Rodrigo Moya – “Ojos Bien Abiertos”
Photographic works of elegance and grit
Throckmorton Gallery to 2 March, 2013
I was drawn to the current exhibit of Rodrigo Moya’s photographs at the Throckmorton Gallery in Manhattan by a portrait of Che Guevara publicizing the show. Expecting to be nourished by a panorama of the moods and guises of a man we will never know well enough, I found but two photos of el comandante. Nonetheless, I came away from “Ojos Bien Abiertos,” my eyes opened wide from a number of evocative, indelible images.
Moya was born in 1934 in Medellin, but his family moved back to their native Mexico while he was still quite young. He was given a camera by his father as a high school graduation gift, but was not immediately smitten. He began later on to document in images the street life he came upon during long walks in the D.F., and soon came to cover for the print media social and political unrest in Mexico and throughout Latin America. While never formally schooled, Moya apprenticed on the ground with Colombian and Mexican photojournalists.
His muses were the great Depression era photographers of the US, Walker Evans, Eugene Smith, Dorothea Lange, Louis Hine and Robert Frank. Italian neorealist film is seminal; it heightened the emotional intensity revealed in his subjects although not mawkishly nor patronizingly. There are also, for me, shades of the Mexican master, Manuel Alvarez Bravo, in the latter’s more photojournalistic work.
In 1967 he left photography to write novels, winning acclaim for his fiction. After a recent serious illness, Moya has returned to photography concentrating on printing existing negatives from the archive of his earlier work.
The portraits of Che (1964), both with cigar, furrowed brow, and averted eyes, greet the visitor upon entering the gallery. The more powerful is of el comandante in fatigues, fingers curled around the ubiquitous “puro.” For the photographer, el Che’s expression is melancholic (“Che melancolico”), for me, intense and pensive. In “Las manos del Che,” Che is absorbed in lighting a cigar as the flame burns down to the end of the match, suggesting an unlikely grace in his attenuated fingers. Che is backlit in both photos by a stubborn glare penetrating the venetian blinds of his office window in La Habana. The light, Moya later observed, was one of several obstacles to tackle during the shoot.*
(The far-away, cigar toking pose in “Che melancolico”—the one advertising the exhibition– resembles almost exactly that of an earlier photograph that came to forge his revolutionary brand [along, of course, with the one in the black beret]. The actual portrait that gained immortal currency was shot by Swiss photographer René Burri a year earlier for a Look Magazine spread. Moya was apparently unaware of Burri and his work at that time.)
The Che images offer passage into the compelling oeuvre of an artist with considerable breadth and a gloves-off vision of our civilization. Breaking the canon of photographic rules, yet delivering a print of poignancy and engagement, is “Tos ferina.” A mother sits tucked into the shadowy corner of an unfurnished room; without the stark white of her underdress and horizontal stripes of her apron, she would be lost. Now instead, she seems to hover over her two sick, sleeping children like an angel at the tip of a Christmas tree. She is somber, melancholic. The angle formed by her two boys as they lay on the floor, shabbily clothed and partly covered by blankets that appear to have been fitfully kicked off, echoes the angle of the room in which their mother sits. There are strong rectangles in the composition, introduced by the curtain seams through which some light filters, but this photograph is about much more than angles; it is a wrenching look into a mother’s anguish.
“El Garrotero” (1966) is an example of Moya’s ability to capture opposing moods in one image, while allowing composition an equally defining role. In the forefront is a brakeman in a railroad station; he occupies the lower segment of the frame, which is bisected horizontally by a molding on the wooden railroad car behind him. Enclosing him from chest to trainman’s cap are the iron railings of the open back end of another car. The brakeman gazes into the distance, unaffected by three young women making merry from within the casing of the train window some inches above. The tiered composition compels you to contemplate the contrast between levels: the lower third seems silent, glum, the trainworker isolated and bemused. Above, the young women are insouciant, playful, perhaps in the pleasurable prospect of a journey. It is as if the molding signaled a deeper disconnect than that delivered by just a few impenetrable inches, and we wonder what it is that really separates them.
“El Garrotero” is part of a series, “El Trenecito,” sampled by this show; each of the selected images does well and with humor to combine the form and expression of simple folk with the geometry of the train yard. In “Pasajero” (1966), a pair of well-heeled shoes attached to a man’s trousered legs mischievously hangs out the window of an old car, much like the one in “El Garrotero, except for the identifying “SEGUNDA” blocked boldly onto its side, and in “Wagon de carga” (1966), various pairs of seemingly free-floating hands play prisoner behind the wood-slatted door of a freight car, suggesting the bars of a prison cell.
Superlative and not from the “Trenecito” series, “Estación Buenavista” (ca. 1964) gives us a very different view from above of an abandoned railway yard, making more of a statement about failed expectations of development than the role of the rails in bringing Mexicans together and apart. Gradually lengthening parallel rows of platform canopies unfold beneath us like endless bat wings; they give way to monotonous ribbons of unused, superfluous tracks. The line is sinuous, and Moya captures the grace in the obvious parallels of a train yard, but “Estación Buenavista,” depopulated and heading nowhere, is equally a study in desolation.
Perhaps the most indelible, even mesmeric, photograph in the exhibit is “Guerrilleros en la niebla” (1966), which choreographs a sharp foreground of 5 fighters in varying poses, arms at the ready, their lower extremities partly obscured by dense foliage. They all look straight-on into the camera. A massive tree trunk at the right of the frame adds grounding to the scene. Behind is a dreamscape of jungle curtained in a thick mist and stretching to eternity. A great conflict photographer is defined by works such as this: fierce, intimate, lyrical: “Guerrilleros en la niebla” reads like a fearsome poem. Moya was sought out to embed with Venezuelan left-wing insurgents for his fraternity with rebel movements and, at 32, his prime physical condition.
“Canoa” (1973) sets aside Moya’s world of grit and engagement for elegance and grace; it is a photograph of sheer luminosity and “art-for-art’s-sake” beauty. This extraordinary luminescence emanates from on high as the sun hits the surface of a lake and penetrates downward. A curtain of reeds threadlike and black like licorice strings glistens in the glassy light creating a strong foreground plane.
Sitting on the sight line that defines the upper quadrant is the silhouette of a man in a canoe, a dark, still stain. The contrast that Moya achieves between this heavy, static inkblot and the diaphanous shimmer of the reeds is perfection.
“Ojos Bien Abiertos” has been a long time in coming. This exhibition of 35 prints is the first dedicated to Rodrigo Moya’s work in New York. After paying homage to el Che, it is well worth the visit.