Interview with Milagros de la Torre

By Edward J. Sullivan

Edward J. Sullivan, the guest curator of America Society's exhibition Observed, spoke to photographer Milagros de la Torre about the artistic practices she has employed over the course of her career.

Edward J. Sullivan is the Helen Gould Sheppard Professor of the History of Art at the Institute of Fine Arts and the Department of Art History, New York University. As the guest curator of Observed, he sits down with photographer Milagros de la Torre to discuss the artistic practices she has employed over the course of her career.

Edward J. Sullivan: I’d like to ask you to recount some of the most salient biographical aspects of your life as they have played a role in your work and aesthetic development.
Milagros de la Torre: I was raised during the 70s and 80s in Lima, Peru, the first child of a middle class family amidst the political and economical upheavals of military coups and dictatorship in Latin America. Nothing out of the ordinary; it was only until I left for London to continue my art studies that I realized how different from the normal my reality had been. It was all because of my father’s line of work. He had been singled out as a brilliant strategist against criminality and terrorism, so much so that he was brought to Washington, D.C. to be trained further and he became the youngest general in the history of Peru. My mother’s disciplined upbringing (she worked as a history teacher) also played an important role. She would talk to us with the gesture or intensity of her eyes, and no words were needed.
EJS: When you were a child, did you really understand what work your father was doing?
MdlT: I understood that he was wearing a military uniform and at times, a bulletproof vest under his shirt. We had a driver who would place a gun on the passenger seat, then smiling he would ask: "Which route are we taking to school today?" I remember clearly the titles of books that were in our bookshelves, all involving psychology, analysis, facts of criminology. Then there were those red lights that would wake me up in the middle of the night. At first I would think it was a dream, but then I realized they were the rotating lights on top of police cars, their projection was also going around my bedroom walls. I’d come downstairs to find a surprise meeting going on. I’d sit on the stairs but I was sent back up to my room as soon as my father noticed me there.
EJS: I understand that you intuited as a child that your life had a lot to do with surveillance but I wondered if you also intuited, growing up in Lima, that you were surrounded by violence? Did that mark you ideas about your life?
MdlT: Secret meetings in the middle of the night at our home, the lights of police cars just outside, the guns, the personal protection training, the curfews, the limited electricity hours and water supply, the daily changing of the route to go to school, and the imminent possibility of violence were everyday’s routine. It could hit you when you least expected it, so much so, that one becomes familiar with it, that one learns to underestimate its presence. Recently, I spoke to my brother, who also shared the same upbringing. He had been part of the British delegation at the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. We spoke about the special training and conditions he experienced, and agreed on the "everyday" of what he was describing. When I was around 12, I began to understand something that still intrigues me today. The notion of "the other" and in that same sense, the idea of "the other side."
EJS: What were some of the things that most affected you during your beginning years as an artist?
MdlT: Coming back to the idea of underestimating violence, as a teenager finishing school, my friends and I were extremely daring, probably as a response to our circumstances. At the time there was an imposed curfew and one could only leave their home in case of an emergency--for example, needing to get to a hospital. As there were no civilian rights during curfew hours, one would have to turn the inside lights of the car on and display a "white" flag, could be a white anything, such as a t-shirt, outside the window, so if you were to be stopped by the military, they would not fire at you, thinking you were terrorists. Only we dared doing this, to go to Biz Pix, a punk new wave nightclub. Music plays an important role when as a teenager one feels cheated by society, and its order. The Sex Pistols had released "Anarchy in the UK," starting a whole movement which lyrics and music I still admire. Bands like The Stranglers, Siouxsie and the Banshees, The Pretenders, the Urgh! A Music War concerts, without forgetting The Clash and The Jam; offered the alternative thinking, the critical reflection that was later to be found in art. I’d always be thinking about middle class life in Lima and how unhappy and restless I was with it. That was what drove me to leave and continue my studies in London and later Paris.
EJS: When did the image become an obsession?
