Enrique Metinides: The Man Who Saw Too Much / Reviewed by Eva Eicker / 22.02.17
The woman’s fear and shock is written all over her face, half covered by her hand; the desperation and grief in her eyes is painful to see. She is unaware of her picture being taken, as Mexican photographer Enrique Metinides was present during and in the aftermath of a human tragedy. The caption to State of Mexico (1963) informs the viewer that this woman has just discovered the body of her murdered husband. The serious, direct stare of reproach by a police officer or guard behind the woman seemingly asks ‘Why are you taking the picture? Leave her alone...’
Metinides’ work is characterized by imagery of these post-event moments, mainly accidents, or human traumata as well as the clash of natural forces. Visually, this leaves the viewer with recurring motifs of the skeleton of car, airplane or bus wreckages, water flooding and fire damage as well as wholly human tragedies like murder. In another image he documents a gas station explosion right when it happened, and it is hard not to be amazed by the beauty of the timely precision of the shutter release, the graphic details of creeping flames and the collapsing structures of the station’s architecture. The hope that you’re looking at a film still or staged scene is dashed by the caption detailing how four young people took off at top speed and spilt gas triggering the explosion and killing one firefighter.
There is a thread of physical, mechanical and emotional collapse in his work – whether in society or as a portrait of personal grief and loss – the physical eruption and mechanical destruction. Other images depict a wrecked car with a water fountain underneath, showing his fascination with the sculptural beauty of disaster, or a deformed and overturned bus. The next image shows the scene of a car accident and an investigating policeman on site. Very filmic, the work appears like a staged scene. Here the backstory is that three Americans crashed their convertible and after the investigation accused the police of stealing their jewellery and watches. Metinides’ images serve to disprove the accusation. Interestingly enough, he would wait around police stations catching the news early on – which earned him the moniker “Mexican Wegee”.
Given a camera by his father at the age of ten, he started taking pictures of re-enacted movie explosions as well as car crashes in his neighbourhood San Cosme in Mexico City. It would only take two years before he published his first photographs in a local magazine and at thirteen he became an unpaid assistant at La Prensa, a Mexico City newspaper. In pursuit of a career in crime photography, Metinides signed up as a volunteer at the Red Cross and would venture out to the site of natural catastrophes and human tragedies – to help and to photograph. Or perhaps the reverse? Metinides’ priority of the latter is vague. Personal grief or catastrophe are present in any image which poses important questions of moral responsibility – are these images ruthless in an art gallery and justified on a newspaper page?
A ‘positive’ drama is documented in a three-part series of a man climbing a metal structure, beautifully shot against the white sky. The unemployed worker’s attempt to jump off Toreo Stadium in Mexico City is prevented by two men convincing him not to end his life.
Probably the most famous of his images – one of the only two colour images in the show – depicts a blond, angelic woman smashed between two poles and almost decapitated at the side of the road after being hit by a truck (again, this information is only accessible from the caption). The woman, journalist Adela Legarreta Rivas, was struck by car on the way to presenting her new book. This filmic shot amplifies his inspiration from movies, so does the still-life photograph from 1949 depicting milk bottles collapsing off a bike in driveway (apparently, this image was inspired by White Heat, 1949).
Metinides’ ruthlessness of compositional details and beautiful precision are remarkable, as is evident in a caption where he elaborates on the technical detail of a yellow filter optimising the photograph of a crashed airplane which left the instructor and student dead. His obsession with catastrophes is underlined by a sculpture of 19 albums from 9/11 images displayed in the show under a Perspex box. It comes as no surprise that he has a collection of 4000 miniature ambulance and firemen. Metinides still lives in Mexico City and (as per instruction) retired in 1997.
While the works in the show date from 1949-1995, they touch and comment on many current themes such as the US-Mexican relationship (accusations of Mexican police stealing the jewellery; or disrespectful American tourists surfing atop a car in a flood who – when they realised Metinides was taking their picture – smile and wave) and natural catastrophes linking to environmental disasters nowadays. When leaving the gallery, the reoccurring theme of flooding resembles Alex Prager’s 3:14 pm, Pacific Ocean and Eye #9 (Passenger Casualties), 2012, image downstairs in the gallery where contemporary and new acquisitions from the collection are on display. Equally unsettling, her image of drowning people in shock employs a reverse working process of constructing a filmic and tragic scene with modern digital photography (it simultaneously reminds of the refugee dramas depicted in the media last year). There is a disrupting beauty and compositional preciseness in Metinides’ images that amazes the viewer but equally provokes the awareness of a thin line of morality. One of his images left an appropriate aftertaste: an electrocuted man lying on the street. Would he function as a metaphor for human defeat by technology? Not necessarily, according to the caption. He survived – despite it all.
– reviewed by Eva Eicker
Enrique Metinides: The Man Who Saw Too Much exhibition at Michael Hoppen Gallery continues until 24 March 2017
3 Jubilee Place • London • SW3 3TD