Yolanda Andrade

Dios es bisexual, Oaxaca, 1994

Street photography and cultural identity

Yolanda Andrade (b.1950) is a Mexican photographer and one of the most prominent figures in the artistic landscape of Latin America. After graduating from the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, New York, in 1977, Andrade developed a career as a street photographer, experimenting with both analogue and digital photography, gaining international recognition as one of the few artists capable to capture the identity of a specific city and culture.

An accomplished teacher of photography, Andrade has taught since 1992 at the Escuela de Fotografia Nacho López and Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City, as well as the Instituto Tecnológico of Monterrey, Mexico. Among other accolades, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts in 1994 as well as grants from the Mexican National Endowment for Culture and the Arts to fund her publications and projects in 1993, 1997, 2000 and 2003. Her work has appeared in more than ten photographic books, including Los velos transparenteslas transparencias veladas (1988) and Pasión mexicana / Mexican passion (2002).

Your work fits in the broad category of documentary photography, or as you prefer calling it, street photography. Can you tell me about how you started and what prompted you to photograph in the first place?

I started taking photographs at an early age. I enjoyed photographing my cousins with an old camera, which I was the only one to use. I remember that I went to the camera store to have the film developed and asked to have a new one installed. I started working when I was 15 years old, when as a gift to myself I bought a Kodak Retinette IA. It was a fine camera, manufactured in Germany, and you had to set the shutter speed, the lens opening and the distance. I learned the basics reading the instruction manual, and following what the film box said about the conditions of light: sunny, open shadow, shadow, etcetera. I started by capturing vacation shots and simple moments taken from my daily life. 

Afterwards, until 1973, my interest was to study theatre and movies. I attended an acting workshop for about three years. That was the year when my mother died and I had a series of changes in my life, which made me lose interest in what I thought was a vocation in theatre art. I needed to find a new interest related to the creative fields besides my daily job, so I turned my eyes again to photography. In the lab of a photo club in Mexico City I learned how to develop film and how to print in black and white, with the aid of photo magazines. In 1976 I decided that I wanted to make my passion a true profession, so I went to study photography at the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester, NY. It was at this institution that I got to meet the most important street photographers of the time, like Robert Frank, Walker Evans and Lee Friedlander, among others, whose photo books made a great impact in my later work as a street photographer.

Looking at an overview of your pictures there is a clear switch around the year 2000, in which you suddenly leave black and white analogue photography for digital and colour. Could you tell me what prompted this change in your practice and in what way it affected your work?

Switching to digital cameras and colour was going to happen sooner or later. I think that for some time I was reluctant to make the change, but with an invitation that Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer made to a group of photographers to make a digital book in one day, which meant to shoot the images, design the book and upload it to internet the same night, prompted me to buy my first digital camera. At first, it was a slow process because I had to learn a new technique, but after a while I became fascinated by the colours in my pictures and finding a new way of seeing. This was the beginning of a new phase for me; traveling abroad became more frequent and photographing other places besides Mexico City was a refreshing new start as a photographer. Walking the streets of new cities, discovering new surroundings made me feel as excited as when I printed my first black and white photograph in the darkroom.

Cebras Tijuana, 1998

Talking about your working process, it’s clear that you think in terms of series, every single picture is part of a broader thematic umbrella, in the attempt to tell a story or simply to convey the impression of a specific cultural phenomenon. Your passion for photo books is therefore explained: they allow you to deliver your work to the fullest. Thinking in these terms, when do you know when a work is finished?

I would like to add something to your previous question. My interest in photo books started when I was studying at the Visual Studies Workshop, where there was a whole library and research centre that allowed us to explore the best photo books in the history of photography. But to have a book of my photographs published was a complex issue. The new digital technology opened to me the opportunity to play, explore, design and publish small, limited edition photo books on digital press. This way of editing my own books allowed me to publish a second edition, gave me the freedom to change the sequence or decide to let out some photographs or add new ones. To answer your question, I think it’s hard to know when a work is finished, as you keep producing images from recent shootings or you rediscover some pictures from reviewing old work. 

In general, the medium of photography is the attempt to freeze time: how does this practice relate to memory, and the time passing in an ever-frenetic world that constantly changes?

Every image, at least in my work, is a fragment of a memory of what I’ve seen and experienced in my life. One single photograph, even in the fast passing of time we are dealing with in our contemporary world, contains several layers of information about what we remember, what we observe in the actual taking of a photograph, and what we add when we edit and process the image. These actions are actually like a blending of the past, present and future.

Guerrillera gay, CDMX, 1994

“What intrigues me more about photography is to freeze an instant in the flow of time, and turn it into an ever-lasting image.”

Relating to this, we talked about social media and the way we perceive images nowadays, consuming enormous amounts of visual information at a high speed. I am curious to know, how do you think this new fruition method impacts social work?

Artefacts like cell phones, with high quality cameras to take photographs, are evolving at a fast pace every moment, offering automatic programs that produce perfect and beautiful images at the hands of millions of people around the world. They are the equivalent of the first Kodak cameras made for the amateurs. Perhaps, in this case, the themes are the same as in the past: family shots, vacation, social gatherings, sunsets and outstanding landscapes, but far away from the work of photographers, who are dedicated to build a body of work.

“In my opinion, the over production of ‘good’ or ‘beautiful’ images by amateurs complicates the comprehension of photography by the general public, especially when they are exhibited in galleries or museums.”

In a previous interview, while describing the first years of your work and the photographs you took in Mexico City, you stated that:

Life in the streets of Mexico City is the common denominator of my photographs. What I propose is the presentation, from a personal viewpoint, of different aspects of Mexican culture: images of death, religious processions, political events, social life, street theatre, popular culture, sexual identity and the combat against AIDS. The sum of all these themes also constitutes a visual autobiography.

In what ways does your work constitute an autobiographical reflection? How do you combine the individual with the collective?

All my photographs reflect my interests, my ideas, my way of thinking, as well as my experiences and my personal history. All together they are a sort of autobiography where the personal and the collective come together, creating one single story. 


Photographs · Courtesy of Yolanda Andrade

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