Guilty Pleasures

One way to negotiate the ethical uncertainties of images is to consider how they serve our understanding of the subject, suggests Adam E Mendelsohn

Looking at photographs by Enrique Metinides recently has thrown me into a snake pit of ethical uncertainty. Principally, is it wrong that the images could be described using easy adjectives such as beautiful or that they elicit in the viewer something comparable to pleasure? Is it morally incorrect to assess Metinides’ images of calamity and civilian disaster under regular conditions of aesthetic appreciation in the safety of a clean, well-lit gallery? What could be wrong with me that I find it possible to look at such awesome carnage and notice things such as composition, light and the photographer’s virtuoso technique? Fortunately, there is a wealth of anecdotal one-liners, ethical templates, entire philosophies and vast wells of history to momentarily assuage the sense of guilt that arises from such a dilemma.

For half a century, Mexican photojournalist Metinides has chased death and destruction in his native Mexico City. Metinides’ photographs of crime scenes, mangled corpses, suicides, car wrecks, plane crashes, derailed trains, buildings on fire and urban catastrophe have regularly graced the front pages of the Mexican tabloid La Prensa. Metinides has been both a major proponent and antecedent to la nota roja which roughly translates as crime news and is a style of journalism that supposedly caters for the tastes of the people. La nota roja has a proven track record as a reliable means for selling newspapers. What this means is that disseminating violent imagery as a commodity is a viable strategy for generating revenue. Nothing especially new there, but one of the things that is remarkable about Metinides’ work is what happens to it in the context of a gallery: how this context reinforces the conditions set by a relatively neutral space (for the presentation of information) and also how it reaffirms the strange power that still images retain, as opposed to moving ones.

It is hardly a unique experience to encounter images of death and destruction. Anyone who uses the internet as a news source, watches the news on TV, or reads the papers is constantly made aware of death and destruction with mind-numbing regularity. So it is interesting that Metinides’ photographs have such a powerful resonance both in their original context of tabloid papers and in the context of a gallery. Viewing these types of images in a gallery disrupts the normal way in which we are accustomed to receiving these images. Images of civilian disaster on TV and in the papers are almost always accompanied by an interface and a narrator. In effect, it might be characterised as a passive experience interrupted from time to time by advertising. A gallery show provides the viewer with a taxonomy – a group of images removed from the commercial white noise and the political agendas of newspapers and media groups. It is also unusual and rather valuable to encounter images of this type without any accompanying text, although Metinides has made it quite clear that the viewer should be aware of his picture titles, which also operate as short descriptions of what happened. For instance, Adela Legarreta Rivas is struck by a white Datsun on Avenida Chapultepec, Mexico City, 29 April 1979. In this image, as is typical of the majority of Metinides’ photographs, the viewer is pulled straight through the surface of the photograph, which momentarily breaches the temporal distance as well as the geographical distance of the event. Metinides does what all good photojournalists do which is to transform the viewer into one of the stunned passers-by caught in a state of dumb stasis where action is hijacked by absorbing information and incomprehension. The viewer is also given purview of the very centre of a spectacle that produces a complex range of communal mechanisms and emotions. The longer we look at the photograph the more we see and yet the more is obscured by our distance from the event. There is the eerie stillness that makes one wonder if it is a film set. There is the recently arrived paramedic hovering above what looks to be a bloody stump – and there is the beautiful, dead actress with an icy cold, icy calm mien propped up among the wreckage and concrete. What we see is the aftermath.

Car wrecks are regular events in Metinides’ photographs and also in Warhol’s ‘Death and Disaster’ series, 1961-63. It is uncertain whether or not Warhol was referring to his ‘Death and Disaster’ series when he said that ‘death means a lot of money’, but it is a statement that is directly relevant to the status of violent imagery’s dissemination as a commodity. In Warhol’s Ambulance Disaster, 1963, we see a dead man flung through the window of a smashed-up ambulance. Without the help of an explanatory text, the viewer is confronted with limited possibilities to identify with the victim. We are encouraged to consider how, as consumers of images, we process what is happening in the picture as well as how the picture is made and circulated. That Ambulance Disaster is repeated both mimics the mechanism of dissemination and takes the sting out of its content. As a body of work, the ‘Death and Disaster’ series draws our focus away from the horrific events taking place in the pictures towards the means by which the pictures are made and exchanged. Morally, the ‘Death and Disaster’ series is many things except enlightening. Among these, the series is a snapshot of the surface trauma experienced, yet not fully explored by the viewer. The series also draws attention to disaster as a cultural barometer: how the images are received, what they mean to the individual, how they inform communities, what they mean to the collective and how they operate as spectacle.

