UP CLOSE AND IMPERSONAL
July 4-August 4, 2014
Common Ground Gallery
102 Kelly Street
Silver City, NM 88061
By Otto Khera
Avelino Maestas is a media artist of our time. He is a photographer, writer, professional political advisor, social media expert, and a 'boots on the ground' advocate in building civic engagement, improving the community, and protecting the environment.
Those who know him know that he is aware of his world and committed to essentials. Says Maestas about himself, "In my youth I played the trombone, and it was as a musician ... But people change, and I'm happy to be in a place and time where I can express myself so freely. I've made jewelry, dabbled in woodworking, and work closely with my partner Meredith to create handmade books." Adding, "I'm very fortunate to have found someone who cultivates a similar sense of creative exploration."
He also has a rare gift as a media and image curator who portrays the vast frontier of our frail humanity with its gentle, radiant, and essentially beautiful core juxtaposed against the harsh backdrop of technology and modernity. A native of Silver City, New Mexico who now lives in historic Charles Village of Baltimore, Maryland, Avelino Maestas' photography exhibit Up Close and Impersonal captures a sense of lonely despair and exhaustion, while merging the poetry of daily life and the hope that humanity will prevail as peaceful and caring beings.
Says Maestas about Baltimore and Silver City, "When I first moved to Baltimore in 2009, we lived in a neighborhood called Hampden, and there were plenty of similarities. Hampden has a main drag, very similar to Silver City, which we call "The Avenue." ... There's a vibrant arts community and incredible food -- including a place that serves pretty authentic New Mexico food ....there's a very real mingling of communities, of the more traditional, blue collar types and the young hipsters and artists and makers. Hampden very much reminds me of my hometown."
Both Silver City and Baltimore are also places of deep intensity and contradictions, and represent the gritty edges of American life. Silver City is the birthplace of Billy the Kid and the actual location for the seminal 1930s film Salt of the Earth and the brutal realities of mining and unions. Today it is an eccentric rural town and a very real cultural outpost of the Wild West with not-so-distant echoes of Geronimo and the Apache Wars still audible if you listen hard enough. Silver City plows forward in the New Millennium within a tough and sparsely populated Southwestern border region known as No Country for Old Men, rife with Border Patrols, drug dealers, first-generation Americans from across the border, and authentic rancher-cowboys.
On the urban extreme, Baltimore is one of the most segregated and simultaneously one of the most aspiring and enlightened cities in America with a strong commitment to human rights and an unparalleled reverence to Kennedy's Camelot idealism evidenced by a picture of JFK on many a night table or displayed somewhere else in the average Baltimore home. It is no accident that Baltimore is the location of such gritty television shows as The Wire and The Corner – both interconnected 'true' stories about addiction and the sad and painful plight of many low-income families, especially African Americans in urban America.
Up Close and Impersonal is about the rail commuters traveling from Baltimore and other nearby East Coast cities and towns to our nation's capital – terminating at the spectacular DC Union Station - a mere 40 miles from Baltimore and where Maestas leads his career in politics, government and civic engagement. Like the distantly quaint and picturesque Town of Silver City that can mask the harsh realities found sometimes behind the walls of houses, mobile homes, and trailers, and that often defy any sense of the vast and elegant beauty of the Gila Wilderness that lies tens of miles away; Baltimore is an American anomaly with a provincial culture within an idyllic, Edward-Hopper-like-painted city masterpiece, complete with a deeply troubled center of self loathing and abuse and with few clues to its proximity to the world's most powerful and majestic capital.
It is in the travel corridors and public commuter spaces between Baltimore and our nation's capital that Maestas' images flourish and exalt a lifetime of meaningful engagement with our reality. The images reveal the poignant secrets of beauty that surround us every day, captured as timeless images of the tireless human odyssey associated with, of all things, the universally unpopular daily commute to work and the weary return home again.
For those familiar with Avelino's photography and art going back to his formative years in Silver City, you will recognize the dichotomies between nature's grace and the sheer burdens of tolerance and of living together with all of our shared imperfections and flaws. You will also be enveloped with a strong sense of inspiration and hope and tranquility. You will again find strength in living through this collection of daily life commuter images – like Avelino Maestas' placid nature shots of Southwestern New Mexico and beyond.