MdlT: I was a very quiet, observant girl, who would prefer to witness rather than act. I would try to visually analyze situations by creating images in my head. Later in London, when I had the opportunity of being educated image-wise, it opened a whole world of meanings and suggestive connotations to study and work with. Photography and its notion is the perfect apparatus.
EJS: Did you have a sense as a developing artist of the history of Peruvian photography?
MdlT: When I finished my studies in London, my interests were very much in Latin American photography. Obviously I had learned the history of photography, that has its focus in France and England, followed by the United States, but I didn’t have a clear sense of what was happening in Latin America and therefore I started doing my own research. I even did some writing about it. I sent out questionnaires to photographers because I wanted to know what were their interests, what were they dealing with. At that point photography was only seen as a documentary expression or approach. I went back to Lima for a few months and I specifically wanted to go to Cuzco. I had seen work by Martín Chambi; I became close friends with Julia Chambi, photographer and daughter of Martín, who introduced me to her father’s studio, negatives plates, and friends. Also, I found out that Chambi was not alone; there was a sort of "Cuzco School of Photography" with a few unknown photographers with marvelous work made during the first half of the twentieth century. Alongside the historical research, I worked on my first personal project, Under the Black Sun, based on the rudimentary technique of the street photographers of Cuzco.
EJS: That’s one of the projects we’re featuring in the exhibitions. I find it so interesting and compelling for many reasons, not the least of them because it references older photographic techniques. Had you been in touch with street photographers in Lima or Cuzco?
MdlT: I stayed in Cuzco on and off for many months while working for “Under the Black Sun,” mainly because I had to develop all my negatives in Lima. When I came from Europe to Cuzco, I found a very interesting way of photographing, elementary but deeply intriguing. I’m referring to the technique of the street photographers who shoot directly onto photographic paper using a box camera, not only economizing on material but also producing immediate results. The exposed paper is developed in the camera itself, with the aid of developer and diluted fixer stored in small recycled tins. As the paper negative is removed to dry in the intense mountain sunlight, a layer of mercurochrome (merbromin) is automatically applied to the skin of the subject. This negative with red retouching is then re-photographed with the same camera, in order to produce, through the same developing process, a positive, or common I.D. photo. The innocent retouching lightens the skin of the subject, producing not only a "racial improvement," but also an aesthetic, economic, and even cultural one, in the belief that a person with fair skin intrinsically represents all of these qualities. These ideas are questioned in Under the Black Sun, as the process is suspended in the middle, at the negative stage, with the red veil still covering the face of the subject. Trusting the photograph is a huge mistake.
EJS: On a very basic level “Under the Black Sun” takes off from the tradition of making portraits for identity cards. This combines the larger notion of national or regional identity that we spoke about with more basic definitions of personal identity which have to do with ideas of surveillance…and control.
MdlT: Typologies and documentation. I always remember my father saying "papelito manda," meaning what the documents (papers) say is the truth. I think that idea comes from a very traditional police-oriented, judiciary investigation way of processing facts or the camera as the inability to see.
EJS: Our exhibition is called “Observed.” So am I right to think that notions of identity, taxonomy and indexicality are elements that run throughout all of your work?
MdlT: It comes from a desire to make sense of it all, of fixing the shadows.
EJS: One of the series that has had an enormous impact on me since I first saw it was “Las últimas cosas” or “Last Things” which consists of only three photographs. They seem devoid of time and place but they have an extremely strong emotional and intellectual impact on the viewer. I wonder if you can describe for me why I have those very strong emotions when looking at the photos?
