Lúa Ribeira, Subida Al Cielo

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Dalpine (here). Hardcover, 27 x 21 cm, 212 pages, with 102 color photographs, with 4 page removable pullout. Includes an essay by Carlos Skliar and texts in Spanish/English. Design by Tipode Office. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Lúa Ribeira’s Subida al Cielo initially presents itself as one lengthy series. The book sequences her recent work into spreads of one or two pictures each. They’re interspersed with centered page numbers for a drumbeat rhythm, but Ribeira is not a by-the-numbers photographer. The Spaniard’s primary visual focus is people, and her portraiture provides the book’s leading notes. They’re broken up periodically with social landscapes, which offer glimpses of surrounding geographies and built environments. Whether aiming at rocks or humans, Ribeira imbues her frames with an uneasy mood.

The book’s photographs carry on for 180 pages, in a similar size and aspect (all landscape format, with one exception). They pass routinely, and it isn’t until the end that deeper complications arise. Here, in a detailed rear caption index, we learn that Subida al Cielo is actually comprised of five separate projects. Not only do they have unique titles, dates, and intentions. Perhaps most confoundingly, they are shot in different countries. 

With this knowledge in hand, another pass through the book comes across differently. The page numbers gain importance, since are they are the only way to mark project divisions. They pace invisible chapter breaks. Meanwhile, similarities between photos begin to fade, and differences grow prominent. How is it that we mistook such distinct locales for one place? What is it that binds all these strange characters and situations? As Subida al Cielo gradually reveals, their collective identity is more than the sum of its parts.

The title project sets the tone as the first chapter in the book. Subida al Cielo (Ascent Into Heaven) was shot in 2017-8 in Ribeira’s adopted home city of Bristol, UK. The city’s parks served as verdant stages for an assortment of experimental portraiture, featuring unusual makeup, gesture, and expression. One woman kneels below undergrowth. Another stares off camera with smeared mascara. They typify a disconcerting mood, which soon blends seamlessly into the next chapter, Las Visiones (The Visions). Ribeira shot the series in 2019, during Holy Week in Andalusia, Spain. The photos begins with masked and mystical figures before transitioning to well-groomed families and scrublands. There are odd rituals afoot but the details are murky.  

Las Visiones makes a brief run, capped with a formal painting of a well dressed family. It’s a natural segue to the third project, Aristócratas (Aristocrats). This is the longest series in the book and also the oldest, dating back to 2016. It features Ribeira’s pictures of institutionalized women in her native Galicia. The project name refers to a quote from Diane Arbus who also made institutional portraits (collected in the series Untitled reviewed here). “They’ve already passed their test in life,” said Arbus famously. “They’re aristocrats.” Ribeira treats her subjects with patrician deference, and they use the space to daydream idly. As in Las Visiones, something seems off, but we can’t tell just how or what it is.

Ribeira hopped across the globe for the next series, La Jungla (The Jungle), shot in Tijuana during the late Trump years of wall-based rhetoric. This series began initially as a short-term Magnum assignment (she joined the group as a nominee in 2018) before evolving into a multi-year study of life at the international border. Patchy fields abound, and grimy men hover in the periphery. They’re a natural precursor to the book’s final series Los Afortunados (The Fortunate Ones), set on the Morocco/Spain boundary in 2019. This series examines the daily lives of prospective young migrants, through awkwardly displaced stagings.

Tying these five disparate projects together into a cohesive whole is quite a trick, and some connective tissue is required. One of the book’s core threads is the theme of marginalization. This is an obvious centerpiece in the two border series, La Jungla and Los Afortunados, which take place physically along international boundaries. But it lurks below the surface in the other series as well. Institutionalized subjects are cast off into society’s margins. Young park dwellers in Bristol hover on the fringes of the city and its cultural norms. Holy Week’s rituals assume a mood of uneasy conformity. Edgy insecurities sometimes manifest in overtly jilted frames, as for example in a distant shipping container on an angled horizon.

Ribeira’s interest in marginalized cultures is rooted in her Galician heritage. Galicia may be part of sovereign Spain today, but historically it’s an autonomous region with its own nationality, language, and traditions. Even its geographic location is externalized, a far northwest finger of the Iberian peninsula. These ostracizing distinctions came to a head especially under Franco’s regime, and the after effects still reverberate for Ribeira’s generation (she was born in 1986). “There was this sense of shame” she says on the Magnum site, “about the accent, the place you came from. There was the fact that your parents grew up in this context of repression. It’s very engrained…And that inevitably means that I am always looking through that lens — looking at how power works and how it affects certain people and communities.”

Ribeira’s outsider sensibility helps to explain another running motif. She typically captures portrait subjects in vulnerable or compromised situations. At various points in the book this manifests in prone postures, retreat, disguise, and/or disturbed expressions. However the discomfiture comes across, it portrays humans in an uneasy balance with their surroundings. The book is rife with lawn-strewn men and women, such as an older gentleman reclining in a Bristol Park. He might have been plucked from Holy Week, or else an institution. At other points, humans embrace or support one another. Moroccan boys lift a limp soulmate, “Aristocrats” nestle at a friend’s bedside, a mother holds her child above the fray. All appear worn down, as if the simple burden of existence has grown too heavy. Perhaps they are planning their own private subida al cielo?

A removable pullout provides something of a cheat sheet into Ribeira’s thinking.  It’s a four panel gatefold containing many small reference images. The spread shows paintings, photos, film stills, sketches, and notes. Many depict bodies or statues in recline, archetypical precursors to Ribeira’s photographs. One picture documents a car accident. Another captures scarred forearms (echoed in a photograph of battered shins). Most are inked sketches, rudimentary impressions circulating in Ribeira’s subconscious as she photographed.  “You can take a documentary image of how we look here,” she explains on the Magnum site, “but then there are the myths we use to shape our lives. They are equally real.”

If there’s a subtext of political activism in Ribeira’s photos, the book’s structure leaves it understated. “The work comes from a political motivation and it’s only later on that it turns into something more fragile, more connected to deeper questions and uncertainties,” Ribeira explained in a recent interview. Indeed, it’s this fragility and uncertainty which characterize her work. But the message is filtered, and Subida al Cielo is closer to dream state than polemic. 

Setting all these connective threads aside, the true test of any photobook is in the image making. Ribeira is a talented photographer, and these are powerful images. They inform and delight. They have variety, intelligence, and voice. And they are consistently unusual enough to make the reader wonder. All of these facets helped Subida al Cielo get shortlisted for a Paris Photo / Aperture book prize last November, a few months after publication. It’s been out for several months now, and on the verge of slipping off the book world radar. Before we get too far into 2024, the time is right to circle back and give this some attention.

Collector’s POV: Lúa Ribeira is represented by Magnum Photos (here). Ribeira’s work has little secondary market history, so Magnum or gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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