A Closer Look: Pedro Meyer

 

The Arrival of White Man, Magelena Penazco, Oaxaca, 1991-92

The Arrival of White Man, Magelena Penazco, Oaxaca, 1991-92. © Pedro Meyer

 

Pedro Meyer (born October 6, 1935) is among the most accomplished Latin American photographers of the modern era, pioneering the digital treatment of documentary photographs and continually raising intriguing philosophical questions through his work. Considering himself primarily a documentary photographer, Meyer nevertheless has been unafraid to present pieces constructed of several images, sometimes taken years apart from one another. His work highlights a deeply personal reality through visual metaphor, making plain certain ironies or vagaries that were not wholly apparent in the initial unaltered photographs. In a 1997 interview with Michael Sand, Meyer described a situation in which he attempted to photograph several warplanes flying overhead, but was unsuccessful.  He managed to create his desired image later on by combining other images he had taken of his intended subject, and thus the moment was able to be documented. Although the camera failed to capture the correct image, the photographer recreated the situation with little difficulty.  He asks, “Did I fabricate an experience in that case?”

Desert Shower, Yuma, Arizona, 1985-93

Desert Shower, Yuma, Arizona, 1985-93. © Pedro Meyer

 

This question of fabrication versus reality has been at the heart of photography ever since its inception as a medium.  Historically, many photographers have unapologetically staged their photos while at the same time clearly intending to create a natural-looking scene (Henry Peach Robinson, Jeff Wall) or used the exquisitely realistic details of the photograph to trick the viewer into believing an utterly fantastic notion (Jerry Uelsmann, Joan Fontcuberta). Nevertheless, the popular idea of the photograph as a channel for unbiased truth rose with the advent of street and documentary photography. Meyer’s work reminds us that there is no such thing as a single truth or an image devoid of editorial opinion. Just as the classic documentary photographers would wait around for their subjects to behave in a desired fashion, Meyer captures images first, then devotes time to constructing his intended effect using digital technology.

Procession with Incense, San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca, 1991-93

Procession with Incense, San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca, 1991-93. © Pedro Meyer

 

In his breakthrough 1995 book Truths & Fictions, Meyer focuses on two divergent geographies and cultures: the natives of Oaxaca, Mexico and the Nixon-era residents of the sprawling North American landscape.  Meyer pays direct homage to his literary predecessor, magical realist Jorge Luis Borges, in a simple, unaltered black and white portrait of the author on the streets of New York City. His images of the native Mixtec Indians, particularly children, press more ardently against the borders of myth and reality, as in The Temptation of the Angel, La Mixteca, Oaxaca, 1991.  The work stands as a prime example of Meyer’s artistic voice, a mixture of documentary-style monochrome and color occasionally so saturated as to become uncomfortable, conveying an intentional unease through strange characters and uncertain environments, as in Day of the Dead, Panpantla, Veracruz, 1989/91 or Blind at Mass, Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, 1991/93. The book’s social commentary varies from pointed satire to simple farce. In Fragmented Liberty, 1987, the famous lady no longer “lift[s her] lamp beside the golden shore,” but instead in a narrow anonymous alley between tall tenement halls, while one disaffected man looks on, her crown seemingly forgotten in the street behind him. Conversely, the clownish image of The Sherriff, San Juan Mixtepec, Oaxaca, 1991/93 offers a less complicated metaphor to digest: the character is clearly a buffoon, the setting bland and ubiquitous, a timeless Keystone cop looking comically self-satisfied. As always, Meyer allows his feelings to heavily influence each piece.   In that same interview with Michael Sand, he insists: “All of my images are about documenting experiences, not fabricating them.” The key word here is clearly experiences as opposed to mere facts. Through the process of manipulation, he states that he can “add [his] own memory” to the initial image, exposing the emotional context he has applied to the narrative.

Day of the Dead, Papantta, Veracruz 1989-91

Day of the Dead, Papantta, Veracruz 1989-91. © Pedro Meyer.

 

This concept of emotion becoming an observable object or even a character in a scene has a long history in South American art, most commonly associated with writers such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende, but also in painting, through the works of Fenando Botero and Frida Kahlo.  The term “Magical Realism” was first posited by the German art critic Franz Roh in 1925 as its dreamlike alternative to expressionism first began to move through the European art scene.  Exactly as in its textual iteration, the visual form presents unreal objects with photographic clarity, allowing the emotional subtext of a scene to physically manifest itself, usually in a bizarre fashion. The style reappeared with the rise of photography, renewed through the surprisingly intimate portraiture of Pedro Meyer and later through the densely detailed yet utterly fictional narratives of Joan Fontcuberta. Unlike other photorealistic art forms, magical realism does not dance around emotion or prod the audience to formulate their own context: the pieces are presented as smoothly documented scenes, the metaphors become unabashedly literal, and the artists’ opinion is readily apparent, though his or her hand may not always be.

