I wanted to explore the pathologies of my society: religious pretention, the masks and costumes we hide behind, our neuroses and our need to conform.
Fernando Montiel Klint’s images portray individuals engaged in obscure rituals. For those involved, locked within their interior world, there appears to be a clear sense of purpose, but for the viewer that purpose remains mysterious. With their intense colours, classical postures and dramatic emotional tensions, these images recall the paintings of times long gone.
While these photographs draw on the history of art, especially the religious paintings of the Roman Catholic Church in Mexico, they also draw on the grotesquery of folklore, the dramatic mise-en-scène of film noir, and the surrealist imagery that flowed from the psychology of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung. They blend the contemporary with the timeless, setting the present moment into the imaginative contexts of the past and the personal.
What results is often a kind of visual paradox – an internal contradiction that seems impossible to resolve. In Zen Buddhism, paradoxical concepts are used as a means of gaining enlightenment – the classic example being the sound of one hand clapping. These locutions become a kind of cerebral mantra on which to focus and, at the same time, clear the mind; to let go of the here and now. Similarly, Fernando Montiel Klint’s photographs are not documentary images intended to make sense of the world. Rather, they are sites of introspection.
Alasdair: Both you and your older brother are art photographers. Does it run in the family?
Fernando: I first thought that the answer to this question was ‘no’. But then thinking more about it, I remembered that, in our family albums, you see my Opa [grandfather] most of the time with cameras hanging all over his body. And, six years ago, photographs by my Oma [grandmother] were selected for inclusion in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in Mexico; the exhibition included big names such as Tina Modotti [1896–1942] and it toured on to Spain. So, yes, I discover that photography is in the veins of my family!
How did you begin as a photographer?
I had always been attracted by movies. As a child my sisters had taken me to art film festivals. They had to take me as there was no one home to look after me when they were out. Cinema became very important in my life. But it really began when I was 15 years old. That summer, my father told me to do something with my life … take up a sport or do something… I enrolled in a photography summer school.
In the series ‘The Artist’, is the person in the pictures you?
Yes, it’s me … alone with my ideas. The series is a kind of introspective look at myself – trying to discover who I am – a process that helped me develop subsequent series, especially ‘Tiempos Modernos’ [Modern Times]. I was twenty-six years old at the time, and I won a grant for young creators which gave me the opportunity to start my own studio.
There is an image which is, in one way, quite simple but also quite disturbing: it shows what appear to be two legs in shoes, but after a while you realise they look very strange…
I was doing a hand-stand in my shoes. I wanted the viewer to begin to question what they see; to create a doubt in their mind.
What draws you to make images that are disconcerting or strange?
As a society we have become so dependent on images – we see hundreds, thousands every day – images shape our perspective on the world. In an era when everything is so immediate, I want the viewer to begin to question their perceptions and even their own existence. For me, making images is both a challenge and responsibility to reinvent myself; never to slip into making easy images. I love this medium because with it you can create your own vision of the world. And through it, I want to question that is real and what is unreal.
The early series ‘Tiempos Modernos’ [Modern Times] seems quite dystopian in its imagery. What were you exploring in this work?
I wanted to explore the pathologies of my society: religious pretention, the masks and costumes we hide behind, our neuroses and our need to conform. I wanted to get into the mind of my characters.
You have called one of your series ‘Acto de Fe’ (Act of Faith). What is an act of faith and what story are you telling in these images?
Historically, an ‘acto de fe’ [‘auto da fé’ in Portuguese] was a form of penance to demonstrate religious belief or loyalty, often made under duress. A lot of my work has religious overtones, simply because, as a child, I went to a Catholic school. I went to this school because it was close to home. I am not a religious person. My father was a psychiatrist and taught me that science and humanism were what were important. School confused me because I had to hide what I really thought about religion…
Maybe I made these images to exorcise my demons. For me an act of faith is something you do for its own sake to try to find your own truth. To be free, you don’t need to believe in someone or something outside yourself, introspection is a way to know freedom in your own mind.
How do you develop an idea for a photograph?
The initial idea can be born in a conversation, or come to me while viewing a movie, reading a book, taking a trip or just be triggered by something I see on the street. When I have an idea I let it mature for a while and, in the meantime, start looking for the right location and actors to be in the picture. All the people in my images are friends, never strangers, because, if I am to have confidence in making my images, I need to know I can trust them. Once I have the right location, I make sketches and notes about the story I want to tell.
There is a dramatic image of the boy riding a hobby-horse as though he wants to fly off into the sunset.
Yes. It’s called ‘The Enlightenment’. The image was shot in the city of Veracruz in 2010. It is about a guy who is riding up a mountain because he wants the sun to bring light to his soul. I wanted to show the sun is a force for good, like it was for the Aztec civilisation long ago.
