Mexico Notebook: Q&A with Luis Mercado

From the series "This is not a city, this is not a town" © Luis Mercado

Hannah FrieserJaime Permuth and I are collaborating 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.

We have been collaborating with the photographer Alejandro Cartagena as part of this project. Cartagena has overseen and executed a series of short interviews with photographers from Mexico and today we continue this series with an interview of Luis Mercado by Cartagena.

Other posts in this series include:
Q&A with Ray Govea
Interview with Ramón Jiménez Cuén
Interview with Laurence Salzmann
Interview with Diego Berruecos
Interview with Mariela Sancari
Q&A with Eduardo Jiménez Román
Q&A with Claudia Arechiga
Q&A with Nahatan Navarro
Contemporary Photography in Oaxaca
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

From the series "This is not a city, this is not a town" © Luis Mercado

This interview is presented first in an English translation by Nataly Castaño, then followed by the Spanish original.

Alejandro Cartagena: Where do you live and what you do?

Luis Mercado
: I live in Obregón, a town located in the state of Sonora, Mexico. I am a photographer and professor in a local university.

AC: How did you get started in photography?

LM: Since my teenage years I had a strong inclination towards fashion design, graphic design and the arts. I went into graphic design at the same university that I give classes now. There I discovered my passion for photography. My design class was the last one in which I was able to enjoy developing film and printing in the darkroom. Those semesters had a great significance in my life.

From the series "This is not a city, this is not a town" © Luis Mercado

AC: When and what made you start considering producing photographic work to explore your personal concerns?

LM: Getting close to the end of my degree I was already working in different mediums of design. I was the director of the creative department of a small company, I worked in the marketing department of the university and I made personal photographs imitating the styles that I would see in magazines and online. However all of this I thought - or perhaps it's better to say I felt - was naïve and coarse. I knew there were other things being made outside of the state, but I didn't know where to begin the research.

I made the decision then to leave Sonora and study a master's in visual arts in the Distrito Federal, in a place called the Academia de San Carlos. It was there where I threw away the classic paradigms of photography and started making personal reflections. My first project named "Viva la vida" was a series of portraits of people who suffered from chronic depression. This project was selected for the XIV Bienal de Fotografía del Centro de la Imagen (14th Photography Biennial of the Centro de la Imagen) in Mexico City.

From the series "Sedimentos/Cúmulo" (Sediments/Piles) © Luis Mercado 

AC: Tell us about some of your projects and the themes you approach through the images we are presenting.

LM: My main subject is the desert, particularly the Sonora Desert. I'm interested in the relationship of this barren space with its population, how the climate and geographic conditions become part of the local culture. The Situationists called this "psychogeography." I find it fascinating how the desert requires a social pragmatism and a culture of immediacy in order to be inhabited.

AC: How do you think about the history of Mexican photography in your work?

LM: I don't have a good relationship with the early history of Mexican photography, which is not the same as "not having a relationship." I find the artwork of most of the classic photographers of Mexico - I don't want to specify names- boring and classicist. I would except from this and I admire parts of the work of Lazaro Blanco.

What I find fascinating is the contemporary photography and photojournalism of the country. My images consciously owe a debt to artists like Alejandro Cartagena, Miguel Fernandez, Omar Gamez, Javier Ramirez Limón, Adam Wiseman and Adela Goldbard. Also I think constantly of [Enrique] Metinides, even though my work does not relate with his. Also it the work of Sze Tsung Leong is very important to me, but, even though he was born in Mexico, I don't know whether or not I should consider him Mexican.

From the series "Sedimentos/Cúmulo" (Sediments/Piles) © Luis Mercado

AC: Do you believe that there is any relationship in subject matter, form or any other aspect between photography in Mexico and the rest of Latin America?

LM: There are certain themes that are constant fixtures. "Porno-misery" will never leave us, unfortunately. Suburban and middle class life is another subject never exhausted ,but fortunately vital and with varied representations. It is strange to talk about formal similarities within Latin America. More precisely, these similarities exist, but it's with the rest of the world. The current informational mediums have exposed us to artwork from all coordinates and points of history, from New Topographics, headed by Stephen Shore, to the irreverence of [Nobuyoshi] Araki. We live in a rich time for photography

AC: What are the issues being addressed both in contemporary photography in Mexico and outside of Mexico that interest you?

