In a bookstore in Mexico City, interdisciplinary artist Gonzalo Reyes Rodriguez found something unusual for sale: shots taken by an unknown young man between 1987 and 1993.
“There are over 200 of them that I found,” the Vancouver-based artist recalls over the phone. “What really got to me were a lot of the self-portraits… These are the kind of photographs that someone who maybe knows something about art would make.”
The photos offered a searingly intimate look into the life of a complete stranger. Rodriguez’s latest work, Technoir Archive, combines the found images with his own photographs to ask how images share and construct meaning.
“There’s one where he’s wearing a faded Madonna t-shirt, and I put that over a photograph of this Mexican blanket that’s like a female revolutionary soldier,” Rodriguez says, using Untitled (Madonna) as an example. “I thought those two went together because they’re doing something similar in terms of visual female empowerment, and in the portrait his hair’s growing—I think there’s something of a transformation happening in that as well.”
Many of the juxtapositions were based on intuition, or some kind of shared visual element. Some, though, really emphasized the connection between Rodriguez and the mysterious photographer.
“There are a lot of somewhat identical images that I took when I was younger. I was really interested in that phenomenon,” he explains. A series of photos of sleeping boys really hit that home. “I have five photos of that, from when I was 20. There’s something about that imagery repeating itself, because it was eerily very similar.”
Rodriguez spent a long time showing the photos to visitors to his studio before he started integrating them into his art. Part of the project includes video art, where his friends, journalist Adriana Gallardo and curator Diego de Valle Rios, puzzle through the found images.
At first, the pair were just describing the photos—“but then they sort of speculate as to what happened to this person or what his life was, or maybe how the photographs got to where they are,” he explains. The context of the photos, showing queer life in Mexico during the height of the AIDS crisis, is complicated. Gallardo and Rios “both get to these really larger social, political, cultural concerns from the time the photographs are taken, so it goes from really personal to really political.”
Earlier this year, Reyes won the prestigious Scotiabank New Generation Photographer Award for the collection, receiving $10,000 and exhibiting at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The exhibition, which runs until January 7, sees Reyes’ works displayed alongside pieces from fellow winners Wynne Neilly and Hannah Doucet.
While the other two are more classic examples of photographers, Rodriguez says the three artists’ work complement each other.
“In the making of the work, there’s a lot there,” he says. “There were similar concerns in making the work around photography: what is the role of photography right now that we’re all sort of photographers with our phones?”
Ultimately, he doesn’t have the answers. Similarly, he doesn’t have an answer to questions around the use of the unknown photographer’s work in his own project: it’s a question that the work itself explores.
“I’m trying to create a conversation,” Rodriguez says. “To me, that work is a work made by two photographers that are separated by time.”
If you can’t make it to Ottawa, Rodriguez says the work will be showing in Vancouver sometime next spring. He’s not done thinking about it, especially as its creative process was so different to his previous work—making it something he will continue to ruminate on.
“I don’t fully understand this either, myself, which is also really new,” he adds. “So I’m fully receptive to all the conversations that can come out of the questions that arise.”
Scotiabank New Generation Photography Award exhibition
When: Until January 7, 2024
Where: National Gallery of Canada, 380 Sussex Drive, Ottawa
Admission: $20, available here