ANDRÉS SIERRA: THE PERFECTION OF IMPERFECTION
Updated: Jul 23, 2018
In the first of my series 'The People That Make A City', artist and photographer ANDRÉS SIERRA shares with us his aesthetic and explains why, despite a long career in fashion photography, he continues to see the truest forms of beauty in the people society often do not
Very few people would know that Andrés Sierra is a qualified psychologist by training since it isn't his certificates you will find gracing the walls of his home or workplace, #LaBodegaEstudio, but art. Andrés lives high above the Valley of Aburrá in a forest which he guards with same reverence as he does the rescued animals which scamper about there. Upon entering his grounds, you are sent into a panic attack from an assault of friendly dogs, chickens and hens whom all begin to fling themselves excitedly at you as your car makes its way towards the house. Passing through this remaining swathe of native Antioquian jungle is oddly like arriving at Colombia's paisa answer to the 7th Marquess of Bath's estate in England, and that is even before the obvious parallels in their predominant choice of nudes as home decor, and their mutual conflicts around having received an aristocratic childhood.
Upon arriving, I decide to skulk around his home studio, and begin familiarizing myself with Andrés's penchant for antique wooden legs and old family photographs. As I proceed to enter his home via a front door decorated with an unusual crucifix 'liberated' from a graveyard in Mexico, I find that my trousers are now painted with paw prints of varying sizes.
Inviting me in to his photography laboratory, in the centre of the room, my eye is drawn to a line of über-white benches-come-sinks. To my un-trained eye, the whole space instantly begins to take on the feel of somewhere like a morgue, but then this mortuary-like experience is further compounded by the heavy scent of formaldehyde - a smell I have come to associate with mice dissection. Another vast collection of vintage wooden legs fastened to one wall breaks this particular fantasy but simultaneously manages to maintain its former macabre quality. Andrés is already thumbing some of his aged curling photographs pinned to heavy drawing boards, and I find my eyes lost in a series of giant cabinets which house catalogues of secrets, negatives and bottles of goodness knows what. I never knew that photographers were actually specialist chemists of soul preservation.
As we begin our interview, from time to time, the lights flicker, and this gives the sense that there is something otherworldly and 'from-another-time' about not only Andrés, but also his body of work. A fan whirrs on and off periodically and it does so without any clear pattern, but I notice that Andrés neither hears, sees, or smells any of this; he has entered a kind of Ericksonian trance in which he not only hypnotizes others but also himself.
It all began with one photograph. As a twenty year old, Andrés used to go camping every weekend with his school friend, 'Chejo', and after a few weeks, he decided it might be nice to take photographs along the way. At first he borrowed a Kodak Instamatix, but then his paternal grandfather, John Sierra Rodríguez said to Andrés father, Darío Sierra Rodriguez "that boy has a good eye, so you better go and buy him a proper camera."
To develop the photographs taken with his new Pentax, Andrés used the professional laboratory of a local commercial photographer, and on one occasion, the owner saw one of Andrés's photographs peeking out from inside one of his notebooks. He was astounded. There was an image of a man fishing set to a palette of muted rusts and grey, and despite being a colombian photograph, it seemed anything but, for it permeated stillness, the ethereal and appeared almost oriental.
"This photo is by whom?" said the owner of the studio, transfixed.
"By me. I took it a week ago," Andrés recalls answering:
"Well - we need to make it larger and mount it properly because you're going to need to submit it for a competition."
When the judging panel of Colombian Salon of Photography got together, they unanimously decided the photo should be eliminated; they doubted it could have been taken in Colombia, let alone by a Colombian. "It was clearly bought by some foreigner traveling through China", the head judge had allegedly remarked. But then, a week or so later, another person came along and saw the photo and thought it could be taken by a Colombian after all. And so the judge said: "If it can be proven this photograph was taken by Andrés Sierra, by the providing of the original negative, then he has the first prize without question." And so that is exactly what transpired.
Winning the prize gave Andrés the impetus to pursue photography further, and from that moment on, despite graduating in psychology, he never looked back. Does there remain any of the psychologist in his work, I ask:
"A psychologist can be found not in his work, but in his life. Everything he has lived is in his work. In this way, yes, there is the psychologist in what I have created. But in addition, the truth is, I didn't have the... 'typical' childhood. My grandparents on each side were completely opposite from one another in many respects, each side with their enchanting aspects. And then, there is also the influence of past lives..."
I wonder, in his mentioning of past lives, whether he is referring to the ghosts of his photography pioneer ancestors, namely the brothers Rodríguez Marquez - Horacio Marino and Luis 'Melitón' - who worked at the dawn of the twentieth century. Andrés is not only great grandson to Luis 'Meliton' through his paternal grandmother, Mary, but also great great grandson to Horacio Marino through his paternal grandfather, John. The two brothers went into business together in Medellín, before Horacio Marino left to focus on architectural projects, leaving Luis Meliton to develop his photography and his art alone.
