Mexico Notebook: Interview with Adam Wiseman

Annuska Angulo in the bathroom of Progreso and Prosperidad, Escandon, Mexico City,
From the series "Moving Portraits" (2013) © Adam Wiseman 

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.

Today we continue this series with an interview of Adam Wiseman by Jessica Hubbard Marr.

Other posts in this series include:
Q&A with Luis Mercado
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

Rafael Ortega, on his balcony in Progreso and Prosperidad, Escandon, Mexico City, From the series
"Moving Portraits" (2013) © Adam Wiseman

Jessica Hubbard Marr: To begin, where do you live and what do you do?

Adam Wiseman:  I live in Mexico City; I am an artist and a freelance editorial photographer.

JHM: Describe your first experience with photography. What stands out to you most about this first encounter?

AW:  My parents have always been obsessed with photo albums, we have many volumes of them. As a child we moved and traveled a lot. My mother is Scottish, my father American. I was born in Mexico and as a child lived in Brazil, Mexico, Scotland and London.

With so much moving around, the photo albums were the only way I could keep everything straight. I developed an appreciation for visual language from a very young age. I struggled with dyslexia, pictures made much more sense as a means of communication than words.

As a young adolescent I began to travel alone or with friends and recorded my travels with a point-and-shoot; I loved it, wasn't much good, but I was always excited to get the film developed.  It wasn't until I started going to university that I became more serious about photography as a tool of personal expression and not one of just documentation.  It was at the age of 18 that I learned how to use a manual SLR, how to develop film in a darkroom, how to print and how to edit.

Elena Poniatowska in her garden in Chimalistac, Mexico City, From the series "Moving Portraits" (2013)
© Adam Wiseman

JHM: What were you drawn to most about photography?

AW:  I am drawn to its intuitive nature, I feel most of my good work is shot intuitively, to a certain extent; subconsciously, not intellectually.

There is simplicity and clarity in photography but also plenty of room for interpretation. I am drawn to photographs that are in some way unresolved, that have some ambiguity about them requiring the viewer to participate and fill in the blanks with their imagination.

I love the subjective nature of photography, how it distorts reality and manifests a particular point of view and yet it is often accepted as the gospel truth. I am fascinated by the idea of taking a photograph and thus removing a slice of reality from a larger context and changing its meaning by creating a new context either by placing it next to other photographs, or on its own, but without the reference of its natural environment.

Francis Alÿs in La Condesa, Mexico City, From the series "Moving Portraits" (2013)
© Adam Wiseman

JHM: What was your experience like studying at ICP (International Center for Photography)? What stands out to you about that education?

AW:  ICP was my first serious introduction to photography.  We were only 11 [students], so each of us had plenty of time to share our work and critique the work of our peers. We had access to darkrooms, cameras, lights and chemicals.

Experimentation was always encouraged: it felt liberating to be able to shoot so freely and to be in such a creative environment.  What stood out was the dynamic back and forth from one’s peers. I miss it today, having so many talented photographers around to receive feedback from and being able to look at other's work.

Guillermo Santamarina at the Muca Roma, Mexico City, From the series "Moving Portraits" (2013)
© Adam Wiseman

JHM: How did your work at Magnum impact you or inspire you?

AW:  My work at Magnum was as a printer. It was a wonderful opportunity to see how the photographers I had always admired worked. Looking at the contact sheets of each photographer would reveal how they achieved the iconic images which were eventually chosen, the images we all eventually knew so well which became part of the fabric of history: Bresson, Capa, Gilden, Koudelka, Erwitt, Meiselas, Peress, Webb, McCurry, Nachtwey… no longer just role models, they became my teachers. I was very fortunate to be there and most of them were very generous with their time.

JHM: Who has been a photographer, whether at Magnum or elsewhere, that notably influenced you and/or your current professional practice?

AW:  I have always admired photographers who have broken with tradition, photographers who discover a new way to express themselves and don't necessarily adhere to the unspoken rules of the medium. Martin Parr, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, Bruce Gilden, Richard Mosse, Paul Graham, Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin are a few that come to mind.

Luis Mdahuar in Kurt and Rocio's garage, La Condesa, Mexico City, From the series "Moving Portraits" (2013)
© Adam Wiseman

JHM: What brought you back to Mexico City? How was the transition from the New York photography world? Challenges? Benefits? Differences?

AW:  I returned to Mexico City for practical and emotional reasons. A part of me always wanted to return and I was often nostalgic for when I lived there. My wife and I had also just had our first child and we were struggling to make a living as we slowly got our careers off the ground. Moving to Mexico turned out to be a good decision for many reasons, among them for my development as a photographer.

I was offered opportunities I feel would not have been offered to me in New York. I became the photo editor of a travel magazine, an experience that let me grow and experiment, develop a personal style and refine my technical skills. Being a photo editor in a big publishing house turned out to be too much of an administrative job for me and I soon left to become a freelancer. Despite it not being a good fit as a long-term decision, the experience was a very valuable one and gave me the skills I needed to then find my own path in the photographic and art world.

Melanie Smith in her studio, San Pedro Los Pinos, Mexico City, From the series "Moving Portraits" (2013)
© Adam Wiseman

JHM: How do you find a balance between editorial and personal work? Where do find inspiration for your personal work?

AW:  For most of my career, I have survived from editorial assignments. From very early on, I made a commitment to myself that every assignment should have a personal angle to it. I was not allowed to be happy with the work if only my client was. I could only be happy with it if I had discovered and photographed something that challenged me intellectually or aesthetically.

As a consequence, my editorial work developed into something more personal and my personal work began to take center stage. I never really felt I have had to balance the two, on the contrary they are each a part of the other's process.

