Detective Photography with Art

By Jesse LernerFebruary 3, 2013

Detective Photography with Art

Enrique Metinides: Series by Enrique Metinides
101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides by Enrique Metinides

All images: From 101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides (Aperture, 2012) © Enrique Metinides, courtesy 212berlin.

An exhibition of these and other images from 101 Tragedies will be on view at Aperture Gallery in New York, February 20 through March 23.


IN 1944, THE 10-YEAR-OLD Enrique Metinides received from his parents a gift that would define much of the rest of his trajectory through life: a Brownie box camera. The family lived in a Mexico City apartment near a particularly dangerous intersection, and young Enrique began to use this present to document the traffic accidents that regularly occurred on the street outside. Before long, the childhood hobby launched him on a career unique among Mexican photographers. As a fledgling photojournalist Metinides soon began to work with the legendary tabloid publisher (and photographer in his own right) Antonio “El Indio” Velazquez, who introduced him to the world of the daily press. Still a youth, he sold some of his work to Alarma!, the no-holds-barred tabloid specializing in tales of crime and tragedy that Velazquez founded in 1950. This was the start of what would prove to be a career of nearly five decades for Metinides, until he was unceremoniously dismissed from La Prensa in 1997 in the wake of a change in ownership. 

Metinides worked for the Mexico City tabloid La Prensa for most of his long career, though he also published in specialty periodicals such as Crimen, Nota roja, and Guerra al Crimen. Improbably, following his retirement, he has successfully remade himself into an art photographer, exhibiting internationally the same body of work that he previously published in the Mexican tabloids. This transformation took place over a matter of years; first the tireless photography historian and curator Alfonso Morales organized a retrospective exhibition with Mauricio Ortiz at the National University’s museum, the Museo Universitario de Artes y Ciencias, or MUAC. The accompanying catalog, El teatro de los hechos, was the first monograph devoted to Metinides’s work. From that point on his career transformation has been meteoric — a journalist swept up into the upper reaches of the art world’s stratosphere, negotiating his way as best he can. Shortly after the MUAC show he signed with a prestigious Mexico City gallery, Kurimanzutto, which in turn arranged for solo shows in London and New York, and sales to the Museums of Modern Art in New York and San Francisco. Here in Los Angeles, Blum and Poe gave him a solo show in 2006. That same year, The New York Times called his debut at Chelsea’s Anton Kern Gallery one of the best shows of the year. More shows and catalogs followed, and now, with a monograph from Aperture and a traveling retrospective, Metinides has assured his place in the canon of great photographers.

Reviewing Metinides’s unorthodox professional metamorphosis, and after an extended engagement with both the photographer and his archive, the editor of 101 Tragedies, Trisha Ziff, writes that she wondered what she “could possibly add to the mix, which has not already been said.” She decided “to move away from the historical and analytical,” and to create instead, with Metinides, “a book which would be almost like visiting his home with the reader.” In this, she has succeeded. Alongside each of the 101 tragedies — car crashes, refinery explosions, train derailments, murders, and suicide attempts — are the transcriptions of a few lines from the photographer recalling some of the particulars of each image. In these commentaries, Metinides is by turns empathetic, merely curious, and occasionally self-congratulatory. Complimenting himself on one particular composition, in which onlookers are reflected in the canal from which a murdered corpse is being recovered, he states proudly: “I call this detective photography with art.”

Above: Lake Xochimilco, Mexico City, 1960
"Someone dumped the body of this murdered man into the canal in Xochimilco.
The lifeguard, attached to a cord for his own safety, swam out to the body."


Below: Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, 1977
"Bertha Ibarra García asked a policeman to show her the oldest tree, while walking through Chapultepec Park.  Later that day, the same policeman found her hanging there and told me what had happened.  We found a note in her bag that said today was her daughter's
quinceanera (fifteenth birthday). Her daughter had been taken away when she was just nine years old and García had wanted to go to the party to see her, but the father did not let her.  A photograph of her daughter when she was nine years old was also in her bag."


