Pedro Meyer by George Moore

BOMB 74 Winter 2001
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Pedro Meyer,  Los Meyer, 1940/2000. The photographer’s father Ernesto and son Julio in the picture with him. All images courtesy of the artist.

A true pioneer in many areas, Pedro Meyer is one of the first photographers to swim from the shores of analogue photography to those of the digital world. A lifelong innovator, he created the important Latin American Colloquiums of Photography now in their 20th year and also founded the Mexican Council of Photography, from which other major photographic institutions in Mexico have all stemmed. His CD-ROM, I Photograph to Remember, was one of the first to be produced with photographs and sound. His extensive photographic explorations deal with cultural interpretations both in the United States and Mexico, and have been presented in a variety of formats, from ink-jet prints to CD-ROM to the traditional book, such as Truths and Fictions, which was created and designed over the internet and then published by Aperture in 1995. Meyer has received both a Guggenheim Fellowship and an NEA grant and his work can be found in more than 40 major museum collections throughout the world. His books include Los cohetes duraron todo el dia, Tempii di America and Espejo de espinas.

Most recently, he has been involved in creating the website known as ZoneZero, which presents the work of photographers, artists and writers from all over the world. The site is bilingual (English/Spanish) and is seen by people from 92 countries who view it by the tens of thousands. ZoneZero has been named one of the top six arts and entertainment websites in the United States, and was the first internet site awarded a Rockefeller foundation grant.

George Mead MooreGiven your current involvement in the Internet, Pedro, it’s appropriate that our interview is being conducted online. When I last saw you at your home in Mexico City this past summer, Vicente Fox had just won the presidential election in Mexico, thereby overturning the decades-old grip of the PRI. In a recent article, you make an analogy between Fox’s victory and what is happening now in the field of photography. Could you comment on that?

Pedro Meyer I think there are similarities between the digital world and the elections in Mexico. For instance, the tide of acceptance of digital photography has suddenly swelled in just this last year and so has the opposition to the PRI. What is happening now is not the result of one year’s effort, but rather of many years. And in both forums, the old guard believe that their survival hangs in the balance. There have been digital cameras, and computers with which to process images, and programs with which to fine tune the picture for at least 20 years. Granted, the pictures one could create with them are a far cry from what can be achieved today with quite inexpensive equipment. The development was gradual. However, at some point around six years ago, the technology improved so fast and so dramatically that it has taken a lot of people by surprise.

GMM In a recent editorial for ZoneZero, “What’s Going On,” you speak not only of a revolution in the storage capacity of the new digital cameras, which can store 170 rolls of film in one memory card, but also a revolution in terms of retrieval. For instance, Chase Manhattan Bank can now process 11 million checks (i.e. 600 gigabytes of low resolution photographs) a day. It’s interesting that these issues about storage, permanence and retrieval also filter into your photographic work, thematically. I am thinking of your CD-ROM, I Photograph to Remember, which is a photo essay about the death of your elderly parents, and one of the first, if not the first, CD-ROMs made by a photographer. How has the experience of working with CD-ROM shaped your current work on the Internet?

PM As the Internet grows in bandwidth, CD-ROMs will no longer be the best delivery system; DVDs will probably take over in this regard. We’ve had to update the programming for I Photograph to Remember, which was done with the earliest of programs and for machines that were very slow. Now we are porting this CD-ROM, which indeed was the very first one made anywhere with sound and images that were “wall to wall”—in other words, continuous—and very soon we shall have this project available over the Internet. I think the most important influence CD-ROMs have had is in offering the ability to include sound together with still images, and in a format that is publishable the world over. Before, one had the possibility of combining still images and sound, but those audiovisuals could not be published; the only way to show such work was to lug a lot of equipment around and go from venue to venue. Here all of a sudden a work such as IPTR was transportable through the CD-ROM. For me, the fact that I could use my voice and music enabled me to add a specificity to the still image that unfortunately had always eluded the medium of photography in the context of books, magazines, news periodicals, gallery walls, etcetera.

GMM You are currently in Los Angeles attending a conference on QuickTime technologies. What is the significance of QuickTime for the Internet?

PM Over the past hundred years there have been four revolutions in media. Theater to film, film to TV, TV to video, and now video to the Internet. Video over the Internet is about using QuickTime from the technical point of view.

GMM You founded ZoneZero, which presents the work of photographers. The image on its home page, usually one of your own photographs, is accompanied by an editorial about our current voyage from the analogue to the digital. How has this very public role you’ve taken on affected your photography?

PM I have less time to do a lot of my own work; I get a lot of e-mail that I answer myself. Feedback and writing are also important ways of communicating with others. And whether I do that through a picture or an e-mail, what is important is that the efforts exerted are of some benefit to someone. For the most part I believe this is taking place. Maybe e-mail is art by other means, to paraphrase the notion that “politics is war by other means!”

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Pedro Meyer, The Breakfast, Rosi Mendoza and friend, 1975.

