By Hugo Dimter Perez
Brilliant paradox – between literature and photography – of this liberal through and through for which taking pictures with a camera unleashes ghosts and passions. Photos taken about events of common people, a trip to Osorno, a child next to a loved one, a train in winter, the funeral of Neruda, García Marquez, an indigent person, Cardinal Silva Henríquez, Ernesto Cardenal, Enrique Lihn, Pinochet, the birth of a mural, the last march of the Popular Unity; the infinite violence of a country.
Destiny is a virtuous judge but also a severe one. It was this that dictated that our interviewee, the famous photographer Marcelo Montecino for his thesis in literature was totally devoted to the literary generation of 1950 (passive voice), with that in mind, what could be better than to travel to Chile? He couldn’t study all day, therefore in the afternoons he would be out with camera over shoulder. It was the beginning of the 70’s. Marcelo Montecino had returned from Washington where he emigrated at eleven years of age getting a solid education. Upon return to the country he would be given many surprises. More unhappy ones, unfortunately, than joyful ones.
Olympus in black and white.
Montecino is among the divinities of Chilean photography. Sergio Larraín is on top. Luis Poirot and Marcelo Montecino at his side. Later on among those of the Chilean Olympus of photography, Claudio Pérez, Luis Navarro, the Hoppe brother, Paz Errazuriz, Juan Domingo Marinello, Tomás Munita, Oscar Witke… but Marcelo and every other photographer are annoyed with these comparisons, Marcelo is a guy far from the madding crowd. He is a quiet guy with a talent that has made him receive interminable praise, more private than public. A straightforward man. An honest man.
“I am getting scared about the interview,” he tells me in an e-mail; but when we are face to face through Skype he takes it back. “Let’s get it on, let’s see what comes out,” he says bravely. Marcelo has launched recently his latest book: “50 Años,” from Pehuén Editores, where he recaps his work.
To reach the Olympus of Chilean photography, you must work and sweat twice as hard, and even endure pain in the soul. Marcelo lost his brother Christian, also a photographer, in 1973. He was arrested and taken to the periphery of Santiago and they made him run in the cuesta Barriga where they shot him in the back along with other 5 people. “It was one of those senseless deaths committed by the military,” he states with sadness. Years later he published the book “irredeemable” co-authored between Marcelo and Christian. Thus he would pay the debt to his brother.
Today he begins to think at more than a million kilometers away in Washington and I start the interview to break the silence, a conversation that I wanted to have for several years.
-Marcelo, What is your photographic philosophy or the way you work? If you could call it that and if you have one?
–Let’s see, it’s difficult. It has changed throughout my life. At the beginning it was a hobby, then it became I don’t know what; I wanted to be an artist of photography, I wanted to make well-composed photos, emotive, sad, all of that crap. Later on, I don’t know, I became a kind of journalist and there the vision of photography is much easier. And now I am involved in all of the above. But I think photography is all of that.
-In the beginning you wanted to devote yourself to teach literature when you finished studying?
–Sure, I always thought of devoting myself to being some kind of academic endeavor. I came to Chile at the beginning of ’73 to finish writing my thesis for a Master’s in Latin American literature. And it was then that my whole life changed; I devoted myself to reporting for the next 15, 20 years.
-So you’re interest in literature can be traced back to your childhood or youth?
–Sure all of my life. Well I don’t know if all of my life. But books were always there.
-And who were your favorite writers? Did you especially like some specific literary genre?
–Well, we have to go very far back. I entered the university and I started studying literature just when the Latin American Boom was just exploding, no pun intended. So I still consider all of the guys from the Boom as the guys who taught me literature. I recall being especially impacted by Julio Cortázar and his manner of writing freely. At that time, One Hundred Years of Solitude also appeared. I had a Spanish literature professor who was fabulous and he guided us through all of it. In 1973 I was writing my thesis about the generation of 1950 in Chile. It was almost done when the coup came. I thought being an academic would be so boring: I had already passed my comprehensives and done all my course work, and I thought it so boring to continue to study literature when there was so much to be done everywhere.
– Who were your Chilean favorite writers?
