Mexico Notebook: Contemporary Photography in Oaxaca

Sin título © Nadja Massun

Hannah FrieserJaime Permuth and I have begun a collaboration to explore contemporary photography in Mexico. We're looking at trends and how they relate to traditions; events, institutions and venues; as well as pursuing conversations with curators, academics, gallerists and photographers on what's happening currently. This collaborative project will feature a variety of types of posts including interviews, book reviews, published letters, portfolios of images and more.

Hannah Frieser is a curator, photographer and book artist and former Executive Director of Light Work. Jaime Permuth is a Guatemalan photographer living and working in New York City and a Faculty Member at the School of Visual Arts.

Today we continue with an essay from Jessica Hubbard Marr.

Other posts in this series include:
Q&A with Aglae Cortés
Q&A with Maria José Sesma
Interview with César Rodríguez
Q&A with Nora Gómez
Q&A with Melba Arellano
Q&A with Jorge Taboada

Oaxaca Portraits 8 © Raquel Rocha

Essay by Jessica Hubbard Marr

The opening night of photography exhibitions in Oaxaca are often so packed it can be impossible to see the work exhibited; the buzzing crowd reflects the vibrant energy of Oaxaca's photographic community today. This vibrancy is indebted, however, to Oaxaca's past, to its rich history of photographic achievements and innovative practitioners. Jorge Pech reflects, "From the 1980s to the present day, artists Graciela Iturbide, Flor Garduno, Pablo Ortiz Monasterio, Mariana Yampolsky and Francisco Toledo have created images of Oaxaca that continue to influence contemporary Mexican photography."1

Some of the seminal works in Mexican photography have been produced in Oaxaca, many from the late 1970s forward. The most widely celebrated work is undoubtedly Graciela Iturbide's series, "Juchitan de la Mujeres" (1979-1989). While many notable images emerged from this period of work, Nuestra Senora de las Iguanas (1979) has become one of the most iconic images in the history of Mexican photography and has been celebrated worldwide.2 While Graciela Iturbide's importance and influence as a practitioner has been monumental, she has also played a major role, along with her mentor Manuel Alvarez Bravo and collaborator Francisco Toledo, in the foundation, promotion and appreciation of photography in Oaxaca over the years.

The current, contemporary appreciation for and interest in contemporary photography in Oaxaca can be credited to the foundation of the Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographic Center in 1996. Named for one of the great masters of 20th century photography, the museum and educational center was founded by the renowned artist and patron Francisco Toledo along with photographers Cecilia Salcedo, Jorge Acevedo, Vittorio D'Onofri and Jesus Marquez. Through exhibitions, lectures and educational programs, the center, in the words of Jorge Pech, "has not only allowed for a reassessment of Oaxacan photographic art, it has also fostered a special artistic movement."3

Oaxaca Portraits 4 © Raquel Rocha

Oaxaca Portraits 6 © Raquel Rocha

Since 1996, the center has created an important bridge between Oaxacan photographers and those abroad. The legendary documentary photographer Mary Ellen Mark has instructed workshops at the center since its inception. In 2010, she published the book XV featuring the work of her many students between 1996-2010. This July, renowned photojournalist and former Magnum president Charles Harbutt, along with his photographer wife Joan Liftin, are teaching the workshop, "Learning How to See."

Apart from visiting lectures and workshops, the center regularly offers an impressive variety of workshops for photographers of all levels: analog and digital for beginners, the self-portrait, introduction to Photoshop, urban fashion and photo, pinhole photography, the nude, street photography and specialized workshops for children, among others. Many of the esteemed photographers who live in Oaxaca, such as Patricia Cerezo, Jorge Acevedo and Marcela Taboada instruct the workshops. Visiting Mexican photographers from outside Oaxaca include Vida Yovanovich, Pablo Lopez Luz and Eniac Martinez.

Considered one of the best in Latin America, the center's renowned photography library, now housed at the Institute of Graphic Arts (IAGO), features a remarkably diverse and international selection of photographic publications and materials; free to the public, the library offers one the best educations on the history of photography there is. The center's photography collection, much of it donated by Francisco Toledo, holds works by legendary photographers such as the Mayo Brothers, the Casasola Brothers, Hugo Brehme, Graciela Iturbide, Josef Koudelka, Juan Rulfo, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Lola Alvarez Bravo, Nacho Lopez, Man Ray, Tina Modotti and the list goes on.

In the past few years, the center has notably exhibited contemporary work dealing with themes such as the body in contemporary Mexican photography, the family, the city and memory. These conceptual works often break with traditional, documentary approaches in Mexican photography. As Abraham Nahon observed, "contemporary images record different spaces and times, representing dissonances, ruptures, but also, challenges."4

From the series 'Vacíos desde el amanecer' © Emilia Sandoval

From the series 'Vacíos desde el amanecer' © Emilia Sandoval

From the series 'Vacíos desde el amanecer' © Emilia Sandoval

More recently, exciting alternative photography initiatives have begun to appear in Oaxaca. Marietta Bernstorff, director of the Photographic Collective of Oaxaca, advocates these new efforts, stating: "It is very important for Oaxaca to have various collectives and photography spaces." Founded in 2012, the mission of Bernstorff's collective is to nurture and promote the professional photographers who live and work in Oaxaca. The collective values artistic exchange, investigation and creation. It educates about photography's evolving role and relationship to technology, and hosts workshops, lectures and exhibitions, both in Oaxaca and beyond. The collective most recently exhibited "Sign and Territory" at the Hector Garcia Foundation in Mexico City this past November. The exhibition, curated by Plinio Villagran Galindo, included work from established photographers such as Marcela Taboada and notable emerging talents such as Raquel Rocha and Ricardo Audiffred.

