Latin American photos mingle magic, reality

DePaul Art Museum’s new photo exhibit portrays subjects as personally affecting as they are unfamiliar.

By Ben Sigrist

The new photography exhibit at DePaul Art Museum, aptly titled Realism and Magic, draws on photographs culled from the DePaul’s collection to explore the spiritual and supernatural elements of Latin American culture. Functioning both as art and documentary, the collection offers a unique perspective into the culture’s development in the 20th century. But to describe the exhibit merely as a historical record would be a misrepresentation. It does not seek to present a history of magic, but allows a glimpse into a world where history and magic are inseparably intertwined.

The name of the collection is taken from magical realism, a literary genre pioneered by Latin American authors such as Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel García Márquez. Featuring supernatural events and narratives, the genre represents magic as an inherent part of life. In a similar vein, DePaul’s Realism and Magic features a fascinating mix of the extraordinary and ordinary that thrives on visual contrast while avoiding thematic conflict. Some of these contrasts are subtler—one photo shows peaceful peasants working in fields adjacent to crumbling ruins on towering mountaintops. But some of the juxtapositions are immediately arresting. In one picture, a murdered Mexican protester lying in a street shares a space with a man dressed in an elaborate feather costume.

Despite these jarring juxtapositions, none of the pictures appear out of place. Each is connected to the other by shared visual and historical themes. Along with the photographs of the murdered protester and working peasants, other images of political activism and manual labor hint at systemic oppression and the efforts to resist it. Similarly, opulent church interiors that abut the ancient, abandoned ruins suggest the impact of foreign cultures. Of course it is impossible for the photographs alone to explicitly reveal these historical trends. Nevertheless, the collection manages to artfully suggest these defining movements in history.

From another point of view, the exhibit also presents the evolution of photography as an art form in Latin America. A glance across the photographs from the late 19th and early 20th centuries reveals dramatic changes in Latin American photography’s technique and subject matter. Originally used only as a means of recording images, photographs in the early 20th century generally captured people going about daily tasks or famous political figures with invariably stern expressions. But photographers such as Manuel Alvarez Bravo soon became interested in photography as a means of expression.

Throughout the exhibit, the tension between artifice and naturalness takes on manifold forms. With deliberate framing and subject choice, some photographs certainly seem show more guile on the part of the photographers. Yet the dividing line between record and art, or between collected history and individual expression, is never clear. Indeed, the fundamental concept of the exhibit defies any distinction of this kind. Magic necessitates some ambiguity, and the magic of photography is no exception.

Although photographs present a captured moment of reality, there is always something that remains unknowable in the picture. Viewing the photograph of the murdered protester, it is impossible to know what beliefs his life was sacrificed for. Yet the picture conveys the tragedy and brutality of his death in a more urgent and immediate way than words ever could. In a certain sense, that inherent tension between immediacy and unfamiliarity allows photography to function as art, and the apparent contradiction between realism and magic is quietly resolved in a picture frame.