-Well, I loved José Donoso. The Obscene Bird of Night fascinated me. It had this interesting thing that is present in all Donoso novels; the sexual economy of Chileans; the rich desiring the maids, the maids in love with the rich. The whole microcosm of Chile was in his novels.
My great master in all of this was the writer Claudio Giaconi, who I knew well and for a long time. He taught me all that I knew. We would talk for hours and he convinced me to write my thesis on the generation of 1950. He was my mentor.
-Is that trip in 1973 also due to your interest in Chilean politics, to the situation in the country? Was it trip to come to paradise? A paradise that was quickly lost.
–There was a bit of that, but at that time I thought I had to write the thesis. My mother had an apartment in Santiago that was empty. I was living in Washington then and thought, “there’s no better time to go down and live there.” I came to live in Chile then. I bought a motorcycle and went out to explore Santiago. I started to go to the demonstrations. I couldn’t write all day. Besides it was difficult to ignore the political turmoil. Santiago has always fascinated me and I think it’s the most important part of my work. The crux of my work is Santiago.
-Did you think the situation was very complicated in Chile in 1973?
–We all knew a coup was coming. But we were convinced that it was going to be a soft coup, I don’t know, perhaps the military was going to seize power for a year, tidy things up and return power. No one imagined a bloody coup. Everybody thought it was a correction, a change.
-There’s a striking moment when you visit the National Stadium.
-We went with a contingent of foreign correspondents. The foreign press had been kept out waiting to be let in Chile. About 100 foreign correspondents arrived from Buenos Aires. Once in Chile obviously all of them wanted to go to the Stadium. It was the most striking thing at that time. I think it was September 22 or around then. They set up two small buses and we all set out to the National Stadium. I had kind of a phony press credential. That morning I had gone to the Ministry of Defense and asked for a credential and I filled it out and where it said Media I wrote “free lance’. I don’t know but I think the military believed freelance was a publication. That afternoon I was arrested outside the Stadium because I was taking pictures. I was kept in a dressing room for several hours.
-And what was that experience of seeing so many people in the Stadium like? Were you very moved?
-I remembered that the day before I had been detained there. I think they let me go because the next day the press was going to visit. Despite that it was very moving. I clearly remember the precise instant of walking through the dressing rooms and, suddenly, from the darkness of the dressing rooms we came out into the field, which was like a blow of light. Suddenly there were prisoners everywhere, although there weren’t many. I think they 10% of what they really were holding. It was very striking. And there I ran into my brother, who I didn’t know was going to be there. He had also obtained a phony credential (laughs).
-Sorry, did the two of you felt love for photography?
-We were photographers but we never considered ourselves as “press professionals.” My brother Christian was a photographer at the International Monetary Fund and he wanted to do films. He had come to Chile recently to resolve some family problems. I don’t know if you know but the military killed him.
-Yes, I knew. But I don’t know the circumstances. Was it in a tunnel?
-Near a tunnel. It was one of the horrific things the military was doing then. They would take them to the periphery of the city made them get out of the bus and shot them.
-Did that affect you a lot? What consequences did that generate?
-I couldn’t continue. Two weeks later I left the country.
-I imagine with a lot of rage, impotence, wanting to get justice, and help Chile somehow?
–Yes all of that but I was essentially destroyed and I wanted to get even. Soon after I began to work with Chile Solidarity in Washington.
-And with time you return to Chile and you join AFI?
-No, I was never a formal member of AFI (Asociacion de Fotografos Independientes). But I knew a lot of people from AFI from the streets, protests, etc.
-What do you think was the principal contribution of AFI to the return of democracy? Denouncing all the crimes, the violation of human rights?
–Of course. The official “permitted” press did not publish conflictive photos. And this is one of the things that photography does best. But we must also recognize that the worst things were being done indoors.
-How did you meet Rodrigo Rojas? Did your friendship begin in Washington?
