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Decay and resilience in Latin America's mutant cities

This new exhibition is out to prove that Latin American photography is anything but static

Urbes Mutantes, or mutant cities, is a sinister, yet scintillating celebration of photographic movements across Latin America over the last 70 years. Now a major exhibition at New York’s International Center of Photography, it documents the socio-political turmoil in cities throughout Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru, and Venezuela, particularly between the 1950s and 1980s. Tackling the relative invisibility of Latin American photography and its general lack of recognition in the West, Urbes Mutantes offers a revised view of how the continent’s cities have been imagined: the differences, paradoxes and diversity between Latin American cultures.

“As the 20th century progressed, amidst struggles for social justice and in defense of democracy and freedom, the city became a setting for uprisings and revolutions,” says Guest Curator Alexis Fabry. “Images became as important as the stories covering the events that shaped these Latin American nations. In certain cases, politics and art were inseparable.”

Drawing on the gritty realism of street photography during times of political and social upheaval, Fabry has assembled one of the finest private collections of Latin American photography in the world, visiting countless bookstores and flea markets from Lima to Buenos Aires, and collaborating with people like Maria Wills, a Colombian museum curator. As a result, Urbes Mutantes includes work from seasoned masters such as Graciela Iturbide, as well as from lesser-known photographers such as Yolanda Andrade and Jesús Ruiz Durand.

The exhibiton also offers variations on art photography and photojournalism, suggesting a fertile depth of photographic history in the region. Abstract takes on architecture and urbanisation, along with the more cynical works that emerged in the 1990s, which questioned the region’s established myths tie history and landscape together. From the scattered beauty found in the postmodern city to the decline of modernist utopias, we find chaos and the constant struggle for urban identity. Urbes Mutantes traces this relationship through several conceptual areas, including the geometry of the modern city, identity and personal expression, nightlife, poverty, political activism and street culture. We see crumbling buildings, rebellious subcultures, and an unfamiliar snapshot of daily life: these images focus on street photography as a way to reclaim cities that no longer wish to be the cosmopolitan metropolis imposed by European models.

Instead of attempting to provide a comprehensive account of Latin America’s photographic traditions, the exhibition highlights alternative views of the region’s urban centers, bringing nuance to tired clichés and rigid stereotypes. City after city, we see both decay and resilience due to utopian reinvention and horrific neglect. It shows that modernisation and urbanisation aren’t necessarily the brilliant signs of progress they were once thought to be, and that Latin American photography is certainly not static.

Urbes Mutantes: Latin American Photography 1944–2013 until 7 September at the International Center of Photography.