interviews

Jonathan Blaustein

From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

Jonathan Blaustein is an artist, writer, and educator based in Taos, New Mexico. He has exhibited his work widely in the US, and his photographs reside in several important collections, including the Library of Congress, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Jonathan writes about photography for A Photo Editor and The New York Times Lens blog, and has taught at the University of New Mexico-Taos for many years.
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From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

fototazo: Your body of work "The Value of a Dollar" went viral after a feature on The New York Times' Lens blog. Millions of people saw the project, a body of photographs that raises questions about food production, distribution and consumption. After having that experience, I'm wondering about the arc of your own belief in the power of photography during your career. Do you believe differently in photography's power to effect social or political change or to effect change in collective consciousness now than you did when you started your career?

Jonathan Blaustein: It was a completely unique experience, going viral, when it happened to me. I had no frame of reference. Luckily, someone I trust suggested I document the phenomenon via screen grabs. I captured the whole arc, as it was happening. There were message boards calling me a genius, and others that thought I was an idiot for buying blueberries out of season.

Dialogue was created, which was definitely a step beyond what I thought was possible, when I was playing around with these food items in my studio. In the moment, back in 2010, I felt like it was a massive achievement.

Now, four years later, I'm not so sure. We consume media in a disposable fashion, just like we consume food. It's here, we love it, and then we forget about it the next day. So I'm very reluctant to believe that these types of situations have a lasting impact on culture.

Clearly, images dominate culture in a massive way. The James Foley video, and attendant screen grabs, are proof of that. They scared millions, if not billions, of people shitless. As was their intent.

But with art, I think very, very few things actually make a difference, in the long term. Andy Warhol. Picasso. August Sander. People like that resonate decades later. I'm not expecting to have that kind of impact, unless I get exceptionally lucky.

From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: In "The Value of a Dollar" you photograph a dollar's worth of different food products as purchased, minus the wrapper. The images contrast sharply with the glamorized advertising shots used to sell these same products. In another interview, you've talked about how the visual language of those advertising images is "a huge driver for America's obesity epidemic."

There's been a movement towards presenting models in advertising, especially women, without extreme Photoshop nips and tucks as a way to encourage a healthier understanding of our bodies and a reality-based construction of our ideals.

Do you ultimately think food industry advertising photography crosses ethical lines and should be subjected to the same types of campaigns for reform? And more broadly, what do you think about how the conversational threads around the body and advertising relate to your project and interest in the food industry? I'm thinking here of things like the power of images to coerce, the ability of the public to separate photographic truth and fiction, the possibility for photography to show truth at all even without post-production, and the right to create images, even if they potentially create negative social effects.

From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

JB: I like to show the TVOAD pictures to my students at the beginning of every semester. They always want to eat the Mickey D's burger, and, to a person, they know that what they see in the media is not true. It's a given, to them. That's why it's so amazing that advertising imagery is effective, and proof that it subverts the conscious mind.

I don't know if I'd say the practice is unethical, because the advertising industry is not driven by ethics at all. It's not immoral, it's amoral. It's only about getting people to consume more than they otherwise would. And if it didn't work, it wouldn't underwrite almost all of the content we absorb every day. (Though I suppose the HBO/Netflix model of pay-for-what-you-want does have some legs.)

Of course the way fashion models are presented, much less when they're photoshopped, has a very negative effect on young girls sense of self. Women too. And you're right to compare it to the way food advertising shapes their bodies as well. One set of images seduces them to eat more, the other makes them feel like shit for not being able to meet the standard. When they feel like shit, they eat more.

I'm currently working on a new project that looks very specifically at the way advertising imagery is constructed to speak to our basest instincts. It's pretty remarkable what's being beamed into our homes these days, if you take a moment to look.

From the series "The Value of a Dollar" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: "The Value of a Dollar" and your follow-up project "MINE" in which you photograph objects encountered on land you own in New Mexico are both projects in which you've isolated and photographed the objects apart from their original context. You've chosen to photograph the objects in your studio instead of the stores where you found the items or the objects you encountered in the landscape. What does stripping context and bringing the objects into the studio give the projects?

