Natalia Brizuela (ed.), Jodi Roberts (ed.)

The Matter of Photography in the Americas

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"Latin American and Latino artists have used photography to engage with modern media landscapes and critique globalized economies since the 1960s. But rarely are these artists considered leaders in discussions about the theory and scholarship of photography or included in conversations about the radical transformations of photography in the digital era.

'The Matter of Photography in the Americas' presents the work of more than eighty artists working in Mexico, the Caribbean, Central America, South America, and Latino communities in the United States who all have played key roles in transforming the medium and critiquing its uses.
Artists like Alfredo JAAR, Oscar MUñOZ, Ana MENDIETA and Teresa MARGOLLES highlight photography's ability to move beyond the impulse simply to document the world at large. Instead, their work questions the relationship between representation and visibility.

With nearly 200 full-color images, this book brings together drawings, prints, installations, photocopies, and three-dimensional objects in an investigation and critique of the development and artistic function of photography. Essays on key works and artists shed new light on the ways photographs are made and consumed. Pressing at the boundaries of what defines culturally specific, photography-centric artwork, this book looks at how artists from across the Americas work with and through photography as a critical tool." (publisher's note)

"It is conspicuous, and telling, that 'The Matter of Photography in the Americas', a tightly focused yet theoretically expansive exploration of contemporary practices from Latin America on view at Stanford’s Cantor Arts Center, begins not with a photograph but rather a video, one that announces an ambitious curatorial agenda right up front.
In this piece, 'Biografías' (2002), by Colombian artist Oscar MUñOZ, faces appear phantasmagorically in a sink full of water—“printed” on the surface with charcoal powder—but their legibility slowly becomes compromised as the water drains and their features dissolve. With this compelling beginning, in which visages distort, become unfixed, and then ultimately disappear, 'The Matter of Photography 'declares its intent to recalibrate histories of Latin American photography that have too often emphasized the strictly documentary and the evidentiary. As an opening gambit, MUñOZ’s video also demonstrates how the exhibition resists traditional accounts of photography’s medium specificity.

Organized by Natalia BRIZUELA, a scholar who has published widely on Latin American media practices, and Jodi ROBERTS, the Halperin Curator at the Cantor, the exhibition brings together over forty artists from the US, Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean who work in and around photography.

Though it includes snapshots, 35mm slides, digital pictures, Polaroids, and gelatin silver prints from the past fifty years, the exhibition also features recent drawings, films, performances, hand-stitched collages, photocopies, and sculptural work; many pieces engage some aspect of photography but are technically not photographs.
The curators embrace a capacious, elastic conception of the medium, one that comprises many modes of depiction—and one that at times refuses to depict. In doing so, they reveal how photography’s vaunted claims to facticity have been contested by contemporary Latin American artists as much as by their Global North counterparts; how, as the catalogue states, 'the notion of photography as a unique bearer of truth has been irreparably dismantled.' 

The political stakes of this dismantling are especially acute in the context of Latin America, given the specific pressures placed on photography to act as a witness during eras of extreme state violence. In this broadly defined hemispheric arena, photography has been understood as simultaneously powerful and dangerous—hence the heavy hand of the censor within dictatorial regimes—as well as increasingly meaningless or ineffectual within the overwhelming flows of corporate, globalized mass media. As this show illustrates, artists have grappled with this paradox in a number of ways, and frequently turn to tactile methods of making—reprocessing journalistic images as hand-drawn sketches, as does Colombian Beatriz GONZÁLEZ, or mixing natural salts with photographic chemicals to produce earthy abstractions, in the case of Venezuelan Nicola Noemi COPPOLA—in order to propose more intimately felt relationships to representation.

'The Matter of Photography' is structured thematically, with works clustered under the headings news, ethnography, discipline, imprints, copies, data, erasure, and matter. Throughout, these categories are both put to use but also undone by the pieces on view, as in the section on ethnography that includes works that critique how photography has been instrumental to colonial museum displays (Argentine Adriana BUSTOS’ surreal dioramas), the construction of national identity (Guatemalan/Mexican artist Oscar FARFÁN’s grid of identification portraits), and the packaging of Indigenous peoples in the service of tourism (Brazilian Anna Bella GEIGER’s collection of exoticizing postcards). Many of these artists undermine anthropological “certainties” by calling into question how racialized distinctions have been regulated by imaging technologies. 

