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In a photograph, Anahi, the actress-singer who uses only one name and plays high school superstar Mia in the Mexican telenovela Rebelde, stares at the camera with an expression that looks severe and defiant but probably just reflects the tedium of in-between moments like this one. She's beside the flawlessly white hospital bed of Miguel (Alfonso Herrera), her father's onetime enemy, her sweetheart and her bandmate on the show. Because of the coma into which he has mysteriously fallen, literally toppling over midsentence in an earlier scene, he lies with head back and a clear oxygen tube looped under his nose. Shooting has not begun, so cast and crew bustle around the two stars, fidgeting with balloons and cake for Miguel's birthday party, throughout which he will remain unconscious.
Anahi is incandescent, as usual — something about the way light hits her layered, product-heavy blond hair and made-up skin really does make her glow. Though in this moment, when she looks the part of Mia but isn't actually playing it, you take her more seriously than you would seeing her on a TV screen, saying something like, "Miguel, baby, I have so many things to tell you" through tears that don't redden her face.
The photograph, called Cumpleaños (Birthday), belongs to artist Yvonne Venegas' series Inedito (Unpublished), which features in Venegas' second solo exhibition at Shoshana Wayne Gallery in Santa Monica. The series was unpublished for six years, finally appearing last October in a book that Venegas funded via a Kickstarter campaign and published under the RM imprint.
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The department, backed by Televisa, the Mexican media conglomerate and producer of Rebelde, had just started commissioning contemporary artists at that point, and Maillé had seen an earlier series by Venegas, The Most Beautiful Brides of Baja California, depicting upper-class Tijuana women, many of whom seemed highly conscious of their own carefully composed femininity.
His loose idea was to give the photographer unhindered access to the show's filming, with a photo book as the possible result.
"He knew there was something there. He wanted me to document the phenomenon," says the Mexico City–based Venegas, an alumna of UC San Diego's MFA program and the daughter of a well-known Tijuana wedding photographer.
She makes photographs with the intuitive precision of a good photojournalist, but intends them to be seen on their own, not framed by newspaper headlines or magazine captions.
She doesn't do much posing or editing, and maybe it's her photos' unproduced look that caused the Televisa Foundation to forgo a book — she recently heard certain higher-ups weren't convinced her images qualified as art — even though that look is a specific strategy. It interrupts the veneer that often surrounds her hyper-produced subjects: the brides; the regal Mrs. María Elvia de Hank, the wife of Tijuana's wealthy former mayor, whom Venegas shadowed for four years and describes as "a subject with a clear idea of how she wanted to be seen"; or the telenovela stars.
Rebelde, a remake of an Argentine series based on an Israeli show, focuses on a group of students at a boarding school called Elite Way, where, as the name suggests, most come from money and those on scholarship must either prove themselves worthy or be ostracized.
During the show's 2004-06 run, the six main characters formed a band, called RBD, which became a sensation beyond the show's frame. EMI Records signed RBD and they toured Europe and the United States, releasing two live albums in addition to their six studio ones.
"This blurring of fiction and reality happened," says Venegas, who photographed the cast both at Televisa's Mexico City soundstage and on a U.S. tour, where young fans dressed like Elite Way students sometimes would take photographs of her as she photographed them. Her identical twin sister, Julieta Venegas, had just released 2006 album Limón y Sal, which would sell 50,000 copies in the first two days after its debut, and people understandably mistook the photographer for the musician. So she became part of the identity blurring surrounding RBD.
"I'm interested in the situation, how the photographer becomes part of the situation," Venegas explains. "They had a dynamic that I could easily play into. There was always a distance, a respectful distance — if I didn't have a camera, my being there would have been absurd. But there was also a closeness."
She would go shopping with Christian Chavez, who plays Giovanni and whose hair color changes regularly, or sit with RBD members during downtime.
One image, Dulce en el Telefono, shows a droopy-eyed Dulce Maria, headstrong Roberta on the show, between shoots, wearing her school uniform — a white shirt with top buttons undone and a loose red tie — lying with her head nestled into the corner of a new-looking tan sofa; she has a pillow on her stomach and a black and yellow cellphone up to her ear. Another shows Dulce standing on a balcony poised to drop a book down on suited men while cameras in the foreground record her and a few monitors show a live black-and-white feed of her face and shoulders.
Occasionally, Venegas would photograph the industrial streets behind a Mexico City studio building or a hotel where RBD stayed while on tour, in an attempt to contrast the smoothness inside, which seemed almost ignorant of any other reality, with outside. "The view gives you an idea of class," she says. "There are so many expectations around the subject. People expect a photographer to see it in a certain way."
A photographer is expected to criticize when surrounded by the trappings of privilege. But that expectation is limiting and sometimes misguiding. Consider, for example, a 2006 image by photographer Spencer Platt, taken after an Israeli airstrike destroyed a Beirut neighborhood. Well-dressed young people drive through rubble in a gleaming red convertible, one woman taking photographs with her phone. Because of the stark contrast between them and their devastating surroundings, they were misidentified in print and conversation as affluent gawkers. In fact, they were looking for their home like everyone else.
Only a clear caption could have remedied this misread, which is the situation Venegas tries to avoid. Can't an image invite a nuanced reading without relying on written explanations that detail reality's complications?
No captions or essays appear in Venegas' book. The image on Inedito's cover also features in the exhibition and shows RBD members backstage in the concrete hallway of an arena. They look like the school kids they play on TV — young, slightly uncertain, distracted. The two security guards flanking them are noticeably bigger and their cosmetically enhanced, TV-star gleam seems dwarfed by the rest of the world.
"The subject is complicated and I hope it becomes more complicated," Venegas says, referring not just to Inedito but to her work in general. "What I mean is, I want more things to seem as though they don't make sense."
YVONNE VENEGAS: BORRANDO LA LINEA | Shoshana Wayne Gallery, 2525 Michigan Ave., #B1 | Through Aug. 23 | shoshanawayne.com