It’s an ill wind that blows nobody good. When a car crashed near his father’s Mexico City restaurant, sometime in the 1940’s, the thirteen year old Enrique Metinides rushed out – not to help, but to take pictures. And when a staff photographer from La Prensa duly arrived, he invited the teenager to join him as an assistant at the paper. So began the career of one of Mexico’s most celebrated photojournalists. Though perhaps ‘tabloid photojournalist’ might better (and more sniffily) describe him – Metinides made the shock-horror of the city’s abundant daily crime scenes, suicides, explosions and crashes his own.
from The Bullring Suicide, 1971 © Enrique Metinides
A newly-published collection of his photographs, Series, emphasises the often overlooked sequential and cinematographic nature of his practice by presenting generous edits from selected stories he covered for the Mexican press. Given his field of operations, there was of course a lot to be said for being in the right place at the right time. The young Enrique not only tuned in to police radio broadcasts, but accompanied and courted the local fire-fighters and Red Cross workers, taking care to later distribute free photographic souvenirs of blazes and emergency operations.
So when four youngsters pulled in to a garage outside Naucalpan to fill up with petrol, and to take off without paying, the ensuing fire was recorded by Metinides. As was the moment a fireman slipped, cracking his skull, to be stretchered to safety by his colleagues, whilst behind them the local inferno raged. A few years later Metinides was on hand again when a distraught and suicidal man climbed one hundred and thirty feet to the top of a former bullring, intending to jump. The pictures show the rescue workers inching nearer, finally catching him before he leaps.
from Explosion, 1960’s © Enrique Metinides
The photographer was present too when a woman returned home to find her home destroyed and her husband and son dead – both killed by an explosion caused by gas leaking from a nearby welding shop. A wide aerial shot surveys the scene (he must have scrambled onto a neighbour’s roof) and a gathering crowd of onlookers. Then Metinides moves in – nearer to the wreckage and closer to the bereaved. Along with the bystanders he follows her, right up to the point where she collapses into the arms of an ambulance-man.
from The Black Trunk, 1966 © Enrique Metinides
Metinides was in the business of telling stories, lurid and in-your-face maybe, but demotic and compellingly told nonetheless. The success of Series derives not just from its sensitive edit of his cadaverous oeuvre, but also from an intelligent design that uses sequential displays to restore a narrative quality to his essays – a quality frequently incompatible with the demands of newspaper photojournalism. How many column inches would La Prensa or La Nota Roja have cleared to accommodate his desire to provide comprehensive reports, rather than decisive moments?
from The Coffin, 1966 © Enrique Metinides
Perhaps the urge to narrate can be traced to his youthful fascination with cinema, and gangster films in particular. In a 2006 interview (with Daniel Hernandez) he disclosed:
‘I would love to watch the chases, the shoot-outs—all the gangster movies. I would also see all the “Superman” reels. These movies lasted maybe fifteen minutes each episode. They would always end in the moment that someone was about to die, so that you would have to return the next week to see what happened. And so I would take my camera and photograph the screen. And then I started taking pictures of the city, the centro, monuments, avenidas, streets, cars—the people. That’s how I started my collection of pictures.’
It sounds so innocent. Indeed, compared with the astonishing, merciless brutality of Mexico’s current narco-wars (at the time of writing, the bodies of 35 murder victims have been dumped in the midst of busy Boca del Rio traffic) Metinides’ crime scenes can seem almost…well, quaint. Certainly they appear to belong to a different, distant era, one in which they might have been introduced by a sombre voiceover:
‘There are a thousand stories in the naked city…’