Among the strengths of this show is its unstated, yet highly prominent, feminist framework. Women artists are heavily represented at every turn, and their work is not limited to thinking about gendered concerns (though many do precisely that): from Mexican artist Teresa MARGOLLES’ compendium of magazine covers with their dissonant conjunction of gruesome crime-scene photos next to pictures of bikini-clad models, to Costa Rican Priscilla MONGE with her aesthetically elegant gold-leaf monochrome, to Dominican-American Joiri MINAYA’s pixelated, fragmented bodies, in '#dominicanwomengooglesearch' (2016). Depictions of defiantly non-normative sexuality also play a significant role, in forthright expressions of queer desire by the pioneering Mexican feminist Mónica MAYER’s text-and-image work entitled Lo normal (1978), in the vulnerably exposed body parts Xeroxed by gay Brazilian artist Hudinilson Jr., and in the campy re-performances of Marcel DUCHAMP in drag by Colombian artist Álvaro BARRIOS. 

Indeed, much of the work in 'The Matter of Photography' revels in the fictive and the imaginative, as artists turn to the camera—or the Xerox machine, or the dot-matrix printer—in order to exaggerate, to invent new histories, to fabulate, to dream. Against the tendency to understand Latin American photography as a straightforward transmission of information, these artists produce their own theoretical categories around unknowing, blurring the boundaries of the medium as they investigate decay, rumor, obsolescence, abstraction, fantasy, absence, irresolution. Which is not to say that the show is escapist: quite the contrary. The catalogue, with a substantial essay by Brizuela as well as shorter texts by ROBERTS on each of the subthemes, includes even more examples as it traces a decidedly political arc.

During the rash of military dictatorships that have marked the last fifty years of Latin American history, photography often served contradictory purposes: it was circulated as propaganda, mobilized by resistance movements, and monitored by censors.
What happens, ethically, when the photograph goes down the drain—or is redacted, blacked out, withheld, voided? What possibilities for spectatorship are opened up in the wake of these vanishings and expurgations? At the conceptual center of the show is a deceptively simple work consisting of four seemingly empty pages, from a series called 'Pie de fotos' (2012), by Colombian artist Johanna CALLE.
At the bottom of these otherwise blank gelatin silver prints are typed descriptions, in Spanish, of disappearances, assaults, and assassinations, inspired by an archive of police files. Reading this bureaucratic yet evocative language about corpses, lacerations, and gunshots, the viewer fills in the space where the photo has been absented, creating a mental picture. Calle’s arresting work, with its formal experimentation and its urgency, shows what happens when a photograph is untethered from its status as proof: it can be seared even further into the mind." (text. © Julia Bryan-Wilson, Professor of Modern and Contemporary Art at the University of California, Berkeley, and the Director of Berkeley’s Arts Research Centerin: A survey of Latin American artists who push beyond the document, source:  

'The Matter of Photography in the Americas' is published to accompany an exhibition at the Cantor Arts Center." (publisher's note)

About the authors:
Natalia BRIZUELA is Associate Professor of Spanish and Portuguese and of Film and Media at the University of California, Berkeley.

Jodi ROBERTS is Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford University.

"Lateinamerikanische und Latino-Künstler setzen sich seit den 1960er Jahren mit der modernen Medienlandschaft auseinander und kritisieren die globalisierte Ökonomie. Aber selten werden diese Künstler in Diskussionen über Theorie und Wissenschaft der Fotografie als führend angesehen oder in Gespräche über die radikalen Transformationen der Fotografie im digitalen Zeitalter miteinbezogen.

'The Matter of Photography in the Americas' (dt.: Die Frage der Fotografie auf dem Amerikanischen Kontinent) präsentiert die Arbeiten von mehr als achtzig Künstlern, die in Mexiko, der Karibik, Zentralamerika, Südamerika und Lateinamerika in den Vereinigten Staaten arbeiten und die alle eine Schlüsselrolle bei Transformation und Kritik bei der Verwendung des Mediums gespielt haben.
Künstler wie Alfredo JAAR, Oscar MUñOZ, Ana MENDIETA und Teresa MARGOLLES heben die Fähigkeit der Fotografie hervor, darüber hinaus zu gehen, die Welt bloß zu dokumentieren. Stattdessen hinterfragt ihre Arbeit die Beziehung zwischen Repräsentation und Sichtbarkeit.

Mit fast 200 farbigen Bildern vereint dieses Buch Zeichnungen, Prints, Installationen, Fotokopien und dreidimensionale Objekte in einer Untersuchung und Kritik an der Entwicklung und der künstlerischen Funktion der Fotografie.

Essays über Schlüsselwerke und Künstler werfen ein neues Licht auf die Art und Weise, wie Fotos gemacht und konsumiert werden. An den Grenzen dessen, was kulturspezifische, fotozentrische Kunstwerke ausmacht, untersucht dieses Buch, wie Künstler aus ganz Amerika mit und durch die Fotografie als kritischem Werkzeug arbeiten.

'The Matter of Photography in the Americas' erscheint anlässlich einer Ausstellung im Cantor Arts Center."(freie Übersetzung des englischen Verlagstextes)