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Portfolio & Interview: Alejandro Cartagena's Carpoolers

photo-eye Gallery Interview & Portfolio: Alejandro Cartagena's Carpoolers We are thrilled to have a selection of images from Alejandro Cartagena's Carpoolers series hanging in the photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space in Santa Fe with an opening Friday November 7th from 5-7pm. photo-eye's Melanie McWhorter asked Cartagena about the origin of the series and its popularity and the creation of the Carpoolers book.
Carpoolers #24, Carpoolers #37 and Carpoolers #40  Alejandro Cartagena

We are thrilled to have a selection of images from Alejandro Cartagena's Carpoolers series hanging in the photo-eye Bookstore + Project Space in Santa Fe with an opening Friday November 7th from 5-7pm. The work is also being released in an online portfolio on the Photographer's Showcase, which can be viewed here.

Carpoolers is a continuation of Cartagena's on-going investigation into the changing economic, social and physical landscape around his home of Monterrey Mexico. Twice a week over for a year, Cartagena stood on the pedestrian overpass of Mexico’s Federal Highway 85 shooting downward at the six lanes of traffic, capturing the ubiquitous work trucks heading to the expanding suburbs. The truck beds contain not only the expected supplies, but also hidden riders; laborers catching a dangerous free ride to job sites, lying carefully arranged among the cargo, at times appearing like a still life or diorama.

Cartagena has also published a book of this Carpoolers series, a brilliant example of innovative design and creative book making that we're anticipating seeing on a number of 2014 Best Books lists. Instead of a static sequence of images, clever cropping, sequencing and the use of half-pages and gatefolds lend the series movement and suggest the sensation of watching cars roll by and change positions on a highway. Colin Pantall describes the book in his review for photo-eye Blog:

"More punctuations occur; a view of a road sign, a series of shots of blue sky crossed with telephone wires and dotted with helicopters. We see blurred dashes of the undersides of overpasses and bridges. Cartagena is giving us a psycho-geographic view of the road, a carpoolers’ perspective that puts the viewer on the bed of the truck. He even includes a page from a newspaper showing a car flipped onto its back, a nod to Mexico’s car crash master, Enrique Metinides, but even with such additions the book doesn’t feel overdesigned or gimmicky. Rather it feels and looks like one of the books of the year, a classic in the making."

photo-eye's Melanie McWhorter asked Cartagena about the origin of the series and its popularity and the creation of the Carpoolers book.


Carpoolers #6  Alejandro Cartagena
Melanie McWhorter:     The project Carpoolers evolved out of Suburbia Mexicana, your previous project and book that deal with the development of affluent, peripheral communities around your current home of Monterrey, Mexico. How did this evolution happen? What do you feel that this project adds to the previous work?

Alejandro Cartagena:     I went into photography through working as a digitizer of a historical archive of Monterrey and so I became very much obsessed with the history of photography. That obsession pointed me to looking at ways in which my work could create visual and conceptual conversations with past imagery and the thoughts behind those works. The starting point was to create a project that pursued the creation of imagery based on the old landscapes I was looking at through the archive's collection. That's how Suburbia Mexicana came about. It was an exploration of past and present landscapes; how they had changed, what was making them change and what were the consequences (on the land and its people) to all these new physical shifts made to the land. Those three questions have had me shooting pictures for the past nine years. As time went by I saw my work not only in relation to the Mexican photographers whose work I was scanning but to work from other creators who had worked with the idea of landscapes being humanized. What were these artists asking in the 60s and 70s with the shift from photographing the "pristine" to the city and its suburbs? Was it political? Was it ecologically conscious? Maybe it was maybe it wasn't. I took the liberty to interpret what I felt was being questioned or addressed and sought out to represent "answers" to the images. I felt the images where looking to ask things like: what happens if the city grows so fast to its peripheries? What happens if there aren’t proper transportation systems? What happens to the city and the landscape if we build highways to connect the new with the old? How do we supply water to the newly developed areas? Are there several models of urbanization happening simultaneously when these "housing "booms" occur? Who is orchestrating all this growth? The questions just go on and on. If you see my series that combine Suburbia Mexicana and a current exhibition I've presented called Small Guide to Homeownership I am attempting to put images to some of those things. Carpoolers is just that. How do people survive in the suburbs in Mexico? Some people have to travel illegally and dangerously in the back of the truck because they can't offered to pay for two to four buses to get to work, and that’s if they are lucky to have a bus pass by their suburb.

MM:     What was an average day like photographing Carpoolers?

AC:     I would wake up at 6:15 am, go pick up my assistant and then drive to highway 85 southbound. Walk up the pedestrian bridge, stand in the middle of the four lanes and start practicing the pace and rhythm of how I would photograph with the specific speed of that morning's traffic. I would sometimes only catch one truck in the two hours of shooting and maybe the best day would be some five or six. I did that several times a week for a year. Same time, same place.

MM:     This work resonates with many people, as made evident from the plentiful news coverage and interviews about Carpoolers and the subsequent print and book sales of the work (as the book is almost out-of-print and many of the images have sold out of their editions). What do you think this is so popular? Is this a United States fascination or is the work so well-received in other countries, specifically Mexico, as well?