GMM This is not the first time that you have been on the forefront of change. Since the 1950s you have been active in developing an infrastructure for photography in Mexico, having created, with other photographers, the Mexican Council of Photography. You started the Council after you went to the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes and asked them to create a photography biennial. They declared themselves incapable of judging photography as an art form and refused to give prizes to exhibiting photographers. How does that experience compare to the situation now, in respect to the change from analogue to digital photography?

PM The only real difference is the content of what is being discussed. In all these situations, it’s about convincing people to go along with new ideas, new ways and new thoughts. In short, breaking with habits is no different from one generation to the next. You are sitting in Oaxaca, writing for BOMB magazine in New York, while I am attending a lecture on high technology for the Internet in Los Angeles. But wait, it does not stop there. I am sitting in the lobby of the hotel in between lectures, and my connection to the Internet is a wireless communication. In other words, I have no cables of any kind tethered to my laptop. All around me are dozens and dozens of other attendees communicating with people in other parts of the world. So my interview with you need not be interrupted because we are in two different countries doing diverse things. Tomorrow I am going to Las Vegas for the weekend and taking no computer with me.

GMM Theoretically, there need be no interruption, except while you are in Las Vegas, I will be the padrino de brindis (toastmaster) at my Zapotec neighbor’s wedding—even though some of the villagers regard upscale, Bohemian, first-world exiles like me as “refugees from a dying culture that eats its young.” The small Oaxacan village where I live has no phone line and the big antennas that might facilitate wireless communication are located on the other side of the Sierra Juarez. So at the moment, I must get into my car and drive, edging past donkeys and oxen, to Oaxaca in order to log on and have this exchange.

PM Nothing wrong with that reality. It’s just different.

GMM What are you doing in Las Vegas?

PM What does one do in Las Vegas? Have fun of course, see shows. We saw the most fantastic one, called O, by the Cirque du Soleil people. I never get tired of the over-the-top fantasy world that Las Vegas creates.

GMM I would like to say a few words about the technical elements of digital photography and images—moving and still—on the Internet. How do you think the Internet is changing the way we make images?

PM If you have visited ZoneZero, you will have noticed how sound and images tend to come together in new ways that are published like a book together with text, yet defy the traditional notion of a published book. So what we are creating are new structures with which to tell stories.

GMM I have visited ZoneZero and there are some very impressive and powerful photo essays, such as Jesus Quintanar’s work on the Mazahua Indians. But what struck me most were the family portraits—some of them deeply personal, such as Osvaldo Ancarola’s photographs of his wife’s battle with cancer. Those family portraits lend themselves to that aspect of Internet culture where the private is public and vice versa. For me it was more powerful seeing those photos online than in a gallery or a book, perhaps having to do with the fact that it was one family’s story. I was viewing it alone—the Internet is a private space for the viewer—and yet it is a story accessible to millions of people with a click of the mouse. Is the Internet changing our concept of what constitutes public and private space?

PM Not only the Internet—we’ve had a similar experience with television, where an individual can share something with many others. What the Internet gives you as an individual is the possibility of broadcasting to the world with modest means. I believe that it is the aim and hope of most artists to share with as wide an audience as possible—so the private in many ways was always public. It did not always pan out that way, because of lack of access to what were expensive platforms from which to launch the work, be that a published book, television or film.

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Pedro Meyer, Nora Astorga.

GMM I am curious where your mind is most of the time—it seems you really exist on the Internet although we have had long face to face conversations at your home in Mexico City. You are definitely one of the most civilized and gracious hosts it has been my pleasure to meet, but it seems that the Web is a wholly sufficient public arena for you.

PM My mind, you ask? Well, it is having fun. It functions on many different levels. One does not necessarily preclude the others. I can be on the Internet at one moment, but also on a printed page the next, in personal exchanges or giving a conference or lecture. Talking with a five year old, or an expert on a given subject.

GMM You spent time in the Mixteca part of Oaxaca some years ago for National Geographic. You have mentioned the connection between the magic realism of the indigenous culture of that world and digital photography. Could you elaborate on that?

PM I have a problem with the term magic realism. It has become such a trite and abused expression, used for anything anyone finds that they can’t explain culturally—usually associated with Latin America. But then what is Las Vegas, I might ask? I find that there is no major difference between one and the other world. Digital photography is merely a way of creating images that allows me to be closer to what I want to express. If that is magical realism, then so be it. But unto itself, digital photography is not about any one style of imagery.

GMM We spoke once about the pros and cons of raising children in the United States or Mexico. You divide your time between Los Angeles and Mexico City, Do you have to make a cultural adjustment when you travel between the two, or is it all one continuous cultural spectrum for you?

PM My son goes to school in both realities, Los Angeles and Mexico City. Being five, he is capable of moving from one to the other without missing a beat. His teachers are all in great admiration of how easily he blends in from one reality to the other. So I learn from him.

GMM Speaking of children, would you comment on the photograph of yourself with both your father and your son? When I look at it I think of the four revolutions in media that you spoke of earlier: theater begot film, which begot television, which begot video. Really they are all existing together—that is the thread of our culture.