Loveland, On the Road in New Mexico, 1989-93

Loveland, On the Road in New Mexico, 1989-93. © Pedro Meyer.

 

It is patently unfair to expect any work of art, even a photograph, to be absent of emotion.  The gaze of the photographer and their editorial selections belie the individual’s priorities and personal feelings. In her magical realist novel Fugitive Pieces, author Anne Michaels poignantly observes that “[h]istory and memory share events. That is, they share time and space.  Every moment is two moments.”  In short, there is no way to divorce thought and emotion from reality, and least of all from one individual’s personal documentation of that reality.  Pedro Meyer and his fellow magical realists simply offer that truth to us without attempting to label the work as “pure” documentary or unbiased fact. That truth instead becomes a strength rather than a critical weakness; the audience is simultaneously reassured that their own feelings are equally important to the reception and context of the piece.

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, San Franncisco, California 1989-93

Smoke Gets In Your Eyes, San Franncisco, California 1989-93. © Pedro Meyer.

 

Meyer has continued to produce prolific amounts of work, having been featured in over 260 gallery exhibitions around the globe.  He has also devoted much of his time to educating future generations of photographers.  In 2007 he created a body of work entitled Heresies, made up of several thousand images, which was simultaneously hosted in 60 different museums worldwide. Each gallery chose its own images to feature, as such no two shows were the same.  Another classic example of Meyer’s tendency to toy with reality, Heresies also carried with it the notion that there is no such thing as a single “correct” curatorial voice.  He is the creator of the Pedro Meyer Foundation, an establishment dedicated to the research and interpretation of photography in the context of modern technology. In 2014 Meyer created the Foto Museo 4 Caminos, an educational facility for photographers. He is also the founder of the online photography magazine ZoneZero, which hosts the work of over one thousand photographers from around the world.

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Blind at Mass, Teotitlan Del Valle, Oaxaca, 1991/93. © Pedro Meyer.

 

Many photographers- even documetarians- have broken the rules by staging or altering their photographs in order to present a more “true to life” image– take for example the works of Robert Doisneau, Eugene Smith, or Sebastio Salgado.  These artists and their varied works continually remind us that “truth” as a philosophical or emotional concept will remain forever intangible, while the appearance of “truth” as a seamless visual construct is incredibly easy to convey. The past and the future merge, the real and the unreal become undifferentiated, “[e]very moment is two moments”.  Later in his 1997 interview with Michael Sand, Meyer cheekily sums up his own interpretation of this philosophy:  “I see the past as a reference to the future. Probably this poor memory of mine serves in part to explain my interest in photography. Instead of remembering everything in detail, I have always made images, and in the process registered the present for future reference.”

The Strolling Saint, Nochistlan, Oaxaca, 1991-92

The Strolling Saint, Nochistlan, Oaxaca, 1991-92. © Pedro Meyer.

 

Fragmented Liberty, New York City, 1987

Fragmented Liberty, New York City, 1987. © Pedro Meyer.

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Works cited:
Frank, Robert. The Americans (50th Anniversary revised edition) Steidl, 2008.
Kremer, Georg. “The Essence of Magical Realism.” Monograffi. 2015. Accessed July 20, 2015.  http://www.monograffi.com/essence1.htm
Meyer, Pedro. Truths & Fictions, Aperture, 1995.
Meyer, Pedro. “Pedro Meyer – Biography.” Pedro Meyer – Biography. 2008. Accessed July 26, 2015. http://www.pedromeyer.com/biography/biography.html.
Michaels, Anne. Fugitive Pieces. Vintage International, 1996.
Sand, Michael. Interview with Pedro Meyer. “Expanding Memory: An Interview with Pedro Meyer.” New York, New York and Los Angeles, California (via email), 1997.
“Pedro Meyer.” Wikipedia. Accessed July 26, 2015. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pedro_Meyer
Images Sourced from:

Meyer, Pedro, and Joan Fontcuberta. Truths & Fictions: A Journey from Documentary to Digital Photography. New York, NY: Aperture, 1995. Print.

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Written by Meghan Maloney