It is no secret that Americans are lonely. Going back to the 1950s and David Riesman et al's book The Lonely Crowd, to today when over 40% of American adults self report that they are lonely – we are indeed a lonely society. Much of this loneliness comes from our own self-imposed alienation from each other, separated by cars and buildings and walls. Yet there is a public space that exists that harkens back to our first foray into post-WWII modernity, for those today with the strength to openly engage themselves and others, such as rail commuters sharing their daily commute with one another.
Contemplates Maestas, "Commuting can be a lonely endeavor, and I've come to consider my own loneliness during these daily train rides. I sit in the same seat and tend to take the same trains every morning and night. This presents a certain familiarity: I see the same faces, over and over -- the same conductors, the same scenery, etc. Our forced closeness contributes to that familiarity. At the same time, though I might recognize many of my fellow riders, I don't know any of them. Yet I've taken hundreds of pictures of different people, and never of the same person twice."
It is precisely this nascent space and shared time that Avelino Maestas masterfully captures in this profound and world-class exhibit that we are fortunate to be able to view here in Silver City. Naming each black-and-white commuter image by number – Commuter #22 or Commuter #4 or Commuter #54 and so on – we know that the artist has no personal or social connections to the subjects. Each image represents those authentic moments when we are at once exhausted and yet relieved to be part of humanity and our society.
"The most-asked question I receive about this series is 'Do they know you're taking their picture?' says Maestas. "To the best of my knowledge, 'no' — and I wouldn't want them to. There are plenty of street photographers who interact with their subjects ... In my mind that changes the equation of the photograph, especially in regard to the pseudo community [associated with commuting]."
Like our own daily life journeys and struggles that are filled with impersonal coexistence with others, we may sometimes feel an intense meaninglessness to life. Although in the journey's wake, we may also be surprised at our own sense of liberation from our personal loneliness.
"In the end we are a kind of community: how many of us in 2014, especially in an urban area like Baltimore, actually know our neighbors? There is a fragile camaraderie on the MARC train, which we could build upon should we choose, but instead we maintain our distance. It is a strange phenomenon," concludes Maestas.
This series also touches on two new and unique, technology-related phenomena – the shift in digital photography and the consequential changes in privacy.
Says Maestas, "This series, while a fresh experience to me, is really nothing new — Walker Evans was taking surreptitious photos of New Yorkers on the subway in the 1930s. The modern twist, of course, is that the vast majority of my photos were shot with an iPhone."
He goes on to say, "There's a concept in photography called the decisive moment, where a photographer combines her skill and knowledge at just the right time to capture an incredible picture. In this modern age, does the photographer have to recognize that decisive moment anymore? The digital sensor in my phone is far superior to the one from my first digital SLR, and we continue to improve them," points out Maestas, and posing the question, "Will we reach a point where tiny, high-definition video sensors are embedded everywhere, and every scene of our lives will be captured from multiple angles, to be stored digitally in perpetuity?"
"Finally, what would happen to our privacy? We're already in a world of diminished privacy: ...What will it mean to step out in the world where digital eyes are everywhere?" asks Maestas.
Whatever the future may hold, Up Close and Impersonal will move you to reconsider the context of our shared human odyssey and who we are. The candid images of daily life in this very distinctive, important context of commuting, and the diversity of people and faces reveals something beyond words – reaffirming the hackneyed saying "a picture paints a thousand words."
Perhaps it is that 'misery loves company.' More likely it is that we see our own selves in the variety of candid human images of this exhibit and can contemplate and open up to our own existence as humans who are all too vulnerable and lonely. Whatever our own circumstances and the universal burdens of modern life and our own good fortunes of family, friends, and community; Up Close and Impersonal speaks to many of us.
Otto Khera is a resident of Silver City, New Mexico and Los Angeles, California where he is a senior manager at the University of Southern California’s (USC) Center for Scholarly Technology. His primary responsibilities are in assessment and evaluation of major instructional technologies including the learning management system electronic platform, and he leads new media technology initiatives. He is also a researcher with the Annenberg Innovation Lab of USC where he focuses on critical engagement of public spaces, personal mobility and alternative transportation (non single-occupancy vehicle travel, especially the bicycle and public transit), and the role of mobile communications, location-based media, and mapping. Before joining USC, Khera was director of media services at WNMU (1998-2001), and he co-founded (1996) and was managing editor of the Desert Exposure monthly arts and entertainment newspaper (1996-99).