PM Interesting thought!

GMM What do you see in the future for the Internet, for artists in particular and for humanity in general, given your proximity to technological developments?

PM I have very little talent for fortune-telling. As for humanity in general? I would say that anyone who reads what you write today will surely be dead 90 years from now—that we can say with a high degree of certainty.

GMM If we could return for a moment to magic realism, I would like to explore a facet of your work that reveals a fascination with what you might call sleight of hand. You say that digital photography brings you closer to what you want to express. I recall looking at a photograph you took years ago of the Statue of Liberty—or rather a copy of the Statue of Liberty. In the photograph, the statue appears to be in a deep hole with just liberty’s upraised hand and head peeking out of the ground. That image seems to be the result of a digital sleight of hand—but as you explained to me at the time, the statue is actually in a hole. What attracts you to these kinds of images? When you started working with digital photography was it a case of “Eureka I’ve found it”?

PM If I dig deep into my motivations, I would say that my great attraction to digital photography stems from a work ethic. I always found it rather pathetic that as a photographer I would be dependent to such a large extent on sheer luck. As Max Kozloff points out, the appointment between content and geometry has so much more to do with being in the right place at the right time than with one’s personal intent. So the moment I was offered tools to bend the shape of the image into my choices, and not those of lady luck, I was hooked. You ask what attracts me to certain types of imagery. I guess that has to do with one’s cultural upbringing in combination with intellectual curiosity and search for meanings. One does not create one sort of imagery over a life span; it keeps evolving and churning in direct relation to the photographer’s personal life history. My own life experiences are deeply enmeshed in what, and how, I photograph.

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Pedro Meyer, Jorge Luis Borges, 1973/2000.

GMM How do you think it will be for future students of history, in terms of the criteria they will use, or not use, in interpreting a photographic image? Should there be a chapter in 20th century history books that starts with a Cold War-era photo retouching of Mao swimming in the Yangtze River and ends with the invention of Photoshop? Is it all just history painting, no matter what device you use?

PM If future students of history look at an image on a fact-finding mission, they will be well served to do the same thing they would if they went down to the town square and started to interview people. People’s memory, as with photographs, has always been fragile in offering precise, factual information. I am reminded of William J. Mitchell’s statement that the application of the computer and the digitization of image making has brought the age of false innocence to an end—referring to the 150-year period during which chemical photographs provided us with images that we could comfortably regard as truthful reports. The Cartesian philosophy for certain and objective knowledge through the exercise of scientific reason was extended into positivism at the beginning of the 19th century. John Berger, in Ways of Seeing, tells us that there is a connection between the positivist method (an exclusive concern for empirically verifiable and measured facts) and the birth of photography. One can see how the Cartesian framework for conceiving of visual perception became hopelessly inadequate. The question then becomes, can we as observers have any fixed and secure position from which to see anything? Perhaps digital photography is precisely the adequate response, given our current way of thinking in this age of globalization.

GMM The first work I saw of yours were several photographs you had taken in the late ’70s during the Nicaraguan revolution. You were the first photojournalist to go behind Sandinista lines to take pictures. Can you tell me about these pictures, what you saw, what you photographed?

PM What I saw was a revolution in the making, and I was indeed glad to be a witness to it. My aim was to explain the events to those far removed from the immediacy of what was going on. The results were a combination of photo reportage and the inevitably romantic notions attached to revolutions.

GMM You have photographed other war zones as well—can you talk about photojournalism in the digital age? Obviously we are talking about degrees of manipulation and we can go back to the controversy of Capa’s staged or not staged photo of the dying soldier in the Spanish Civil War—I am interested in what you have to say.

PM I personally regard that image by Robert Capa as independent of what was going on factually at that moment. Whether it was staged or not makes little difference to me. The image stands out as an icon for the Civil War in 1935. Think of it as art. Few images become icons for a particular era, and this one certainly did. Apparently the picture by Eddie Adams which would become an icon for the Vietnam era (the general shooting a man in the head), also has quite a questionable “history” from the factual point of view.

Now if you take pictures by James Nachtwey, or other photographers who have dedicated themselves to depicting wars, you start to observe a pattern, much to their credit as artists/photographers and less so to that myth of the factual representation of facts. For me, the style within those images is what carries the day, more than what information those images themselves can ever deliver of what was going on at that specific moment.

Going back to Capa’s image, it is quite obvious that the power of that picture has to do with style, but also with the politics of representation and the codes that as a society we have built up culturally over time. Such codes are what we use to approach these pictures, and as such I am sure those same codes will evolve over time as the digital culture itself becomes part of our daily life.

Originally published in

BOMB 74, Winter 2001

Featuring interviews with Damiela Eltit, Alavaro Musis, Carmen Boullosa, Gioconda Belli, Sergio Vega, Gunther Gerzso, Valeska Soares, Pedro Meyer, Marisa Monte, Cubanismo!, and Ned Sublette.

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