MdlT: “Last Things” focuses on physical and mental fragility, vulnerability. The triptych Last Things was produced in the archive of the Víctor Larco Herrera Psychiatric Hospital in Lima, Peru. The project speaks of the solitary, terrestrial, and perishable human body. The trio of black-and-white photographs, with a layer of wax applied manually to the surface, transforms everyday physical rehabilitation devices into chiaroscuro icons: an exercise ball for muscular relaxation, a straightjacket, some rusting surgical recipients. The objects that I found in a back room had no importance whatsoever for anybody; I recall that when I found them, they seemed respectable statements of the marginal, which I later continued to research in other series, like "The Lost Steps" or "Folded Pages." I was also fascinated at the time (I still am) by painting, so works by Rembrandt, Hals, Holbein, and Goya come to mind. My first encounter with museums was in London. Before that I was only familiar with pre-Inca, Inca, and colonial works. I remember being astonished and wondered how art in all its forms and timelines, had always pushed the envelope.
EJS: I don’t think that “Ultimas cosas” has any obvious religious significance. However the triptych format does go back to medieval art. Did you have a conscious desire to evoke that?
MdlT: "Last Things" presents a very stark definition of the object between the light and the dark background. In the printing also there’s an emphasis on the darkness that surrounds the objects. This was the first time that I used a layer of wax on top of the image. Before that, in “Under the Black Sun,” I had tinted the image with mercurochrome. There’s always an idea of layers: layers of meaning, signification in order to evoke various interpretations of the work.
EJS: We have talked about the word “icon.” I don’t really want to talk about icons in the traditional religious sense but I get the feeling that the idea of iconicity, the taking of an object to many other levels, is a constant feature in your art.
MdlT: Objects are reflections and symbols of humanity, most of them made by us.
EJS: Actually I’ve thought that one of the most "human" of the series that you have done is “Los pasos perdidos” or “The Lost Steps” which has a very interesting history. Could we talk about how you came to do it and its multiple meanings?
MdlTThe Lost Steps are photographs of apparently everyday objects that were submitted as evidence in trials for terrorist acts, crimes of passion, and other felonies; taken with a nineteenth century technique when the development of a lens did not entirely cover the format of the photographic negative, hence creating a dark aura around the photographed object, conferring on it a halo of mystery, an emotional charge, which alludes to the dark side of human nature, to the traces and absence of the criminal. I saw an exhibition at the Palace of Justice in Lima, a small show of some objects from the archive. I knew immediately: I had to work with them, and I contacted the person in charge of the archive. I felt the potential the objects would have to portray the intense human situation, they were witnesses of; I could feel the traces, the weight the objects had obtained. It took me about three months to convince the person in charge that I was not a journalist who would expose the political situation at the time abroad, but an artist. Then I met the archivist. He had been working there for thirty years and knew every single object and its case provenance. It was a pleasure to work there.
EJS: Does the archive in the Palace of Justice in Lima consist of paper documents as well as objects associated with the cases tried there?
MdlT: The sector to which I was directed was a collection that you would never think of as an archive. Some objects had labels, others didn’t. I was relying on the memory of this one person. He knew exactly where everything was, even though the objects were stored quite haphazardly. I didn’t want the project to be that political but cover some of the historical circumstances then, most especially the trials of crimes of passion that were happening at the time and which fascinated everyone because they distracted us from all the daily terrorist reality.
EJS: Can you tell me something about the title, “Los pasos perdidos” or “The Lost Steps”?
MdlT: “Los Pasos Perdidos” is the name given to a corridor in the Justice Palace constructed in about 1912. It’s a long hallway that leads from the front of the building to the back. The back is not the most beautiful part of the building but the place where they would keep all the criminals. It suggested a passage from light into darkness.
EJS: The study of the archive and its importance for artist, writers, and intellectuals has become very important especially in the last several years. Your interest in the archive pre-dates this current fascination. In a sense almost all of your work has to do with archives and archival material. One of the most interesting manifestations of this is the project in which you found and used archival material from the Spanish Inquisition. Can you talk about the genesis of that body of work?
