At 75 years old, he is one of the most important photographers in Latin America. He extensively documented the movements of guerrillas and citizens throughout the mid-twentieth century, while excelling as a portraitist who creates deep, respectful, and sensitive images (he took the famous photograph of Gabriel GarcĂa MĂˇrquez with a black eye after a punch from Mario Vargas Llosa). Here, an intimate and revealing conversation with Rodrigo Moya: a man who made his craft a beautiful and perfect statement of humility.
By Pablo Corral Vega
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
- How did you begin your exploration in photography?
It happened in a very casual way. The job of a photographer, at least in my time when there were no specialized schools, was learned in a somewhat haphazard fashion. You became a photographer the same way you might become a driver or cook. We were people who came from a failure, maybe in school or a family tragedy. When I turned twenty, I found myself needing a trade. I had just failed terribly at studying engineering. I was very disappointed so I enrolled in a six-month crash course to learn to work in television. This was when television was just beginning in Mexico. My first job was for some Colombians who wanted to bring television to Colombia. While taking this course I met a Colombian photographer, Guillermo Angulo, who asked me, â€śWhat is this television camera and orthicon image?â€ť I replied, “Iâ€™ll tell you about the orthicon, but you tell me about photography.” I liked to take pictures but didnâ€™t know what happened after that.
- What kind of photos did you take?
I took pictures on all my walks with a tiny little camera that my father had given me when I finished high school. But I did not know how it all worked. I didnâ€™t know what happened between when I dropped my film off at the pharmacy and when they gave me back a package of little prints. So Angulo took me to the lab of Impacto magazine, and there I saw the miracle of photography. I was amazed and said, “Teacher, I want to be a photographer.” I had left my parentsâ€™ home.Â I was living terribly, effectively homeless. Angulo said, “With me you have a home and food; Iâ€™ll make you my assistant.” I was his assistant for a year. It was a Renaissance-style apprenticeship where he taught me everything step by step.
- But the curious thing is that you started with electronic images…
Yes, those first images were made with the famous orthicon. In those days I worked at Channel 2, which is now Televisa, where I was surrounded by paintings and sets. From the beginning, I lived in a world of more than photographic images.
- Itâ€™s always important to be exposed to painting, poetry, literature… For a photographer, itâ€™s not sufficient to think only in photographs, a broader view of the world is required, no?
Of course. Itâ€™s essential that a photographer has multiple interests that help consolidate an internal version of the image. Poetry often makes me think of a photographic image, and vice versa. Everything is complementary. Knowledge of architecture and theater, or at least being interested in them, strengthens the work of a photographer and makes the images more immediate, more plastic. Itâ€™s said that I compose a great deal, but the truth is that I never composed. Or, rather, I composed automatically, carrying with me the weight of everything Iâ€™d seen from childhood up until I started taking photographs.
- You worked in the media from the beginning?
Yes. Angulo was the head photographer at Impacto, and I joined the magazine as his assistant. I had to carry cameras and that sort of thing. He was a tough teacher. He gave me assignmentsâ€”shooting textures or in contrasting lightsâ€”and he taught me how to develop properly for each kind of light. I got classical training in the photography laboratory. I remember that he even lent me his Rolleiflex. And when the opportunity arose, he gave me a spot at Impacto, just before leaving for Italy to study film with Cesare Sabatini. I stayed at Impacto for three years, from 1955 to 1958. Almost immediately, they began to notice my work, and I remember those years as being very good.
- When do you feel you started establishing your own approach?
I think from the beginning I already had a distinctive view of things. Fortunately, I worked for a weekly magazine and not a daily paper. The newspapers didnâ€™t allow for my approach to photography; I developed my film with care. If I had been under daily deadlines, my negatives wouldnâ€™t have survived. As it was, they stood up well over time. I also had time to make many images for myself, photos taken with no destination in mind, taken because they attracted me. Many of my photos came from just walking the streets.
- What are the common elements in these photos?
All of them reflect an obsession of mine for what is now called “otherness.” The concept of the other really interested me. I never photographed people of my own class. I was never interested in the middle class or the upper classes. It was the poor that interested me.
- Your pictures show an ironic eye, a sense of humor.
Because there was friendship, tenderness. I always approached people with a sense of tenderness and feeling. If I was photographing something, it was because I was moved somehow.
- The empathy is very noticeable. The photos arenâ€™t distant or foreign, itâ€™s not â€śotherâ€ť in the sense of “different” but …
â€¦an other you want to know, to help. And I did that through closeness. I was very close. I got very, very close. I was greatly moved by the words of Robert Capa: “If your picture isn’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” He was a photographer of proximity.
- And especially a psychological proximity. What was Mexico City like at that time?
Until twelve years ago when I moved to Cuernavaca, I had lived in Mexico City my entire life. I’m one hundred percent from Mexico City, and I can say that the city has changed a lot. I no longer know it. It attracts and fascinates me, but it also repels me.