JB: It's funny. I was talking to a photographer, Brad Wilson, in Santa Fe last week. He just photographed wild animals in the studio. He gave me the same speech I've given others, about how animals in nature have been done to death, and people always think of Nick Brandt. He wanted to try something that felt more original.

For me, when I began TVOAD, I wanted to try to make pictures that didn't look like what I'd seen before. And I had clearly seen photos of food in other contexts, though it was still relatively rare as a subject for fine art investigation. That's changed, in the last six years, as food became a hot topic in the Zeitgeist.

But the real answer is that to combat the linguistics of advertising imagery, it was really important for me to decontextualize. To be "objective," to the best of my ability. Even though most educated artists know that word is practically unusable.

I used my studio table, as it was, and the walls behind it, as they were. The clean aesthetic was an inside joke, as my studio was in fact filthy. But I wanted them to seduce as art, as a way of drawing attention to the seductive power of the types of images I was critiquing.

It was also a big part of the concept that I photograph the items as they "actually" were. The studio gave me the space to do that, almost like a laboratory.

And it was also a big part of my shooting practice. To bring them into my space, which I could control, and then play around. Make shapes. And stare very deeply at what I was photographing. That was my secret: I gave myself a headache from looking so hard.

You can't really do that in the outside world. That's for real life. The studio is for thinking and commenting. For processing reality, at least for me.

From the series "MINE" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: There's lots of stuff in a store you could have used for "The Value of a Dollar," lots on your land you could have used for "MINE" and lots in your studio that could have been part of your most recent project, "The Mindless Consumption of Animals," which attempts to commodify some of the detritus that built up during eight years in your studio space before you moved out of it. What are the criteria you use for selecting the objects for your still lives from all the options available to you?

JB: This one's easy. Instinct. In my practice, I like to combine the structure of a conceptual underpinning with the freedom to make choices in the moment. Really, the process is akin to shopping. (Which I literally did for TVOAD.)

I look, I think, I make decisions based upon ideas that pop into my head. It's thinking about symbolism, aesthetics, humor, all sorts of things. But I would be hard pressed to enjoy making art if all the decisions were dictated beforehand by an overly-rigid concept.

From the series "MINE" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: In an excellent recent interview of Mishka Henner you put together for A Photo Editor, you said, "If your work doesn't have any sort of political undertone, then you're not really saying anything."

It made me remember a contrarian quote by Henri Matisse:
What I dream of is an art of balance, of purity and serenity, devoid of troubling or depressing subject matter, an art which could be for every mental worker, for the businessman as well as the man of letters, for example, a soothing, calming influence on the mind, something like a good armchair which provides relaxation from physical fatigue.  
Your quote seems to leave little space for his conception of art. To make it specific to photography, your quote seems to suggest photography that stays largely on a level of pleasing harmony of form or that works with content that avoids a political tone or undertone doesn’t create any conversation of consequence. Is that a fair interpretation of your perspective? Can you explain more about your position?

JB: I'm glad to see that people are paying specific attention to what I spout off about in these interviews. As I just wrote to you via email, the interviews are highly improvisational, and I do like to make strong, declarative statements.

Since you're giving me a mulligan, I'll specify here that art can be made for any number of reasons. That's the beauty of it. Anything goes, including things that lack the aspiration to challenge a viewer in any way. I live in a town where "making art" often means standing at a painter's easel, outside, looking at a mountain, and making an impressionist version of that.

That's a practice that was innovative at the time of Matisse's compatriot, Claude Monet. But it has been sucked of almost any and all possible juice, with respect to making art I might call "good."

So I suppose what I meant was that great art, important art, brings a powerful POV to the table. It grasps for innovation and original thinking. It attempts to ask big questions about relevant issues. And it is careful not to steal too much of the soul of what's come before. (Stealing just enough is the tricky part.)

Great art need not be political, but things made just to please are rarely powerful, unless they're innovating. Or contemplating metaphysics. Matisse himself was an innovator in his use of color, form, and even in his subject matter, like the Odalisques. The Abstract Expressionists were radical at the time, though of course they referenced Mondrian, Malevich, and Cezanne.