If car wrecks are emblematic of a specific type of universal civilian disaster, then one would also have to consider JG Ballard’s Crash, 1973, Jean-Luc Godard’s Weekend, 1967, and Charles Ray’s Unpainted Sculpture, 1997. Similarly, Aernout Mik’s video Refraction, 2004, is concerned with the aftermath of one long pile-up and with the particular interrelated workings of the spectators, victims and clean-up crews. What is fascinating about Refraction is how it depicts the site of a crash and the orchestrated events that unfold almost as theatre. Refraction deals specifically with the anxiety of the aftermath, the ‘what happens next’ moment that we are confronted with in many of Metinides’ photographs. One of the intrinsic values that civilian disaster holds for the spectator is the notion that someone is on the way to help, that someone somewhere has been alerted of the problem and is on their way to deal with it.

Ethical uncertainty is resoundingly echoed throughout the entire history of looking at art. Specific examples include Caravaggio’s Beheading of St John The Baptist, 1608, in which Caravaggio depicts figures witnessing a murder, thereby casting the viewer in a complicit role. There are also well-known examples of early reportage by Goya in his ‘Disasters of War’ series, 1810-15, or in Manet’s The Execution of Maximilian, 1867, in which Manet imaginatively stages the precise moment of an execution as if having witnessed it himself. Metinides, however, specifically chooses not to shoot war and this places his work somewhere between social anthropology, urban studies and art. The cumulative meaning of the events in his photographs is uncertain although they point towards symptoms of urban build-up. The car wrecks, air crashes, derailed trains, murders and other calamities in Metinides’ photographs leave the viewer unable to successfully apportion blame – something that fundamentally divides images of death and destruction found in war from such images when found in urban catastophe.

From an art historical perspective, it is natural to locate Arthur Felig (also known as Weegee) as a precursor to Metinides. Both Felig and Metinides were and are devoted to their native cities, their work representing perhaps the definitive bodies of work about urban calamity. Both were mysteriously drawn to their line of work. Both men were heavily influenced by gangster movies. Both had deeply humanistic motives and both supposedly developed the ability to predict accidents before they happened. In Weegee’s case, he was believed to experience an itching in his elbow when an accident was about to happen, and he received his nickname – after the Ouija board – precisely because of his supposed supernatural ability to predict the moribund curve of urban catastrophe.

There are two well-known images by Weegee that are resolutely bound to Metinides’ work and underpin the humanistic motives of each photographer. In Weegee’s photograph Joy of Living, 1942, we see two crime scene officers covering a dead body as a crowd looks on. The scene itself is rather gruesome and the ogling crowd does nothing to elevate the murder scene from spectacle to the sublime except for the entirely accidental location below a cinema awning that announces the title of the photograph. Similarly, in Simply Add Boiling Water, 1937, we see a frankfurter factory on fire with the words ‘simply add boiling water’ written across its facade. In a radio interview with Mary Margaret McBride, Weegee said: ‘I just look through the wire-finder in my camera and as a matter of fact, when I really see the picture is when I’ve developed the film. Then I really see what I have done. I really seem to be in a trance when I am taking the picture because there is so much drama taking place or is gonna take place. I mean, you just can’t hide it – go around wearing rose-colored glasses. In other words we have beauty and we have ugliness. Everybody likes beauty, but there’s an ugliness.’

The simple fact is that any of us who live in built-up environments, either knowingly or unknowingly, participate in their probable collapse or fracture at variable points. What Metinides and Felig do is to connect us to victims of urban calamities and the victims’ families. Their gaze becomes the victim’s gaze which in turn becomes our gaze; we are part of the individual and collective impact. Metinides and Felig make us understand that we are all potentially collateral damage at any time. What both artists also do is endow us with a heightened awareness of our environment. Dislocating the images from their original purpose, or indeed context, successfully interrupts the habitual reception of both information and images. The photographs counteract heuristic judgement.

One way to negotiate the ethical minefield of whether or not it is appropriate to view Metinides’ photographs as beautiful is to consider how the aesthetics of the images serve our understanding of the subjects. In Goya and Manet, aesthetics becomes the tools for persuasion – the tools that wow us to connect with the event and understand its ramifications. But with both Metinides and Felig, aesthetics is a natural by-product of the day-to-day work, a consilient value as opposed to an integral value. As social documents, both Metinides’ and Felig’s photographs have real-time ramifications: both have provided material that has helped to solve murders and other crimes, and both hold out the promise of prevention and of a deeper understanding of civilian calamity. They point towards the idea that patterns emerge and this would also explain why both men were able to predict disasters before they happened. Beyond use value, what both Metinides and Felig do is to remove themselves morally from the event. The images are entirely informed by what is happening, rather than – in the case of Goya or Manet – an imaginative scaffolding or the imposition of an arbitrary morality after the fact.

Adam E Mendelsohn is an art critic based in Brooklyn, NY.

First published in Art Monthly 306: May 2007.

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