Yolanda Andrade is an exquisite observer of Mexico City. Her work gives life to the fictional qualities of the urban experience. Winner of a Guggenheim Fellowship (among many other awards), in 1994, she is today one of the most complex interpreters of popular culture. Laura GonzĂĄlez Flores, Ph.D., University of Barcelona, and member of the Institute of Aesthetic Studies, National University of Mexico, presents this analysis of Andradeâs work, which explores the discourse and ways of understanding reality that lie behind the complex images of an artist who has always defined herself as a âstreet photographer.â
Photos by Yolanda Andrade, Text by Laura GonzĂĄlez Flores
Translated by Ted O’Callahan
In 1968 Yolanda Andrade came to Mexico City from her native Tabasco, in the southeast of the country. With a “here is where I stay,â she adopted the impossible and insatiable metropolis as her home. That moment of epiphany was followed by a second, in 1976, at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York; she discovered the benefits of distance: she saw and understood her everyday world better. And, curiously, she did not come to this through the eyes of the Mexican photographers whose work is strongly linked to the city, but through Walker Evans, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, and Gary Winogrand. Thanks to them, Yolanda could see “her” Mexico. Hence, when she returned to the capital, she made the decision to focus her photography on the city.
But what is Andradeâs Mexico City? How does her photo metropolis compare with Ălvarez Bravo (FotografĂa documental y anti-grĂĄfica), Nacho LĂłpez (Yo, el ciudadano), Hector GarcĂa (La Nueva Grandeza MĂ©xicana), or Rodrigo Moya (MĂ©xico)? How does it connect to other photographers of her generation who have also worked in the city, such as Pablo Ortiz Monasterio (La Ășltima ciudad), Marco Antonio Cruz (Contra la Pared, Ciudad de MĂ©xico), Francisco Mata (MĂ©xico Tenochtitlan), or Eric Jervaise (PanorĂĄmicas del siglo XXI)? From these questions, another clearly arisesâthe question of gender. Is her way of seeing, understanding, and photographing the city feminine? Is that what differentiates her from other artists? If you can assume that gender is a factor, itâs also fair to assume that isnât the extent of the difference. Her approach draws on theater and a distinctive sense of the image itself. “This Mexico City is not just the city of my everyday life, but also the city of my imagination, the protagonist of fiction and the stage, where many parallel stories play out simultaneously,” says Andrade.
The imaginary city. There is an early image (left). It was taken by Andrade before going to Rochester in 1976. Itâs a farmer who migrated to the city. The hybridization of his clothing is remarkable: his jacket and pants are clearly of Mexico City but the bandanna, hat, and huarache sandals are of the country. The man is seated on the floor of a display window, seen from behind; he is looking at a campaign poster for President Jose LĂłpez Portillo with the slogan âWe are all the solution.â The posterâs borders are filled with the portraits of Mexican heroes. Like the photos of Manuel Ălvarez Bravo and Nacho LĂłpez, or urban chronicler Salvador Novo, Yolanda Andrade uses the display window as a ubiquitous symbol of modern urban culture. And, like them, she builds a counterpoint from the opposition of elements. But with Ălvarez Bravo this technique is associated with optical confusion created by reflections. And with Nacho LĂłpez or Marco Cruz the counterpoint is associated with social tension. For Andrade, itâs about the dramatic and fictional quality, mainly imaginary, of everyday urban experience. She doesnât intend to make an image of the city, but to denote the âimagenessâ of everything that appears in the photos.
This, in my view, is the main difference between the work of Andrade and other photographers who have documented Mexico City. While others are striving to build a record of material and social reality of the city, Yolanda takes the opposite approach: she elaborates an argument of the city as imaginary construction. Her images are more sensory and subjective. Rather than contrasting the people, cars, and urban elements with the unstable background of the city, Andrade constructs an image out of juxtaposition: all of the imageâs elements appear to be brought together in one imaginary dance, in which the viewer feels included.