When I see an Ab-Ex-style painting made in 2014, even if it's pretty, I'm very unlikely to give a shit.

From the series "MINE" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: Another quote of yours from the Henner interview I'd like to push you on: "That’s what drives contemporary art, at its best, is the desire to figure out what the fuck is going on out there."

I don't want to suggest that it's an exclusive either/or situation, but this quote raised for me the eternal question of visual art's ability to figure out reality and state a concrete position in relation to, on the other hand, its strength for simply asking questions. What's your belief in visual art being able to speak exactly enough as a language to ask and answer the kinds of specific political, cultural and social questions that allow us to figure out what the fuck is going on?

JB: Figuring out what's going on is an inherently investigative process. That's why I specified the "desire" to figure things out. I've said many times, as have others, that it is about asking questions. No one has all the answers. But a curiosity to know more, to educate oneself through the creative process, is vital.

That's why symbolism is so powerful. Things that are too didactic, or too obvious, rarely capture someone's imagination long enough for them to ponder. Or feel confused. Or angry. Or blissed out.

But as a professional opinion giver, I do try to challenge my audience through my pseudo-journalism. I believe if more artists pushed themselves harder, there would be more great work out there.

From the series "MINE" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: Perhaps a related question. You worked on a cultural landscape project in Southern Colorado, but put it aside because you had "a hard time making the pictures what I wanted them to be." Does the studio allow you to control photography as a visual language more than work created outside the studio?

JB: Definitely. It does. But I happen to be working on a project at present that's forcing me back into my archives. I've found that 5 years later, there are photos from that series in Colorado that I really like. Certainly, individual images were successful.

But to give you a short answer, for once, I do find that the control of the studio environment works well for me.

Installation view © Jonathan Blaustein

f: I'm looking here at installation views of "MINE" in which you've grouped images and created an inverted triangle and other geometrical shapes with the photographs on the wall. How do you think about the installation and presentation of your images as you lay them out on a wall? Are you emphasizing ideas and themes of the photographs themselves in the layout of them in space?

JB: Absolutely. It's something I've tried to incorporate into my exhibitions, a thoughtful design. For the "MINE" solo show, I just started sketching out shapes on scratch paper.

Within a short span of time, I came up with a repeating pattern that resembled Mayan hieroglyphs. Given the primal nature of the symbols I was using, and my appreciation for ancient Meso-American architecture, I thought it was perfect.

Then, for a show in Derby, England, I did the same thing. This time, I sketched for a couple of weeks, and ended up with a cross shape, with the severed deer's head in the middle.

I'd have to give a shout out to Jesse Burke on this. When I saw his show at ClampArt a few years ago, it opened my mind to the benefit from breaking away from a single line of pictures on the wall.

Installation view © Jonathan Blaustein

f: You're also a teacher and writer as well as an image-maker. How do those roles interact and overlap for you? What do you gain and what do you give up by doing each?

JB: It all came about out of necessity, as much as anything else. As regular readers of A Photo Editor know, I call it the 21st Century Hustle. It's the only way I can make a living in a small mountain town with a barely functioning economy.

But I do believe it's to my benefit. Strengthening multiple skill sets makes you better at each. And the teaching has helped the writing, because learning how to entertain people is a big part of being a successful teacher.

With respect to what I give up, I certainly wonder what I'd accomplish with a single-minded focus. As such, I've been jimmy-rigging my life schedule to find more time and energy in general, so I can continue to make new work. That's been a real treat.

Overall, I wouldn't trade the lifestyle, though. I work with younger students, from difficult backgrounds, and there's nothing I've found that keeps me grounded like that. Giving back is good for the karma.

From the series "Mindless Consumption of Animals" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: You have said in the past you're interested in experimenting with video. Any news on that front? What do you think video might allow you to do with your work that photography does not?

JB: Yeah, I'm still in the playing around stage. I'd like to develop the writing aspect, for myself as opposed to as a journalist, and then film things I've written. We're not there yet.

