Home     About     Contact     

La Vida: Photography and Time at the Center

Thoughts sparked by: RETURN TO CENTRO HISTORICO: A Mexican Jew Looks for His Roots by Ilan Stavans (Rutgers University Press, 2012) –

‘Ilanchik, what do you think?’

In his photographic memoir, Return to Centro Historico, Ilan Stavans begins with direct address. His father has unexpectedly e-mailed him a photograph of the Angel de la Independencia, the sculpture that sits at the top of a column at the center of the Paseo de la Reforma roundabout in Mexico City. The height of the statue, placed 118 feet above the column’s base, makes it difficult to discern its details in any way other than through the close-up lens of photography.

‘Did you know it was a girl? A bronze girl, half-naked?’

The father asks his son for his opinion.That opinion expands centripetally to become this book, an inquiry into self and place through text and images. Stavans writes ‘. . . it might be useful to explain the role photography plays in my parents’ lives. Every memory I have, no matter how old. . . is emphasized by the fact that although I probably have not seen it, there’s a photograph connected to it. That’s because they are always taking photographs. My father justifies it by pointing to my mother’s compulsive behavior. My mother responds by saying that photographs are life: la vida.‘

I side with Stavan’s mother, especially when la vida is a composite — as it is always is, and as it is here: a juxtaposition of family, self and history. The phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard writes, ‘The cosmos, in some way, has a touch of narcissism. The world wants to see itself.’ I would add: We want to see ourselves. We are our own cosmos, made up of images of the people and places of our lives, the individual images linking up to make constellations, our own Orions and Archers.

For Stavans, the Centro Historico — literally those Mexico City blocks that stretch in a grid from the Zocalo to the Plaza Alameda — is the self at the center of his inquiry: who is he when he looks at himself and at the history in which he was placed? His book would implicitly reply that he is a constellation made up of his time, of his own history, of broader histories and identities, an Ashkenazi Jew by birth, a Mexican by adoption, an immigrant several times removed, an intellectual by training and predilection, a confused human being because his Europeanized upbringing paradoxically makes him mestizo but in a way different from that word as it is understood in Mexico, where it refers to the mix of indigenous and Hispanic. Instead I am using it here to refer to the Eastern European Jewish tradition that confers on him the virtue of confusion, mixed with an attitude that is is both Talmudic and Mexican in which the problematic is not a problem to be solved but a way of life.

Carlos Monsavais, the chronicler of twentieth century Mexico writes: ‘The Centre . . . is the storeroom of premature and posthumous nostalgia.” Which version of nostalgia is Stavans?’ Neither. Stavans’ Centre is familiar, resolutely bourgeois, this photograph reminding me of weddings in my own family. I recognize that flower girl on the far left with her puffed  sleeves; she reminds me of myself. I know these poses, almost symmetrical as though to say, We are here, a world order all by ourselves, flanking the goddess, She of the Spreading Train, the groom somewhere else, eclipsed. In this country, there is no nostalgia; there is only the pride of the tribe’s survival wherever the tribe has wandered. 

The diasporic tribe elides with the layered city in Klezmerson, a music group that combines the Jewish tradition with Latin American and contemporary influences, ranging from rock, norteno, MiniMoogs, Klezmer clarinet and, in their 2008 composition, Klezmerol, the urban sounds of Mexico City.

Klezmerol, by Klezmerson, 2008

In the 2006 book, The Historic Centre of Mexico CIty, a photo and text collaboration between artist Francis Alÿs, a Belgian who is a longtime residence of Mexico’s Centro Historico, and Carlos Monsivais, the Centre is the same place traversed by Stavans, but Monsivais also means something beyond territory: ‘ . . . the unparalleled synthesis of what Mexico meant: the build-up of periods in history and contradictory situations. . .’

The Angel of the Independencia standing high above the Reforma is celebratory; even though she dangles a broken chain in one hand to symbolize Mexico freeing herself from Europe, she is nonetheless a European image from a time when Mexico City looked to Paris, the Paseo de Reforma following Haussman’s model of a diagonal grand boulevard, a design that removed inconvenient people in the name of progress and exiled them to the periphery. Charles Baudelaire lamented the destruction of the medieval city: ‘ . . . old/ neighbourhoods turn to allegory/ and memories weigh more than stone.’

