Alejandro Cartagena, Suburban Bus

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2021 by The Velvet Cell (here). Open spine softcover with paper jacket and cardboard sleeve (16.3 x 24 cm), 352 pages, with 261 color reproductions. Includes an essay insert by Ximena Peredo. Design by Ricardo Nunes and the artist. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the unexpected societal transformations associated with the recent global pandemic has been the wholesale re-evaluation of work, including the range of jobs we are willing to do, the risks we are willing to take to do them, the alternate locations we can now do them from, and the pay we are willing to accept in exchange for our labor. In America, for those workers that have some leverage or the simply the desire to make a change, the past year has been a time of active job transition, where the options have been many and the needs of employers have been high, leading to a redefined balance between workers and businesses.

But for many blue collar workers in America and elsewhere, even with some pandemic-driven improvements in wages and working conditions, making a living is still a struggle. While more skilled workers have opted for remote work, many service and manufacturing jobs will always require in-person presence, and these are the jobs that are now suffering from high demand and low interest on the part of workers, at least until the parameters of work start to change in their favor.

Alejandro Cartagena’s Suburban Bus project (originally made in 2016) documents a time before the ravages of the pandemic upended the world economy, when it was common for people without masks to crowd on to buses to commute to work. For more than a decade, Cartagena himself used to commute every day on the public bus from the suburb of Juárez, on the eastern side of the larger metropolis of Monterrey, into the downtown area. He watched as the population in the suburbs exploded (the population in Juárez more than doubled between 2000 and 2005), and new developments sprung up farther and farther from the city to house the workers, putting even more pressure on the public transportation system. Years later, and now a well-established photographer, he returned to the bus to take a close look at the commuter experience and the changing rhythms of blue collar suburban life in Mexico.

For nearly two decades, Cartagena has been using photography (in various forms and with various subjects) to consider the social, urban, and environmental issues that run through contemporary Mexican life. His best known project internationally is likely Carpoolers, which took form as an excellent photobook in 2014 (reviewed here). In it, Cartagena looked down from a highway overpass at the pickup trucks headed off and returning to work each day, creating formally ordered images of their cargo of workers and material stowed in the beds. But his work stretches far beyond Carpoolers, with literally dozens of photobooks published either on his own or in conjunction with publishers from around the world.

Suburban Bus travels photographic terrain we have visited before – photographs made from inside cars and buses, photographs made from the outside looking in, photographs made of bus terminals and transit hubs, etc. – but Cartagena emphatically makes the subject matter his own by employing an inventive range of compositional strategies, which he then interleaves into one integrated visual flow.

Cartagena first locates his photographs in a specific chronological and geographical context. Suburban Bus temporally starts out before dawn, in the early hours of the morning, continues through the day (with the sun visible at various points in the sky), and eventually returns at night, as though traversing the cycle of one working day. It similarly travels the space from Juárez to Monterrey and back again, the landscapes (both suburban and urban) that surround the bus changing as the pages flip.

Within this framework, Cartagena employs a handful of different aesthetic strategies that focus in on different nuances of the commuting process, like projects within the larger project. He begins by peering out through the front window of the bus, the passengers emerging out of the wash of headlights and the interruption of the bus window. He then stands inside, in the center aisle, and looks down the spine of the bus at those standing and sitting as it fills up. In the morning hours, when it is still dark outside and the fluorescent lights inside are on, he notices mostly sleepers, with their heads nodding and their bodies slumped into the seats.

As the sun rises, Cartagena once again looks outside the bus, first seeing the sunrise and twilit skies of the morning, and then using the half pulled down window screen to veil and interrupt his views. Like a bored passenger, his eyes flit from inside to out, noticing the tumble of hair of a sleeping woman and then seeing the orange of the sunrise and the snarl of the traffic out the window. As the bus wends its way through the suburbs, Cartagena makes more images of the suburban landscape, including pictures of lonely passengers waiting on empty streets and rows and rows of cookie-cutter housing developments, some painted in pastel colors, and others shooting unfinished rebar into the sky. As the pages turn, more and more neighborhoods flow by, with school kids (and watchful parents) starting to join the bus parade.

And so the journey goes. The bus fills up, and Cartagena watches people coming up the aisle looking for seats, and then gets pulled deeper into the crush of bodies in the standing crowd, his camera looking over people’s heads down the filled aisle. Here again we feel the slow shifting of time, as Cartagena pairs images taken just seconds apart, documenting the subtle movements and rearrangements of the crowd. Then he notices people looking at their phones, reading newspapers, or protected by their headphones, and then turns upward to watch the extended fingers of riders who grasp the handrail or use the ceiling itself for steadying themselves. And then the crowd shifts again, his eyes alternately caught by an orange backpack, a green hat, and a man carrying a plastic bag with mysterious contents.

This wandering attention stream of consciousness mimics the feeling of being on a long boring bus ride with remarkable fidelity. Soon, Cartagena is looking out the window, seeing doubled views of other passengers in other buses, as well as the advertisements and billboards that seem to shout at him with their enticements. But soon, his eyes flit back to a red pony tail hanging over the back of a seat, some guys sleeping, and an orange haired woman with a sleeping child on her lap. The rhythm of in and out, back and forth, close and far is like the rumble of the bus, and our eyes follow his out to construction workers, food carts, and stray dogs, back in to hair ribbons, phone conversations, and women fixing their makeup, out again to more school kids, and back again to a weary looking blond woman who seems to have caught him snooping (and thereby breaking the unspoken code of no direct eye contact), giving him a withering death stare.

As the bus starts to enter Monterrey, Cartagena’s attention is drawn outside to the traffic, the passing buildings, and the swarm of commercial activity, some of it abstracted through the red bus doors. Soon the bus is enveloped in traffic, with dense clouds of pedestrians crossing the street and the sidewalks filled with the bustle of a new day. By the end of the book, the return cycle has already begun, with long lines waiting for the next bus home, within the gentle falling of darkness.

The design of Suburban Bus is unassuming and understated, a fitting match for the content. It is a thick volume, with hundreds of color photographs. The horizontal images lay across the spreads, while the vertical ones are paired two to a spread, with all of the images surrounded by the same white bordering. The short essay is found on a simple insert page, and the whole package is placed in a cardboard sleeve, the image on the sleeve taken moments before the one on the book’s cover, the jittering movement from one moment to the next providing a prelude of what comes inside.

As an integrated artistic package, Suburban Bus is deceivingly sophisticated and formally innovative. What at first glance looks like an endless stream of forgettable images taken in a bus becomes something far richer and more layered in Cartagena’s capable hands. Along the way, he sees the repetitions of daily rituals, the tiny details that make up individuals, the disruptive changes taking place in the geography of the suburbs, the anxieties of riders working long hours, and the moments of grace that can be found in the most mundane of circumstances, and he wraps all of those competing observations into one elongated progression, just like the dull bus trip itself. That sense of immediacy and presence is what’s most memorable here. From the unlikely vantage point of the bus, he’s sensitively shown us people, and the details of their everyday struggles, in ways that those who travel along, insulated from the inconvenience of public transit in their own cars, can never really understand.

Collector’s POV: Alejandro Cartagena is represented by Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles (here) and Etherton Gallery in Tuscon (here), among others. His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in physical prints. Cartagena has also been active in promoting NFTs of his work at Foundation (here).

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