I was introduced to Juan Rulfo – Mexican writer, photographer, and art historian/architecture enthusiast – through a contest over at the Orbis Terrarum Challenge blog, which Richard hosted. Although I was not able to guess the name of the mystery author, when he was revealed as Juan Rulfo I was very intrigued by his photographs.
I made use of my library’s inter-library loan system and was just as excited to receive a copy of Juan Fulfo’s Mexico as if I had actually purchased it. (I heart inter-library loan!)
The book is the only “comprehensive” collection of Rulfo’s photographs available, presenting 175 of them. They are accompanied by 6 essays, one of which was written by Carlos Fuentes whom I discovered as one of the editors of The Vintage Book of Latin American Stories. His essay about Rulfo’s work was my favorite of the collection, which leads me to believe that I should actually read some of his own work!
What struck me about the essays as a group was the inability of the writers to separate Rulfo’s photographs from his written word. He wrote only one novel – Pedro Paramo -and published a collection of short stories titled The Burning Plain. I felt a certain lack of comprehension, having read neither work, while in nearly every essay the discussion relied heavily upon ideas and images from the books.
The authors of the essays were also unified in their opinion that Rulfo’s way of seeing was unique, and that it translated equally, hauntingly well into both his words and his images, or perhaps that together they make a complete vision – Juan Rulfo’s Mexico.
The photographs are all black and white, and the play of light and shadow is often very abrupt. Bright sunshine and thick shade. The subject matter varies from desert landscapes to churches and ruins to scenes of village life and religious ceremony.
There is a bitter sweet beauty to them all – especially the photographs of men, women, and children. To quote Fuentes, these in particular ‘…possess an immediately recognizable richness. It is called dignity. Not always happiness. But dignity, yes.’
My overall feeling after paging through the book several times was one of unsettlement. I loved the photographs, but they did not content me with their beauty – they set me off balance. Fuentes muses on why this might be:
‘…this pure beauty of light and image captured by Rulfo the photographer must not invite us to a careless repose. With Rulfo one must always be alert, and ask, Why such calm, such beauty, such light? We must question the shadows of that light, the restlessness behind such serenity.’
It would be hard for me to pick out a favorite photo. So many of them seem like whole stories contained within the camera’s lens. There is the picture of a man, standing among huge agave plants, looking off into the distance. Or the one of a father carrying a son too big to be carried, while the mother follows behind, and they seem to be in a hurry but they are in the middle ground while the foreground is filled with three large beach-ball-like cacti. Or the one of music stands, horns and drums, all abandoned in the foreground while in the background against a backdrop of misty mountains a group of people are sitting on a ridge, perhaps watching the sun set.
Fascinating work. I am so eager to read Rulfo’s written words that I plan on buying the books with my next paycheck. I am almost certain that I will like them. The bits of biographical information in the essays wasn’t nearly enough either. I am very curious about the man behind the camera lens, the man who created and contained in his words and images such ‘healthy unease’.