I had … a very specific interest in using landscape as a way
of talking about humanity’s relationship to the space we inhabit.
Through his photographs, Pablo López Luz seeks to investigate the relationships between human beings and the space they inhabit. Conventionally, such ideas have been addressed through social documentary and portraiture, but these photographs lean more toward the conceptual and aesthetic. People themselves are not the main focus. But the human presence is always there, latent within the scene, just as the analogue image lies latent in the photographic emulsion.
He began by exploring the urban, recreational and rural vistas of his native Mexico, finding a new perspective from which to contemplate the environments of everyday life. In so doing, he drew on the aesthetic traditions of Mexican landscape painting and photography while adopting a contemporary point of view and subject matter. In his more recent work, he extends his exploration of modernist architecture to the extraordinary government buildings of the Indian city of Chandigarh and the indigenous iconography that finds its way into the decorative motifs of Mexican popular culture.
The aerial photographs of suburban Mexico City tell us much about a city in the grip of exponential population growth but with no clear plan for how to deal with it. Here the human agent is culpable and collective. While, individually, each home is no-doubt warm and hospitable inside, en masse they become the mycelia of a predatory concrete fungus inexorably smothering the undulating mountain ranges. These urban images contrast with works from two other Mexican series, while finding a curious resonance with architecture half a world away in India.
With the exception of his most recent work, Pablo López Luz does not zoom in on the detail to tell the story of the particular. Rather he stands back to survey the wider scene, to understand not the individual narrative, but the larger story of collective agency. It is a story of an irrepressible archaeology and exhausted modernism; of rampant urban expansion and sublime natural grandeur. It is the story of humanity’s aspiration and hubris in its ongoing negotiation with Time and Space.
Alasdair: What first drew you to the medium of photography?
Pablo: My childhood encounter with photography was through magazines, which I would look at with my father. He ran an art gallery. It mostly showed paintings, but it did have a couple of photographers; Graciela Iturbide was one. So, from a very early age, I had a direct relationship with the art world.
The second encounter was through a German friend of my father who would go on these exotic trips around the world. Whenever he came to visit he would bring slides of his last trip, which we would watch projected during dinner while he told us his stories. I remember being absolutely enchanted by this and thinking it would be something I would love to do when I grew up.
How would you describe your approach – documentary, landscape, conceptual art…?
To be honest, I’ve never really described my work in only one specific manner. Some of my work is definitely ‘landscape’, but then it also fits the ‘social documentary’ approach, especially the urban landscapes of Mexico City or the photographs of Acapulco. However, my latest project, ‘Pyramid’, is rather more ‘conceptual’ than ‘documentary’, but then it is not wholly conceptual art, because it is always fixed to the concept of the ‘real’. Maybe it would be easier to say that it’s photography with a strongly conceptual theme. I also believe that photographs have different readings, depending on who is looking at them. In the end, I guess my approach is always of a personal nature given I deal with themes and ideas that specifically interest me.
Your aerial photographs of suburban Mexico City are spectacular. How and why did you come to make them?
I had been shooting the urban landscape of Mexico City and had a very specific interest in using landscape as a way of talking about humanity’s relationship to the space we inhabit. The landscape of the outskirts of Mexico City is absolutely unique. Whenever I was flying in and out of the city I was always amazed by this view from above.
Renting a helicopter was far too costly, so a friend suggested I hire a small plane, which was much cheaper … and that’s how it happened. But, shooting from a two-person plane through a tiny open window did prove to be a bit harder than I initially thought!
What ideas are you exploring in these photographs of Mexico City?
I was interested in studying the relationship between people and place, how the natural landscape had completely shifted into a constructed cityscape, which had a direct relation to the history of the city itself. What I mean by this is that historically there was a strong landscape tradition in Mexican art, one specifically portraying the Mexico City Valley. In photographing these same spaces hundreds of years later, I was reinterpreting both the landscape of the city and the traditions of this Mexican art genre. Having been raised looking at paintings for as long as I can remember, I felt a strong conceptual relationship to this art history.
There is also a social and political point of view, as almost all of the places that I was shooting were in poorer neighbourhoods.
Your landscape images from the Chiapas region of southern Mexico seem to be the antithesis of the urban images.
Precisely that: I wanted to leave the ‘urban jungle’ for a while and explore the natural jungle. However, it was very important for me to keep the human element in the landscapes; to maintain the idea of the human relationship to space. Again, I was playing with the notion of reinterpreting the classic landscape of, in this case, the traditions of naturalistic painting; the people in the photographs are precisely what ties these beautiful landscapes to the present day.