But clearly, video, or cinema, when done right, offers a far more immersive experience than still photos. You have sound, which combined with moving images, can take a viewer completely out of their own existence. It's the reason that TV and Movies are infinitely more popular than visual art, even if those formats are now being delivered by Netflix and Amazon, as much as your local cinemaplex.

I'll get there eventually, I hope, but I'm not there yet.

From the series "Mindless Consumption of Animals" © Jonathan Blaustein

f: Both in how you intervene in some of the objects photographed for "MINE" and in your creation of "Blaustein Mining Company" for the project, there's a spicing of your work with absurdity and humor. How do the absurd and humor serve your aims? Is this a "laugh to keep from crying" scenario?

JB: For sure. I was just using that phrase with my wife the other day, as she's a social worker in the local Middle School. Taos is a very rough town, which most people don't know. Her job is much harder than mine, so I was encouraging her to laugh at the absurdity of what she deals with, rather than struggling valiantly to overturn a rigged system all by herself. I even invoked Sisyphus, which is about as cliché a reference as you can get.

Overall, I just think that humor adds another level to art. It lives next door to the dark side of existence.   I like to bring them together. I'm not interested in beauty, by itself, or grotesquerie alone either, but when they mix up in one art project, or piece, it makes for the best stuff. A la Mike Kelley.

f: Anything else you'd like to add, Jonathan?

JB: Thanks for the opportunity to plumb the depths of my own twisted consciousness. I'm used to being the interviewer, at this point, not the interviewee. So this was very cool.

I'm working on three projects at once, for the first time ever, but I'm not ready to hype them yet. So I'll just end with my gratitude.

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
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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.

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.

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.

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 Paul, 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
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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.



Ramón Jiménez Cuén


From the series "Migrando en el Espejo" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

Post by Jessica Hubbard Marr

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 with Ramón Jiménez Cuén by Jessica Hubbard Marr.

Other posts in this series include:
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
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From the series "Migrando en el Espejo" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

Jessica Hubbard Marr: To start, what do you do? Where are you based?

Ramón Jiménez Cuén: I'm currently based between New York and Oaxaca. I have been involved with the arts since I was child thanks to family in Seattle, Washington, where I became interested in music, photography and also skateboarding. My uncle Federico, a jewelry designer based in Venice, California, has also been a strong influence.

Now I am working as a museum consultant, in a green project down the Oaxacan coast and developing personal projects and studies.

JHM: What was your earliest experience with photography? What was your early photographic education like?

RJC: My father was a doctor; an oncologist, who used to take slides of his diagrams to present them in his medical classes. It was a Canon FTb. I started using this camera until I appropriated it. Then I lent it to a friend and it never came back.

Four months ago, I was walking around Mercado de Abastos in Oaxaca and I found the same camera in the Friday's flea market. I love to think it is the same camera. I started taking pictures with it. It's like recovering the main source of energy that pushes you to take pictures.

As a child, I also met Ralph Bayles, a photographer from Seattle. The figure of a photographer has always been near the family. Anthropologists, musicians and artists have been always part of Christmas dinner as long as I can remember.

I studied medicine in school for about a year, but then I quit and started to do music at Escuela de Bellas Artes de la Universidad Autónoma Benito Juárez de Oaxaca; at the same time, I was doing media studies at a private university here in Oaxaca.

© Ramón Jiménez Cuén

By the end of my university program, I spent most of my time in the Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photography Center (now Francisco Toledo's home on Murguia Street). I did every workshop, from platinum and heliograph printing techniques to personal essay exercises with photographers such as Joan Liftin, Mary Ellen Mark and Allen Frame. All this began around 1998.

With Mary Ellen Mark, I start working in a project called "Carnales Bajo el Puente" ["Brothers Under the Bridge"]. Allen Frame encouraged me to show my portfolio at ICP, they accepted me and offered me a grant. I had a great year in New York; ICP used to be located on 96th Street, Uptown, a beautiful space. Amazing friends and photographers came from all over the world - all with fascinating stories and different visions.

Just before I graduated, I won a grant from the Alexia Foundation who also offered me a chance to study photography at Syracuse University, an offer that I refused in order to go back and work on my marriage. I was 24 at that time.

