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Book Review: 101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides

101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinindes.
Photographs by Enrique Metinindes. Aperture, 2012.
101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides
Reviewed by Blake Andrews

101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides
Photographs by Enrique Metinides. Edited with introduction by Trisha Ziff.
Aperture, 2012. Hardbound. 192 pp., 150 color illustrations, 8-1/2x10-1/4".


Any discussion of Enrique Metinides will deal with the Weegee factor at some point, so let's get that out of the way first. The comparison is probably inescapable. Both photographers made their name as press shooters, tracking down the crime scenes and accidents that comprise the underbelly of any large city. Both men had an inner radar for disaster scenes and a prurient attraction to their aftermath. And both men saw their finished work published for decades in newsprint before being later re-examined and claimed by the art world. To Norteamericanos encountering the work of Metinides for the first time, "The Mexican Weegee" seems a natural epithet.

But Metinides is his own man with his own style and huge oeuvre. He was something of a photographic prodigy. With a natural childlike interest in gore, his earliest photos were of car crashes. By age twelve he was a seasoned street shooter in Mexico City. At 13 he began his apprenticeship as a press photographer, and by age 15 he was a full-time professional, shooting whatever press photos were required, but with a particular focus on accidents, crashes, explosions, crime scenes, and the other charged material called for by Mexico's notorious nota roja -- the tabloid red pages, named for the color of blood.

101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides, by Enrique Metinides. Published by Aperture, 2012.

Such material lends itself to easy exploitation, yet Metinides generally took a more dignified approach. Counter to Capa's "Get closer" advice, his scenes were often shot at medium distance, showing not only whatever catastrophe he was recording, but also the surrounding visual context. He caught crowd reactions and emergency responders, but above all he captured the encompassing fabric of everyday life, seemingly always on the verge of utter chaos. His sense of the moment was impeccable, and his weaving of wires, lines, and formal elements into tight compositions showed surprising sophistication for a press shooter. His photos show heart, sometimes figuratively. "If it bleeds it leads," goes the old press mantra, a saying that Metinides seemed determined to outgrow. Yes, his photos show plenty of sangre roja. But they're more concerned with the holes in society than in any specific corpse.

101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides, by Enrique Metinides. Published by Aperture, 2012.

Now retired, Metinides rarely travels outside Mexico. He was well known in his native country for his press career -- and as the elder statesmen of the nota roja -- but he had no international reputation until 2000, when the publication of his first book El Teatro de los Hechos brought his work to a wider audience. A few years later in 2003, The Photographer's Gallery in London gave him a show and his first book in English (now out of print and tough to find).

After that the race was on. With the photo world rapidly expanding its understanding of high/low art and searching beyond the normal circuit for fresh material, Metinides quickly found himself on the gallery escalator. Shows in New York, Berlin, Madrid, Zurich, San Francisco, and other cities followed the one in London, capped with an appearance at Recontres d'Arles in 2011. The book Series was published last year, a cinematically styled monograph that succeeded in some ways, yet took such an idiosyncratic approach that Metinides' photographs lost some of their oomph amid the energy of the presentation.

101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides, by Enrique Metinides. Published by Aperture, 2012.

By 2012 Metinides was an established figure, and the stage had been set for stodgy Aperture to take a stab at him. Their 101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides is the best book I've yet seen on Metinides. For most readers it will be the easiest to track down, and the most accessible introduction to his work. After a nice career summary by Trisha Ziff, his photos are presented chronologically and without much complication, covering a range from 1948 (he was 14) to 1995. The photos are nicely offset by end papers and cover printed in -- what else? -- bright blood red. Well, maybe it's closer to orange, but either way it's electrifying.

101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides, by Enrique Metinides. Published by Aperture, 2012.

These are Metinides' personal favorites selected by him, and for each one he's written a short 'What Was He Thinking?' description to give the photo real-world context. The descriptions remind me a bit of newspaper captions, though more detailed and written from a photographer's point of view. I don't think they'd work in a newspaper, but for photographers looking for insight they are a gold mine. As a nice bonus, 101 Tragedies includes several spreads of yellowing La Prensa reproductions showing Metinides' photographs as they were originally published. These notas amarillas -- often cropped and poorly printed -- are matched with contemporary prints showing the photos with better production values. The comparisons provide a great source of entertainment. All in all, the book gets my full recommendation.—BLAKE ANDREWS

Selected as one of the Best Books of 2012 by Todd Hido.

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BLAKE ANDREWS is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at blakeandrews.blogspot.com.

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