Exclamation mark

SVA Responds to COVID-19

Read the latest on SVA’s response to the coronavirus and find the resources you need.

SVA Spotlight: Mexico City—Photographer Carlos Álvarez-Montero
February 14, 2020 by Vanessa Machir
A photograph of ceramic figures on a table

Photograph by Carlos Álvarez-Montero from his series “Vanitas,” 2018.

One of the world's great cultural centers, Mexico City is home to progressive galleries, eclectic architecture and museums that address a spectrum of interests (art, toys, animal pathology). It plays host to ZONAMACO, the biggest contemporary art fair in Latin America, and a number of the creative world’s biggest luminaries—Frida Kahlo, Miguel Covarrubias and Octavio Paz, to name a few—have called it home.

In the current Visual Arts Journal, the magazine of the School of Visual Arts, writer Vanessa Machir (MPS 2016 Branding) profiles three SVA alumni who live and work in the city; over the next few weeks, we will be presenting those profiles online.

First up: photographer Carlos Álvarez-Montero (MFA 2010 Photography, Video and Related Media).

A photograph of Carlos Álvarez-Montero.

Photographer and SVA graduate Carlos Álvarez-Montero.

Credit: José Luis González

In his series “Vanitas,” Carlos Álvarez-Montero photographed regular household objects: tchotchkes, flowers, a betta fish in a bowl. But the households in question are in Tepito, a Mexico City neighborhood notorious for its black market and crime rate.

“Vanitas” is somewhat of a departure for Álvarez-Montero, who has shot portraits of Michoacán gang members and militia groups in Guerrero. “People would think, ‘Carlos is going to shoot tough people, drugs, guns,’” he says. Instead, he put familiar items in the spotlight to upend people’s assumptions about Tepito. 

He often focuses on how people construct their own identities (also the subject of his SVA thesis), and his work in this vein has appeared in The Fader and Vice (he has a column, “Ojo, Mucho Ojo,” on the latter’s Spanish-language website). He has also shot editorials for Esquire and GQ, done commercial work for brands like El Jimador tequila and Kenco coffee and is planning on opening a photography management agency/production studio.

While he likes to photograph people who stand out, he’s also interested in underdogs—and there’s often overlap. “I see myself as that,” Álvarez-Montero says. Sitting in the Roma neighborhood’s bar-cum-movie-theater Cine Tonalá, sporting a full beard and tattoos, he appears to be the quintessential modern-day artist. However, “people would think twice about the way I look.”

And when it comes to Mexico City’s own underdog, Tepito, “more than the bad, there’s the good,” he says. “There’s a lot of hard-working people.” For “Vanitas,” he collaborated with CICLO, a project that uses art and culture to re-appropriate urban spaces. Works from the series were displayed at ZONAMACO Foto last summer, and will be shown this summer at ArtBase, a cultural space in Puebla. 

Álvarez-Montero did shoot one portrait for “Vanitas”—a confident young girl wearing elaborate braids and a bright printed track jacket. “She’s strong, she’s tough, she’s cool,” he says. “This is Tepito.”

A version of this article appears in the fall/winter 2019 Visual Arts Journal.