Palindromes of the image: the photography of Ernesto Ríos.

By José Manuel Springer

The photography of Ernesto Ríos can be considered to represent a break with conventional photography; it is more a process of pictorial representation. The old idea that the camera registered what the lens saw is improved upon in the work of this mexican photographer. The change in strategy has to do with the grammar of the images, how they are articulated to give place to semantics, or rather a new meaning which comes from reading the image in two ways, as a reference and as an object. To work out what this means we must take a look at what has happened to art since the invention of photography. To begin with, the images captured by photography are an imitation of reality. They depend on the existence of a being or an object to which reference is made on the basis of similarity. Photography in the 19th century was just that, a mechanical reproduction of reality.

This instant form of reproducing the real led to painting changing its strategy, vocabulary and its purpose. Thanks to the invention of photography, painting began to deform reality so as to separate itself from photographs. At the same time, photography began to imitate painting, producing images that reproduced composition and pictorial effects, thus becoming an art form with a pictorial edge.

The art of the 20th century saw a radical change; Cubism caused painting to move away from the illusive representation of reality, offering instead a more real representation that involved the use of temporal dimension and the elimination of perspective. Photography, at the same time, became more aesthetic, achieving a purity which can be seen in landscape photography.

In addition, photographers concentrated on capturing the moment, making photography an art form, as they managed to capture reality in a totally different way from other media. By the end of the 20th century photography had changed radically its modus operandi. For example, photographers began to use the camera to see who they really were, using it as a sophisticated way of reflecting themselves. They also began to use theatrical scenery, which meant they abandoned their purist principles which was what had originally taken photography into the realms of art.

Today, photographers like Ernesto Ríos, go back to the paradigms of photography so as to transform once again the nature of the medium. The superimposition of images that Ríos uses reminds us of surrealism, but the difference lies in the fact that his images are strictly taken from reality, and with the use of digital technology he is able to alter the perception of the real. His images are, therefore, a visual space in which the human mind is reproduced; they reflect something very similar to what goes on in our minds when we combine forms and meaningsIn this sense, Ríos is right when he points out that in his work there is no specific objective; rather he tries to situate the world in an ambiguous space of representation, where two or more images are mixed, combining their expressive properties.

The series of photographs dedicated to animals exemplifies this. The presence of living beings, metaphors of nature, are mixed with spaces, signs and symbols of the real world. These works can be read together as a linguistic process; they are articulations that convey meanings based on individual images.

In his brilliant study of photography in Camera Lucida, the late French linguist Roland Barthes points out that the photographic image consists of elements that are not seen at first sight but later, on inspection, achieve a decisive iconographic presence. He called these elements the punctum of photography; we see things unconsciously but only when we become aware of them do we see the key to the image. Imagine, for example, a shoe thrown beside the body of a rebel, with a silhouette of a dog reflected on the asphalt.

The 20th century photographer aimed his camera at the world, looking for an objective, but what he saw in the photographs surprised him: things suddenly appeared, things that he had not noticed and which determine the weight or the direction of a photographer’s visual structure.

In Ernesto Ríos’ photography, the process of discovery of the punctum is a result of a synthetic composition (like in Cubism), in which the whole is made up of the parts, a method that allows the details of the image give expressive eloquence to the whole. As a consequence, what the photographer is looking for does not exist a priori, it comes by accident, a focusing of the camera which appears not to be directed at a specific reality. The photographer appears to be more interested in letting reality come to the lens and, like a sandglass, the image moves from one ambit to the next. These blurred images, lacking in composition, are manipulated through digital technology, resulting in poetic iconographic encounters. Ernesto Ríos randomly mixes unconnected images in triptych and poliptych that create iconographic phrases, not unlike cinema narrative, but they are directed just at guarded moments in the mind, situations that are not directed by the conscious mind.

The movement of the camera, the blurring of the images point to the transitory and ephemeral nature of our perception. Using a Cubist example, in the triptychs the images act alone, separating the parts from the whole in order to understand it. On a final note, the photographer has produced a series of unique images where an explicit desire to unite the elements exists to intensify the meaning. Photographic time and space are compacted – an opposite tactic to that of the triptychs – to allow the grammar of colour, form, direction and movement to generate together an expression that is absent in just the parts.

This desire to explore the nature of image, its intricate relationship with reality and illusion, is what makes Ernesto Ríos’ work seem less like photography and more like visual art without adjectives. He uses a language which comes from form and meaning but its content is more spontaneous and casual. His is an art form that could well exemplify the intellectual palindromes of photography in the 21st century.