Urbes Mutantes, International Center of Photography, New York – review

Urbes Mutantes, the ICP’s darkly dazzling survey of Latin American street photography, is shot through with ghosts, visions, violence and grotesques. It’s full of the sad poetry of urban life, and the only exuberance it can muster is the energy of outrage. Figures flicker in the foreground of crumbling cities, the doomed blink at the lens a few moments before their death, children reach for their portion of uncomplicated joy in the midst of upheavals they can’t possibly understand. A few pictures offer vistas of new glass cities and optimistic skylines; the rest form a catalogue of decay, injustice and pain, chronicling city after city racked by utopian reinvention and horrific neglect. Luis Maria Bedoya, for instance, presents Lima at night in 1999 as a field of blackness punctuated by the occasional small domestic existence playing out through a lighted window.

Urbes is at once all-encompassing and tightly focused. It sweeps across eight countries, 60 years and scores of artists, but it has two guiding spirits: Henri Cartier-Bresson and Walker Evans. Both spent time in Latin American cities, and they brought the mythology of the photographer as wanderer, prowling the streets in search of the eloquent moment. Some artists emulate Cartier-Bresson’s technique of translating fleeting happenstance into surreal tableaux. Pablo Ortiz Monasterio’s “Volando bajo”, for instance, catches a boy suspended in mid-leap, his crucifix-shaped shadow fixed between two graffiti pistols. Evans’ presence lurks in the signs, posters and scrawled slogans that proliferate in the Latin Americans’ street scenes. The photographers here don’t imitate Cartier-Bresson or Evans; rather they refract their influence through disparate lenses, producing a collective body of work that’s variously nostalgic and political, dreamy and cruelly clear-eyed.

The thread of theatrical gloom that runs through the exhibition may have been spun by Leticia and Stanislas Poniatowski, who lent their collection, or by Alexis Fabry, who assembled it (and, with Maria Wills, curated the show). But that sensibility makes itself felt nevertheless. Obsessed with squalor, graffiti, peeling posters and crumbling masonry, these photographers hunt down an assortment of weird juxtapositions. They relish the city as archaeological site, as crime scene, as Hydra-like monster that is always falling apart and growing back.

In his series “Demolitions”, the great Colombian photographer Fernell Franco observes the daily practice of destruction in Cali, and turns it into elegant, wistful abstraction. He documents the damage with an aesthete’s eye: plaster is stripped away to reveal bare bricks, the flakes casting shadows in raking light. His images have a resigned poignancy, as if chronicling a natural life cycle. As cities grow, they moult.

“When I saw all the photos in the series together, I realised that what they contained goes far beyond Cali,” Franco has said, “although it was the sadness caused in me by the destruction of my city that generated this series. All cities in Latin America have the same problems in one way or another.”

The Venezuelan Daniel González dispenses with Franco’s reticence and formal sophistication to chronicle the violence of urban change. In 1961, González co-founded the avant-garde group Techo de la Ballena (“The Roof of the Whale”), and he effectively equated development with armed attack. In one untitled image of Caracas, the camera peers through a gutted enclosure to a gleaming white tower on a hill. Between the foreground and that promising distance is a cinder block wall, emblazoned with a furious, hand-painted vow by Simon Bolívar: “These victims will be avenged, these executioners will be exterminated, our hate will be implacable, our war will be to the death.”

The tension between witness and protest plays out again and again. In 1979, Graciela Iturbide shot a gently surrealistic, black-and-white photo essay on the women of Juchitán, Mexico, that would have delighted Cartier-Bresson. The series includes “Pollos”, a profile of a slightly blurred but still majestic woman with flowers in her hair and a dead chicken tucked beneath each arm. She sweeps past a high wall that has been so extravagantly splattered with dripping paint that it looks like the site of a mass murder. For Iturbide, the architecture is not a place but a screen on which her subject projects psychological turmoil.

More than 20 years later, the Peruvian Jaime Rázuri echoed Iturbide’s counterpoint of silent person and screaming building. In one picture, a dark-suited gentleman passes a wall with a wide-mouthed, howling face stencilled on a plastered wall. Instead of dealing with the obscure inner pains that preoccupied Iturbide, Rázuri expresses a more concrete form of outrage: the epidemic of killing visited on Peru when the insurgent group Shining Path made its presence felt in Lima.

The political strain running through the show includes plenty of courageous photojournalism. Cristian Montecino documented the coup in Santiago de Chile on September 11, 1973: a row of bodies dropped on a sun-strafed street, barely post-adolescent soldiers herding prisoners through bleak hallways, while one animated captive gesticulates as if trying to have a rational conversation with the forces of darkness. Two years later, Montecino himself was arrested and executed at age 27.

Álvaro Hoppe applies a refined Cartier-Bresson-esque eye to the political ferocity that gripped Santiago in the 1980s. His “Calle Alameda”, taken through a store window, collapses multiple planes into a single disorienting surface, challenging perceptions and denying the possibility of depth. The image records the overlap of the mundane and the terrifying: a man biting his cuticle, a shadow in a dark jacket disappearing through an open door, and a policeman’s torso, haloed by the rock-shaped hole in the shattered pane.

Despite its urgency, the lessons of Urbes Mutantes remain oddly elusive. Political artists testify to the brutalities of political violence, but truly understanding the works on display would require a detailed knowledge of 20th-century Latin American history. Without it, we are left with an anthology of light moments and upsetting mysteries, photos of normal people in suits and work clothes and cotton dresses. Some are smiling or celebrating or merely tired. Others are covered in blood, their lives suddenly upended (or quite simply ended) by some fierce passion or another, cruelly acted out in city streets.

Until Sept. 7, www.icp.org

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