MdlT: Censored was undertaken in the library of the University of Salamanca, in Spain, dealing with the books expurgated and repressed by the Spanish Inquisition. Images of subtle colors and a level of tense aggression and profane violence: the elegant beige of the cotton paper contrasts with the intense black of the censored passages. From a distance the photographs could be mistaken for expressionist paintings owing to the implicit gesture contained in each one of them, but a closer inspection reveals almost indecipherable texts effaced by various techniques: by simply blotting out with black ink, by crossing out the lines one by one, by gluing paper over the paragraph to be omitted, or by tearing out a part of the page. I came to Salamanca, invited for an exhibition of my work and thanks to the curator I found out they had these books in their magnificent library, the oldest, with most first editions of books in Spanish. I asked for permission to photograph these texts and was pleased that they granted it.
EJS: It seems to me that “Censored” is not only about censorship of texts but it’s also about implied censorship of bodies and voices.
MdlT: Ideologies.
EJS: Like so many other of your series “Censurados” has such an innate physicality. You deal with the body, skin, clothing, the mind.
MdlT:  I think very much about the physicality of the photograph in itself, its texture, its top layer skin, or armor. Going back to the “Censored” series, I was amazed when opening the first page of the book, where the author is supposed to have his or her name present under the titled work, to the side, one would find the name of the person who censored the book too, as a claim of authorship.
EJS: Clothing, which can be seen as a substitute for the body, plays an immense role in your work. In “Los pasos perdidos,” there are several instances in which clothing is represented as a synecdoche or a remembrance of a body, of a body disappeared, a body injured or violated in some way, and this comes to its fullest possible manifestation in your work up until now in the “Bulletproof” series. This is very dramatic, I think, because the body is absent but there’s also an intimation of violence in the most quiet and almost elegant possible way.
MdlT: Related to that notion is  the "Untitled" series I did in 1992 when traveling back and forth between Lima and Cuzco. They are small photographs called in which the first image is just an empty hanger. Through the years, garments have been a very important presence because of what you just mentioned–that absence and yet a suggestion of a presence. The “Bulletproof” series makes sense as part of a development or process. They look so quiet, elegant, beautifully photographed, every single detail is there, every single thread, but when one realizes what they actually are, there’s a disquieting reaction. Those pieces of clothing already have a destiny written within them.
EJS: Where did you find this clothing? Bulletproof clothing is worn by people in danger who are trying to protect themselves.
MdlT: I previously did a small project about armored vehicles. It was an indexical proposal, five photographs where the different trucks where placed in a three-quarter classical portrait pose in order to compare how the characteristics of armored vehicles had changed over the years, from the 70s until now.
EJS: What was the name of that series?
MdlT: “Blindados” or “Armored,” 2000. At that point I was doing research on all sorts of objects related to protection. It was evident that I would consider later the body. In 2007, I worked on a series called “Embedded,” a depiction of twenty-one arms-resistant garments worn by professionals on duty--soldiers, police officers, and government personnel--to reflect on the human body encountering physical and emotional aggression. It is a visual presentation where each garment slowly transforms itself into the next one.
EJS: Let’s continue talking about items of clothing – jackets, shirts, and skirts etc. as stand-ins for the individual. In your series “Bulletproof” there’s an anonymous collectivity that is referenced, whereas in a more recent series, a very dramatic one, you deal with a very specific person, General Francisco Franco of Spain. Could you speak about your thoughts on creating a series that has a specific historicity, and about how you chose Franco as a protagonist? How do you see the role that series plays within the body of your more recent work?
MdlT: The FF series was produced by an invitation extended to some fifteen artists from Latin America to come to Spain and interpret the city of Madrid, called “Madrid Mirada.” Within this broad subject, I was wondering what my contribution could be.
EJS: Where did that invitation come from, from what institution?
MdlT:  It is an open concept from curators, Manuel Sendon and Xosé Luis Suarez, whom I had worked before for Vigovisions, a Photography Reunion in Spain. The idea was to bring the artists to Madrid for a week, to develop a project with no conceptual or technical limitations. In a certain way, Franco felt familiar. I come from a tradition of the military within the family, where both grandfathers wore a uniform, and which my father later continued. My interest was to work on an intimate level, with his personal objects, including his worn clothes. I knew Franco had a daughter, whom I tried to approach in order to get to those objects.
