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Photographer Enrique Metinides artfully captured five decades of mayhem in Mexico City

December 24, 2010 |  6:48 pm

Metinides 1

The old photographer spends most of his time these days in his cramped but neat Mexico City apartment, usually alone, recording footage from accidents or disaster scenes he finds on television or in movies. He is especially fond of clips of the September 2001, terrorist attacks in the United States.

"Since I'm not working anymore, I get by doing this," Enrique Metinides said frankly one recent afternoon. "I wish I was there. I would've gone right in."

His longing is not satirical. Far from it. Metinides, now graying and 76, belongs to a rare breed: the photojournalist with an absolute, unflinching addiction to the news. By any standard he ranks among the best and most prolific.

For more than 50 years, Metinides shot too-many-to-count accidents, shootouts, fires and robberies-gone-bad for the tabloids of his hometown, the big bad capital of Mexico. He worked nearly every  day from the age of 12 -- when he was spotted by a newspaper reporter taking photos of a car accident -- until he retired in the 1990s. He listened to police scanners, rode along with ambulances and firetrucks, or sometimes arrived at harrowing scenes before the authorities.

And he often came close to death doing it, suffering over the years various heart attacks, accidents, and broken bones. Metinides was not above dropping his own equipment and throwing his hands into an especially urgent rescue effort. He recalled brashly telling editors back in his day: "Don't give me any orders or tell me what to do. I'll go out, and come back with my report."

Boy, did he.

Metinides shootout supermarket

Metinides' photographs filled the tabloid La Prensa year after year, "front cover and back cover and pages inside," he said, in almost every edition. Yet what is most striking about Metinides' career is the quality of his work. His images are graphic and gruesome -- snapshots of car accidents with corpses inside, derailed trains, crumpled airplanes, faces drenched in blood, exploding gas stations and people so freshly dead they seem almost unaware of it (see photo in link).

From an aesthetic standpoint, the photos are just as memorable for their composition, movement and drama. They capture ordinary people in a massive city caught up suddenly in the most traumatic of circumstances. When Metinides pulls back from an accident or crime scene and shoots a wide angle to capture throngs of onlookers and gawkers, the images challenge the viewer to confront and question the voyeuristic instinct that exists inside any consumer of the news. And when viewed as documentation, they chart the awesome growth and persistent sense of tumult of one of the world's great mega-cities.

For photography buffs, Metinides' portfolio carries an added layer of historical worth. The photos merge from black-and-white in the 1940s to color in the 1970s, marking the introduction of color film in Mexico. When hand-held video cameras entered the market, Metinides picked one of those up, too, shooting footage from inside ambulances or of helicopters touching down at hospitals.

Many Metinides photos seem like stills from big-budget action movies. This was in fact his intent. As a young boy, before his father gave him his first camera, Metinides was a serious fan of gangster flicks. "It was like the movies," the small-framed man said while examining a few albums at his dining table. "Like a movie in photos."

That characteristic has in the last decade transformed Metinides into a sensation in the global art world. After an exhibition and book on his work appeared in Mexico City in 2000, gallery operators and patrons perked up and noticed. Metinides' photos have since been displayed in galleries and museums in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris and several other cities.

Metinides accident

In October, the latest exhibit of Metinides photos opened at the Garash gallery in the Roma district of Mexico City, the first mounted here since 2006. The new show features 17 photographs and -- for the first time in Mexico -- a segment of a short video shot by Metinides. Using a hand-held video camera, he grabbed a few moments of footage at a particularly sad crime scene, a fatal robbery attempt in Chapultepec Park in 1985. Metinides' photograph of that incident, one of his most famous, is the first image above.

The photographer eagerly explains the circumstances of any of his snapshots with a sharply detailed memory. In this case, an engaged couple were on a weekend stroll when they were approached by would-be muggers; the man resisted their attackers, one of whom stabbed him, ending the future groom's life on a Sunday in the park.

The footage Metinides shot from afar is heart-wrenching. The young woman is standing, whimpering, in shock. Grainy and silent, the film clip brings into brutal focus both the frailty and unpredictability of life like few other artworks can.

The exhibit's curator, Veronique Ricardoni, has spent years working with Metinides and delving into his collection. "He is self-taught, but so cultured, with so much common sense, a civic personality," Ricardoni said in an interview. "To me, he's a superhero."

Metinides eunice adorno

Metinides' obsession with the police beat extends beyond the darkroom. Along with his albums and stacks of DVDs of major disaster scenes, Metinides keeps in a room in his apartment a collection of an estimated 3,000 toys and mementos. There are ambulances, firetrucks, firefighters, paramedics and police.

The gallery show in Mexico City features some of Metinides' toys in experimental photo-montages. A plastic toy firefighter, for example, is photographed before a printed photo of a raging fire. The pieces are over-the-top and even humorous tributes to the everyday heroes of Mexico City's police and rescue squads, and to the photographer who so genuinely admires them. Many actual firefighters and paramedics showed up at the opening of the Garash show, there in uniform to cheer on an old friend.

When La Plaza asked Metinides a somewhat existential question -- "Are you a photographer or an artist?" -- he answered plainly.

"I'm a photographer by accident, who took photos by chance thanks to movies that I saw and tried to imitate, like a photographer or a director of a scene. And this allowed me to make unique photos in the tabloids, something that is rare, no?"

More photos by Enrique Metinides are viewable at the Garash gallery website. The show, "In the Place of Coincidence," is on view until the end of January 2011.

-- Daniel Hernandez in Mexico City

Note: Daniel Hernandez previously interviewed Enrique Metinides in October 2006. That interview appeared as a Q&A in the Los Angeles-based Journal of Aesthetics & Protest. The link is here.

Photos: Top three photos by Enrique Metinides, courtesy of Galeria Garash. Bottom photo: Metinides in October 2010, in his toy collection room in his Mexico City apartment, courtesy of photographer Eunice Adorno.

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