Michael Nyman in La Colonia Roma, Mexico City, From the series "Moving Portraits" (2013)
© Adam Wiseman

JHM: What was the motivation behind your series, "Moving Portraits"?

AW:  "Moving Portraits" was part of a personal exploration looking to challenge the traditional rules of documentary photography and in this case, documentary portraiture.

It came at a time when I decided to step back from my semi-formulaic editorial process and think about photography in a more theoretical way: what is a portrait? What is the role of the photographer/subject? What is their relationship to each other? How is objectivity achieved with a medium that has such a subjective nature?

In a way, it was a personal rebellion to my years of being faithful to the unspoken yet strict rules of documentary photography. "Moving Portraits" was inspired by the need to break the rules. My goal was to capture the essence of my subjects through untraditional methods, in this case through deceit and by using a new tool for me; video.

Boca del Rio Bar, From the series "d.f.p.m." (2011) © Adam Wiseman

Mannequins, From the series "d.f.p.m." (2011) © Adam Wiseman

JHM: Deceit! I imagine being captured in such a novel approach was new for all your subjects, and especially the public figures who have their portrait taken regularly. What was the feedback from your subjects? Anything unexpected?

AW:  Initially, they were surprised and at first quiet, probably because they were trying to remember if they did anything foolish. After the surprise wore off though they found it amusing and I think liked the sneaky/cheekiness of it.

JHM: In 2013, "Moving Portraits" was featured in the exhibition "México a través de la Fotografía" at the MUNAL (National Museum of Art); it was the final work in the survey of 300 important works of Mexican photographic history. How did it feel to be included alongside such legendary work? Do you see the series as an indicator to where photography is evolving in Mexico?

AW:  I was flattered. I was also impressed by Georgina Rodriguez's bold decision to include "MP" - a video - in a show that illustrated the history of Mexico but also the history of photography in Mexico. It was bold but necessary because technology is allowing for changes in traditional methods of expression and many photographers now incorporate video into their work.

Many of the pieces in this year's Photography Biennial include video. These videos are mostly photographic in the way that they use the language of still photography (carefully composed, camera in a fixed position, limited or restricted movement within the frame, and the lack of a story based narrative).

Many contemporary Mexican photographers are expressing themselves through video in this new way; Pavka Segura's new work, which might be described as video photographs, is a good example of this. Nahatan Navarro incorporates into his work "stolen" video selfies taken from electronic store laptops.

So yes, I feel that "Moving Portraits" is one example of how photography in Mexico is freeing itself from the medium and its rules, new techniques encouraged by advances in technology and changes in the market has made documentary photography more subjective and concept driven and less driven by the pursuit of a story-based narrative.

Three Kings Day, From the series "d.f.p.m." (2011) © Adam Wiseman

JHM: What was the inspiration for your most recent work, "Tlatelolco Desmentido"? How did you decide to represent/depict the current community at Tlatelolco?

AW:  "Tlatelolco Desmentido" ("Tlatelolco Disproved") is a look at the relationship between a building and the people who live in it. How one shapes and defines the other in spite of what the architect had originally intended. I was interested in Tlatelolco because it has been so scarred by history and is so far removed from the modernist utopia it was supposed to be.

I wanted to make a "portrait" of a place and a people in a moment in time. A portrait where the process not only allowed for an unpredictable result, mirroring the architect Mario Pani's experience, but that also involved the residents in the making, without the residents being the protagonists. The building is always the protagonist in this process, yet the building is defined by those who live in it.

Portrait of a Man Drinking Beer, From the series "d.f.p.m." (2011) © Adam Wiseman

JHM: What were some of the challenges in dealing with such a tragic historical event?

AW:  At first I had to decide how to approach the subject, how much of this project should be about the tragic events that occurred there?

From the very beginning, I chose not to make the student massacre of '68 the focus of this project. It had to be as present as it was in the minds and lives of those who lived there: not the main focus, just like it isn't constantly a part of everyday life. However, there is no denying that its ghost is there and will never go away.

Once I had decided to focus on the building and its residents, the challenge was primarily logistical and social: how to convince over 100 people to get involved in this crazy project?

To do this, I asked my good friend, artist and producer Enrique Cervera to help me. He was key to getting the Chihuahua building to open their doors to us and to keep them open for almost a year now.

From the series "Tlatelolco Desmentido" (2014) © Adam Wiseman

JHM: Were there any surprises in the process of making the work?

AW:  Absolutely! The biggest surprise was how eager and willing the residents were; over 90% of those asked took part in the project. The results of "Tlatelolco Desmentido" are far removed from what I expected would occur.

The whole project was a surprise. Another surprise was how the project evolved naturally, how it began and then where it led me, particularly from shooting the façade and the orchestrated lights to shooting the interior windows.

From the series "Tlatelolco Desmentido" (2014) © Adam Wiseman

From the series "Tlatelolco Desmentido" (2014) © Adam Wiseman

JHM: How are you inspired by Mexico City? What is unique about it, especially for a photographer?

AW:  Like any big city, its unpredictability. In the case of Mexico City, I think this is especially the case. I also love the way it solves its own problems through unconventional creative means.

I once read a description of São Paulo, Brazil as a city that looked as if New York had vomited Los Angeles… I think there is some of that in Mexico, not only the imagery but also socio-politically, culturally and economically speaking.

JHM: Finally, what’s next?

AW:  Still life's… I think.

From the series "Tlatelolco Desmentido" (2014) © Adam Wiseman

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. 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.

Marr resides in the US after spending the past 6 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.