In spite of what at times comes across as a jaded attitude — the sort of hard-boiled exterior one might expect from a veteran crime photographer — in other ways he is also naïve. Though all his life he made a living (and in a different context, he now makes a much better one) creating a spectacle of death and the misfortunes of others, he marvels that murders and accidents attract “people [who] would come out to stare and buy ice cream like at the movies.” Though the emphasis is on accidents and crime, there are also a few images of natural disasters or “acts of god.” Particularly striking is his photograph of the collapsed Hotel Regis, flattened to a pile of rubble surrounded by dust by the devastating earthquake that shook Mexico City in 1985. A lone pedestrian in bellbottoms and a crisp white shirt walks past what’s left of the hotel. A black cloud of dust from the ruined city threatens to block out the sunny September sky.

It’s important to emphasize that what Metinides documented has little to do with the gruesome wave of drug related violence associated with Mexico’s current “war on drugs.” Much of what he photographs are accidents or natural disasters, and even the crimes represented — robberies, muggings gone awry, and crimes of passion — seem almost tame in comparison to the state-sponsored carnage of today’s mass graves, narcomensajes, decapitations, and international organized criminal organizations.


Polanco, Mexico City, August 9, 1967
"I saw these kids, who were North Americans, having fun in the midst of a natural disaster.  They were car surfing in a sudden flash flood on the corner of Horacio and Presidente Masaryk!  When they saw me taking photographs, they turned and waved."

Ziff emphasizes the cinematic nature of Metinides’s photography, a sensibility she identifies as rooted in the photographer’s childhood love of crime films. Several of his quotations in the book accentuate this link as well. “I would look at a crime scene as if I were watching a movie,” Metinides states on the dust jacket flap. The photographer speaks of a nearly fictional quality of some of the images: “This photograph looks just like a scene from Los olvidados by Luis Buñuel,” or “A shoot-out was happening, just like in the movies.” This cinematic quality, as Ziff asserts, is what separates Metinides’s photography from those characteristic of today’s images of the bloodbath in Mexico: a smartphone snapshot taken by the anonymous passerby of a corpse on the sidewalk or dangling from a pedestrian overpass.

101 Tragedies is revealing in showing us contemporary prints alongside the same photographs as they originally appeared in print, through newspaper clippings or on the old covers of La Prensa. Metinides is the rare photographer for whom the vintage prints — hastily prepared on deadline in a manner oblivious to the standards of fine art photography — are markedly inferior to the recent ones, made as luxury commodities and for exhibition in some of the world’s most prestigious museums. But beyond the obvious differences of quality between the high contrast reproductions on newsprint and the meticulous recent prints made from the same negatives, there is a striking shift in discursive framing. The tabloids favored hyperbolic, pithy headlines designed to stop the rushing passersby in their tracks, at least for long enough to sell each of them a newspaper. The paper’s designers felt free to crop, modify, place text on top of, or otherwise violate the photographer’s images. Today these images are respectfully given a wide white margin, and treated as sacrosanct artworks.


Above: Chapultepec Park, Mexico City, 1995
"A young woman cries as she sits next to her boyfriend, who had been killed in a robbery that went badly wrong. He looks like he is asleep."

Below: Mexico City, September 1988
"I arrived in an ambulance, which is often how I would travel to the scene of a crime or accident.  The police were already on the scene. A shoot-out was happening, just like in the movies.  There were lots of people in the market and, what had begun as a hold-up for money, turned ugly."



