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Lessons from a Master Cinematographer: Delight and Identity

Published on
April 20



A barrage of undeniably beautiful images is not hard to come by in New York City, I just stroll through the European paintings at the Met. Yet the experience of spatially separate, static beauty evokes one kind of reaction, and a montage of moving images provokes quite another. I had a sensory experience at El Museo del Barrio that I had not had in a while. I lost myself in a luxuriant reverie at Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa - Art and Film, an exhibit that honors the masterful cinematographer that helped define Mexican visual style. Best of all, though the material can now be found online, it was something I couldn’t have experienced from my computer screen.



Before you walk into rooms full of explanations and context, you are submerged in a chamber of pure visual delight. Montages of Figueroa’s most breathtaking clips are projected onto five walls while a musical score plays. The images seem related, sometimes in synch or repeated, perhaps a few seconds in delay, and they transported me on a journey with no sure destination but a deep sense of knowing that seeing more of the world means something. As I switched my attention from screen to screen, walked closer or farther, my sense of time and space was destabilized. The sequence of clips were edited in a way that anticipated what my eyes would desire: if in one screen I would see a woman walking in the mountains, another screen would show a close-up of her face, another might show her in the future or in a different angle. Sometimes the clips would contrast one another emotionally or in composition; or a clip of a natural phenomenon would nourish the interpretation of a scene between humans. I remember reading about the intention to reach these outcomes in the writings of filmmakers like Sergei Eisenstein as they theorized what the relationship between camera and audience should be but had never experienced them until now. It was otherworldly. I stayed entranced for a long time.



Through experiencing Figueroa’s work, I finally understood the nostalgia for black and white films, silent films, and the use of film stock itself (as opposed to digital recording which is now becoming the norm). The tangible nature of a filmstrip makes it clear that cinema is a sequence of photographs. It follows that each frame is treated as an independent photograph that should aspire to reach the poetic excellence of great photography. That was certainly Figueroa’s ethos. The museum included examples of frame enlargement to emphasize the meticulous quality of Figueroa’s frames. Black and white film made his use of lights and shadows more legible. Though Figueroa did not make silent films, the curators presented his work primarily without sound, which allowed us to pay closer attention to the images. The changes in film technology have broadened the possible creative choices but as new standards are made, the previous sensibilities wither to oblivion; we lose the special glimpses down those corridors and only through exhibits like this one can we experience them again.



The choice to highlight this particular cinematographer goes beyond cultivating art with a political importance and media critique relevant to El Museo's goals. Gabriel Figueroa’s work created and shared his image of Mexico and Mexicans with a life and world as deep as anyone else’s. This is important in the context of mid-twentieth century American cinema that reduced most representation of Mexico or Mexicans (or any Other) to trite stereotypes. His work attests to the importance of national cinemas to combat the impact of American media on identity and perception of a nationality (even globally). His films do contain the often caricatured impenetrable cowboys, the tormented widows, the earnest workers, among others that reaffirm the stereotypes, but in the fullness of their context they are noble representations of what exists. 



I long to encounter more films that present a lingering meditation on beauty aroused by meticulous attention to each frame. I hope that somehow this exhibit is a drop in the ocean that forms some needed ripples. Under the Mexican Sky: Gabriel Figueroa - Art and Film is on view at El Museo del Barrio until June 27, 2015. Admission is $9 for the general public,and free with a student CUID and semester validation sticker through the Passport to Museums program. You should go see this exhibit if you appreciate beauty; you must go see this exhibit if you are ever involved in making images, particularly moving images. There is a lot to learn from this master.


In case you miss the exhibit or wish to study it further, it also exists as a website: