It’s not every day you stumble upon photography that combines visual interest, social righteousness, and empathy for its subjects. But Alejandro Cartagena’s work, now on display at the Art Museum of the Americas in an exhibit called the “Small Guide to Homeownership,” exudes each of those things.
Cartagena, based in the northern Mexican city of Monterrey, chronicles the country’s rapidly advancing suburban sprawl and explores how it affects the country’s residents. As the exhibit puts it, Cartagena examines “the interdependence of humans and landscape in the face of urban expansion.”
The exhibit features two related series of images. In one, Cartagena follows in the footsteps of Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and others in making documentary photographs of newly constructed housing as it’s carved into the empty landscape.
The homes he finds occupy the uneasy space between minimalism and decrepitude. They’re simple boxes that, in isolation, could have become iconic examples of modernist architecture. But there are so many of them, and with so little individuality, that it’s easy to be overwhelmed by their tackiness, particularly in contrast to the spare beauty of the surrounding landscape. The only hint of whimsy he finds is the choice of exterior paint, which comes in hues of avocado, maize and wheat.
The second series is even more impressive. Cartagena photographs day laborers being transported in the rear of pickup trucks on long a highway near Monterrey. The photographs are all taken from directly above the bed of the pickup truck, and they are cropped in near-identical fashion – a repetition that only serves to emphasize the wide array of “cargo” being carried.
Some payloads are all tools and construction equipment, but more often, they consist of laborers. Some are by themselves, others in pairs, and still others are crammed together so tightly that they’re touching. Some are awake and some are asleep; some know the camera’s there, while others are entirely oblivious.
In each image, though, Cartagena offers a poignant slice of blue-collar life in Mexican suburbia, a portrayal that is at once gritty and humane.
Through Oct. 5 at the Art Museum of the Americas, 201 18th St, NW, Washington, D.C.