Thanks to the Alexia Foundation, my work got published in a book call "Eyes On the World" (2006) and was part of a great exhibit which traveled around the world starting at the United Nations, and then New York, China and a few other countries.

Upon returning to Oaxaca, I founded dRamedia (2002), a studio house focused on multimedia. I also started a new rock band call Elinor, and began working for galleries, museums and other artists composing music, designing and photographing art for multimedia platforms and web sites.

At that time, I got a call from Kathy Ryan, the photo editor of The New York Times Magazine. It was an assignment to photograph an international convention in Merida. I still have the voice mail recorded.

I wasn't really motivated. I decided to quit photography for a while. Something that never really happens, my archive is full of photographs, most I considered visual notes.

Going back to ICP for a minute, it was also quite confusing, because it was the year (1999-2000) when everything started to change quite dramatically in photography. Now I am really happy to be part of that generation.

© Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: So you were in the generation that was on the cusp of analog and digital.

RJC: It was kind of hard to deal with that, it's still hard. Since then, I am always mixing all kinds of media, from analog to digital and vice-versa: scanning slides and then printing them in the dark room, for instance.

Now I'm quite happy, but at the time it was quite confusing because it was like I had to re-learn everything and not forget about analog in a way. Anyway, now it’s been almost about 15 years and I think the world is more about mixed-media; everything is an image.

After ICP, I was part of Pixel Press founded by Fred Ritchin. I learned so much during this period. He helped me to see further into the new age of post-photography, I felt released.

In 2009, I finished an MA in Media Art and Film at The New School in New York. This was a great opportunity to re-define myself as an artist. I loved it because I always had to struggle with this conflict of liking different mediums, so that made it easy to understand how everything is related in a new media world order.

I was very happy to accept myself as someone that liked to work with different media. I got the chance to understand the work of artists like Huma Bhabha and Wangechi Mutu. They were working with digital or analog and creating sculptures out of photography, mixing all kinds of elements and sources -- visual collections in all different kinds of formats.

I was very pleased to see this work at the ICP museum [in 2013] because it made me see that my path wasn't that wrong, I was playing with ideas like sound, sculpture and light. That inspired me a lot to create things with multiple types of media; unresolved projects that I still working on.

© Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: I would like to look a bit closer at your first major photographic project, "Brothers Under the Bridge" (1999-2002). Can you provide a general explanation the series before I ask more detailed questions?

RJC: This project is about street children addicted to drugs living in Oaxaca, Mexico. They are in poverty, extremely hard human conditions and ignored by their own community.

In Oaxaca, I found a group of kids running without direction, living as outcasts under the city. Their families sent them to work on the streets. They cleaned the windows of cars when the red light stopped them. They used almost all the money to buy drugs. They sniffed different kinds of solvents and glue. Sometimes they used marijuana.

They were between 12 and 22 years old. Almost all have been in jail. The police were always looking for them, even when they were clean. I wanted to capture a complete vision of their situation, follow their lives until they showed me the end. I wanted to capture the essence of their lives which has been forgotten.

JHM: What camera were you shooting with?

RJC: At first, I was shooting with a Canon Rebel but the one I worked with most of the project is a Nikon F5. It's a really heavy camera, but really fast.

But, I also liked to use a Nikon FM2, Leica m6, a Hasselblad, Mamiya, everything I could experiment and learn from; I also used cameras from different cell phones.

From the series "Brothers Under the Bridge" (1999) © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: What was your initiation process [into the "Brothers"]? I remember you told me that bonded with the leader over beers? More specifically, how did you become one of them?

RJC: "El Mitra," who is the leader of this group of kids, I kind of knew because we used to play together in our childhood in the same river, now sadly polluted. The most important thing was that I used to be part of a rock band, so I had had long hair and I was accepted right away. One of them used to play the harmonica, so I would take my guitar and play a bit with him.