- It must be exhausting to live there.
Yes. Walking is still charming, but getting in a car is terrible. Hours disappear sitting in traffic. I was born, and grew up there, when it was a city of less than two million people. There were 30,000 or 35,000 cars. Now there are seven million! It’s amazing!
- During that time there was a great burst of artistic creativity, right?
Sure. It was the wonderful era with American artists coming for the richness of Mexico; some came to escape persecution and others by choice. After the revolution a strong cultural movement grew up. A new literature emerged starting with Carlos Fuentes, but also with contemporaries such as Alfonso Reyes, and Mexican mural painting… There was a very rich cultural movementâ€”a product of the revolutionâ€”which later degraded and turned vicious, and eventually gave way to other vanguards.
- Many of your portraits of famous people come from those days. There are two large parts to your work: spontaneous documentary photography, in which you capture whatever is happening. And then there are portraits, which involve a direct relationship with the subject and an exchange. Can you talk a bit more about what the portrait is for you?
I’ve only really realized what it meant to me in recent years, as I began to study, explore, unearth, and order my archive. I realized that I have a lot of portraits. And what I notice is that the portraits emerged, they just floated out of all the activity that I was part of. They had their own force, pulling me. I also have a huge number of portraits of children. I dismissed these photos for a time. But I have now done a big exhibition about children, called â€śEternal Childhood.â€ť The images are simply Mexican children. I found it shocking because I wasnâ€™t into photographing children; I felt it was an easy subject, a bit overdone. There was something negative about children as subjects… the Mexican children of Diego Rivera and Fanny Rabel were enhanced by the painters, with big eyes, made beautiful…
- Overly easy images.
Exactly. But suddenly I find myself looking at dynamic children, real children, Mexican children. And I discovered them, just thirty years later.
- What makes a picture a portrait? Is it the interaction? Making the subject into an accomplice?
I donâ€™t know if theyâ€™re an accomplice… What makes the portrait is the camera capturing the essence of a human being. Their face, their basic attitudes, their manner of being still… their whole story.
- A good portrait is a window into another world.
Certainly, and itâ€™s also a window that opens very casually.
- Looking at your photos, it is clear that there is a connection between you and the subject.
Yes, I never set out looking for anything beyond a connection. I did some commissioned portraits, of course, but what matters most to me is the connection.
- Many of your subjects are anonymous, but there are famous figures of the era as well: Diego Rivera, Maria Felix, and David Alfaro Siqueiros. What do you remember of those encounters?
For me it was very shocking that Siqueiros, for example, had me take his photo. I covered several stages of his work, until, at one point, I walked away after a dispute with his wife. She was very hard with their money and, as a young man, I was very rebellious. But he was polite, respectful, cordial. I have a signed photo from him.
Diego was drier, more distant; with him I had just a brief relationship. But in general I had very good relationships with the people I photographed. I was young and a little different from the typical press photographers of the time. They were terrible, overweight, mustachioed, and ugly. They looked like cops, and I was like the fine fellow from the colony. I was an athlete, wearing a clean shirt, and was very white, and unfortunately that was important to many people. For example, when I got the interview with Maria Felix, I learned that she had asked that I make the portrait. I was 21 years old; it was 1955. And for me it was very impressive to photograph a woman who was the epitome of fame. She was very kind; she essentially gave me the photo shoot.
- Who else did you photograph from that time?
Well, I took Carlos Fuentesâ€™ picture, but itâ€™s a terrible portrait. And Silvia Pinal… there arenâ€™t that many because I wasnâ€™t chasing that. I didnâ€™t seek out the fame of others to lift myself up. I went to Gaboâ€™s house several times and never took a camera. I could have, many times, but didnâ€™t. I felt bad. He called me with friendly intentions, saying come for a meal. I couldnâ€™t bring a camera under those circumstances. The only portraits I did were when he came to my house in order to have his picture taken. It was the same with Sergio Pitol. And Carlos Monsivais. I have nothing more than a poor picture of him.
- Have you photographed Juan Rulfo?
I met him, but never took photographs. We met in the Gandhi Library and talked photography. He was a connoisseur, and represented a real way of seeing Mexico at the time.
- Has the way you see the photos you took years ago changed? Do you select pictures now that you didnâ€™t before?
Absolutely. There are layers. You look at them one way when you take the picture. And when you go back it can be very different. So at my age, having seen these same pictures many times, I discover things, have new visions, and arrange them into new sets. I discovered my way of approximating, all sorts of things that I hadnâ€™t seen before. And just as there are photos that thirty years ago didnâ€™t mean anything to me, but now do, there are also portraits that I liked before and now see as worthless because they seem hard, stiff, or false. What matters, is the search for authenticity. And the closeness. Because always, with great respect, I tried to be as close as possible.