At this point, I must confess that I have long held the private fantasy that the spirit of Luis Melitón continues to possess Andrés - that his ghost takes the photos through him that were not possible either technically or ethically in his own lifetime. Luis Melitón, like Andrés, captured the lives of the inhabitants of this village-turned city: Medellín, by photographing the kinds of scenes society found shocking at the time, for example dissection classes at the medical school, soldiers going to the thousand day war, and paupers not considered by many to have been the kind of person worth capturing for eternity. Does Andrés himself feel conscious of this genealogical fact, though? Burdened by it, even?
"With respect to Melitón, I feel proud to be part of his family, and I identify with him because he worked in commercial projects, so do I, he worked for clients, so do I, but we both have a fascination with taking photos of humble people - of poor people. A lot of commercial photographers don't maintain a separate body of work outside of their business portfolio, but he did, as do I. Melitón would travel by mule with a super heavy camera to arrive Santa Fe de Antioquia or some small village in Sucre just take his photographs. He imported materials traveling by boat from Paris, a journey with its own risks, taking a month or more to bring a huge piece of glass to develop his photos upon... I feel proud to descend from him."
The renaissance of artisan photography
In his artistic work, Andrés favours an aesthetic heavily influenced by a primitive form of photograph called, after its inventor, the 'daguerreotype'. His modern interpretation of this technique necessitates the mixing of various chemicals including collodion, and these have to be imported from California amongst other faraway places. Some of the compounds involved have even fallen under the suspicion of the Colombian government's narcotics department because of, for example, sulphuric acid's possible utility in cocaine manufacture.
"When I was training, there was no 'digital' photography. In my artistic work, I've never used it. In my commercial work, I've used it. I love the laboratory. I've always had to import my materials from abroad; but it got complicated, because as laws have changed and the political situation has evolved, trying to get anything past Colombian customs has been a true catastrophe. When they open up a box to inspect the contents and find photographic film, for example, they render the entire batch completely unusable."
Many of the photographers who worked with similar techniques to the 'daguerreotype' died in their thirtys with goitres - a consequence of the toxicity of the substances they handled, and so I immediately find myself studying the neck of Andrés for any kind of similar disfigurement, only to find none. Given his passion for the curiosities of the way the body can become transformed through accident or illness, however, he would likely find any kind of lump upon himself a kind of beauty spot rather than anything unsightly. But it's not just Andrés who is interested in the original artisan photographic methods. Nowadays, other people are returning back to analogue photography, and ancestral techniques are experiencing a revival:
"It's like music; cassettes are coming back, vinyl too. It's the nostalgia to go back to the ecological, to our essences. Businesses are switching on to this, and are now making their chemicals less toxic, more environmentally friendly, and easier to work with."
Like his audience's reactions to his work, Andrés chooses to create his portraits in black and white. He tells me that there is a greater interpretation of reality required to view black and white images, and also that this palette preference allows you develop the photo with a safety lamp so that you can see what is going on "as opposed waiting six hours blind in the dark." His passion to be in the laboratory, rather than this just being a means-to-an-end, is a large part of his pleasure in the photographic process.
Subject Matter & The Ethical Dimension
Like his forefather Luis Melitón, Andrés faces another challenge apart from the difficulties of importing his materials from lands far away, namely the reactions of Medellín's largely traditional society to his work. At the time Luis Meliton was working, this relatively new, still mysterious and, at the time, ethically dubious craft was a potentially dangerous choice of career for a man who hailed from a family excommunicated from the Catholic Church for spiritist practices. Andrés too has faced a mixed reception to his artistic work - some are in awe whilst some claim disgust.
In a recent series, 'Refranes Colombianos' (Colombian Sayings), Andrés explores typical expressions used by Colombians, but in a bold and challenging way. My favourite of these is 'No es Santo de mi Devoción', perhaps best be translated as 'he's not my cup of tea'. In this photograph, Andrés chooses a man facially disfigured and scarred, and adorns him with a crown the likes of which you would typically find gracing the head of a statue of a church saint. Given that this man represents the kind of person often marginalized in Colombian society, his work here enters the political in its significance.