It took twenty of us to move the rocks and build the ‘mountain’. For me it is a kind of sculpture, symbolising the place we can be nearest to the life-giving sun.
In ‘Nirvana’ you made a series of surreal portraits. Who are the people in the images and how do the dramas in the final image relate to the individual person in real life?
I have always been drawn to make portraits. The people in ‘Nirvana’ are my friends and the images tread a fine line between fiction and reality: a symbiosis between what is and what is imagined. The people themselves are writers, photographers, curators, social friends…
Why did you call the series ‘Nirvana’?
In Buddhism and Hinduism, nirvana is the highest state of being that one can attain. In this series I was exploring this concept – a search for peace… I live in a very chaotic city; I was trying to evoke a sense of silence in the middle of all that chaos; a place where the mind finds balance and harmony.
Ironically, while I was researching for this series on the internet, I found more information about the rock band called Nirvana [USA 1987–1994] and that’s how I got my first image of the guy standing in the middle of his room wearing a Jesus-Christ tee-shirt. He is a filmmaker who is also a fan of the band. I wanted to suggest that pop music and rock idols move young people today more than religion, even in a Catholic country like Mexico.
How much of each image is created in computer postproduction and how much is in the staging?
In the beginning I used a lot of postproduction and perhaps thirty or forty separate images when creating the final image, especially in the ‘Tiempos Modernos’ series. But I became tired of postproduction and, in 2008, I started to work directly in film with medium-format and 4×5 or 8×10 film cameras, depending on the project. That said, I have (ironically) just begun to use postproduction to create some funky new images in the Chiapas region of southern Mexico.
Tell me about them…
It is part of a kind of trilogy of three different series that share the Mexican countryside as their common theme. I want to explore new narrative possibilities with photography. The first part is called ‘El Valle’ [The Valley]. It is a traditional-style documentary of a very dry region of my country, where life is tough. Here they search for ant eggs (called ‘escamoles’) which are considered a delicacy to eat. The third and final part is called ‘Tampico’, and is set in a city that has been abandoned because of the escalating drug violence. In the middle is the series of images made in the Chiapas. It’s a region that has been photographed by millions of people over the years, but to me it remains a very strange place.
The images are strange too. Do the people there really have such large heads and small bodies?
No … but that’s how photography can play with our perception of truth.
Why do you portray the people this way?
I wanted to work in this area of my country because, for me, it is the most surreal place I ever been. I want to show my personal perception; to construct my own reality. So, I made these portraits with [photographically] enlarged heads to suggest that Chiapas is for me an enchanted place and the people are in some way magical.
What are you working on now?
Lots of different projects, I am happy to say!
Currently, I am moving into making videos. I have been working on an installation called ‘Sinapsis’ [Synapse] that combines video and photography to think about the virtual world and our increasing dependence on technology. In this work I am exploring new ways of storytelling with multiple images that emulate the way we are bombarded with information in the contemporary world. This work will be presented in a solo exhibition in Chile.
I am also completing a book project call ‘Doubernard’. It’s an essay on, and reflection of, my own identity, my past and future, and hovers somewhere between fiction and family album. I have been invited to show this work in Sao Paulo, Brazil, as part of an exhibition entitled ‘Fotonovela’.
And I have also appropriated images from Google Street View to make a book – ‘Cementerio de Elefantes’ [Elephants’ Graveyard] – which documents a virtual memory of places I have never actually visited, except through the internet.
You explore many ways of working, what are you ultimately searching for?
The eternal, timeless image.
Fernando Montiel Klint was born in Mexico City in 1978. He studied photography at the Escuela Activa de Fotografía and the Centro de la Imagen, both in Mexico City. His work has featured in over thirty solo exhibitions and eighty groups shows in institutions and festivals around the world including the Victoria and Albert Museum (UK), the Palais des Beaux Artes (Belgium) and the 2011 Rencontres d’Arles (France).
Fernando Montiel Klint’s work is held in important public and private collections including Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Santiago, Chile), Guangdong Museum of Art (China), Maison Européenne de la Photographie (France), Recontres d’Arles (France), Fototeca Nacional (Mexico), Museo de Arte Contemporáneo (Aguascalientes, Mexico), Museum of Photographic Arts (San Diego, USA). He has won a number of top awards including XXVI Young Art (2006) and accolades from ‘Omnilife’, ‘iD’ and ‘Fahrenheit’ magazines. He lives and works in Mexico City.
Photo: © Gerardo Montiel Klint
This article was initially published in Chinese, in the April 2014 issue of PhotoWorld magazine, Beijing.