Multifaceted Portals of Discovery: On Janet Sternburg’s “Looking at Mexico / Mexico Looks Back”

Brendan Riley reviews Janet Sternburg’s new collection of photographs, “Looking at Mexico / Mexico Looks Back.”

Multifaceted Portals of Discovery: On Janet Sternburg’s “Looking at Mexico / Mexico Looks Back”

Looking at Mexico / Mexico Looks Back by Janet Sternburg. DISTANZ Verlag. 184 pages.

LOOKING AT MEXICO / Mexico Looks Back (2023), a handsome, singular collection of 90 lustrous photographs, is a recent addition to the distinguished, decades-long oeuvre of filmmaker, writer, scholar, and poet Janet Sternburg, whose previous photographic work has been widely praised.

In the book’s introduction, Sternburg explains how, having no high-quality camera, she took her first photographs in Mexico, more than 20 years ago, using a simple, “disposable,” single-use camera, and how this led everything in the frame, including reflections, to appear in a single “interpenetrating” plane. For Sternburg, this was an innovation. Many of the photos here are imbued with a similar planar elision, often to breathtaking effect. Captured with an iPhone 10, they show, “without manipulation,” people and places around Sternburg’s adopted home of San Miguel de Allende, in Guanajuato, Mexico, and other locations such as Mexico City and Mérida. “In a world full of manipulated imagery,” Sternburg writes, “I don’t see, at least for myself, any need to distort.” No need at all. Her camera eye catches intersecting planes of light and color, ambience and moods both intriguing and austere. The result is a dazzling book of complex gravity and stunning beauty.

While eschewing “clichéd views of Mexico,” and acutely aware of the “assumptions of ownership foreigners can bring to adopted places,” Sternburg wonders what her “gringa” point of view has to offer. Her photos, she writes, “are grounded in what we call the real world while at times sharing space with abstraction,” and they “suggest more than they depict.” Free of Xochimilco tour boats or perfectly painted Oaxacan dream animals, her dreams are trees reflected in a shop window, a violet-colored modern building stretching impossibly long and low beneath a cerulean sky, ancient nopales in a shimmering scarlet corona, a trickling fountain carved from a massive hunk of green stone, a couple of handsome, humble street dancers dressed in their finest clothes, poised, frozen in time, waiting for the music to begin.

The idea of Mexico “looking back” suggests the expatriate’s sense of exile and foreignness.

Every locale has stories unknown to the outsider, and the views that captivate Sternburg’s lens convey the feeling that urban landscapes demand witness, recognition, and decipherment.

The insightful interpretive comments on nearly half of these photographs—provided by her Mexican friend José Alberto Romero Romano and presented in both English and Spanish—prove that, in this “story of reciprocity,” Sternburg, who cites Mexico’s “neighborliness,” has captured images that speak to both the local heart and the wider world.

Looking at Mexico / Mexico Looks Back offers a satisfying exploration of unfamiliar territory. Each page is strikingly different, and though some share similar subjects or locales, the angles and images capture different moods and reveal a surprising array of textures, hues, and details. The colors are bright but sun-washed, tinted with ash, dust, and poverty: broken tiles, vacant lots, lonely displays in smudged shop windows, and interstitial spaces and moments, as well as vibrant, charismatic non-touristic locales. This is Mexico “looking back” in multiple senses: gazing back into the lens, into the captured image, and into a past still present—and offering local character, humor, and panache, in addition to meaning and dignity, all enhancing what is so visually, palpably present inside the frame.

On a street called Callejón Arenal, bags of rainbow cotton candy stacked atop a vendor’s cart, watched over by a parti-colored umbrella, await buyers; the faces of the passersby look hopeful and dignified. Another crowd shot, a memorable candid, shows nearly 20 women, some of them mothers with small children; their faces are quiet, serious, and reflective, strong but not stern. In another, we see the amusing but thought-provoking juxtaposition of carnival cabezudos—huge puppets with larger-than-life heads—and handsome, open human faces in the crowd, both kinds of countenances uniquely alive.

While a number of these photographs do capture people at markets and carnivals, most are unpopulated, inviting the viewer to gaze into alluring open spaces—streets, patios, gardens, walls, corridors, corrals, and sitting rooms. Colorful and complex, yet resoundingly austere and dignified, these townscape portraits also bespeak the life and presence of their society.

Sternburg’s life in San Miguel de Allende allows her to discover vantage points unusual or unavailable to many visitors. One intimate photo investigates several snapshots tucked into the frame of a large picture of La Virgen de Guadalupe. This acknowledgment of the talismanic maternal nature of La Virgen seems an apt metaphor for this collection: by taking an honest look at the people and their places, by looking and allowing them to look back, to reply, candidly, these photos acquire a power distinct from the carefully calculated commercial photos that many tourists might reflexively associate with Mexico.

