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Rural Mexico Through Juan Rulfo's Lens

by Megan Powell

Few places in the world remain both unexplored and unfamiliar to people. One such place is rural Mexico, an area that is rapidly changing and rarely seen by outsiders. Fortunately, the photography of Juan Rulfo (1917–86) offers a unique glimpse into rural Mexico. With images that rely heavily on symbolism, objects that take on animalistic shapes, and settings that illustrate the nobility of women, Rulfo’s photography is both humble and majestic.

To coincide with the fiftieth anniversary of his internationally renowned novel, Pedro Páramo, as well as the twentieth anniversary of his death, Photographing Silence: Juan Rulfo’s Mexico, an exhibit of sixty-two black-and-white silver gelatin prints, was displayed at BYU’s Museum of Art (MOA). On loan from the Juan Rulfo Foundation (Fundación Juan Rulfo), the prints are a small sample of the thousands of photographs taken by Rulfo throughout his life.

The exhibit features photographs taken in rural Mexico throughout the 1940s and 1950s, although there are a few urban images. Rulfo’s photographs juxtapose man-made materials, such as houses and cathedrals, against the background of natural elements. They also explore the contrast between old and new and dark and light. The majority of his work focused on images from rural communities, as he strived to observe their lives. He avoided idealizing his subjects, as he was interested in depicting their lives exactly as they were. Through the honest portrayal of his subjects, Rulfo demonstrated his interest in humanity, architecture, and religiosity.

Acquiring the photographs for the exhibit was a joint effort by Latin American Studies (LAS) and the Department of Spanish and Portuguese at BYU; an idea conceived by Douglas J. Weatherford, associate professor of Spanish, when he realized the two anniversaries were nearing. “Bringing the photographs to campus to coincide with the two important anniversaries seemed like the perfect time to celebrate Rulfo as an artist and writer,” he declared.

Although the exhibit would be a departure from the MOA’s permanent collection, there were strong supporters at the MOA, who were excited at the prospect of hosting the collection, and it would provide the museum with an opportunity to reach out to the Spanish-speaking communities both on and off campus. According to Ted Lyon, LAS coordinator and professor of Spanish, Rulfo fully realized the power of photography in its ability to capture the essence of everyday people and places. “He really got inside the soul and heart of rural Mexico,” Lyon decreed. “Rulfo captured Mexico from the inside out, whereas other artists are often outside observers.”

Weatherford similarly declared, “Rulfo had a fascination with rural and indigenous people and was at one point the director and head editor of the publishing department at the Instituto Nacional Indigenista (National Indigenous Institute).”

Born in Jalisco, Mexico, at the start of the twentieth century, Rulfo was intimately acquainted with the landscape that would provide the backdrop for both his literature and photographs. In addition, he was a eyewitness to the social unrest that pervaded the land following the Mexican Revolution. Rulfo had a unique perception of his land and an understanding of his ability to capture the images that were so prevalent around him.

Although Rulfo began taking photographs early in his life, he gained international fame through the publication of a collection of short stories entitled the Burning Plains (1953) and his novel Pedro Páramo (1955). His contribution to Mexico’s literary canon was duly noted by both Lyon and Weatherford. “Rulfo was one of the most important writers in the Mexican literary tradition, and the few works he produced have continued importance today,” asserted Weatherford. Yet Rulfo’s ability to create extended beyond writing and photography to film production, acting, and as a historical consultant. He was, in many ways, the quintessential artist.

To enhance the learning experience for the campus community, a film and lecture series accompanied the exhibit throughout the winter and spring semesters. The series featured ten films as well as a variety of speakers, four of whom came from Mexico. Among the presenters was Juan Carlos Rulfo, youngest son of Rulfo. Having followed in his father’s artistic footsteps, the younger Rulfo presented his documentary El abuelo Cheno y otras historias, which chronicles the life and work of his father. “It was a fun experience having Juan Carlos at BYU to talk about his work and the work of his father, and it gave students and faculty the opportunity to hear firsthand about Rulfo’s work,” said Weatherford.

As rural Mexico continues to undergo major changes to landscape and lifestyle, Lyon hopes that Rulfo’s photographs will teach people about Mexico as it used to be. “Rural Mexico is rapidly changing as urban influence begins to seep in,” said Lyon.

Similarly, Weatherford is confident that the exhibit has been beneficial to faculty and students. “The exhibit gave faculty an opportunity to talk about Rulfo and also gave faculty and students alike a unique experience in viewing Rulfo’s photography,” he concluded.