The Visitor, Walking 1000 Miles Through Mexico’s Cities – A Conversation between the Poet Walt Curtis and the Photographer Larry Cwik
Mexico is an enchanting country, with a dignified and magical landscape. Larry Cwik has made dozens of visits to such Mexican cities as Aguascalientes, Campeche, Chihuahua, Chetumal, Ciudad Juárez, Ciudad Obregón, Cuernavaca, Culiacán, Durango, Ensenada, Guadalajara, Guaymas, Hermosillo, La Paz, León, Los Mochis, Mérida, Mexicali, Mexico City, Morelia, Monterrey, Oaxaca, Puebla, Puerto Escondido, Querétaro, Saltillo, San Luis Potosí, Santa Rosalía, Tampico, Tijuana, Toluca,Torreón, Tuxtla Gutiérrez, Veracruz, Xilitla, Zacatecas, and Zihuatanejo, to take unobtrusive photographs, of subtle scenes, in the splendid light. For the last 31 years, his has been a persistent, sincere, annual pilgrimage. Often during the winter, often traveling by bus within Mexico. The photographs Cwik has amassed are neither sensational, nor hyped-up tourist shots. Each contains mysterious emanations. They hint at something happening or going on.
I am fond of Mexico and the Mexican people. In the conversation with Cwik below, a mutual sharing of travel experience soon became a focused discussion on the creative process. Cwik spoke of shadows and silence, of working at a subconscious level, where patterns emerge and things happen. Above all, we both observed from our travels the spirituality inherent in the place and its people. I believe the work felicitously conveys to the viewer the “spirit” that’s there.
Walt Curtis: Larry, your trips to Mexico have been more recent than mine, though I don’t think there have been big changes necessarily. How long do you stay? What are you looking for?
Larry Cwik: Normally about a week to ten days each trip, for a total of about six months so far to date, if you add up all of the trips over the years. I walk 15 or 20 miles in a day while there, resting in the middle of the day. I try to go a different direction each time. On streets I haven’t been on. . I think when you are in a new place you totally absorb everything. I’ve probably walked about 1000 miles through Mexican cities to date since I started this project.
Walt Curtis: Where do you cross the border? Crossing the border is a theme in my book Mala Noche. Mexicans speak about “el otro lado.” How different things are . . on the other side. There is the thrill of the unknown.
Larry Cwik: I’ve entered by land from San Diego/Tijuana, Nogales, Arizona, El Paso and McAllen, Texas, and flown in on more recent trips. It’s always a culture shock, completely. It takes me about a day to adjust.
Walt Curtis: It’s almost mind-boggling what you feel. Isn’t it? I’m curious . . Has the North American Free Trade Agreement changed things? At this stage in Mexican history, I hope the imagery of consumerism hasn’t overwhelmed the culture.
Larry Cwik: Not as much as here. The way the Mexican people go about displaying things, how they live, and the way things look . . intrigues me. Shop windows there have a more individualistic/artistic flair. For someone like me, from outside the culture, it’s a little alien, like another world. Still the people are great – very warm, and helpful.
Walt Curtis: Talk about this long-term project, please. It’s been going on for decades. What are you seeking?
Larry Cwik: I’ve been photographing in Mexico as a visitor since 1983. The project was begun to capture my impressions of the wonder of Mexico. It is a surreal place to me. Rufino Tamayo, the late great Mexican painter, and Andre Breton, one of the founders of Surrealism in the 1930s, both called Mexico the most surreal country in the world.
Walt Curtis: Your pictures give hints of something else happening or going on, almost on a subliminal level from ordinary reality. Explain that, please.
Larry Cwik: Surrealism has to do with the subconscious. I don’t consciously set out to take a photo. I just go and walk among the streets. Typically in the early morning and then again in the hours before dusk. The light is beautiful. Whatever’s there that really strikes out at me, I photograph. Color is an important aspect of being in Mexico. The strong light animates purples, oranges, yellows, greens, lavenders, blues, turquoise . . which I recreate in the darkroom.
Walt Curtis: So you take photographs from what you encounter. Magic occurs almost by chance.
Larry Cwik: Yes. I also like if persons seeing my photographs can imagine something in their mind that I may not have intended. My favorite artist, who is the artist that most inspired the surrealists, is the metaphysical Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico. He said “There are many more enigmas in the shadow of a man who walks in the sun than in all the religions of the past, present, and future.”
Walt Curtis: That’s a great line! Looking at your images, I can see that undercurrent. What kind of camera do you use?
Larry Cwik: Just a straightforward 35 mm camera. Walking so much, I don’t want to carry equipment. I try not to have an American lifestyle in Mexico. I always speak in Spanish to become immersed in the culture. I normally explore the outlying areas . . away from downtown, which can have maddening traffic.
Walt Curtis: Larry, before we conclude . . I have a couple more questions and comments. You don’t seem to photograph the Mexican people directly, though the human figure is increasingly creeping in. . On posters, in statues. Recent photos show this change. Your new work includes nature, lush flowers, a worker’s portrait, jai-alai players, and a young woman meditating by the bay in ethereal light.
In your early work, I recall corroded, low-tech things. Why is that?
Larry Cwik: As a boy, I used to pass through the south side of Pittsburgh . . on the bus. There were steel mills literally a half-mile long. They’re closed down now. It was fascinating to see flames and molten metal through huge open doors.
Walt Curtis: There’s something haunting about industrial machinery that’s been abandoned. In Mexican life you see things as being “lived.” Not everything is shiny and new! I would say you’ve developed a consistent aesthetic, refined through your many visits. Your work isn’t flashy. There is a serenity, balance and sustainability, in this body of work.
Larry Cwik: Thank you, Walt. A work should endure in interest over the years.
Walt Curtis: I am envious at your doggedness, your persistence, to travel . . For over two decades. For the sake of your photography and art . . You amaze me. Yours has been a sort of cultural pilgrimage between two worlds. . Mexico and the United States. You know, it’s become a romeria for you. For us. You have an extraordinary commitment to what you’re doing.
– Walt Curtis, Portland, Oregon
Walt Curtis has written for Atlantic Monthly and other publications. His work was included in “Citadel of the Spirit, Oregon’s Sesquicentennial Anthology” (Matt Love, editor, 2009). He is an award-winning poet, author of several books, and has performed with Allen Ginsberg, Timothy Leary, William S. Burroughes, and Ken Kesey. Curtis authored the novella, “Mala Noche,” the subject of the first feature-length film by noted film director Gus Van Sant. Curtis is the subject of a 1997 film by Bill Plympton. Curtis is also a painter and has co-hosted the “Talking Earth” program on KBOO radio Portland for 43 years. He is the recipient of a Stewart H. Holbrook Literary Legacy Award and is the secretary of the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission.
Link to 2014 Interview by Charles Matthews in Arts Illustrated:
Link to 2012 Interview by Graham Matthews in ArtPromotivate:
Link to 1992 Interview, “El Autor,” in Spanish by Merce Planella in La Fotografia Magazine, Barcelona (three PDFs):