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Celebrated photographer Enrique Metinides ponders Mexico's dead

Enrique Metinides spent over 50 years artfully capturing gruesome scenes for Mexico City's tabloids. But the current level of violence is enough to give the photographer, so well acquainted with death, pause.

January 30, 2011|By Daniel Hernandez, Los Angeles Times
  • In "Tranvia, 1980," a bus causes a vehicular collision near the Basilica de la Virgen de Guadalupe in north Mexico City. Fifteen were wounded.
In "Tranvia, 1980," a bus causes a vehicular collision near… (Enrique Metinides / Garash…)

Reporting from Mexico City — — The old news photographer spends most of his time these days in his apartment, usually alone, recording footage from disaster scenes he finds on television. He is especially drawn to clips of the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, which he says he would have loved to have been in town for, to shoot.

"I would've gone right in," Enrique Metinides said.

One of the most celebrated photographers in Mexican history, Metinides spent a lifetime going out into the streets of his hometown — the big bad capital of Mexico — shooting crime scenes, car accidents, fires and suicides. He did it with much dedication and little fuss for more than 50 years, showing his work in the blood-tinted pages of the tabloids.

His images are cinematic, which in recent years has made Metinides a darling of the art world, where writers often find themselves bewildered by the stark subject matter. He's exhibited widely, in Los Angeles, Paris, New York and elsewhere. Now 76 and a retired grandfather, the photographer projects the sense that no matter how gory the violence, he never flinched.

"I've seen so many dead," Metinides said flatly recently in his cramped but cozy living room in the city's San Pedro de los Pinos neighborhood. "In my day, of course, there were people run over, homicides, crashes, fallen dead — between 30 and 35 a day. Now the population is much more, so there couldn't have been a drop in the statistic. But the reporters only come if by chance they hear that something happened, and they only cover two or three cases a day."

It's easy to see why the old photographer might be frustrated. Mexico is living in an era of extraordinary violence. At least 34,000 people have been killed in four years of drug-related fighting since President Felipe Calderon launched a military campaign aimed at dismantling powerful cartels that pump narcotics into the U.S.

The violence is often jaw-dropping in its savagery. There are piles of bodies, mass graves and corpses hanging from bridges — sometimes with their heads missing. Every day through the subway tunnels of this city, the tabloids relay the ugly snapshots from the drug war, uncensored. Yet the images are barely a blip on a commuter's radar. Like the old photographer, many Mexicans say they are desensitized to violent imagery as long as it does not directly affect them. The attitude, though, is not new.

Metinides' photographs filled the tabloid La Prensa year after year, "front cover and back cover and pages inside," he said, in almost every edition. Yet what is most striking about his career is the quality of his work. His images are graphic and gruesome — snapshots of car accidents with corpses inside, derailed trains, crumpled airplanes, faces drenched in blood, exploding gas stations and people so freshly dead they seem almost unaware of it.

From an aesthetic standpoint, the photos are just as memorable for their composition, movement and drama. They capture ordinary people in a massive city caught up suddenly in the most traumatic of circumstances. When Metinides pulls back from an accident or crime scene and shoots a wide angle to capture throngs of onlookers and gawkers, the images challenge the viewer to confront and question the voyeuristic instinct that exists inside any consumer of the news. And when viewed as documentation, they chart the awesome growth and persistent sense of tumult of one of the world's great mega-cities.

For photography buffs, Metinides' portfolio carries an added layer of historical worth. The photos merge from black and white in the 1940s to color in the 1970s. When hand-held video cameras entered the market, Metinides picked one of those up too, shooting footage from inside ambulances or of helicopters touching down at hospitals.

Many Metinides photos seem like stills from big-budget action movies. This was, in fact, his intent. As a young boy, before his father gave him his first camera, Metinides was a serious fan of gangster flicks. "It was like the movies," the small-framed man said while examining a few albums at his dining table. "Like a movie in photos."

In October, the latest exhibit of Metinides photos opened at the Garash gallery, the first mounted here since 2006. Firefighters and paramedics attended the opening, there to cheer on an old friend. As the group chatted, an image of a woman mourning over her dead boyfriend, a stabbing victim, glared down from the gallery walls.

Mexico's identity has been forged in violence, from the days of the Aztec empire through the Spanish Conquest and the Revolution.

"By the time intimacy with death was taken up as a peculiarly Mexican sign, a densely layered repertoire of death rituals and death vocabularies had already developed," writes Columbia University historian Claudio Lomnitz in his 2005 book, "Death and the Idea of Mexico." "This reality presented itself to a generation of nation builders like an elaborate birthday cake, ready to serve."

The idea is becoming increasingly popular among historians and artists grappling to make sense of Mexico's rising levels of violence. Sure, Mexican popular culture remains famous for its "playful intimacy" with death, seen in the traditional Day of the Dead holiday. But recent history has brought death and its images into closer contact with daily life. Little wonder the newest hit religious movement in Mexico is the cult of the Santa Muerte — the Holy Death.

Even Metinides professes wonder at the ultra-violence of today's drug conflict. "There is just such a frightening quantity of dead, that they'll never find all the cadavers," Metinides said, fingering silicone albums filled with favorite snaps.

Then the retired journalist stops himself, arching an eyebrow. "But why even say it? What does that have to do with me?" he asks, then answers his own question. "Nothing."

Hernandez is a news assistant in The Times' Mexico City bureau.

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