That heaviness of memory has its own particular Latin American manifestation in its writers whom Carlos Fuentes, quoting Pablo Neruda, characterized as going ‘around dragging a heavy body, the body of his people, of his past, of his national history. We have to assimilate the enormous weight of our past so we will not forget what gives us life.’ But the Angel of Independencia on the Reforma looks forward; she is not the Angel of History who looks backward to the past. That Angel lives with both feet on the ground, embodied in the words and images of writers and artists. Alÿs’ images speak to the heaviness of memory, that ‘enormous weight of our past:’ a woman with a rope slung across her back, pulling a stack of bins as though they were a sled; a bag of wrapped styrofoam drooping like lungs in the crook of a tree.

While writing this essay, I’ve been thinking about the recently deceased Carlos Fuentes, specifically of a piece of his entitled ‘Central and Eccentric Writing,’ that had a huge impact on me when I first encountered it back in 1974; ‘ . . . thus we live in Pascal’s awesome circle, where the center is nowhere and the circumference everywhere. But if we are all marginal, then we are all central.‘ In Fuentes’ expansive vision, there are no longer centers and peripheries, or rather there are to the extent that the marginal cultures offer an antidote to the hegemony of the central cultures. But the need for a counter to the central canon is only temporary: ‘Thus literature does make eccentrics of us all.’

He goes on to characterize the literature he is referring to as one ‘not of linear progression but of circles and simultaneities.’ This last reminds me of Stavans’ mother who, her son tells us, arranged the photographs in her home ‘in non-chronological order. . . they seem to suggest . . . that in la vida things are not sequential but concurrent.‘ That sense of concurrence, of simultaneities and co-existences, strikes me as the quintessential truth of Mexico’s contribution to modernity. Stavans writes, ‘. . .modernity in Mexico comes as a result of superimposition. . . everything . . . is built upon layers.’ He quotes Octavio Paz (here in my translation); ‘Places are confluences/ flickering presences/ in the space of a moment . . .” In a further gloss on time, he quotes the Spanish Golden Age poet Francisco de Quevedo (in Edith Grossman’s translation): ‘In my today, tomorrow, yesterday/ I join swaddling and shroud, and have become/present successions of the same dead man.‘

‘Flickering presences’ . . . ‘present successions’ — What are these poetic images if not an evocation of the moments of photography, layered too in and through time? And who is ‘the same dead man’ if not the self in time? Stavans writes, ‘The issue of death has repeatedly emerged along this journey . . . Yes, the pictures in a family album or . . . {a} photographic archive are a pantheon where bodies are forever kept intact. . . . Photographs are like cemeteries: defying, maybe outwitting, history.’

I disagree. Photographs revive the dead, like spontaneous apparitions that may or may not be real — images that hover above a field perhaps in rural Mexico or Italy — but nonetheless annunciate a miracle to the one who sees them.

These apparitions are how I see Mexico in my own photographic work, as here in this layering of a bust displayed in a store window, with the street, its garbage can and car coexisting with the child’s head in a single moment, a simultaneity achieved not by superimposition but by reflection. I love reflection in all the rich senses of that word. For me, the heaviness of Alÿs‘ bag coexists with these sacks in my photograph, opaque in the back of a truck but at the same time made diaphanous by reflection and light, its several interpenetrating layers causing some viewers to ask for clarification: What is it exactly? But the intentional unknowability of the image defies the question by refusing to be pinned down to any one thing. Mexico has become my way of seeing.

At the end of a chapter entitled, “I Am A Rooster,‘ there is another direct address from his father.

‘Ilanchik, remember the children’s story “The Rooster Prince,” about an insane prince who is convinced he’s a rooster?’

In the parable, going back to an eighteenth century Hasidic rabbi, the prince eats grain and will say only cock-a-doodle-do. How is the prince convinced that he is not a rooster? By a teacher who also eats grain, and says only cock-a-doodle-do, thereby winning the prince’s trust and eventually convincing him that he is, in fact, not a rooster but a prince.

The father says, Here you are, my dear son.’

Here indeed, the author at five years old, wearing a costume made up of feathered pants and a paper hood that is supposed to be of some kind of fowl. I am a rooster; the rooster of the costumed child; of the tale from Bratslav in the Austro-Hungarian Empire (the Ukraine, really); a story that has emigrated with the emigrants; the rooster of Mexico City where the child stands and where roosters usher in each day, where he does not know if he is rooster or prince and which is the imposter, the later a word Stavans frequently summons to convey his disquietude with identity,

I am a rooster: therefore I am. I am a photograph, therefore I am.