When one is being taught photography the advice is very often to “go in close and focus on the subject”. But in your work you seem always to ‘stand back’ and survey the whole scene. Why do you do this?
While working within the genre of landscape I realised that I could still be talking about people and their relationship to space, other people and a specific moment without having to get too close to the people themselves. So, it wasn’t only an interest in shooting landscape itself, but also, wanting to talk about people (the people living in my city at the same time as me). I really found no reason why I should get any closer and, actually, I think that keeping a distance is precisely what allowed a thematic and visual consistency to run throughout the projects. There is also something magical about space, landscape, architecture, when human beings are not the main focus. That’s also why in other projects, where I am actually shooting from a closer distance, there usually aren’t any people in the photographs.
How did the work in Acapulco begin and what are you exploring in those pictures?
It began with a conversation I was having with a close friend. We came up with the idea of shooting a tropical urban landscape. I chose Acapulco because of its strong history, and because it has become symbolic over the past century as a romantic tourist destination. One of my original ideas was, once again, to study the landscape from above; I was interested to see if I could work directly with the subject of the tourist industry and its superficiality. From above, they seemed to be architectural models striving to recreate the very landscape that had originally brought tourists to this beautiful bay. However, they were doing it by means of an imposed idea of comfort and beauty, and a perfectly designed but artificial ‘natural’ scenario. I found this to be fascinating, so it became the main focus of this project.
Your photographs of Chandigarh in India also deal with a concrete environment, but in a very different way.
Chandigarh is a unique place in India, a city planned and built by the Swiss architect Le Corbusier [1887–1965] in an attempt by the Indian prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru [1889–1964] to modernise his country (albeit in a Western way). In a country known for sticking feverishly to their traditions, the new capital city of Punjab state was designed to be very Modern.
The photographs turned out to be harder to do than I expected. Chandigarh is a strategic location militarily, close to the border with Pakistan, as well as centre of the governmental for the Punjabi state, and so security is extremely strict.
Arriving at the Le Corbusier development, I soon realised that the architecture was extremely cold, superficially designed to exclude Nature. Nonetheless, Nature seems always to find its way in and I became interested in the relationship between the overwhelming concrete architecture and the wild vegetation of this place. They seem to be struggling with one another.
What photographic projects are you working on now?
My latest project is even more strongly tied up with the concept of history. It began about two years ago and deals with the contemporary reinterpretation of our pre-Columbian history, which is perhaps the most powerful symbol of Mexican identity. I am questioning the idea of ‘identity’ by looking for modern day traces or interpretations of the Aztec, Mayan and pre-Hispanic cultural symbols. These can turn up in monuments and landmarks (as it was also a brief architectural movement in the 20th century), or simply as decorative motifs used (consciously or unconsciously) in various neighbourhoods around the city. Where and why do these scenarios exist? Are people conscious of their own visual vocabulary? Is there such a thing as a ‘national identity’? Could this be seen as an archaeological survey of these ancient cultures extending into the present day?
You have exhibited your work widely. Do you find audiences in China and East Asia see your work in a different way from those in Latin America?
I guess we’ve become quickly globalised and people are not that surprised by photographs of far-away places because they might already be conscious of similar spaces in their own countries. And the more ‘artistic’ approach to my work, concentrating on the ideas and aesthetics tends to have a similar reading wherever it is shown. However, there is an exception to this, and these are the aerial views of Mexico City; people continue to be amazed by these, even Mexicans living in Mexico City!
There has been a strong interest in these aerial images since they were first showcased internationally in 2006. However, the strongest interest has been in the last couple of months; one of these images in particular has found its way into many diverse international publications. It’s fascinating how this happens… Of course, it has to do with the power of social media and the photographs being picked up by popular international points of dissemination.
What advice would you give a young photo-artist starting out?
It’s simple, and yet harder than it seems to fully understand. It’s all about working hard, every single day. Work, work, work. It’s extremely important to know what other people are doing, but more important, what people did before you, and why this work was done. Keep informed. Photography appears to have a very loose language. However, it is extremely strict, specific and self-referential (much more than people sometimes realise), so it’s very important to also know why you are doing what you are doing and how you are going to do it.
Pablo López Luz was born in Mexico City in 1979. He has exhibited widely in the Americas and also Europe and Asia. He was awarded the Velazquez grant (Madrid) in 2004 and won the Italo-Latin American Institute Photography Award (Rome) in 2010; the Syngenta Photography Award (London) in 2012 and the Altitude +1000 competition (Rossinière, Switzerland) in 2013. His work is held in a number of prestigious collections including the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico City. He lives and works in Mexico City.
This article was first published in Chinese, in the February 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.