Chilean photographer Paz Errázuriz, whose work will be featured in the groundbreaking exhibition Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Hammer Museum, began her practice late in life. Her early love of art was squashed by a pragmatic father so she worked with children for many years as a schoolteacher while slowly teaching herself how to shoot pictures. With no access to photography books, in a realm that didn’t yet attach artistic value to the medium, she pored over any magazine she could find, until she made her way to New York and discovered up close the richness of photographic history. Recognition came eventually for what would become an astonishing body of work for someone developing their art in isolation. Inspired by the art of Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Diane Arbus, and others, Errázuriz followed her wide-ranging personal fascinations to create a much-honored career’s worth of social documentary projects (which she calls “essays”).
In 1973 Augusto Pinochet seized control of Chile in a military coup d’état backed by the CIA. Forced by the junta to leave school, Errázuriz joined up with a group of fellow photojournalists, the Association of Independent Photographers, who worked in the street as part of a general wave of resistance to one of the most oppressive regimes ever endured in South America, lasting until 1990. “The Pinochet regime made us more conscious of what everything means,” says Errázuriz, “how awful and dangerous power can be, especially military power. On the other hand you learn solidarity.” In the face of curfews and often deadly persecution of dissidents, Errázuriz supported in particular the women’s marches of that era even as hundreds of these women were imprisoned, many never heard from again. Although she was not arrested, her home was ransacked by Pinochet’s minions. Film was pulled from her cameras and exposed in attempts to prevent her from the fearless truth-telling she and her fellow photographers were able to manage in that dark period. Her images of those brigades of resisters, dubbed Mujeres Por La Vida, were recently on display at the prestigious international photography festival Les Rencontres d’Arles in the south of France, along with half a dozen other series of hers.
In one of her earliest series, The Sleepers (Los Dormidos), Errázuriz shot photos of Santiago’s homeless population in the dejected repose of the dispossessed, sleeping anywhere they lay down in the streets of Chile’s junta-locked capital. For Errázuriz, who was compelled to remain vigilant about government harrassment, it was a necessary metaphor for a population grown listless and fatally unaware about the behind-the-scenes reality of its oppressor. Typically, the shots are black-and-white, deftly composed, unsensational, and respectful of even the most downtrodden of humanity. For Errázuriz, these were not merely society’s outcasts but part of a life-long process of self-portraiture. She sees herself reflected in every Chilean she frames in her camera.
Errázuriz asserts that her primary subject is identity. Perceiving women as a repressed minority, she is more interested in marginal than mainstream identities. She believes that in fact “the marginals” are the majority, taken as a whole, that is up against those in power, who profit from rendering them invisible. This view has led her to document prostitutes (both female and transvestite), couples who met while incarcerated in a psychiatric hospital outside Santiago, semi-professional boxers, the blind, circus workers, Tango dancers, magicians, octogenarian nudes. While travelling widely throughout her country, she captured Chilean women in every class and profession, from nun to coal scavenger to the widow of ex-president Salvador Allende. In this way, she sought to elevate their status in a region bound up in machismo. With her compassionate and ever-curious eye, Errázuriz never succumbs to stereotype or moral judgment but rather remains in sympathy with the peripheral lives she witnesses. In the case of the transvestite brothel series, she actually spent time living with her subjects after they were driven out of Santiago. They and the women prostitutes finally asked her to cease the project for fear of upsetting their families, and she reluctantly but respectfully complied.
Errázuriz is friends with South American poets and authors, many of whom she believes have understood her work best of all her admirers. They’ve perceived the flow of her work as a mirror in which she contemplates the passages of her own life, from childhood to adulthood to old age to death. In Bodies (Cuerpos), her portraits of unclothed elderly figures, she explores the ravages of aging flesh, and how people cope with their own senescence. “Nobody teaches you anything like that. That’s how you learn about yourself, what you’ve never been told.” In Memento Mori, she grapples with mortality itself, while issuing a response to the proliferation of digital photography. In shots of vintage-looking photos encased upon the tombs of a Santiago cemetery, photos of photos, Errázuriz considers the expressions of the living about their dearly departed, shrines that are also memories. “It’s the idealization of this person, how their kin want to remember them. That’s what I tried to catch.”
Radical Women: Latin American Art, 1960-1985 at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles, September 15 through December 31, 2017. 116 artists from 15 countries.