Following in his ancestor's footsteps, Andrés has photographed two polar opposite sectors of society; some of most in-demand models of the four three decades, but also some of Medellín's most socially excluded citizens. What Andrés really finds beautiful, it turns out, are the so-called 'imperfections': disfigurements, scars, and the aging of the body. In a recent work from his series 'Time', he photographs an elderly woman who has wire wound around her against a yardstick representing the years of time. She appears however strangely radiant, and serene. He likes taking nude portraits of his subjects, not because of any attempt to sexualize them, but rather to peel them back to their essence:
"Just because someone is photographed nude, it doesn't make it a sexual image. People see things through their own eyes, and sexuality is always in the mind of the person, not my photographs. If you go to a doctor, the first thing he will ask you to do is undress, " he explains. "I don't like to photograph people with cosmetic surgery or with tattoos, because they are aliens features to the body. I favours paupers as subjects for my portraits, because I find them less vain. These people do not conform to the absurd beauty standards of the rest of society. Humble people treat their bodies simply as the vehicles they were given, and they don't get caught up in portraying an idealized image of themselves."
I asked Andrés what would be his reaction to someone who described his work as an example of what Colombian art critics have named 'pornomiseria' ('misery-porn'). This is a 1970s term which arose out of film criticism in response to a growing feeling that some film directors were portraying certain Latin-American social problems without any consideration of the ethical dimension. "I have nothing to say to these people," he replies, earnestly. "They can say that if they want. I do not react to criticism, because it has nothing to do with the work. And I ignore 'it's good' as much as 'it's bad'. An opinion is... just an opinion. I am not asking my subjects to take drugs or do prostitution. They're drugged-up twenty-four hours a day. I'm just photographing and documenting how these people actually live."
Andrés mentions that photographer Sally Mann was often criticized for photographing his own children and for his unconventional methods in recruiting sitters for his work, so I ask him, does Andrés experience any moral conflicts when photographing the disadvantaged? "I've never had any ethical issues in my work," he shares, "but in this one project I nearly began recently, yes, there were issues. I originally wanted to raise awareness of child prostitution, to denounce it, but it just isn't legal to photograph underage prostitutes in Colombia, even though the city is full of them. I refuse to break the law."
The reaction from gallery owners has been mixed. Andrés sells to some private collectors, but many galleries are unsure as to which sort of clients would seek out this kind of work:
"If platanos are what sells, gallery owners want plantains. If you give them chontaduros, they don't know what to make of it," Andrés laughs. "Recently, a man wanted to buy my work for his house. We were signing the contract but then his wife, children and service maid saw the work. The maid threatened to quit her job if they bought the photograph in to the house for her to dust, and so his wife said, 'She's been working for us for twenty years, and I refuse to lose her over a photograph.' The man wanted to stay married, so... the sale never happened."
A triptych in search of an altar
In his most recent work, Andrés has interpreted the traditional religious altarpiece of Christian art, the triptych. I asked him how we should understand his paneled photograph 'The Last Supper', and he explains to me that this was the last in a series of works he created which focused on the theme of 'imperfection'. Traditionally Jesus is depicted as blonde haired and blue eyed, he explains to me, but in his own work, he made Jesus an amputee, and allowed space at the table for only eleven apostles (amongst whom Judas is also depicted as an amputee). He deliberately left blotches on the work, attached each third with a kind of bitten edged masking tape, and added watermarks, so that not only the characters were 'imperfect' in a scene typically highly idealized, but the technique appeared to be too. I found his work to a be a deep reflection on the meaning of The Christ, but I doubt The Church would agree. Then again, the tension and complexities in this work underpin the essence of what is it to be a Rodríguez in Medellín, whether in the 19th century, or the 21st.
Before I leave Andrés's home, he weighs me down with gifted platano comino - another kind of 'banana' an English girl has never ever heard of. He tells me to roast it with grated cheese, butter, and just a little cinnamon, before he commences improvising a cricket-choired concert of Erik Satie's 'Gnossienne' on his grand piano. The instrument is precariously suspended in a sort of mini loft apartment suspended between silvering yarumos, and how it keeps tune nobody would be able to explain. He plays terrifying well, but as he arrives at the last phrase, he unconsciously disembarks from the composer's vision and starts leaning on the keys so that it turns into distinctly Colombian and seductively dissonant something else, the perfection of imperfection.
♥ Andrés Sierra will be exhibiting his work as part of the 'Restrospectiva del Fotomuseo' from the 12th of June to the 8th of July, 2018 at the FUNDACIÓN GILBERTO ALZATE AVENDAÑO, Bogotá, Colombia Calle 10 # 3-42 http://www.fgaa.gov.co. His piece 'La Ultima Cena' (The Last Supper) will be exhibited at the GALERÍA EL MUSEO, Bogotá, Colombia Calle 81 # 11-41 from July 1st, 2018 http://www.galeriaelmuseo.com. His portfolio can be viewed at www.andressierra.com . For commercial projects, he can be contacted at La Bodega Estudio via www.labodegaestudio.com Medellín, Calle 12 # 30-36 Telephone (574) 448 71 61.
NEXT TIME: What happens when your dream home is your childhood home, and it's already been demolished? The People That Make A City No. 2...