–In the US. There was a lot of solidarity life in Washington. There were a lot of exceptional people. As you know Orlando Letelier was there (Marcelo photographed him 3 days before he was murdered), Ariel Dorfman, Pepe Zalaquett, Juan Gabriel Valdés. A very important group of exiles that did many things. They were concerts by the Inti Illimani and Quilapyún. Chilean solidarity was an example to many other countries. In one of those meeting I met Rodrigo and since he was a photographer and he didn’t have a darkroom he began to come to my house literally every day. I remember he printed many color photographs in a rather complicated process called Cibachrome. We were together for hours. He was a member of the family. He was in the house every day and would stay until 6pm and then would move on. He was a wonderful kid.
-Good. You could do a book? Have you thought in doing something like that?
-Sure, why not? Rodrigo was so young so there’s not that much.
-But does he have a lot of work?
-Not a lot. He was the school photographer, so there’s a lot of that kind of photos. There are some of solidarity demonstrations, a lot of Washington stuff. There wasn’t a march he would miss. I’m tired of scanning demos by Rodrigo in Washington (laughs). Every type of march, marches against the wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, anti Reagan, anti Reagan’s economic policies.
-Do you have a lot of work from Nicaragua and Central America?
–After the coup for me the most important experience was going to Central America in 1974 for the first time. I had never seen such brutal poverty and such caricature regimes. As I recall there was a military junta in Honduras, Somoza was around, and there was a revolving door of military governments in Guatemala. It was the cold war. The cold war had already affected me directly. It was the continuation of the nightmare. Politics were black and white in Central America. Gorillas were everywhere but the triumph in Nicaragua lifted our spirits.
-Hey, you worked for Playboy. What were the stories about? Tell me a little.
-In 1983 I was hired by Playboy to work as an interpreter, photographer and fixer for the Playboy Interview since the writer didn’t know much about Nicaragua. We interviewed Daniel Ortega, Tomás Borge, Sergio Ramirez and Ernesto Cardenal. Since the press credentials said Playboy, the rest of the press would ask what Playboy was doing in Nicaragua and we would tell them we were doing the “Girls of Nicaragua.” The other photographers were very impressed and jealous.
-Marcelo, moving right along, how do you see Chile? Does it make you angry, sad or are you hopeful?
-That was the question I most dreaded. Chile has been good to me. There are things that are very difficult. So it’s very complicated to talk about Chile. It’s a very small country. That’s the part that scares me about returning to Chile. I even have a subscription to the national channel so I look at the news often and I think they are the most sinister things in the world.
-Because there are no news. So then they have fill the time with all sorts of bullshit. Every year we see the same journalist interviewing the same cop about the traffic after the long weekend.
-Do you think they there are news that are simply not reported?
-No I don’t think so. I don’t think that you can do that anymore. That would be very difficult.
-Or they distort them?
-Some of the media do it out of habit. But luckily there are new institutions that have oversight over journalism and I don’t think that they can continue for long.
-Getting into the subject of photography, do you have liking or you feel more love for some special photography you have take? Is there any photograph for which you say, “Damn, this one is really good?”
-Obviously there are some that are more appreciated than others but I can’t say because I don’t know. Everything is so different from when I was 18 and I was taking photographs. It’s different when you are 29. Different photographs, different time, different person.
-How happy has photography made you?
-Well, it’s been a way of purifying me. Or as my friend Giaconi used to say: it’s been “for intimate use.”
-Do you like the work of some young Chilean photographer?
-There’s a kid, Alejandro Olivares and I’m very impressed with his work. Fabulous. This guy Olivares is very promising and he has very good taste. With a good eye for color and very perceptive. I think he is excellent. And one must also mention Tomas Munita who has gone very far already.
-And who were your references? Is there a special one in international photography?
-The Czech Joseph Koudelka, the American William Klein, and the Swiss Robert Frank. In my youth I idolized Cartier-Bresson. I also like the English photographer Bill Brandt very much. He’s fabulous and some of his pictures look like Brancusi.
-I don’t know if you know but I’m from Osorno and you have many photographs of Osorno in the train station, etc.
-It’s because my paternal family is from Osorno. My grandfather was a politico from Osorno who became a prominent national figure. My father and my uncles went to the Deutsche Schule.
-When will we see you in Chile?
– I’m going in September for the anniversary of 40 years of the coup. I’m doing a show at the Museum of Contemporary Art.