The eye of nostalgia

The art of Héctor Méndez Caratini always reveals a subtle equation of balances. I say this to stress the classicism of a photographic oeuvre of more than three decades produced by this remarkable artist.

The first difficult balance struck is that between documentary photography and testimonial photography, as it might be called—like New Journalism, the sort of photography in which the photographer’s presence becomes part of the work itself. On the one side, then, this photography is a record of a historical period, from the seventies, when Méndez Caratini began his career, to today. But at the same time, one must pay attention to the way the photographer casts his gaze.
Méndez Caratini is the photographer of the generation of the seventies: his gaze is always Janus-like, looking toward the signs of our modernity while at the same time nostalgic for a cultural identity under siege. Child of the transformations wrought by the Commonwealth and the ideology of First-World development, his gaze confronts the dichotomy of capturing and excluding: capturing the signs of identity while often excluding that state of siege.

In the series Petroglifos de Boriquén (Petroglyphs of Boriquén), from the seventies, the photographer’s gaze is focused on those signs of our aboriginal culture in obsessive close-ups that invoke the spirits of the earth, yet we know that the cranes and bulldozers and other noisy instruments of development are just a stone’s throw away from the majestic silence of these rocks and their hushed emblems. It is as though the rock, like a ceremonial coffer, were the repositories of our land and our identity as a people. It is precisely in this nearness or excluding distance —the close-up employed as a trick to erase the surrounding noise—that Méndez Caratini’s most intimate and private art begins—his incisive gaze, that testimonial slant, the art so unmistakably his own. If music sometimes depends on the eloquence of its silences, its rests, in Héctor Méndez Caratini the most intimate gaze is that which stands absorbed and fully there before a subject besieged—about to be, or already, endangered, invoked and held just before its death or disappearance.

But this penetrating and incisive gaze of Méndez Caratini’s never overwhelms the subject, never violates its dignity. On the part of the photographer there is a respect, almost veneration, for those signs of our identity. The distance between the subject and the photographer’s urge to capture it and define it never collapses into transgression. A good example of this is the photographs of Andrés Figueroa Cordero and the Nationalist political prisoners during their return to Puerto Rico after decades of incarceration in U.S. prisons: There is no whiff of that predatory photography practiced, for example, by Avedon when he photographed his dying father, or the cold intrusiveness of Diane Arbus when she shot her freaks, her almost always pathetic subjects. Instead, Méndez Caratini rescues the dignity of the subjects; there is the certainty, above all, that we are in the presence of icons of a Puerto Rico at the crossroads, standing between the rescue of the Island’s finest patriotic values and the vulgarity of that memoryless state of enveloping consumerism and developism. The shots of Andrés Figueroa Cordero (76) reveal more than the pathos and melancholy of a man dying of cancer just as he is able to return to his longed-for land. These images are an allegory for times now dying. The subtle, solemn irony of these images is moving, because we know that those martyrs to nationalism have returned to a Puerto Rico that is so very different—light-years distant—from the place they left. Veneration is stronger here than the sometimes rapacious curiosity of other photographers.

In the series Tradiciones: album of Puerto Rican (Traditions: Puerto Rican album)—also from the eighties—we see that this somehow excluding nostalgia (in which almost all that is now disappears, to reveal to us the signs of a cultural identity identified with the past) becomes an emblematic frontality that reminds us of the photography of Jack Delano. Photographs such as the shot of cyclist Castor Ayala in front of his shop in Loíza (from the series The craftsman in their environment (The Artisan and His Environment), or those portraying the façades of little grocery stores with their two narrow half-doors, or those that capture trades, like the knife-grinder’s, on the road to extinction, or those catching now-camp attitudes like that of the cyclist Palomo delighting in the baroque ornamentation of his bicycle, seek not the complicated camera angle but rather the gaze most appropriate and necessary for capturing signs that are about to disappear. The history of our culture-in-transformation is told through a paradigmatic classicism in which aesthetic values prevail over sociology. Like Jack Delano in his historical moment, Méndez Caratini produces an obituary, a tribute, through an exercise of empathy with his subject. There is a cordial acceptance—never satirical or ironic—of these personages whose reality before the camera is protected by a certain humaneness identified with historically leftist causes. In Méndez Caratini, the narration of facts never crosses that line of compassion toward the subject that first provoked the camera’s click or whir. The photographer’s interest always bears witness to the subject’s singularity rather than devolving into mere description of social events.