Another recent publication of Metinides’s work, Series, takes a different approach: laying out the frames of a single roll of 35mm film on individual pages. Again the protocinematic reference is central here; the frames recall storyboards, or the makings of fotonovelas, only one using real tragedies. Metinides’s systematic approach serves him well. “I always like to photograph, not only the murder scene,” he states, “but also the weapon and get the whole picture as if I were making a film about what happened.” The book includes 14 series of photographs, and on a few occasions these overlap with the selection showcased in 101 Tragedies. One series that appears in both collections (called “Tragedy 40” in the Aperture monograph) is that of an impoverished mother’s scramble to gather the money necessary for a decent casket for her deceased child. An essay worthy of the great Nacho López, here is Metinides at his most humanistic, turning away from the latest sensational crime or spectacular car crash long enough to record an everyday tragedy, the sort that journalists (or their editors) rarely deem to be newsworthy. As isolated prints, the tragedy plays out in a heart wrenching silence that need no commentary. Unlike the prints of 101 Tragedies, these are high contrast images, deprived of anything more than the most rudimentary context. The graphic design is more self-conscious, emphasizing the grain, playing with devices such as the zoom-out already explicit in the photographic series themselves. The anonymous captions that come at the end of the book only give the most basic background information, and the photographer’s voice, so central to 101 Tragedies, is entirely absent from this volume. Without that idiosyncratic voice of the photographer, the images lose even more of their specificity and context, making for a book that is weaker, more superficial, and clearly less thoroughly researched than 101 Tragedies.


Mexico City, 1966
"This woman did not have money to buy a coffin for her child, who had been run over by a bus.  She went to a coffin shop near the hospital and started praying and begging, crying for help.  After some time, she was surrounded by people, who asked what happened.  Together, they each gave a little bit of money to help her out. With that and a discount from the coffin-maker, she was able to buy a coffin and bury her child with some dignity.  She had to walk nine kilometers home with the coffin."


Now retired from the daily grind of photojournalism, Metinides has continued to photograph, creating another body of work that both recycles his earlier images even as it heads off in an entirely new direction. One of the photographer’s hobbies is collecting toy ambulances, model police cars, and plastic action figures of cops, firefighters and emergency medical technicians. By all reports he has an impressive collection. His most recent photographs, called the Los Juguetes (The Toys) series, are composed of still lives of these toys posed in dramatic scenes in front of photographic prints of his earlier journalistic work. A selection of these are reproduced in the 101 Tragedies, and are being sold by Aperture as a limited edition, packaged in the Costco bag in which they returned from the lab. These constructed images border on self-parody. The original photographs present at least the possibility of empathy or, at the very least, a minimal humanistic identification with the plight of the victim, but the Juguetes photographs reduce this to nothing more than a dark, cynical joke. It’s possible that Metinides saw constructed photographs in one of the museums or galleries in which he now exhibits and thought, with lots of time on his hands and his collections all around him, that he might be able to do the same sort of thing. As an outsider now near the top of the art world, he can’t be expected to understand its protocols and codes. One would have hoped that Ziff or one of his handlers would have advised the photographer against this idea.

The obvious antecedent here is the great vulgar modernist Weegee, the photographer to whom Metinides is most frequently compared. Both greeted their transformation from journalist and crime photographer to artist (presenting, at least initially, the same images in a radically different context) with a mix of measures of naïve (or faux naïve) awe, discovery, self-congratulation and surprise. Weegee wrote of this career change in his remarkable, self-promotional autobiography, Weegee by Weegee:

The Museum of Modern Art gave me a big show. I was an overnight sensation. Success went to my head and my camera. My prices shot up from five dollars a shot to five hundred dollars a shot. I switched from the rogues’ gallery to the social register.

Weegee went on to work for more than two more decades, creating darkroom distortions, experimental films, and soft-core cheesecake that have been critically maligned or ignored, generally speaking, but which are filled with the critical social commentary, corrosive humor, and subversive wit that characterizes the best of his street photography. There are of course significant differences as well: Weegee was middle-aged when he moved from the rogues’ gallery to the greener pastures of MoMA, and Metinides is now nearing 80. For the moment, one is left with an impression that Metinides, in his semiretirement, is still at a loss to understand the workings of the art world, and not sure how or what to photograph now that he’s no longer in the newsroom and chasing ambulances. Having witnessed the bloody aftermath of so many aviation accidents, he refuses to fly, thus further limiting his photographic education. One can only hope Metinides manages to find his post-photojournalistic voice. But with 101 Tragedies he has now to his credit an indisputably impressive monograph from the prince of photographic publishers, one that reviews a long career with care and intelligence.


LARB Contributor

Jesse Lerner is a writer and filmmaker based in Los Angeles, CA. He’s currently a professor of media studies at Pitzer College.


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