Enrique Vera was born in Peru—a place people travel thousands of miles to photograph—but took up his camera in response to life in Northeast México, a land of national parks, rugged mountains that in satellite views resemble orbital images of Mars, and scenic landscapes that he sees as perhaps only someone raised elsewhere can see. Like the American West, his land offers endless vistas, like the black mountains seen from even higher ground in “La Popa” and “El Patosi,” where the ranges are visually separated by ribbons of white clouds. The cracked, desolate desert soil on which nothing but a paradoxical seashell appears in “Labertinos” sets the stage for romantic ruins like “Hacienda del Muerto (House of Death),” crumbling adobe walls pierced by the setting sun, and surprising bits of geology or topography like “Chipinque,” a forest shrouded in mist, or the petrified sand dunes of “Dunas de Yeso.”
In theory, we look at each work of art individually; a bad painting by a famous painter is still a bad painting, while quality can stand in isolation. In reality, though, reputation and the aura of greatness are the original resumé, and a familiar body of work is like the knowledge-over-time that makes an old friend dependable. Enrique Vera, a young artist who shows both innate talent and dedication, is thereby doubly promising. Yet a small, carping voice in the critic’s head reminds us that in the coming years the trails he loves to hike and cycle could lead him somewhere besides the gallery. This is particularly an issue with photography, an art—if it really is an art—currently facing challenges none has ever faced before. The digital camera and its accompanying avalanche of software have made it possible not only for anyone to take a credible photo, but to carry a camera virtually every minute of one’s life: to make photography, in effect, a full-time avocation in which traditional knowledge and skills are supplied by machines. Any one artist notwithstanding, where does that leave the entire medium?
In more practical terms, the kind of photographic documentary of the visible world seen here achieved a kind of apotheosis in work like that of Gary Winograd, Diane Arbus, and Lee Friedlander, and is now suffering from feeling exhausted. Today’s photographers, figures like Jeff Wall and Gregory Crewdson, are more likely to fabricate their own subjects to photograph. Responsibility has shifted in a subtle way, from the choice of what to shoot at to something more comprehensive, like what artists in more traditional media were expected to do: imagine and create. All the same, commercial art galleries, the shelves of libraries, and the walls of museums can be seen to argue that there is nothing new that can’t be turned into a fad, but that we will never grow tired of looking at the world together. For those who agree, Enrique Vera offers a unique way of seeing a part of the world that, despite its relative accessibility, remains largely unknown, and that, whatever the future holds for it, will always be available to our eyes just as he found it.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.