Photography: Isabel Muñoz

from Focus, Jan-Feb.2006

Isabel Muñoz's fifteen-year retrospective in the underground gallery in Madrid's Plaza de Colon this past autumn could make you believe she knows how photograph the human body like the idea of photographing the human body had never occurred to anyone until she came along. Of course, a claim like that comes with a catch: not just any old human body need apply. But the line forms here if your qualifications include physical perfection, the ability to fly through the air or contort yourself into geometric shapes that would have baffled M.C.Escher.  

So her subjects are bodies that have been intensively shaped and disciplined. Dancers (from the National Ballet of Cuba and Spain's Victor Ullate company), folk dancers (flamenco, tango, belly and Asian), circus acrobats, honest-to-God Shaolin monks, or anyone with proportions and musculature that would turn a Greek statue green with envy. In her quest for the somatic singularities she wanted to find new ways of expressing, Muñoz did a Leni Reifenstahl and headed for Africa, where she found it among the Surma people of  Ethiopia and on the Ivory Coast. The pictures she brought back from Africa are some of the most impressive in a career portfolio already packed with images that will bear looking at for a long time to come.

Odd there should be no nudes (which is good nudes, I guess). She does allow herself a couple of clever but harmless visual double entendres, an undertaking possibly trickier than conveying sensuality or raw sex. There is also no background (in other words, no context) for her bodies, just the warm and fuzzy grayscale of the large platinum prints she so expertly prints herself.

That's just one part of the show, the major part, a retrospective view of the work that  Isabel Muñoz made her reputation with. Since then, she has ventured into new pictorial and empathic territory, the brothels of Cambodia where children are enslaved and abused. Her photographic language changes because the photographer's function obviously has to change in a situation like that.

What do we see in those children's haunted faces? Were you expecting  windows into their tormented, violated souls? Or to put it another way, would a viewer react to these photographs in the same way if they were not captioned?

I think probably not, and to see the difference, check out Born in Brothels the compilation by Zana Briski of photos taken not just of, but by children  born, raised and condemned to spend their lives as prostitutes in Calcutta's city-within-a-city red-light district. Everything that can possibly be said about the subject is in those pictures (including the children's ability to maintain laughter and hope). Does it matter that Briski’s brutalized children are in Calcutta, and Muñoz’s in Cambodia? It shouldn’t -- unless you think photographers should divvy up the world's misery and cruelty into parcels of turf, where Sebastiao Salgado gets dibs on Sao Paulo street children, and so on.

Is that just another way of saying that if you've seen one serially raped, violated, brutalized, permanently damaged Asian child, you've seen them all? This is going to get me in trouble, but actually, yes, you have. Unless the image somehow impacts in a new way, it is in a sense superfluous, no matter how valuable it may be as documentation. And Muñoz is much too good with a camera to settle for that.

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