LM: I'm very interested in the relationship with space and I'm attracted to the work of almost any photographer who takes on this subject, from the very obviously spatial like Edward Burstynsky, [Stephen] Shore and Sze Tsung Leong to the more reflective - psychogeographic? - like Alec Soth, Cartagena or Alexander Gronsky.

From the series "Sedimentos/Cúmulo" (Sediments/Piles) © Luis Mercado

AC: What do you feel benefits you or is a problem with being based in Mexico?

LM: It is interesting to be based in Mexico, or more concretely, from Sonora, since our very rigid and yet pragmatic culture has produced artists whose formal solutions to their interests are very interesting to me, and almost unique in the country. I find in the work of Miguel Fernandez, Alfredo Karam, Carlos Ivan or Miriam Salado a clinical look, very anti-romantic, with which I identify tremendously.

AC: Anything you'd like to say about contemporary photography in general?

LM: I don't think I can give a commentary to contribute to the vision of contemporary photography. I also don't think that is my job. From the 70s to today we have been part of a photographic era of excellence. Not only has photography become art, but also, like Javier Ramirez Limón once told me, art has become photographic. I simply feel fortunate to be part of this.

From the series "Indicios de desplazamiento" (Evidence of Displacement) © Luis Mercado

Spanish original / Texto original en español

Alejandro Cartagena: ¿Dónde vives y a qué te dedicas?

Luis Mercado: Vivo en Obregón, un pueblo ubicado en el Estado de Sonora, México. Soy fotógrafo y maestro en una universidad local.

AC: ¿Cómo te iniciaste en la fotografía?

LM: Desde adolescente sentía una fuerte inclinación hacia el diseño de modas, diseño gráfico y las artes. Entre a la carrera de diseño gráfico en la misma universidad en donde ahora doy clases. Ahí descubrí mi gusto por la fotografía. Mi generación de diseño fue la ultima que pudo disfrutar de revelar negativos e imprimir en cuarto oscuro. Esos semestres tuvieron un gran significado en mi vida.

From the series "Indicios de desplazamiento" (Evidence of Displacement) © Luis Mercado

AC: ¿Cuándo y que te hizo empezar a considerar producir trabajo fotográfico que explorara tus inquietudes personales?

LM: Al estarse aproximándome al final de mi carrera ya estaba trabajando en distintos medios de diseño. Fui director del departamento creativo de un pequeño despacho, hacia servicio en el departamento de mercadotecnia de la universidad y hacia algunas fotografías personales imitando los estilos que veía en las revistas y en internet. Sin embargo todo esto me parecía -o mejor dicho, lo presentía- ingenuo y burdo. Sabia que se estaban produciendo otras cosas fuera del Estado, pero no sabia por donde empezar a investigar.

Decidí entonces salir de Sonora y estudiar una maestría en artes visuales en el Distrito Federal, en un lugar llamado Academia de San Carlos. Fue ahí donde empece a desechar paradigmas clásicos de la fotografía e iniciar reflexiones personales. Mi primer proyecto en forma, titulado "Viva la vida" era una serie de retratos de personas que sufrían de depresión crónica. Ese proyecto quedo seleccionado en la XIV Bienal de Fotografía del Centro de la Imagen, en el DF.

From the series "Indicios de desplazamiento" (Evidence of Displacement) © Luis Mercado

AC: Platícanos un poco de tus proyectos y los temas que abordas en las imágenes que estamos presentando.

LM: Mi tema principal es el desierto, particularmente el Desierto de Sonora. Me interesa a relación de éste espacio árido con sus habitantes, como las condiciones climáticas y geográficas se transpiran en la cultura local. Los situacionistas llamaron a esto "piscogeografía." Me parece fascinante como el desierto obliga un pragmatismo social y una cultura de la inmediatez para ser habitado.

AC: ¿De qué manera consideras la historia de la fotografía Mexicana en tu obra?

LM: No tengo una buena relación con la historia temprana de la fotografía mexicana, que no es lo mismo que ‘no tener relación’. Encuentro los trabajos de la mayoría de los fotógrafos clásicos de Mexico -no deseo especificar nombres- aburridos y clasistas. Rescato y admiro parte de la obra de Lazaro Blanco.