Stavans asks, ‘Is this how I really looked once?‘ But looking at images of oneself is a tricky matter. In my experience we often don’t see what we expect — the evidence of what was — but instead evidence of how we may have got it wrong, how memory is not a door to walk through but rather a wall, an obstruction against which photography pushes. Certainly that rooster is a strange construct, both imaginary and real, that doesn’t reveal but instead masks the child. Recently I had occasion to look back at a cache of my family’s photographs. Until that moment, I had thought of myself as having been a melancholy child; instead I saw pictures of a happy little girl. Which image of myself is right? I give credence to the photographic ones en masse because they have thrown me back in time, able to walk like the man in the story Le Passe-Muraille through the wall of memory to see, if not exactly the truth, then a more finely grained version of my life. The happinesses of childhood have been spread out before me in their particulars, leading to personal revelation and then to a broader re-visioning.

The resulting revisions are to me comparable to new wirings in the brain, evidence of the plasticity of our relationship to photographs. New patterns are not immediately identifiable; to discern them, we need time to recognize them, to assemble our meta-constellations, the centro historico in which photography is an integral part: a mingling, a meeting, a patterning of evidence (visual and otherwise), of memory, fact and interpretation, image and counterimage, self and other.

‘Seeing is a direct need,’ Bachelard writes. The question is whose need prevails: the questioning father; the intellectual son that is Stavans; the memoir writer that is me. We all revivify; we are all Dr. Frankensteins. But what manner of being will it be, this creature we awaken with our questioning words and images?

Bachelard continues: ‘I would add that I believe that there are images which have integrative powers that enable us to incorporate them into our psyches.’ What images will serve that function, go so deep in us that they are no longer separate visual records outside ourselves, but rather an integral part of our bodies and minds? A window and a street; a rod and a staff; our eyes and our lenses; these accompany us on the walk through our lives, searching for those images in our own historic centers.



  1. As I read Janet’s provocative thought’s on carefully considered photography – hers and others – I wondered what the role is of the uncountable numbers of pictures people take today with phones,digital cameras, computers, Ipads, and numerous other ubiquitous devices, Photographs were once composed; now they have become the ultimate disposable. Maybe these topics will surface in Janet’s next essay as her series progresses.

  2. Having just returned from a brief trip back to my home town of Cartagena, with it’s own amazing historic center–full of childhood memories for me — I love how you write about the problematic as a way of life, and images as constellations…the relationship between the marginal and the central cultures, concurrence, reflection..indeed all things we grapple with in la vida. I am excited by all of it and look forward to more!

  3. Janet, I re read La Vida…. Thank you very very much. Full of substance. Somehow my first reading left me foggy; I guess the simultaneity of topics. On second reading I stay with the apparitions, and the simultaneity of life and reflections under the same glance. The key is not so much as to how we perceive reality (as my son writes in his latest novel) but how you respond to it. So on that note I totally subscribe to “the problematic is not a problem to be solved but a way of life”. Far most trust worthy than dogmas and relying on faith. Of course the reference to the Angel took me to look back also at W Benjamin and his take on the Angel of History (Klee’s Angelus Novus), present, past, future and what progress is and where might be!…

    Thank you , thank you. I need this reflecting pools you give us…gracias siempre y mil

  4. Selma Holo says:

    Janet, dear Janet,
    I am so moved by your having imagined yourself a melancholy child and then: the photographs! A laughing happy girl you were. I, took ( take) strength and nourishment from my own dreams of a preternatural sadness hovering about me and informing me as a girl. And, lingering now. Still, I suspect (especially after reading your essay) that this wasn’t the case — and sort of don’t want to know.

    Perhaps I will have the courage to look into those old albums filled with a family already almost half gone. But, not yet. Not for a while.

    Thanks for writing this gorgeous piece

  5. Re: “La Vida: Photography and Time at the Center” A very moving, well conceived essay. The multi-media layers suit the mutilple intelligences of (the writer) and I’d love to see the essays accumulate into an on-line book.

    I’m thinking too, in the discussion of the use of “self-nostalgia”–of a kind of puddle or pool of associations, or what Joseph Cornell called “conglomerant” of material. It’s the voice of subjectivity that holds on to the objective and historic past ( “Yes, this is me in the third grade with the plaid jumper the day Kennedy was shot.” )

    Thank you and I look forward to the next work–

Speak Your Mind


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.