Posted by: Sally Ingraham | April 23, 2009

Juan Rulfo’s Mexico

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.

Juan Rulfo's MexicoI 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.’

Juan RulfoIt 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’.


  1. Thanks for that post!! I love Juan Rulfo’s art as well, it shows such a different life, more simple and yet so rich.

  2. I second everything Bethany says above–especially the “thanks” part–and I’m really glad that you liked your first “exposure” to Rulfo’s photography. Hope his writing meets your expectations as well!

  3. Thanks for dropping by, I’m so happy to have discovered your blog, it’s wonderful!

    Pedro Paramo has been on my wishlist forever, and it’s nice to know about Rulfo’s other artistic side besides writing.

    Re: Swann’s Way, there’s a bunch of us reading together with Frances of Nonsuch Book. I’m a little late, but a number are also still reading. You might like to check the comments. We might be tackling the second volume in July. Are you planning on reading all volumes this year?

  4. Bethany – thanks for stopping by!

    Richard – thanks again for the intro to Rulfo. 🙂

    Claire – thanks for visiting. Yes, I was planning to read one volume per month, then changed it to one volume per two months – however, all my cute plans are being set aside as I am headed into my third month with the second volume. I’ll probably finish it in time to join in with you and everyone else’s reviews in July! 🙂

  5. His photography is stunning.
    I need to see if I can get the book. I’m a huge fan of black and white photography anyway. Have you seen any of his movies?
    You need to listen to the recording I added on my blog.
    Even though he reads the story in Spanish it’s great to listen to him (you could read it in parallel in English). He has such a wonderful, wonderful voice.

    • I haven’t seen any of his movies – I’ll have to look for them. Have you? Do you recommend any?

  6. Nice post – another book for the wishlist.

  7. Hi Sarah – I know this is an old thread but I wanted to recommend to you a movie made by Mexican filmmaker Juan Carlos Rulfo, the son of Juan Rulfo, called “Del Olvido al No Me Acuerdo” (the clumsy English translation is “Juan, I Forgot I Don’t Remember”). It’s a beautiful and moving documentary/oral history about Juan Carlos searching for his father’s memory in the rural towns of the state of Jalisco. He finds all these old folks who knew and remember his father. It’s a wonderful film. Thanks for this post on Juan Rulfo.

  8. […] literature, Rulfo would become a living legend, an influential essayist, and a highly respected photojournalist of the Mexican landscape; but Borges and Márquez are the two names most associated with ‘magical […]

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