The shift is subtle but distinct: the intention is not to make a document with a critical emphasisâanecdotal or aesthetic commentary growing from the real as with Cruz, Mata, and Ortiz Monasterioâbut to refer to social identity as a staging or visual representation of a communityâs prevailing values at a given time. With her photographs, Yolanda Andrade seems to bring us into the image of the city. Her photographs do not operate on distance (the “gaze”), but rather they communicate affect (feeling); itâs something that could be associated with a feminine or feminist perspective.
Urban theater. Andradeâs urban photos have, like other memorable documentary work, a theatrical quality that goes beyond a simple record of reality. The effectiveness of these images comes from a theatrical moment. The difference is that with photographers like Moya, Garcia, Cruz, or Mata the theatricality comes from and remains part of the real. In contrast, for Andrade theater is a structural reference. Itâs a visual associated with her childhood in Tabasco. “As a girl I was interested in the movies and the theater,â she recalled in an interview. âI had the opportunity to see a traveling childrenâs theater; they performed a repertoire of popular Spanish works in a tent. They set up a tent and every afternoon or evening they put on a different play. That influenced me as a child, the visuals of staging. So did cinema, and comic books. They all fed me, movie editing, the way a play is structured, and the way images in comics are put together.”
For Andrade, as with Nacho LĂłpez, the playfulness of theater becomes explicit. In fact, many of her photographs of mannequins could be read as reference or homage to LĂłpezâs “Venus Goes On a Spree.â But in my opinion, the similarities more clearly refer to “Mannequin Dressâ by Ălvarez Bravo or work by Walker Evans showing facades with signs, both shot in the early thirties. Like those photos, Andradeâs show contemplation and wonder. There isnât direction or premeditated staging of the action (as there is with LĂłpezâs Venus). The theatrical strategy is not in action but in the power of the gesture: the mannequin comes alive not because the city moves around it (LĂłpez), but rather because it conveys the feeling of real presence from a simulacrum (Ălvarez Bravo and Andrade).
From that I conclude that one of the most important keys to understanding Yolanda Andradeâs Mexico City work is the explicit presence of the theater as a symbolic reference. As the theorist Eli Rozik suggests about the origins of theater, rather than ritual, drama stems from an innate psychological and symbolic need to make images. In Andrade, the theater is not associated only with the actions visible in the image, but with the drama implicit in the changing environment. If anything characterizes Andradeâs Mexico City pictures, itâs a mutation of motifs and figures, genres and directions. The elements in the images continuously transform one another. The effect is of an endless mise en abĂźme, a frame within a frame: the city becomes a stage, citizens become characters, effigies become the real thing, the dead come to life, and the masculine is transmuted into the feminine. Values and signs are always changeable, unstable, capricious, subtle.
In the photos of Yolanda Andrade, death is a mask, an image reproduced and reflected infinitely, acquiring new life with each replication. But the mask can be subtle: just a thin layer of dust on the faces of some children. Social actors (media idols like Pedro Infante or revolutionary icons such as the Subcomandante Marcos), so vivid in the national character, appear as flat reproductions in the photosâportable, mobile, reproducible. And what has been repressed or is socially taboo (for example, sexual or gender inversion) becomes visible and acceptable in Andradeâs photos because both become associated with the realm of the imagination, either through the presence of iconic figures (San SebastiĂĄn), or through incarnations of imaginary figures (an angel, for example). As suggested by one of her first picturesâa broken television, partially buried in an exurban lotâthe screen is empty: itâs the viewer who animates the imaginary spectacle in the theater of the social.
In Andrade’s rhetoric, there is no lesson, prescription, or judgment. Everything is an imaginary game. If there isÂ commitment, itâs to the game, to representation, to the staging that articulates the life of the community. Hence the remarkable quality of Yolanda Andradeâs photos is their ability to make us feel included in the image through an appeal to the playful and the imaginary. When you view her images, you participate in their game. You enter the frame.