From the Archives
Today from the DS archives, we bring you Allegra Kirkland’s review of Chronicling Catastrophe. Originally published on February 26, 2013, this article is a consideration of Enrique Metinides‘ fifty-year-long career in chronicling disasters that are, in Kirkland’s words, “anonymous crime [scenes] and hauntingly specific [tragedies].” Unfortunately, these images, and ones like them, are ever-relevant in our violent, modern world.
The journalistic expression “If it bleeds, it leads” is particularly resonant in Mexico, where an entire subgenre of daily tabloids, devoted to crime and disaster, cover train wrecks and murders in lurid detail. Enrique Metinides made a career as a crime photographer for these nota roja (“bloody news”), earning the sobriquet the “Mexican Weegee” for his obsessive chronicling of accidents and crime scenes throughout Mexico City from the early 1940s through the 1990s.
In 101 Tragedies of Enrique Metinides, currently on view at Chelsea’s Aperture Gallery, Metinides selects his favorite images from his fifty-year career, drawn from an eponymous book made in collaboration with filmmaker Tricia Ziff. The photographs are gruesome and disturbing, but also beautifully composed and compelling in their narrative complexity. In the introduction, Metinides remarks, “I would try to capture the whole scene in a single frame—not just the corpse or the weapon, but the entire story.” His self-contained photos, which resemble film stills, make the case that the horrors of daily life are both stranger and darker than fiction.
The majority of Metinides’ works feature accidents (plane, train, and car crashes, gas explosions, earthquakes), but he also captures more personal disasters such as suicides, crimes of passion, and bar brawls that spiraled out of control. The contrast between these images of mass calamity and individual loss is striking. While the shots of flipped buses are grizzly, they don’t carry the same emotional intimacy as the image of a woman weeping over the body of her murdered husband or the grainy photo of a drowned teenager floating face-down in a public swimming pool. In January 1971, Metinides photographed an engineer named Jesus Bazaldúsa Barber, who had been torn apart by 60,000 volts of electricity while installing a telephone line. Even as his harness keeps him suspended from the top of the pole, his torso is flung back at an oddly elegant angle, like an image of Jesus in a Deposition scene, asking for some final grace.
Though Metinides claims in the book’s introduction to always remember the exact circumstances of each scene, the caption of one harrowing photo of a man who had jumped to his death from the Torre Latinoamericana suggests otherwise: “I don’t remember any more about him; there were suicides every day.” This tension between voyeurism and empathy—the desire to honor individual death amid a sea of gore—features prominently in the crowds who populate Metinides’ photographs. While some onlookers gape with horror, others chatter and laugh. Ice-cream vendors, he notes, were fixtures at major accidents, providing refreshments to the rubbernecking crowds.
A 1960 image of a lifeguard swimming out to a corpse found in Lake Xochimilco, on the outskirts of Mexico City, captures the ambivalence at the heart of Metinides’ photography. At first glance, the scene appears oddly serene; gentle ripples move across the water as the lifeguard swims toward the body of this man whose story lies buried among the reeds. But on a closer look, the reflection in the lake shows the omnipresent onlookers gathered along the shore, watching the scene unfold but with their faces obscured, no names provided. As ever in Metinides’ world, it is both an anonymous crime scene and a hauntingly specific tragedy.