Place as Living Memory
As a young teenager I could recognise the arrival of either one of my parents by the sound of the decelerating engine as the car pulled in from the street, by the implied speed at which the car was parked, the sound of the tire tread grazing the surface of the paving stones, the fading echo of the radio as the car came to a halt. Were I to miss the arrival of the car, I could identify the weight of the footsteps as they ascended the stairs, distinguishing early a waft of pipe tobacco or moisturiser, and know to a precise certainty who was coming home. I can still recall the shape of the stones in our front driveway beneath my feet, and remember the echo of my flip-flops along the concrete hall in the first house in which we lived, a place now more than twenty-five years distant but etched in my memory as a tapestry of textures, smells, sounds, the bright corners of patios and bedrooms or the sharp glare of the sky reflected on large plate windows. These fragments have, over time, taken on a vivid quality as detail has steadily fallen away, somehow burnishing the meagre but potent details that remain – my recollection has narrowed to a few eloquent details, and these can be triggered as much by a scent as the sudden coincidence of light in a new space that forcefully recalls some now distant front room or cupboard, a part of my far off everyday history.
Andrés Marroquín Winklemann’s photographs in the series “Zapallal | Yurinaki” have the same bright, intense and episodic nature as my early childhood memories. The pictures are burnished, vibrant and yet urbane. His subject matter is decidedly determinedly quotidian, and what he has gathered together in so many of these photographs are in fact portraits of places to which a photographer’s eye could only have been directed by one who has lived where he has been working. The work is everywhere attentive to, fascinated by the weight and sensation of ordinary life – seeks to re-imagine that life in collaborative reconstructions of its daily course that result in these rich, engrossing images. The palette of the images, the detail in each separate texture, the often luminous quality of light, all of these things give the work an undeniably sensuous quality, but these techniques are employed in the service of giving vibrancy to place in a way that might enable us to occupy it as memory, to occupy it as it is by those who – living there – have worked with the photographer to create these pictures.
The novelist and photographer Wright Morris wrote in the epigram to his book “The Inhabitants” an imaginary address to Henry David Thoreau. His book sought, among many things, to use images of the insides of homes to give imaginative life to people who had inhabited them, and he worked tirelessly at finding ways for his photographs to evoke a sense of the graft and wit, the vigorousness and the joys of the lives of those whose homes he was ‘salvaging’, in some instances after they had left them to find work during The Great Depression. Morris’s imaginary address reads:
“Thoreau, a look is what a man gets when he tries to inhabit something, something like America. Take your look – from your look, I’d say you did pretty well. Nearly anybody would say you look like a man who grew up around here, but I think I’d say what there is around here grew up in you. What I’m saying is you’re the one that’s inhabited. I guess a look is what a man gets not so much from inhabiting something, as from something that’s inhabiting him. Maybe this is what it is that inhabits a house. In all my life I’ve never been in anything so crowded, so full of something as the rooms of a vacant house. Sometimes I think only vacant houses are occupied – that’s something I knew as a boy, but I had nobody to tell me that’s what an inhabitant is. An inhabitant is what you can’t take away from a house. You can take away everything else, in fact the more you take away the better you can see what this thing is – that’s how you know, that’s how you can tell an inhabitant.“
— in Alan Trachtenberg – Wright Morris’s ‘Photo-Texts’, The Yale Journal of Criticism – Volume 9, Number 1, Spring 1996
Andrés does not seek to completely subtract the inhabitants from the homes and neighbourhoods of Zapallal and Yurinaki – they feature strongly throughout the work. But his pictures construct a powerful, near dream-like sense of the umbilical ties existing between his subjects and the people-less spaces he so elegantly photographs. Under the surface of his images it is possible with great ease to sense the permeability of these homes, the passage of the wind, the inconstancy of the light, the brick-like toughness of the packed earth floor, and the swelling and waning cacophony of sound that reverberates through and off the walls – now the heavy pulse of the stereo, now the shrill giggles of children turning to cries and back again. Photographs may technically be mute, but only in the narrowest of senses. Those that make up this work are bursting with life.
Poverty and The Stage.
It would be disingenuous not to make note of the fact that the subjects of these pictures and the places in which they were made are objectively poor, at least in strictly economic terms. While Perú has fared better than other South American and (more broadly) Latin American countries in economic terms, and while its government has managed to resist the election of leaders who are outwardly right-wing free-marketeers, this has not eradicated structural inequality nor has it alleviated the kind of existentially oppressive poverty that can make of each week a calculated gamble in survival. These things are true, these realities exist in precisely the places that Andrés has photographed, and they are undeniably relevant to the lives of his subjects. However they are not the central point of the images. Poverty is as relevant to the pictures in “Zapallal | Yurinaki” as wealth was to those of Yvonne Venegas in her series “Maria Elvia de Hank“, the last winner of the Magnum Expression Award. This is to say that the wealth of the millionaire family photographed by Venegas informs the life they lead, but that it is that life which is of interest; similarly, the poverty of the subjects photographed by Andrés determines greatly the life they lead, but it is the quality of that life, and moreover the collaborative representation of that life that is essential to the work.