That first day with "El Mitra," we connected, went to a bar, had a couple beers, and that was the beginning. That was great because he was the leader and my protector at the same time. Of course I didn’t need it, cause I was one of them after a couple of weeks, and for the next two years. Every time Mary Ellen Mark was in Oaxaca, I was shooting intensely for 10–15 days. Pretty much all of it [the series] was edited by Mary Ellen Mark.

JHM: Edited in what sense?

RJC: The deal was that I was allowed to take the workshop for free but I needed to process and develop my film and then print the selection that she decided.

JHM: Did the camera ever become a problem in any situation? Did anyone object to having his or her photo taken?

RJC: No.

JHM: Never, wow.

RJC: I was under the impression that they were happy with me because taking their photo made them feel important, a certain kind of recognition; society in general is blind to these scenarios. The camera was there to testify for them. It wasn't a problem.

At the beginning, I took portraits of them and gave them all copies. I was the official photographer for everything at the beginning so I was capturing things that were intimate and important. Then I became essentially invisible and I was taking photographs freely. I became banda, a carnal; a real brother.

No Hay Cihiivon, From the series "Brothers Under the Bridge" (1999) © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: Can you tell me about this one image, No Hay Chiivion (1999)? What is the context of the photograph?

RJC: This guy, his name is "Takanga," that’s his nickname, and he was beaten by another kid, "El Chango," and they were fighting over a bottle of glue. The attitude was very much, "It’s all okay, we are still friends." After being beaten up pretty hard, he wanted to get across that he was fine and things were cool and that they were together as friends again. That happened like the fifth day after I started photographing them. Everything worked out fine with them and I wanted to testify to the importance of that moment. That was the story behind that photograph.

JHM: You previously mentioned to me that this project had both a political and social message but was also very personal, at a pivotal point in your life.

RJC: Yes. At that moment, I felt that my feelings were projected onto this story. I was going through a separation at the time, and these kids and going under the bridge was my refuge. In a way, I projected my feelings through these kids' stories. They became like my brothers in that sense and helped me through that emotional moment.

JHMThe series also went on to win several awards and as an exhibition, it travelled the world. Was this rewarding? How did you feel?

RJC: Well, there is no better feeling than holding a silver gelatin print on your hands, after that nothing really matters.

JHM: What did you do after this project? Where did you go?

RJC: After this I went to ICP and I did a lot of things. In terms of documentary photography essays, I did a project about the migration of Oaxacans in New York, "Migrando en el Espejo" (2000).

It was like a mirror exercise, looking both at the migrants and the family that they left behind. I did that in 2000, it's in color - Kodachrome. It has a totally different feeling to "Brothers Under the Bridge."

I also did a lot of fictional photo essays, and I of course was still working on my process of divorce and separation so I did a lot of personal work where you can really feel a little bit of loneliness. A lot of that features the streets of New York and is in black and white. I was very inspired by the work of a photographer called Michael Ackerman.

From the series "Brothers Under the Bridge" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: You showed me his work, I remember.

RJC: I love his style and was really inspired by his work. So, that’s what I was doing in New York back in 2000. I presented this work in Galeria Manuel Garcia [in Oaxaca] with Alejandro Echeverría. We did like a multi-media presentation of that. Nice exhibit.

Then the exhibition "Brothers Under the Bridge" was presented LSE where it became part of their collection. Manuel Garcia published my fist book, "Carnales bajo el Puente." (2002).

JHM: Where does your Marianna Yampolsky research and essay"'La Memoria de una Lente, Miradas sobre Mariana Yampolsk"' (May 2012) fit into this timeline?

RJC: Then as you know, I was selected to be director of MACO (Museum of Contemporary Art, Oaxaca) an amazing experience. I don't know why they selected me but I am so grateful. By being there, I had all these connections with various artists. It was a great experience and I learned a lot of things.

I was invited to celebrate the anniversary of Yampolsky and be part of the panel discussion. I decided to write this essay that I really love. Some of the works that I included in the essay were photographs that she made in Oaxaca and surrounding areas that I'm really familiar with because my family is from Tututepec, Juquila, Oaxaca. So I was very pleased and very inspired by that.

