JTF (just the facts): Self published in 2014. Cardboard covers, 112 pages, with 110 color photographs. Includes fold outs, half cut pages, a newspaper insert, stickers, and an essay by Jessica S. McDonald. The photographs were made in 2011 and 2012. (Spread shots below.)
Comments/Context: At first glance, the subject of Alejandro Cartagena’s fabulous new photobook could hardly be more unlikely or mundane. His book chronicles the dull daily commute of construction and landscape workers as they travel the highways of Monterrey, Mexico, riding in the back of contractor pickup trucks on cold mornings, on their way to far away work sites. These kinds of crew trucks can be seen anywhere and everywhere (not just in Mexico), becoming almost invisible in their relentless get-the-job-done ubiquity. They don’t seem particularly promising as the raw material for a photography project.
But in Cartagena’s hands, the dusty chaos of these battered trucks is given elegant order, each one transformed from a vehicle into a frame, the rectangular bed of the truck becoming a kind of bounded canvas on which his narratives and compositions are arranged. Looking down from a freeway overpass, Cartagena snapped his pictures as the trucks rumbled by underneath him, each image a frozen moment in an otherwise boring trip. Like Rodchenko’s vertiginous upward and downward angles, perspective is what matters here, and Cartagena’s straight look down is an unexpectedly innovative application of rigorous visual thinking.
While Cartagena’s strictly composed images (always full truck, tightly cropped, and squared off) have typically been shown in grids and typologies in gallery settings, in book form, the trucks whizz by with each fleeting page flip, creating repetitive rhythmic momentum and I’ve-seen-that-one-before serial recognition. Inside the confined space of the bed, life goes on – workers rest, sleep, wait, and huddle together, surrounded by ladders and buckets, wheelbarrows and hard hats, tools and lunchboxes, each bed a still life of spatial relationships. But there is something absolutely elemental about the way Cartagena has documented these forms. Sleeping bodies (all on their backs) and clusters of seated men form tight groups, covered in blankets and tarps, like mummies in a newly discovered Egyptian burial tomb. Boxed, tires, gas cans, and other equipment add circles, squares, and triangles to the compositions, the striated lines of the underlying bed itself and various outsized planks creating textural stripes. Each bed is a visual puzzle, each man on his phone, each rumpled quilt, each paint can, each shovel handle carefully and crisply oriented inside this controlled area.
Cartagena has broken up the monotony of endless truck views with additional images that connect us to the experience of the riders. Cloudless blue skies flash by, momentarily interrupted by billboards, wires, road signs, and the occasional helicopter, all seen as though we were on our backs in the truck beds looking up. When the truck passes under a bridge or overpass, the view turns into a pulsating geometric blur, with girders and concrete rushing by with an inaudible hum. There’s even a fold-out Spanish-language newspaper, complete with a pin up girl and help wanted classifieds to help us pass the time; the article about a deadly car crash reminds us that these illegal trips aren’t without their perils.
This is the kind of photographic project where the conceptual structure drives everything; that first “looking down” inspiration led to all the other supporting ideas which make the book/body of work more complete. That structure allows Cartagena to draw us into deeper questions about migrant labor practices, the hardships, sacrifices, and tensions of this kind of work, and the inequality of the workers and their customers, all within the confines of a pared down but surprisingly nuanced artistic framework – he gets at all kinds of subtle social realities, but he does so indirectly. To me, this is the mark of smart photographic thinking; Cartagena took the humble pickup truck bed and turned it into a complex symbol for a hidden set of issues worth exposing and exploring further. Carpoolers is a deceptively powerful photobook, so well constructed that we’re suddenly eager to see more of something we had previously ignored.
Collector’s POV: Alejandro Cartagena is represented by Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.
At first glance this work could be curtly dismissed as terribly out-dated and too simplistic, both in examining a social subject in such a distanced way and in the seemingly rigid, locked-down aesthetic, but in reality it’s glorious and a thrilling body of work. I was a bit nervous when I started reading the review not knowing what the verdict would be. Phew! Nice one.