Lo que encuentro fascinante es la fotografía contemporánea y periodística del país. Mis imágenes le deben conscientemente a artistas como Alejandro Cartagena, Miguel Fernandez, Omar Gamez, Javier Ramirez Limon, Adam Wiseman y Adela Goldbard. También pienso constantemente en [Enrique] Metinides, aunque mi trabajo no tenga relación con el suyo. También es muy importante para mi el trabajo de Sze Tsung Leong, pero, aunque nació en Mexico, no se si considerarlo mexicano.

From the series "Paisaje abreviado" (Abbreviated Landscape) © Luis Mercado

AC: ¿Encuentras alguna relación de temas, forma o cualquier otro aspecto entre la fotografía en México y la del resto de America Latina?

LM: Hay ciertas fijaciones temáticas que son constantes. La pornomiseria no nos abandonara nunca, por desgracia. La vida suburbana y la clase media es otro tema inagotable pero afortunadamente vital y con representaciones variadas. Es extraño hablar de similitudes formales con Latinoamérica. Más precisamente, estas similitudes existen pero con el resto del mundo. Los medios de información actuales nos han expuesto a trabajos que surgen de todas las coordenadas y puntos de la historia. Desde la nueva topografía, encabezada por Stephen Shore hasta la irreverencia de [Nobuyoshi] Araki. Vivimos en una época rica para la fotografía.

AC: ¿Cuáles son los temas qué están siendo tratados en la fotografía contemporánea en México y también afuera de México que te interesen?

LM: Me interesa mucho la relación con el espacio y me siento atraído al trabajo de casi cualquier fotógrafo que lo aborde. Desde lo obviamente espacial como Edward Burstynsky, [Stephen] Shore y Sze Tsung Leong hasta lo más reflexivo - ¿psicogeográfico? - como Alec Soth, Cartagena o Alexander Gronsky.

From the series "Paisaje abreviado" (Abbreviated Landscape) © Luis Mercado

AC: ¿Qué sientes te beneficia o problematiza producir desde México?

LM: Es interesante producir desde Mexico, o concretamente, desde Sonora, ya que nuestra cultura tan rígida y pragmática ha producido artistas cuyas soluciones formales a sus intereses me parecen sumamente interesantes, casi únicas en el país. Encuentro en el trabajo de Miguel Fernandez, de Alfredo Karam, de Carlos Ivan o de Miriam Salado una mirada clínica, muy anti-romantica, con la que me siento tremendamente identificado.

AC: ¿Algo que quisieras comentar sobre la fotografía contemporánea en general?

LM: No creo poder dar un comentario que contribuya a la visión de la fotografía contemporánea. Tampoco creo que ésta sea mi tarea. De los 70s a nuestros días hemos sido parte de la era fotográfica por excelencia. No solo la fotografía se ha hecho arte, sino que, como me comentaría alguna vez Javier Ramirez Limón, el arte se ha hecho fotográfico. Simplemente me siento afortunado de ser parte de esto.

From the series "Paisaje abreviado" (Abbreviated Landscape) © Luis Mercado

Alejandro Cartagena lives and works in Monterrey, Mexico. His projects employ landscape and portraiture as a means to examine social, urban and environmental issues in the Latin-American region.

His work has been exhibited internationally in festivals like CONTACT in Toronto, The FIF in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, GuatePhoto festival in Guatemala City, FOTOFEST in Houston and UNSEEN by FOAM in Amsterdam among others. Alejandro's work has been published internationally in magazines and newspapers such as Newsweek, Le Monde, The Guardian, The Independent, The New York Times Lens Blog, PDN, The New Yorker, and Wallpaper among others. His book Suburbia Mexicana was published by Photolucida and Daylight books in 2011.

He has received the Photolucida Critical Mass Book Award, the SNCA-CONACULTA grant for Mexican artists, the Premio IILA-Fotografia 2012 award in Rome, the Street Photography Award in London and a POYi reportage award of excellence, the Lente Latino award in Chile, the award Salon de la Fotografia from the Fototeca de Nuevo Leon in Mexico among other awards. He has been named a FOAM magazine Talent and one of PDN Magazine's 30 emerging photographers. He has also been a finalist for the Aperture Portfolio award, the Photoespaña Descubrimientos award, the FOAM Paul Huff award and has been nominated for the CENTER Santa Fe photography prize.

His work is in many private and public collections. He is currently represented by Circuit Gallery in Toronto, Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles and Galería Patricia Conde in Mexico City.