Making no attempt to ignore poverty, dust, or wear, to avert the gaze or seek images of obvious pleasure in lieu of less instantly attractive ones, Sternburg’s lens reveals the quiet beauty in places and things worn by time. These photos invite the eye to luxuriate in the subtleties of rich, warm colors and deep textures, the soft wash of faded coats of paint on stone, cement, or adobe.

One image shows old stones and a stone column embedded in and half-enveloped by a plaster wall, their grit and color strangely duplicated by a cable and turnbuckle stretched across the space, several feet in front of the wall, but seeming to occupy the same plane.

The many walls in these photos range from ones sporting rich, deep primary colors—red, green, purple, yellow—to old, worn, structures smoothed down to scumbled patinas atop exposed brick and granular cement, a distressed palimpsest built up over many years into signs of glorious age.

Sternburg’s camera eye homes in on the textural presences of brick and adobe, cement, tile, and stone, seemingly fascinated with how these materials and surfaces gather, spread, and refract light, and offer surprising, pleasing shades, hues, and tones. Even primary colors seem drenched with a muted inner light. One extraordinary photo of an unmanned ticket booth seems an uncanny echo of the geometric palette of Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks (1942).

A photo of rows of various secondhand shoes lined up before a concrete wall that has been painted and repainted invites inspection and introspection. While these shoes don’t have the authoritative flash and polish of new footwear in some sleek display, their community of difference stands out with commanding character. Another photo showing a row of simple, handmade canoes propped against a wall suggests sentinels—upright, masculine, rigid, and hollow.

Some of Sternburg’s images encounter strange, arresting artifacts on the streets. One photo titled El Encanto—the charm—shows an odd pair of framed pictures of women hanging on a green doorpost by a red alcove. The strong contrast between the primary colors seems to parallel the juxtaposition of the women’s faces, the top one an example of old-fashioned glamor, elegant but dour, the one below nightmarish, enveloped in root-like tendrils, half the flesh rotting away to an exposed skull.

In the photo titled Pun, the eye luxuriates in the deep scintillant ocher patio wall before slowly moving upward to see how the innocuous columnar shadow on the wall mutates into a bristling yucca crown, its trunk perfectly aligned with the shadow below. Many photos in this book feature such mesmerizing geometrical coincidences. They are complex, sensually gratifying, multifaceted portals of discovery. One interior shot of a house, its large, handsome, old-fashioned rooms sparsely and tastefully furnished, revels in the glistening tiled floor, austere but inviting, that dominates the image.

Perusing this book straight through from cover to cover, without skipping around, offers the gripping experience of Sternburg’s superb, carefully curated photo sequence—not only a progression of one delightful image after another but also several breathtaking transitions from the deep dimensions of one page to the startling shapes and lightscapes of the next. Memoria, a half-page photo showing the jumbled harmony of a crowded storeroom, is followed, startlingly, by Translucent, a breathtaking two-page spread of a large tree within the worn, silent walls of a courtyard, streaked red, pink, and gray, the whole scene seeming to ripple and shimmer beneath the sky.

Romero Romano’s apt comments—a reassuring balance of the incisive and the sentimental—confirm Sternburg’s assertion about the neighborliness and communal bonds of Mexican society, where ambiguity and hybridity are strengths, signs of identity, not disqualifiers—signifiers of the social bond, reinforcing the humanity of these locales and structures simultaneously familiar and alien to the one who gazes from afar.

Deep into the book, after several dozen photos, Romero Romano remarks, “Each picture we have looked at, and then looked at again and more deeply, becomes more of a mystery.” Indeed. So we ponder the spiky curlicue shadow cast by an electrical transformer onto a pinkish-orange wall, wondering how to read its gorgeous alien glyphs. We shudder at the strange, forbidding skeleton-scarecrow dancer turning circles in the street. We marvel at the bravery and ingenuity of a humble political protest, a kind of public art installation: a ravaged notebook placed in the dirt next to a boot print alongside a small archipelago of charred drawings of the faces of people who disappeared in the abduction and massacre of student teachers from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College as they traveled through Iguala, Guerrero, in 2014. We smile to see a stout man in a red T-shirt and red ball cap repainting an enormous red wall with great wide swaths of glistening red paint.

LARB Contributor

Brendan Riley is a teacher, writer, and ATA-certified translator of Spanish to English. His published translations include The Great Latin American Novel (2016) by Carlos Fuentes, Hypothermia (2013) by Álvaro Enrigue, Caterva (2015) by Juan Filloy, and Antagony (2022) by Luis Goytisolo. Riley’s shorter translations and book reviews have appeared in ANMLY, Asymptote, The Believer, Best European Fiction, BOMBLOG, Bookslut, Drunken Boat, Little Star Journal, n+1, The New York TimesNuméro Cinq, Publishers Weekly, The Review of Contemporary FictionThree Percent, and The White Review.


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