Yvonne Venegas: Maria Elvia De Hank Series
Issue 44, October 2010.
By Ed Schad
The US/Mexico Border is a supercharged issue at the moment, and Yvonne Venegas’s current photographic series is of the times: a group of large documentary photos of the life of the ‘upper class’ of Tijuana, Mexico. With access to the household of former Tijuana mayor Jorge Hank Rohn, Venegas directs her lens to the familial ordinary, from the planning of dinners and weddings to the family simply living in its surroundings. ‘How the other half lives’ photography can be terrible if the ideological hand of the photographer is played too forcefully. Fortunately, Venegas understands that for an LA viewer who knows the photographs were taken in Tijuana, thoughts of the border and problems of immigration in Mexico and the US arrive effortlessly and undidactically. Though this effect will probably diminish for audiences elsewhere, Venegas achieves enough universal human content to maintain one’s interest in her subject.
You’ll find nothing ostentatious or overplayed in Venegas’s photographs, perhaps because the ability of Rohn’s Tijuana household to achieve the outlandish is somewhat limited. For instance, the sad little swamp, Lago (2007), is far from a lush garden. Eventually the small pool will be a symbol of wealth and leisure, but at the moment it cannot but be absorbed by the poor landscape of hardscrabble Tijuana. Other Venegas photographs use a similar tactic – the family matron working intensely on a rather ridiculous, gaudy candelabra in Velas (2008), or a large party tent being constructed in the centre of a paltry dirt track in Hipodromo 1 (2006). Such misplaced attentions of wealth at play against bleak landscapes gives Venegas’s photographs a certain understated power.
Class is offered as a series of markers that separate the rich from the poor, the sophisticated from the gauche, and they are far from extraordinary. Venegas wants to connect the tiny gesture, the indicative moment, to larger issues such as wealth disparity, status and injustice. The leisure class is portrayed straight ahead and engaged in their pursuits, not immersed in any sort of decadent behaviour. Instead, a pair of stilettos on a dusty road, a bored child on a satin couch and a new fútbol stadium on the near side of a fenced boundary is enough to evoke the larger shadow of poverty hanging over this world.The photos are laden with subtlety, restraint and empathy; their subject matter is much closer in sensibility to the early work of Tina Barney than, say, to Daniela Rossell’s Ricas y Famosas (1994–2001). The Rohn family is presumably staying put, with no need to emigrate, yet a window into their life quietly points to the vacuum that allows the disenfranchisement of millions. Often, the working poor employed by the Rohn family are noticeable in the photos, but their presence is not amplified. They are neither suffering nor happy; they simply exist in a status quo that will continue into the foreseeable future.