AC:     The project has had good reception in many countries but I have to say I have no exact idea of why it resonates with people. Maybe there is humor to the work and that invites people in? Maybe it's simple but it still offers glimpses into a very particular world we imagine exists and have maybe seen live but not represented the way I've done it? I can only say I am humbled that people react to it. Some react in a positive manner and some hate it. I love and hate it, too. I had issues at first with it as I didn't want to do a “typology” in 2012! But it happened that way and I am happy with the exhibitions and now I am super excited about the book. I have my reasons to why I did it and hopefully that is what people perceive, at least to a certain level.

Carpoolers #48Carpoolers #27 and Carpoolers #7  Alejandro Cartagena

MM:     You won the Critical Mass award book prize for your book Suburbia Mexicana. How did the experience of self-publishing differ from working with Photolucida? On your part, were there more monetary concerns, design considerations, shopping around for printers, etc? If you were to self-publish again, what would you do differently? What mistakes did you make?

AC:     Well, I wasn't prepared for the Photolucida prize in the sense of knowledge of the printing industry and the possibilities of design and editing. It was the same thing when it came to funding but it definitely changed the amount of responsibilities you have to take on: designing, printing and binding dummies, working with the designers (and shopping around for one that “understands” you), working (and fighting) with the printers, technicians, binders, shippers and all the people involved in making the book.

I wanted to take on the challenge because I am a bit hardheaded and thought it would be simple to do. I wanted to learn the craft, be in charge and know about all the details of how to do a book and that way make a book that feels more as a work of art in itself. I don't know if I got there but I tried.

If I were to self-publish again I would try and work with different print houses to see other methods and possibilities of pushing inks and papers. I would also love to work with other designers to get different feels for my different works. I would get someone to do the pre-press for me. It was insane. I wanted to just quit right there and not do the book. Mistakes? Oh, many! Distribution has been tough. I lost a lot of money the first few weeks but then got keener on how to get the book to people.

Carpoolers. By Alejandro Cartagena. Self-Publish, 2014.

MM:     The book has a creative design with the half pages that reveal what I assume are the images that you took when you rode in the back of the truck on the route from the city to the outskirts. What was your objective in including these as half pages or even including this at all? Why did you choose to take the ride yourself?

AC:     I wanted the book to be about traveling and the sensation of movement. That was the premise my assistant Fernando Gallegos and I agreed on that the book form of the project should be about. That created many dummies with countless experiments. Around fifteen failures until we got close to what you see in the book. I really had a hard time with edits where it was just truck after truck. I felt I was just putting a catalogue together. We would always question if we felt things “moving” in the book. That’s when we started cutting the images, cutting the paper, changing the point of view. Those shifts were impossible to recreate in exhibition form and felt right in the book. Suddenly the viewer is the subject, you also get to run from lane to lane, see how a truck goes by and feel how fast things changed for me while photographing. Finally me shooting from below was the best way we thought we would get the sensation of traveling; you get moved around, things get blurry and things go by faster and faster sometimes or slower and slower.

Carpoolers. By Alejandro Cartagena. Self-Publish, 2014.

MM:     Did you view the audience for this book as an American audience? Do you think that culturally this relates to the United States society more than Mexico? Is this a project that might be sensitive to a Mexican audience?

AC:     It’s for a general audience not only the US. Almost half of the books have sold in Europe. The project does have this attraction to the US crowd but sometimes I feel it's just because it's filling the gap to who we are as Mexicans. I know the project can't break away from a cliché. I had a long conversation with a collector who bought several of the prints as he felt very strongly that I was maybe pushing people towards a wrong image of what it is to be Mexican. I told him that that is unavoidable and that I could not not do the project or any other project here because I felt that that would be the case. I insisted that I saw what he meant but that at the moment I was photographing the series there was a sensation of a historical black hole in Mexico. Everything was so violent, beheadings, dead bodies on overpasses, shootings all over, etc., etc., that no histories apart from those who talked of violence were being created and that I felt that it was better to do an image about everyday life in the middle of this war, even if it pushed ideas towards a stereotype of a culture and its people.

Carpoolers. By Alejandro Cartagena. Self-Publish, 2014.

MM:     Speaking of interviews, in the wonderful interview with Jonathan Blaustein for A Photo Editor, he tells a bit about your background and how you are not from Mexico, but choose to live there despite the question of safety. What is it about this area that you continue to live and work there?

AC:     It’s a family thing. But also Monterrey is very different to the rest of Mexico. It's close to the border with Texas and that makes things (work culture, lifestyles, commerce, life expectations) work differently here than in the rest of Mexico. The people and culture have something strong about them in the sense of survival and work ethics. It's very particular the way the city has been built; there is no hiding the fact that there is a lot of money being made through urban development and that attracts me visually. I am not married to Monterrey though. I know this might sound a bit extreme but my wife and I have one thing that would make us leave; being kidnapped or getting extorted by the mob. It’s happened to close friends and family but not to us. Knock on wood!


Purchase a signed copy of the book Carpoolers or view the limited edition

View the Carpoolers portfolio

For more information or to purchase a print, please contact Melanie McWhorter at 505.988.5152 x112 / or Anne Kelly at 505.988.5152 x121 /