Beyond the designated photographic institutions, photography is being exhibited in commercial galleries. Daniel Brena, director of the Bravo Center, guest curated the exhibition "Consolidation: Dreams and Memories" at Gallery Quetzalli. The collective exhibition featured a variety of alternative techniques, such as Guillermo Olguin's photographic interventions and Claudia Lopez Terroso's incorporation of photography into light boxes. It also featured more traditional, straight photography; the work of Nadja Massun and Ricardo Guzman evoking a more sensory and timeless sentiment. The selection of such varied styles, techniques and approaches epitomizes the diversity of Oaxacan contemporary photography.

From the series "Huellas de papel" © Alejandro Echeverría

From the series "Obra en construcción" © Alejandro Echeverría

From the series "Obra en construcción" © Alejandro Echeverría

Perhaps the most recent significant collection of contemporary work in Oaxaca is the 2011 "Contemporary Photography in Oaxaca" exhibition at the Manuel Alvarez Bravo center and the accompanying book of the same name, published by Luna Zeta Editions. Both the exhibition and publication showcased the broad range of photographic practices in Oaxaca today; a plurality of established and emerging visual languages. Abraham Nahon has described the collective work as "a visual and aesthetic narrative enriched by the confluence of generations and their successive visions…the images transmit a certain musicality of our times."5

The photography community in Oaxaca is at a very exciting point, one with many changes and surprises on the horizon. Original, fresh and innovative work, many with a twist on traditional themes such as "the other" and mythology, are currently being produced using both traditional and contemporary working methods. Additionally, a variety of historical works will also be brought to light and celebrated this coming year. The upcoming interviews with many of these creators and their colleagues will reveal unique insight into Oaxaca's dynamic and rapidly evolving photography scene.

Additional new spaces for photography in Oaxaca:

Space 411 (Espacio 411)

The Open Collection, Oaxaca (Colecion Abierta, Oaxaca) features a variety of visual and mix media artists and features the photographic work of: Ricardo Audiffred, Alejandro Echeverria, Rame Cuen, Emilia Sandoval, Pablo Santaella, Marcela Taboada

From the series "Obra en construcción" © Alejandro Echeverría

Further information:

Contemporary Photography in Oaxaca

The Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photographic Center

The Institute of Graphic Arts, Oaxaca (IAGO)

The Hector Garcia Foundation

The Museum of Contemporary Art, Oaxaca

Mary Ellen Mark Workshops

Mary Ellen Mark’s publication, XV

Charles Harbutt/Joan Liftin Workshop

Felipe Ehrenberg From the series "Artists" © Nadja Massun

Jessica Hubbard Marr is a specialist in photographic imagery with a focus on Latin America, an interest that developed thanks to many nights in the Manuel Alvarez Bravo/IAGO library in Oaxaca over the years. As a result, she subsequently received her M.A. in The History and Theory of Photography at Sotheby’s Institute of Art/University of Manchester in London in 2011; Marr previously earned her B.A. in English from Kenyon College in 2005. Prior to working in the photography field, Marr worked with the non-profit, "Friends of Oaxacan Folk Art" from 2008-2010, as both a photographer and cultural liaison. 

Since 2010, she has worked for TransGlobe Publishing in London, researching and writing about contemporary art and photography in locations ranging from Brazil to the Middle East. In 2012, Marr was appointed to the Global Nominations Panel for the Prix Pictect Photography Prize as a specialist in Latin American Photography.6 Her original essay, "A Glimpse into Enduring Moments" was featured in the catalogue of photographer Nadja Massun's solo exhibition, Alice in the Land of Zapata, at the Hungarian House of Photography in Budapest in 2012.7

Marr resides in the US after spending the past six years studying and working abroad in Oaxaca, Quito, London and Mexico City. She credits these experiences to both expanding and deepening her appreciation for and knowledge about the photographic medium across cultures. 

She works as an independent photography consultant, researcher, writer, editor, and art advisor for both art/photography professionals and practitioners between Mexico, New York and London. 

Marr’s photographic work has been published internationally in a variety of art and literary journals. Her first published photograph was taken in Oaxaca in 2008. 

Pedro Friedberg From the series "Artists" © Nadja Massun

Pech, Jorge. "Photography in Oaxaca". Fotografia Contemporanea en Oaxaca. Luna Zeta Editions, 2011. Pg 189
Pech, Jorge. "Photography in Oaxaca". Fotografia Contemporanea en Oaxaca. Luna Zeta Editions, 2011. Pg 190
Nahon, Abraham. "A Contemporary Visual Narrative". Fotografia Contemporanea en Oaxaca. Luna Zeta Editions, 2011. Pg 192
Nahon, Abraham. "A Contemporary Visual Narrative". Fotografia Contemporanea en Oaxaca. Luna Zeta Editions, 2011. Pg 191

Gabriel Orozco From the series "Artists" © Nadja Massun