For example, Mariana's photograph, Huipil de tapar, was taken around Pinotepa Nacional and takes me to my grandmother's memory. She used to look exactly like the woman in the photograph.

JHM: As director of MACO, did you see any fusion between contemporary art and photography in Oaxaca? Or is it still rooted in the strong tradition of social documentary, straight photography? What changes do you see in Oaxaca in using photography in a different way?

RJC: Oaxaca has a strong tradition in surrealist moments influenced by Manuel Alvarez Bravo, Graciela Iturbide and more photographers coming to Oaxaca for it's exotic and tropical imaginaries. Fortunately now that is changing, new visions, especially from local artists are taking an important place in the contemporary art scenario, the work of Edgardo Aragon is a good example.

Installation of "Tropical Sur" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén


Installation of "Tropical Sur" © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: Tell me a bit more about your piece "Tropical Sur" in the Galeria Quetzalli exhibition, "Dreams and Memories."

RJC: It's a personal piece that resembles an encounter between my father and a woman called Leslie Grace. She's an anthropologist who owned a folk art gallery call La Tienda in Seattle, Washington for the last fifty years. She's a very important person in our family story, I must say, my second mother. She met my father in the 60s. Since then, we have built our life surrounded with beautiful people and life experiences. I try to manifest this in the piece throughout different elements. It's like a reconstruction of the past.

It isn't hard to represent the past, because it's still so present. The main element is a fruit from a Huanacastle (in Zapotec: "the ear tree" / "el arbol que todo lo escuha"). It is a common tree of the Oaxacan coast that is frequently used to build furniture; by taking it down, erosion has changed all kinds of life forms. This is the type of tree I'm trying to cultivate on the coast of Oaxaca. My father and I began working on that project. He passed away six years a go.

Going back to the piece, there are mirrors printed with the fruit and three lines that I took from a book called, "I Chin," a trigram that represents the celestial father figure. Most of the piece is inspired by the lecture of a book call "The Radicant" (2009) by Nicolas Bourriad.

From "Tropical Sur" 2014 © Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: How long did it take you to put together?

RJC: It took a while; it was more like a re-collection of thoughts, fruits, seeds, and ideas. I have this peculiar seed that allowed me to photograph his shape in seven different manners held by it own structure. It is very particular because you can move it around and find different angles in it.

There are seven different photographs. On the mirror, I added all of these elements like the original fruit, a stone, and then some drawn lines that kind of represent the labyrinth of life but that at the end everything is connected.

JHM: Going back to going through all of your old contact sheets, are you finding images that before you didn't really know were there?

RJC: I like to archive pretty much everything, so I've found a lot of material about my personal life as well. I used to just save a lot of images for the sake of archiving, but now I think that a lot of them have a lot of meaning. I'm definitely going to include that at some point in some project. I've reprinted a lot of these images or printed them for the first time.

© Ramón Jiménez Cuén

JHM: Who are some other photographers who have influenced you or inspired you?

RJC: Michael Akerman. Larry Clark, he created one of the best documentary series that I have ever seen. ["Tulsa"] influenced me quite heavily when I was working on "Brothers Under the Bridge."

Koudelka, Sugimoto, there are so many. I love Bruce Davison. I love the book of the subway that he did in the 80;s. I like Mary Ellen Mark, especially "Falkland Road." I love Ralph Gibson, his stuff is still so provocative.

Mapplethorpe, Gursky. Uma Bhabha, Elliot Hundley and now I love the work of anonymous photographers, photos from family albums, so honest.

Library Is SuicideNew York, 1999© Ramón Jiménez Cuen

JHM: What is next for you?

RJC: I'm very involved right now with the museum, the Museo Belber Jimenez, so I'm trying just now to curate exhibitions involving local artists, to breathe life into this beautiful space. I'm looking forward to continuing to work mixing all kinds of media.

A month ago, it was George Moore's birthday and he invited me to play and we played some blues. It had been a long time since I played in a band so I was excited to pick up an old thing. Being in New York is not just about studying, it’s also about plugging into new coordinates and other things.

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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. 


Coney Island, 2012 © Ramón Jiménez Cuén