Distilling violence into art is a tricky alchemy. Even when done carefully, it can result in a strange brew, leaving some intoxicated and moved by its heady ascetics, others feeling sick and hung-up on its inherent horror, sadness, and trauma. In On Photography, Susan Sontag famously enunciated that photography depicting violence and suffering can “corrupt” the viewer, discouraging their engagement and activism. The more images of this type that are disseminated and seen, the further this corruption unfolds and pervades the apprehension of photographs of suffering. “Images transfix. Images anesthetize,” she wrote.
101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides, currently on view at the Aperture Gallery, is a taxonomical record of disasters: bus crashes, train crashes, car crashes, plane crashes; stabbings, shootings, hangings, drownings, suicidal jumpings; explosions and snowstorms; bereft survivors; onlookers (which have their own list, as the gallery introduction by Metinides records: “metiches, mirones, curiosos, chismosos” — busybodies, observers, bystanders, gossips). Over his 50-year career — begun in the 1940s, when he was just 11, earning him the nickname “El Niño” — shooting for the local papers and the nota roja, or “red pages,” Mexico’s sanguineous crime tabloids, Enrique Metinides witnessed and photographed some of the worst crimes and accidents in Mexico. Like death with a camera, Metinides was an inexorable presence at crime scenes, putting in long hours, rarely taking time off. His photographs, like Weegee’s (to whom he is often compared), capture the inexhaustible flow of miseries in the modern city.
Aperture’s small exhibition hall provides the viewer with an open area for strolling through their calamitous scenes. Each photo is accompanied by Metinides’s title and description of the circumstances. Of one picture, an accident involving a truck, Metinides writes, “Colonia Doctores, Mexico City, CA. 1960 Accidents like this happened very often. Trucks flipped over; they were all kinds of crashes. But what I have always been fascinated with is how people love to stop and stare at an accident.” The theme of death watching was to be a lifelong preoccupation for Metinides, and the Aperture exhibition is a hall of mirrors of spectatorship. Arguably, Metinides himself is a mirón; at minimum, he is working at their behest. In this show, the watching of tragedies is enacted once more, overlaying a further level of looking: spectators viewing spectators. Except this time, their staging is in the gallery and the world of art-sanctioned photography. Too much, too ordered, too collected to be easily contextualized and appreciated as actual events in particular moments, the photos can only partially register as real.
But this is to assume that Metinides is struggling for a rational, expository project. In truth, he’s not interested in situating his photos in a framework of total coherence. Instead, he’s relating a tale of tragedies — ordinary, corporeal, and everyday. In this setting, his cynicism and pain (one of the exhibition walls bears an quotation from him: “Sometimes I would come home and just weep after the things I had seen. It always left an impression. I never forgot.”) can commingle. He can despair for the departed and sneer at the those gathering at the scene, as in one photo of a drowning victim: tethered to a rope, a man retrieves the body from the water while the surface reflects a wall of onlookers.
Metinides is a master of encapsulating the allure of looking. Even though his work is graphic, exhibiting scenes of death and murder, you rarely turn you eyes away, or least you don’t recoil: their mortifying aspect is lessened by the familiar and balanced revelation of the gaze, showing just enough to attract but not so much as to repel. This quality is what set him apart from his nota roja colleagues. Sometimes he chose to photograph a grieving victim rather than the mangled dead.
But there’s another reason the photos don’t overwhelm and don’t feel altogether real. From a childhood spent enraptured by American gangster movies, skipping school to go to the theater, Metinides absorbed the iconography of the silver screen and emulated it in his work — the dramatic murder, the scenes of filtered violence. (Metinides notes in the show that one photo, of a man dead from a suicidal leap and shot from the position of the building, looking down, was inspired by a similar scene in a movie he watched.) And the pictures read in such a detached way in part because the viewers are likewise familiar with the filmic imagery they draw on. The reality of the images is screened in this way; the terrible uniqueness of the death scenes is diffused and made comparable. The preponderance of these photos, as Sontag wrote, has the effect of transfixing the viewer, not dismaying her. But in the case of Metinides, this may be what he was actually after — not mere records of disasters but a mirror of tragedy and the longing to look.
101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides continues at Aperture Gallery (547 West 27th Street, fourth floor, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 18.