Nirvana Paz, The Court

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Gato Negro Ediciones (here). Softcover, 96 pages, with 96 black and white Risograph reproductions. There are no texts or essays included. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: By its very definition, street photography takes up residence on city sidewalks and takes note of life as it passes by. For some photographers, the cramped quarters of the streets create the opportunity for unexpected juxtapositions and serendipitous spatial alignments, while for others, the streets offer countless layered vignettes and social eccentricities, each fleeting overlooked moment notable when observed with such intense attention.

One classic subgenre of street photography is what we might call the passing (or stolen) portrait. In it, the photographer captures a pedestrian as he or she moves directly across his or her field of vision, freezing the person either in profile or perhaps looking back at the photographer if he or she has been noticed. Harry Callahan made some of the best examples of this particular kind of picture, his urban heads (across his career) alternately seen with strict precision and vibrant energy. But of course, many others have made memorable passing portraits in cities from Chicago and New York to London and Tokyo and back, showing us the personalities of individuals and the subtle cultural details of entire societies in the process.

Nirvana Paz’ new photobook The Court is a worthy addition to this long standing photographic tradition. Taken in front of a nondescript stone wall outside the Supreme Court of Justice in Mexico City, her pictures document the continuous flow of people going in and out of the courthouse. And while we might reasonably expect that we could predict what such a series might look like (given that the images were made from a relatively fixed position), she has executed her photographs with a surprising degree of richness and heft, finding human interest and aesthetic complexity in the diversity of a population in transit.

Paz’ choice of the Risograph printing process for her photobook is inspired – its rough photocopy nature matches the texture of her pictures perfectly. The tactile middle grey tonalities of the dark wall and the passing pedestrians are enhanced by the way the ink loosely lays on the paper, and the gritty surface echoes the everyday realities found in the images. This is especially true for the mottled details of wrinkled skin, draped fabric, and hair, where the photographs edge toward the look and feel of meticulous charcoal drawings. As the pages turn, the images create a continuous frieze-like effect, each face and body carved into soft relief.

Paz takes a pleasingly democratic approach to her subjects, pointing her camera at a broad cross section of court goers. She captures women and men, young and old, families and groups, and countless solitary walkers, each given momentary isolation against the dark stone edifice. We soon tune into the minute details of what is carried, from backpacks and umbrellas to boxes and handbags, a bicycle or a roll of tape tossed in the air adding a splash of unexpected motion. As we look more closely, a fur, a mobile phone, a baseball hat, a suit, a whistle, a ponytail, or a pair of sunglasses quietly becomes the key to a personality.

Paz seems particularly aware of small gestures. An arm draped over a shoulder, a turn to respond as if called, running, carrying a crying child, holding a hand to the mouth to amplify a shout – each is isolated and investigated, at once both universal and intensely individual. The same can be said for facial expressions. Paz’ pictures document the extremes of curiosity and wariness, scowls and resignation, boredom and deliberate avoidance. It is here that she shows us ourselves, and the commonality of our experience, imagined life narratives coalescing for each and every passerby.

The Court is a superlative example of a single subject photobook that goes beyond the hackneyed idea of a taxonomy. Its simple framework hasn’t constrained Paz’ ability to discover human subtlety or to explore compositional improvisation. Instead, she has memorably recorded the textures of Mexican city life, freezing the passing of strangers for just an instant so we can appreciate the tiny details that make us who we are.

Collector’s POV: Nirvana Paz does not appear to have gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely followup via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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