Colors of Mexico focus of exhibit

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Photo gallery

A woman sells baskets she makes out of a cave that serves as her store and her home in the Sierra Madres in Chihuahua. Photo courtesy Rodolfo J. Caballero
This photograph shows a woman and man inside a union office in the city of Gomez Palacio in Durango. Photo courtesy Rodolfo J. Caballero
This cowboy, or vaquero, raises buffalo and ostriches at the Hacienda de Pedriceña in Durango. Photo courtesy Rodolfo J. Caballero
Because of the drug-related violence in the area, young artists have painted doves like this one all over the city of Torreon in Coahuila. Photo courtesy Rodolfo J. Caballero
In Torreon, Coahuila, a pilgrim is dressed for the annual Dec. 12 Day of the Virgin Mary of Guadalupe, where people dance and ask for the Virgin Mary's help. Photo courtesy Rodolfo J. Caballero
People check their home for damage following a very strong desert storm in the city of Lerdo in Durango. Photo courtesy Rodolfo J. Caballero

Ask artist Rodolfo J. Caballero and he’ll tell you that maybe Mexico has a lot of color because it is a gift from the gods.

“They gave Mexico very good weather, where a lot of vegetables, fruits and animal life is possible,” he said. “People noticed this from the very beginning and learned how to use all these natural colors to bring some life and joy to their humble houses, dresses and foods.”

Born in Mexico City in 1956, the photographer said he was drawn to northern Mexico in the 1970s – intrigued by its landscape and way of life — and moved there in 1975.

Traveling across rugged terrain, Caballero captured the harsh reality of native residents’ lives along this vast desert region, sometimes referred to as “Unknown Mexico” or “Lost Mexico,” because so few tourists venture there.

“I see myself like a ‘norteño,’ a people from the north,” he said.

You can experience Caballero’s poignant works, on display at the LaGuardia Gallery of Photographic Arts West, at LaGuardia Community College in Long Island City, where he inspires students as a photography lab assistant. “Between Heaven and Earth” showcases a series of 48 color images that capture Caballero’s surrealistic memories of northern Mexico. His image of an azure-blue house as the backdrop for a clothesline of brightly colored laundry looks like a painting.

“His work is like walking into his mind,” said Scott Sternbach, director of the photography program. “It is not really reality; it is almost a dream.”

Growing up surrounded by all the colors of Mexico, Caballero creates works that are awash in various pigments. He particularly likes colorful images that fill the frames, he said. But he takes care not to overdo the hues.

“You have to be very careful with color in photography because color seduces you, fools you,” Caballero said.

At first glance, the images appear to show an idyllic world, but on closer inspection, it becomes clear the photographs employ layers to depict a place where people work very hard jobs and lead a very hard life, Caballero said.

“I want to show not the poverty, but the dignity of all the people trying and struggling; working, surviving no matter what,” he said. “I want to show something that should be better.”

As a child the artist was an altar boy at a local church and spent many hours at a nearby photo studio observing, while the owner shot weddings and baptisms.

Since then Caballero has been taking carefully chosen images with his trusty Nikon. He said simply, “If you have a camera with you, then you are a photographer; if you don’t, you are not.”

For three years he traveled through north Mexico’s biggest states – Chihuahua, Durango and Coahuila – to document the types of jobs people performed to survive in this isolated land.

“They have some strange occupations,” he said.

There are images of wrestlers, clowns, balloonists and rug weavers, shopkeepers, ranchers and hotel owners.

One picture Caballero said he found very moving was the image of a Tarahumara Indian woman selling her handmade baskets and straw dolls in a shallow cavern, which was also her home, in the middle of nowhere. In the foreground are shelves of items that lead you to the back of the cavern, where she is cradling her baby.

Now living in Staten Island, Caballero came to New York City two years ago, with his wife of 31 years, Ariane Ibarra and his children Gabriel, Mariana and Alberto.

“They are in many ways the ‘fuel’ that moves me,” he said.

“I left Mexico because I really wanted to grow as an artist and as a human being, and for me it was very clear that New York is the place where it’s never too late,” he said. “But also, I was really scared and tired of all the violence and corruption. That is not the life of my dreams.”

Caballero said photography is his obsession.

“You don’t question your obsessions. So I took these photos because I needed to,” he said. “And because I feel myself part of all the people portrayed, I’m one of them.”

If you Go

“Between Heaven and Earth”

When: Open-ended gallery showing

Where: The Gallery of Photographic Arts, 30-20 Thomson Ave., Long Island City

Viewing hours: Monday through Friday from 7 am to 10 pm and Saturdays from 9 am to 5 pm

Contact: (718) 482-5985 or (718) 349-4028 or e-mail

Posted 12:00 am, December 17, 2013
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