From mountains, planes, and rooftops, Pablo LĂłpez Luz has diligently photographed the overwhelming and chaotic growth of Mexico City. The result is â€śTerrazzo,â€ť a revealing workâ€”close and distant at the same timeâ€”allowing the viewer to follow, almost cartographically, the idiosyncrasies of a metropolis, the third most populous in the world, which does not quite know what to do with its people, urban planning, or its excesses.
By Carlos Paredes
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
The day that Pablo LĂłpez Luz decided to become a photographer he was working in a design firm. One afternoon in his office he was struck by that moment of enlightenment in which what you want in life is suddenly revealed to you. Although he did not shout “Eureka,” or rush from his office slamming the door on the way out, he made an important resolution: to make photography his profession.
That resolution took shape over time. Besides shooting photos, as he had been doing since high school, Pablo put a darkroom in his house. And as a concerted effort to develop expertise that would let him refine his capacity for expression through photography, he went to New York University, which offers a Masters of Visual Arts in conjunction with the International Center of Photography. Pablo arrived in the United States with a project in mind: to trace the explosive and disorderly growth of Mexico City.
Metropolitan Mexico City is the third most populous city in the world after Tokyo and Seoul. The population density reaches 5,877 people per square kilometer, a number far beyond the 52.7 people per square kilometer in the rest of the country. Only three decades ago the city was home to about nine million people. That figure has increased 250 percent. Currently, metropolitan Mexico City is a megalopolis of 23 million people. Itâ€™s a huge city with rarefied air, where water is increasingly scarce, and traffic can trap the six million motorists for more than three hours at a time, bringing them to the brink of madness. (The National Institute of Psychiatry estimates that one in four people in Mexico City suffers from mental illness.)
Now that he has returned from New York, Pablo is sitting at a table in a bookstore cafe in La Condesa, a bohemian neighborhood of Mexico City, to discuss Terrazzo. The project shows, through ascetic, often map-like images, the unstoppable advance of cement, deforestation, and symptoms of global warming, all of which are having significant consequences. The latest environmental alerts GOVERNMENT ALERTS? report overcrowding, excess garbage, destruction of protected areas, and the overexploitation of the valleyâ€™s aquifers, which is causing them to drop at a rate of 44 centimeters a year.
Teachers. Pablo looks like a typical young, educated, middle-class man in Mexico; he wears a beard, jeans, white sneakers, and a purple sweater. His face doesnâ€™t reveal a single trace of his indigenous Mexican ancestors.
Since his childhood Pabloâ€™s world has been associated with art. His father is a renowned curator, and Pablo followed him to exhibitions and galleries as he grew up, though he has no conscious recollection of developing an impression of Mexican landscape art. Neither the work of JosĂ© MarĂa Velasco nor the famous painter Gerardo Murillo, who signed his landscapes “Dr. Atl,â€ť nor any others, affected him enough to immediately recall. For that reason, the roots of his fixation on the landscapeâ€”his obsession with the link between man and his environmentâ€”remain buried somewhere in the odd play of the human unconscious. Although he hasnâ€™t photographed only landscapes, Pablo is known as a landscape and urban photographer, a documentarian of Mexico Cityâ€™s ecosystem. He records the deforestation and uncontrolled growth at the hands of developers who turn green hills and mountains into gray cement blocks.
Terrazzoâ€”the map of all this disappointmentâ€”is the result of four years of looking for the locations that would allow the distance required to convey the topography of his city. Pablo has accumulated about 2,000 images, all taken with one of two medium format cameras, without special lenses and using 120 roll film. In fact, much of the money from three grants received in Mexico and Spain has been spent on film and processing.
Pablo LĂłpez Luz does not use digital cameras. When asked about his photographic references he mentions Graciela Iturbide and a California photographer, Lewis Baltz, who in the 1970s led the Movement of the New Topographic, a sort of artistic manifesto rejecting traditional aesthetics and seeking beauty in desolation and destruction. The desolate and destroyed landscapes Baltz found three decades ago in California industrial parks, Pablo LĂłpez Luz readily found in the “Greater Mexico” of the new millennium.
The city that Pablo rescues is excessive. It built the worldâ€™s biggest Christmas tree, and every December, in the Zocaloâ€”the plaza at the center of the cityâ€”the world’s largest ice skating rink is installed and opened, free, to the public. Mexico City became the most naked city when 18,000 people stood undressed before the lens of New York photographer Spencer Tunick. And 13,000 residents, or chilangos, dressed as Michael Jackson and danced to Thriller in honor of the singer’s death (an event that found its way into the Guinness Book of World Records).
However, to portray such excess, rather than going into the heart of the city, what Pablo did was to leave. He climbed into airplanes, mountains, buildings; he went to the peripheral suburbs, where the city has grown to infinity, and from that distance he began to look.
And what he saw, so far and so close, was what now looks like a city, broken yet monumental, where growth makes everything, houses, parks, people, paradoxically small.