A master of words AND pictures
Mexican writer Juan Rulfo was the author of Pedro Páramo--a book that many consider to be the best Latin American novel ever written--and The Burning Plain, an excellent collection of short stories. In addition to being a Nobel-caliber novelist, Rulfo was a world-class photographer. His pictures expertly capture the landscape, architecture, and indigenous culture of Mexico. Juan Rulfo’s Mexico was published in 2002 by the Smithsonian Institution Press. It is a translation of a Spanish-language edition published the same year by Lunwerg Editores in Barcelona. This 11.5 x 11.5" coffee table book contains 175 exceptional photographs by Rulfo, all of which are beautifully reproduced. I didn’t care much for the accompanying essays, however, which are heavy on the type of psychobabble and postmodern philosophy only an art historian could love.
Rulfo was not just a writer who happened to take a few pictures in his spare time. He may be one of the best photographers in the history of Mexico. His pictures bear some stylistic similarity to those of his country’s most renowned photographer, Manuel Álvarez Bravo, and may remind American audiences of the work of Edward Weston. These photographs, taken from about 1945 to 1955, capture rural Mexico at a turning point. Rulfo depicts indigenous cultures engaged in traditions, customs, and lifestyles that have been in existence for centuries, yet are gradually disappearing with the encroachment of modernity. His photographs are not merely sociological studies, however, but artistic portraits imbued with visual poetry and quiet dignity. His images straddle the line between romance and realism, on the one hand evoking the timeless mystery and myth of Mexico, while on the other hand documenting the gritty reality of rural Mexican life. Architecture, a particular fascination of Rulfo’s, is represented by pre-Columbian temples, Spanish colonial churches, the dwellings of Indian villagers, and the skyscrapers of Mexico City. His stunning landscapes of rugged mountains, barren deserts, cascading waterfalls, fertile farmlands, and lush forests call to mind the rich, silvery tonal values of Ansel Adams. There are also a number of photos taken during the production of a film called La Escondida, which appears to be a story of the Revolution, but about which the text offers no information.
The book contains six brief essays by six different authors, the only really recognizable name among them being the Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes. In an essay by Jorge Alberto Lozoya, the author states, “In an age that confuses chatter with the deeper meaning of existence, Rulfo’s work is resplendent, presaging the dawn of a new era.” Though he may be right about Rulfo, these six essays unfortunately fall into the chatter category. Mostly the authors offer their lofty opinions of Pedro Páramo, expressed in the obscure jargon of art theory, while failing to address the photography altogether. Only the last two essays, by Victor Jiménez and Erika Billeter, offer some useful biographical information on Rulfo and his photographic art, hidden amid the references to Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes.
Juan Rulfo’s Mexico provides a beautiful collection of Rulfo’s photographic work in a well-designed package. Fans of Rulfo’s writings will be fascinated by the correspondence between his photographic imagery and the verbal imagery in his stories. Any enthusiast of Mexican culture, history, and art should not be without it. If the writing were worthy of the master himself, this would be a five-star book.
Juan Rulfo, Acceso a un atrio
Juan Rulfo, Indígena de Ayutla, Mixes, Oaxaca
Juan Rulfo, Actor de La Escondida entre magueyes