The clearest evidence that Andrés is interested in making pictures that speak, as much as possible, from the inside of the lives of his subjects is the profoundly collaborative nature not just of the photographs but of their arrangement in the book too. The opening half-page folds over to reveal annotations and shooting lists written by the children who later appear in the photographs: ‘in this photograph is my pet who is called Mayo’, it reads. The design of the opening pages integrates these and other notes, lists and scribblings into a sequence of overlapping pages in which (quite deliberately, I’m sure) the children and the household pets appear to be peering across the edge of one frame into another, from right to left – trying to participate in the picture next door. It’s a sort of cascade or half of a Russian Doll, and on the reverse face of each page we find instructions for further subjects: “the living room of my house”, “my brother Michel”, “eating lentils with my family”, “my toys and my cat”… Along with the often carefully lit interior and exterior shots, the book as a work of photography is thus inscribed by the dialogue, the collaboration that gave rise to the images.
The decision to use exterior lighting to photograph in marginal areas of Perú, areas in which people live in conditions of such arduous and as yet un-remedied poverty is a bold one, to my mind. Invariably it will elicit or be claimed to have provoked a moral critique that alleges the photographer is guilty of sensationalism or romanticism, of a wilful attempt to apply a rose-tinted lens to what is a very real hardship. However this sort of critique is short-sighted, for it sees only beauty and the theatricality of a staged image, and not the rightful sense of pride, curiosity, play and participation that has made these photographs possible. If you have spent time in homes such as these, you will know that those who live there very often take pride in them, enjoy moments of great joy and unexpected fascination – live out lives characterised by the same range of emotions as those far more fortunate. Moreover you will know that it is rare indeed that they should become the sites for a prolonged and collaborative project of representation between a photographer and their inhabitants. These are the kinds of conditions we experience in reportage, in the bustling three minute stand-ups made by television reporters or roving photojournalists – we typically encounter these environs as a means to illustrate grand narratives, to point to macro-economic injustices or problematic levels of violence or social disintegration.
Andrés makes no attempt to disguise poverty, it is inscribed on so many of the pictures in the degradation of the walls, the rudimentary substance of the floors, the meagre provisions for food or the improvised nature of the structures in which his subjects live. Moreover he illustrates with great restraint the relative isolation that ties these locales to the larger economic centres of Peru – we need only look to the electricity pylons to note how far removed these homes are from the more robust infrastructure of wider society. This work distinguishes itself, holds itself at a remove from more customary (though in no way necessarily less valuable) documentary photography because it is less interested in poverty and far more interested in imaging the thus and so of everyday life. The photographs have been made in awareness of the lengthy history of documentary photography as it has encountered people living in poverty, and in fact expresses an interesting relationship to the work of Lewis Hine and Walker Evans – particularly in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. However these are pictures that also develop from the more contemporary work of Philip-Lorca diCorcia and Katy Grannan.
In diCorcia’s photographs of hustlers, and Grannan’s more recent large format portraits of people living in the brightly illuminated shadows of the American West, both photographers elected to make pictures that operated in formal terms at a pronounced remove from earlier, generally black & white pictures of people living in/with adversity. Grannan’s portraits, made on the spot in the street with a 4×5 camera, are far more formal than is customary in street photography of those anonymous members of the margins of society, and diCorcia’s portraits were paid for as services rendered, cast in a lush and yet maudlin light. Andrés’s photographs acknowledge all of this history, both that of Lewis Hine in the introduction of flash photography into the slums in which he often worked, and that of Evans in the deep and profoundly intimate portraits and interiors he made of tenant farmers in the south. Zapallal | Yurinaki owes a great deal to “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men”, not formally but pragmatically – it benefits from the fact that it has now been conclusively demonstrated that intimacy does not devalue the quality of a documentary image, that proximity and sympathy can inform rather than subvert photographic work, and that a fine or even a great portrait will uncover a great deal besides the veneer of impoverishment upon which one might instinctively focus.
The stage upon which the subjects of Andrés’s images play out a semblance of their everyday lives invites us in as viewers, extends the welcome he received to those of us of a mind to tarry a while and look. The silvery-hued light that often energises his images does not have the air of an intrusion, as it so often does in Hine’s work, but of illumination. Illumination in the best sense of its capacity to clarify, to inform, to elucidate. As Jörg Colberg noted in his survey of the book, we see little in Fine Art circles from this part of the world, and what we see conforms with ever-increasing precision to what we expect. If for no other reason – and there are in fact a number – the work in “Zapallal | Yurinaki” is valuable for its individuality, its boldness, its wit and its grace.