I’m turning 45 on Monday.
(Halfway to 90.)
As of then, I can say I’ve been an artist for more than half my life, as I picked up the habit at 22, and it hasn’t let go yet.
Lately, though, I find I don’t have quite the thrill for photography that I used to.
It makes sense, as it’s been my primary medium the entire time. (Though one could argue I’ve been writing more than shooting the last few years.)
Still, doing the same thing, over and over again, will make almost anyone bored. (I say almost, because now that I’ve studied Japanese martial arts for 2 months, I already have a better handle on their obsession with repetition.)
Add in the fact that as resident book reviewer here, (400+ posts and counting,) I see a lot of photo projects, and it’s understandable that I’d get a bit jaded from time to time.
(I probably just need a vacation.)
Still, I love to be surprised, to see new things, and to keep it fresh for you, my loyal global audience.
Today, I was loathe to review the first few books I checked out, as they were reminiscent of things I’d reviewed quite recently. So I sat here on my couch, willing myself to be inspired to write.
Got to hit that deadline.
No inspiration, no column.
I closed my eyes, thinking about the feeling of inspiration. The rush of adrenaline as your mind expands in real time. The thrill of looking at things that make you want to create, or travel, or both.
In my imagination, I was back in Albuquerque at UNM, in 1997. I was studying Photo 1 at the time, and at the encouragement of my professor, Jeff Tomlinson, I headed to the Fine Arts library to look at some photo books.
Walking the stacks, creeping around like Inspector Javert, I ran my fingers across the spines in the photo section, cocking my head sideways to read the titles.
I stopped at “España Oculta: Public Celebrations in Spain 1974-89,” by Cristina Garcia Rodero, published by Smithsonian Books, and pulled it from its neighboring tomes.
“What are you,” I asked, curious to know?
15 years is a long time, and as I’m coming up on my 14th anniversary of moving back to New Mexico, I should know. It represents the length of this project, and even then, as a pure beginner, I wondered how anyone could sustain that kind of interest in one subject for that long.
These days, I can imagine a Spaniard, around 30 or so, who enjoyed shooting at festivals in her native country, and checked in from time to time over a decade and a half. It doesn’t seem impossible, though at 23, that’s exactly how I viewed it.
The consistent surreality of the scenes won me over, and still does. The disbelief that these were real people, in real situations, and not staged fantasies.
Even then, as young-20-something who’d only been around New Mexico for 10 years, I’d heard stories of local Penitente societies still active, in which believers self-flagellated, and wore hoods.
Here, in the book, were versions of that before me, only exponentially more intricate. The Baroque nature of Spanish Catholicism was on full display, with crucifixion rituals, baby coffins, and midget bull-fighters. (Sorry. Little People.)
I bought the book soon afterwards, at the ICP bookstore in Manhattan, likely 3 or 4 locations back.
And even though it remains my favorite photo-book of all time, somehow, in between all the moves…
I lost it.
Luckily, Ms. Garcia Rodero is a member of Magnum, and they have a digital copy of the entire book on their site, which is a very 21st Century experience. (Even if it’s not the equal of those excellent reproductions on paper.)
The pictures feel relevant to me in a totally new way, on the day when Michael Cohen is testifying about his former-boss-and-buddy Donald J Trump.
Trumpism and Nationalism can be easily mistaken for each other, these days, though I might be generous and declare the latter is at least based on a proper love for the cultures and traditions of a place on Earth.
(Again, if I’m being kind. Trumpism is nothing more than narcissism having an incest baby with geopolitics.)
Here in America, we’re all from somewhere else. All of us. (Even our indigenous folks walked in 15,000 years ago.)
Our culture is polyglot and hybridic by nature. Many Americans, (myself included,) are Europhiles, either because their ancestors came from there, or because the allure of age and aesthetics entice us to stare longingly at rituals that make no sense next to Walmart and McDonalds.
These pictures revel in the “Spanishness” that you read, in think-pieces, is at risk of disappearing. The very specificity of place and time that gets annihilated when beanie-wearing-hipsters FaceTime with each other across national borders, giggling at outmoded concepts like local culture while fiddling with their Apple watches.
Was that even a word when I first saw this book, back before the internet was even a thing?
But certain ideas represented in “España Oculta” never go out of style. Creative excellence, formal craftsmanship, patience and hard work, and shooting thousands of rolls of film.
After all these years, I’ve never reviewed a book from memory before, but there’s a first time for everything.
If you can find a copy of this one, by all means buy it. (Or probably anything else of hers you can get your hands on.) I once stumbled upon her show, at MoMAPS1, in which she’d made images of Voodoo rituals in Haiti that practically gave me nightmares.
Truth be told, I feel better now than I did before I found her images online, and reconnected with this marvelous narrative.
It’s an example of the best our medium has to offer, IMO, and reminds me why it’s so important to keep pushing that rock up the hill each day.
Bottom Line: A Baroque, Spanish masterpiece
If you’d like to submit a book for potential review, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We currently have a several month backlog, and are particularly interested in submissions from female photographers so we may maintain a balanced program.