Harvey Stein, Mexico between life and death
American photographer Harvey Stein’s fascination with Mexico began when he was a teenager. Compared to the mundane surroundings of his youth in Pittsburgh, Mexico seemed a mysterious and ambiguous place that was nearby, yet so far away. As a child, Stein was haunted by the notion of death and that someday he would no longer exist. He discovered by reading books about Mexico that the Mexican people viewed death as a natural part of life that should be celebrated. This made Mexico very comforting and special to him.
When he became a professional photographer, Stein knew that his photography was the perfect way to immerse himself in Mexico – to partake in ceremonies, meet the people, and express his interest and love of the country. During fourteen trips between 1993 and 2010, Stein photographed in Mexico, primarily in small towns and villages and mostly during festivals (Day of the Dead, Easter, Independence Day) that highlight the country’s unique relationship to death, myth, ritual and religion.
Stein’s powerful images reveal a country of incredible contrasts and contradictions – piercing light and deep shadow, stillness and quick explosiveness, massive tradition and creeping progress, and great religious belief but with corruption as a way of life. It is a land of ritual and legend, of vibrant life and dancing skeletons, and where old age is revered despite the fact half of the population is under 20 years old. These images, published in a book in September 2018 and an expression of Stein’s intimate relationship with the people and culture of Mexico, are now on view in an exhibition at Leica Store in New York.
The images show fragments of what Mexico is – a country of incredible contrasts and contradictions. Mexico is about piercing light and deep shadow, of stillness and quick explosiveness, of massive tradition and creeping progress, of great religious belief but with corruption as a way of life. It is a land of ritual and legend, of vibrant life and dancing skeletons, and where old age is revered despite the fact half of the population is under 20 years old. In “Mexico Between Life and Death” Stein explores these unsettling disparities.
Stein’s black and white prints, with rich blacks and strong contrasts, are moody, gritty, and evocative in the quest to capture life lived raw, open and on the edge. Throughout the series, he shows symbols of death – skeletons, skulls, guns, crosses, and cemeteries – that heighten the urgency of existence. Stein purposely seeks out traditional rather than modern environments in which to photograph.
The book’s publication date ((Kehrer Verlag, September 16, 2018) marked Independence Day in Mexico which is celebrated each year. It is the Mexican holiday to celebrate the “cry of independence” (Grito de Delores) which took place on September 16, 1810 and which launched Mexico’s revolt against the Spaniards.
While Stein has always lived in the U.S., his emotional life and mind have been oriented toward Mexico for most of his life, and that relationship continues to this day. He explains: “The images reflect my personal, passionate and intimate feelings about Mexico. So if the images are dark, intense, not all so lovely, so be it. It is only one person’s vision. As Eugene Smith, probably the greatest photojournalist of the 20th century, once said of photographing Pittsburgh, ‘it’s only a rumor of the place.'”