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Perfect Documents: Mexican Pop Groups & High Society at the Border

Authentic and artificial. Even though these qualities seem mutually exclusive, they coexist in places whose primary function is to entertain, mesmerize, and titillate. Places like Disneyland and Las Vegas exist to fool those who venture into them, functioning as escapes from the real world. Historically, Tijuana has been such a place, a city whose essential function is to serve as a bridge between the real and the fictional -- a city where the authentic and the artificial not only coexist, but also become confused in a haze of desire and vice.

Photographer and Tijuana native Yvonne Venegas captures this tension between reality and fiction in all its ambiguous glory. Her practice, which is as tied to studio portraiture as it is to documentary and even street photography is a search for authenticity, at times in the most inauthentic and/or artificial of places.

Unlike most documentary series that focus on marginalized and disenfranchised communities, Venegas looks to capture cultural and social elite to reveal what dwells behind facades of charisma, power, and prestige. The series "Maria Elvia de Hank" captures the carefully manicured self-presentation of Tijuana's high society as a way of researching the performance of social and cultural ideals. Intimate scenes of weddings, personal menageries, and other notoriously exclusive upper-crust events are moments in which the city's elite stage and perform the "best" version of themselves -- a version that inhabits a territory more surreal than the city itself. In her work, Venegas captures the moments when the veil drops, exposing moments of exhaustion, confusion, and boredom.

La Guera y Nirvana, 2006 | Photo: Yvonne Venegas.
La Guera y Nirvana, 2006 | Photo: Yvonne Venegas.

This process of deconstructing very carefully constructed identities, at once recording and peeling back the different layers of self-representation, grew out of an earlier series "Inedito" -- a behind the scenes study of "Rebelde", the Mexican soap opera turned Pop Band (RBD). Both "Inedito" and "Maria Elvia de Hank" reveal moments in which individuals who depend socially and financially on performing social/cultural ideals, forget to perform. The authentic peeks through in these lapses of self-fashioning, and Venegas captures the result.

Yvonne Venegas grew up in the city of Tijuana, where her father worked as a professional studio portraitist, an influence that would resurface in many of her own projects. For years, Venegas sought to create a unique aesthetic, but it was only after returning to Tijuana from studying photography in New York that she began to develop a unique visual language born from a holistic creative process. The process begins with an extensive collaboration with her subjects to create a true-to-life portrait. This representation is not constructed from a singular perspective but from the multiple facets of those subjects and the many dimensions of the environments they inhabit. The aesthetic of the photographs, the sometimes awkwardly cropped figures, the asymmetrical composition and the candid posture of the subjects contend with the legacy of street photography. The combination of styles, equal parts Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, Ben Shahn and Weegee are integrated through an intuitive process of editing to compose the language Venegas uses to voice her belief that authenticity is not always perfect, that in fact "anything authentic can't be perfect."

It would be hard to find an environment more artificial than the television studios of Televisa, the Mexican multimedia production company, the largest in Latin America, where the Mexican telenovela (soap opera) "Rebelde" was filmed. Rebelde, in English literally "Rebellious" or "Unruly," followed the trials and tribulations of a group of teenagers attending Elite Way private high school in Mexico City, where they create the pop group RBD. The show became a national and international sensation, aided by the fact that the fictional band from the show (a "sexy", preppier, and tanner version of "The Partridge Family") was also touring off camera. For 6 months, Venegas was given access to the sets and dressing rooms of the studios and stages where the stars of the show rehearsed and performed. Venegas was interested in capturing the moments between takes, between rehearsals, moments where the pressure to perform was lifted, if only briefly. In one of these images, Cumpleanios (birthday), a protagonist is captured between takes, not as an actress but as an individual, as a human body inhabiting an artificial landscape. The image is a candid portrait of an actor who is not acting, a lived moment that lies somewhere between fiction and reality.

Cumpleaños (birthday), 2006 | Photo: Yvonne Venegas.
Cumpleaños (birthday), 2006 | Photo: Yvonne Venegas.

Venegas explains that this "intersection between fiction and reality was the secret formula that created the phenomenon sometimes known as 'rebeldemania', where fans went to the RBD concerts not only to listen to their favorite band, but also to participate by dressing in the uniform of the Elite Way School, from the telenovela." This idolization and the media spectacle surrounding the actors became an important subject in the series. The photograph Disney captures the media machine that reproduces the roles the actors must play both on and off camera on a visit to Disneyland (very appropriate).

Disney, 2006 | Photo: Yvonne Venegas.
Disney, 2006 | Photo: Yvonne Venegas.

What Venegas captures in her series "Inedito" are the breaks and fissures in this idealized fiction, and the authentic moments oozing uncomfortably from between the cracks.

In the series "Maria Elvia de Hank," Venegas continued to explore the themes of identity, self-representation and cultural and social ideals by focusing on the influential and notorious Hank family, a rich and politically powerful family from the city of Tijuana. The project took Venegas to the mega-complex and mansion of Maria Elvia de Hank and her husband Jorge Hank Rhon, the former Mayor of Tijuana and businessman/gambling mogul, to document Mexican high society at the border. The images reveal the pageantry and moving parts that conspire to construct images of social propriety, prestige and power in Tijuana. After establishing a close relationship with Maria Elvia, Venegas had access to the Hank family compound and to social functions taking place at the family's home.

For several months, Venegas photographed the expansive border estate, which includes the family mansion, a horse ranch and also a private zoo. Like in the images from "Inedito," Venegas captures individuals in momentary lapses from their carefully guarded self-presentation, where accidents undermine the desire for perfection. Photographs like Bolsa (bag) document moments were accidental intrusions into the field of view ruin an ideal picture.

In the series, photographs of children are especially poignant, presenting examples of both children living up to the expectation of their growing social role, as well as being visibly crushed by the pressure of those expectations.

The authenticity Venegas seeks in both of these projects is the honesty and humanity inherent to individuals, regardless of their social class or cultural roles. On the one hand, Venegas work is a generous in depicting those who are often dehumanized by their roles as idols and symbols, as ordinary individuals subject to flaws. These Mexican pop stars and members of North Mexican high society however, construct their identity based on ideals, and ultimately profit from it. Venegas' practice is poignant precisely because it captures this tension so well. It doesn't just seek to depict the glitzy surface, or the "truth" that lies behind it, but rather the meeting point, the intersection, the clash between the artificial and the authentic. The result is an ambiguous document that speaks to the way identity is created, regulated, monitored, and reproduced. What becomes clear is that those identities are imperfect; that they break down and, in the process, reveals the authentic self once again.

Could this be true for the city of Tijuana as well? Is the city most authentic when it recognizes the flaws in fictional ideals that have determined how the city is represented? Imperfection can truly be enlightening.

The photographs from the series "Inedito" will be published--after six years of being in storage because of a lack of funds--later this year, thanks to a recently successful Kickstarter campaign.

Editorial RM published the series Maria Elvia de Hank in 2010.

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