In the series coffee estate of Puerto Rico (Coffee Plantations of Puerto Rico), we see how this evocation of our centuries-old poverty has been transformed into the vision of a world in ruins. Here, the subjects disappear, and once more appear those places—abandoned drying-platforms, empty warehouses—that remind us of past exploitations while simultaneously suggesting a nostalgia for worlds that are no more. It is as though the photographer had gone back to visit those places where Jack Delano photographed the people, that community weighed down by poverty. Once again, Méndez Caratini’s aestheticism tends toward a certain nostalgic pleasure, even indulgence. Both photographers have been motivated by leftist humanism; one photographed people, the other photographed the greater complexity of emblems in flight, almost ghostly. Sometimes the place visited communicates a disturbing absence; as in the desolate landscapes of de Chirico, we sense a presence imminent but still unrevealed.

Thus, Méndez Caratini’s photographs achieve a majestic timelessness, an elegiac elegance that calls on us to imagine the past. In Traditions: album of Puerto Rican (Traditions: Puerto Rican album), a boy, startled by or wary of the camera, stands in front of some little altars characteristic of country people’s parlors of the forties and fifties. The boy seems not to be from that time, but rather from now. the photograph questions time itself and its vicissitudes; the shimmering countenance of today stands before the signs and emblems of the past, and the effect on the viewer is perplexity, because we cannot decide between that pious past and the boy’s apprehensive future.

Méndez Caratini’s art is rooted in the tradition of the photographic essay—a story told through images. As in the heroic photographs for Life magazine in the thirties, forties, and fifties—that tradition that has fallen into near-oblivion today—a series of photographs is an attempt to document and narrate the uniqueness of figures located in some trade, tradition, ordeal, or event: The photos tell us and show us, through undeniable and irreducible images, those persons’ drama. The series Loíza, like Patriot Dreams (The Patriot’s Dreams), is a perfect example of that.

It’s odd: Héctor Méndez Caratini has never photographed the urban landscape of 65th Infantry or Campo Rico Avenue, or the ecstasies of dirty dancing, or the aggressiveness of reggaeton, yet he has captured those cowboys of the Puerto Rican rodeo. Here, our modernity has disguised itself, has adopted a failed and contradictory pose in which a certain sort of pathos (a “pathos lite,” we might call it) is irremediably linked to subtle irony. Because despite their attempt to convince us that they are figures taking part in a specific tradition of its own, the Puerto Rican cowboys reveal nothing so much as their ancestral jíbaro campesino machismo. Those faces are still clearly those of our mountain countryside, with their macho moustaches and menacing expressions; they are ancestral figures disguised by the dress and postures of a distant land, though one not entirely alien. Although it is true that the cockfighting masters, the singers of plenas and décimas deck themselves emblematically in panama hats, what one sees in the Sunday horseback processions organized by (now-former) governor Carlos Romero Barceló is the cowboy hat à la the Bayamón basketball team, the “Vaqueros,” or Cowboys. Although that other governor Pedro Rosselló does not dude-up his Harley with baroque ornamentation, the signal sent is the same: the weight of testicles is communicated best when the man sits astride a horse or a motorcycle. These are our worn, tired Third-World emblems, and all of this evokes the Nicaraguan revolution, militia members wearing New York Yankees baseball caps or Bulls jerseys with “Jordan” stamped on the back. In some amazing way, and despite all this, Méndez Caratini establishes a coherence among these images, a remarkable formal beauty in which the artistic values and composition have greater weight than the social-documentary aspect that photography can never escape. Through his lens—and ignoring how grotesque mofongo is with ketchup, or tostones with caviar—those cowboys are legitimized by their unmistakable ancestral traits and features; although they do a very bad job of disguising themselves as what their forebears were not, they proclaim what their offspring will surely be. Plus ça change, most is the same thing.

I suppose that this documentary aspect of Méndez Caratini’s photography is increasingly more risky, more edgy. When Jack Delano pushed the shutter-release, we Puerto Ricans were, almost always, passive victims. Now we are often active accomplices, with the paranoia of illegality always nagging at our consciences. Let’s be honest: taking photographs in Las Carreras is testimony to a vocation unprecedented in the history of Puerto Rican photography. If photography once captured the signs of identity, it may now have become an “exhibit,” evidence. Héctor Méndez Caratini is a hero in this urge to rescue the signs of identity in those places where we are on the verge of forgetting who we are.

Edgardo Rodríguez Juliá
Guaynabo, Puerto Rico
February 2004