:24  

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