Alejandro Cartagena first jumped on my photobook radar when I obtained his Suburbia Mexicana, a monograph that was published jointly by Daylight Books and Photolucida in recognition of Cartagena’s Critical Mass submission award in 2009. Suburbia Mexicana is an interesting mashup of portraits, urban landscape and developing urban sprawl, a condition that does not appear to bode well for this region in Mexico. Following this photobook was his self-published Carpoolers in 2014, Before the War in 2015, Rivers of Power (Rios de Poder) in 2016 and now his 2017 publication A Guide to Infrastructure and Corruption in conjunction with The Velvet Cell (Eanna de Freine) imprint. Each of these photobooks were very creative and exhibited a lot of thoughtful consideration in the design, layout and production. We had just missed each other a couple of years ago while he was in LA for his exhibition at Kopeikin Gallery, but I was able to recently catch up with this busy photographer and self-publisher for his follow-on exhibition at Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles. What follows is a photobook discussion that was as fascinating as it was a bit overdue.
DS Tell us about your growing up and what brought you to photography and in particular, book making?
AC I’ve lived in Mexico since 1990 but before that I lived in Dominican Republic in a small industrial town were everybody worked for the sugar factory. Here in Mexico I´ve lived in another industrial town called Monterrey, which is just two hours south of the US-Texas border. I started in photography after 10 years in the service industry. I just didn´t want to work in hotels and restaurants anymore and started taking random photography workshops and I found something there that really got to me and so I quit and 12 years later here I am. Books became something important right at the beginning. I felt lost at first and photobooks made me see a way you can make photographs into these cohesive projects. At first I wasn´t doing or focusing on doing books but then a workshop with Paul Graham made understand how the book could be the work, the piece you work for. So that shifted things in my projects and made me see how the images are more like words and phrases that complied add up to something unique. Not storytelling per se but photography telling; beauty, contradictions, wholes, incomplete narratives, suggestions and gut.
DS Can you tell us about your bookmaking process? I know from our conversation today in talking about the next edition of Carpoolers, that this is evolving process.
AC Well yes it is always changing. It always start with the project, the idea. What is it that I want to suggest viewers read from these images and how can I combine design, pictures, typography, paper, sequence to approximate that notion and sometimes even imply a political stance on the subject matter. When I was in grad school, the process of doing a research thesis really made me think of process and how things accumulate to become something new. So I bring that to my bookmaking in that I am assuring the viewer that all parts of the book combine harmoniously to suggest and offer an understanding of the subject mater. Everything is backed up or is referenced and so the books feel complete and in dialogue with the history of photography, design ideas, the state of things in the world and with other photobooks and materials used in the past. I also try to bring in things that are alien to photography or the project itself, sometimes through design or through text. I feel that creates contrast and a self questioning of the object. It’s a bit of vulnerability that offers an edge the wholeness of the book.
DS What do you look for and consider when developing a new photobook?
AC I think the most important thing is that it should feel like the project works in that form (book). If the making the project into a book has no other meaning than just to publish a group of images and I can´t justify to myself why this sequence, size, set of the images and object make a bigger point than the images by themselves then I don´t pursue the possibility of the book. Sometimes it is in the sequencing stage or in the physical dummies were I realize that it´s not working, so I stop.
DS As a workshop leader for photobooks development, do you have advice for photographers thinking about creating a photobook?
AC Buy photobooks. Live with them and try to understand why that object exists. Try to crack down the decisions made to make it the way it is. Question everything you see. That process I think opens up possibilities and parallels to your work. Once you find those things you like and feel you understand, maybe it is time to think of your work as a book.
DS What are some of your proudest achievements?
AC Just being able to do a book. To create a wave in the way we citizens see the world that can counterbalance the main narratives coming from those in power.
DS What is some unexpected that we don’t know about you?
AC I´ve worked since I was 10. First selling oranges and grapefruit from my family’s orchard in DR. I then worked cleaning shit in pig dens when I was 12. I sold skateboards when I moved to Mexico. I sold clocks in a flea market for two years. I´ve worked as a construction worker, a gardener, waiter, hotel manager, and a restaurant manager and in McDonalds.
DS Any last thoughts as we close?
AC What a crazy year this has been.
DS Alejandro, thank you for this opportunity to discuss your interesting artistic practice.
Bio: Alejandro Cartagena, Mexican (b. 1977, Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic) lives and works in Monterrey, Mexico. His projects employ landscape and portraiture as a means to examine social, urban and environmental issues. Cartagena’s work has been exhibited internationally in more than 50 group and individual exhibitions in spaces including the the Fondation Cartier pour l’art contemporain in Paris and the CCCB in Barcelona, and his work is in the collections of several museums including the San Francisco MOMA, the Museum of Contemporary Photography in Chicago, the Portland Museum of Art, The West Collection, the Coppel collection, the FEMSA collection, Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, the George Eastman House and the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and among others.
Alejandro is a self-publisher and co-editor and has created several award winning titles including Santa Barbara Shame on US, Skinnerboox, 2017, A Guide to Infrastructure and Corruption, The velvet Cell, 2017, Rivers of Power, Newwer, 2016, Santa Barbara return Jobs to US, Skinnerboox, 2016, Headshots, Self-published, 2015, Before the War, Self-published, 2015, Carpoolers, Self-published with support of FONCA Grant, 2014, Suburbia Mexicana, Daylight/ Photolucida 2010. Some of his books are in the Yale University Library, the Tate Britain, and the 10×10 Photobooks book collections among others.
Cartagena has received several awards including the international Photolucida Critical Mass Book Award, the Street Photography Award in London Photo Festival, the Lente Latino Award in Chile, the Premio IILA-FotoGrafia Award in Rome and the Salon de la Fotografia of Fototeca de Nuevo Leon in Mexico among others. He has been named an International Discoveries of the FotoFest festival, a FOAM magazine TALENT and an Emerging photographer of PDN magazine. He has also been a finalist for the Aperture Portfolio Award and has been nominated for the Santa Fe Photography Prize, the Prix Pictet Prize, the Photoespaña Descubrimientos Award and the FOAM Paul Huff Award. His work has been published internationally in magazines and newspapers such as Newsweek, Nowness, Domus, the Financial Times, The New York Times, Le Monde, Stern, PDN, The New Yorker, and Wallpaper among others. He is represented by Patricia Conde gallery.