EJS: Were you able to visit the Palacio del Pardo where Franco lived?
MdlT: I was, but first I contacted the Fundación Franco which was more or less like an "underground" meeting place, an apartment in Madrid with no signs. It felt like going into a hidden organization. I dressed accordingly and asked to look at their archive. They had all sorts of documents and books that belonged to Franco, but nothing felt "personal or intimate." I wrote a letter to his daughter, explaining my work and asking for permission to portray some of his close objects. Later I learned, the letter was received by her but she had been advised by her lawyers not to respond because of an impending trial regarding properties that she had to give back to Spain. I went to see the Minister of Culture to whom I explained my idea and after some convincing, he gave me access to the Palacio del Pardo, near Madrid. I had an idea of the photographic strategy I wanted to work with, close-up images in which the limited visual field brings out only a tiny detail clearly, leaving the rest almost to fade into abstraction. There is a treatment of notions of global and personal history and the marks imprinted by both on the collective unconscious. At the same time, concepts of stain, shadow, and sign are treated, especially in terms of photographic language. Each black-and-white photograph shows a manual intervention made with brush strokes with sepia color, evoking photographs of the past, the beginnings of photography, and the early understanding of the medium. Images on the way to extinction, treasured at times, at other times rejected or ignored, there’s a clear sense of agitation within the images. Because of recent developments on "La Ley de la Memoria Histórica," these objects were later taken and stored away, I don’t believe they will see the light of day for a long time.
EJS: So in this very dramatic series you succeed in evoking that very imposing personality. However, it’s much more about the idea of history, power lost and death.
MdlT: The sepia interventions reference history, including the history of the medium, which I always try to cite in each series. We normally have our grandmothers’ pictures in that sepia, warm color. But sepia also suggests erasure and it still looks as a stain on black and white photograph.
EJS: Speaking of technique, I am interested in how you manipulate the image either with color, in terms of the mercurochrome in “Under the Black Sun” or sepia in the project known as “FF” - the Franco pieces. Could you talk about your ideas of manipulation, or erasure?
MdlT: After all these years, I’m still intrigued about the basic notion of photography. This was very obvious to me, when I was a student as I learned all its processes; photography fascinated me because its technical side always led me to philosophical concerns. Whenever I work on a potential project, half the work is finding the photographic strategy because of the essential idea of reflection. Reflections can reveal truth or not; I’ve liked that mirror effect, that Alice in Wonderland effect, since the beginning. Each project involves a conscious decision about what sort of technique to use and how to do it subtly because subtlety is always the most suggestive way, I believe, to evoke thought. I prefer to be understated or silently suggestive than to make a work obvious and attention-seeking. In “Under the Black Sun,” I borrowed the technique of the street photographer but made the technique seem unresolved. The image is only half way done and is only shown with that red tinted layer over the face. For “Censored,” which is straightforward color matt photography, I believed the technique was already present formally and conceptually in the subject. In “Last Things,” a very classical format, with the extra layer of wax on the surface of the photograph. In “FF” the photographs are focus-limited with a sepia intervention.
EJS: The idea of detail and the landscape of the garment or the landscape of the body is perhaps most dramatically manifested in your series depicting skin in extreme close ups views. This is where you come closest to pure abstraction…except it’s not abstract at all. There’s a very specific physicality there. Could you talk about physicality and abstraction in your work?
MdlT: During 2003, I collaborated with Toluca Editions, Paris to work alongside José Manuel Prieto, Cuban writer and Pierre Charpin, French designer to create Troubles de la Vue ("Vision Problems"), my first limited edition artist book. "Bleus," a project that draws its emotional and photographic force from the use of extreme close-up images, in which it is difficult at first to distinguish what is being framed. It is only through the title of the series, Bleus (bruises in French), that the small-format photographs are recognized to be of contusions on my skin. In Bleus an inversion of representation is carried out. The trace of pain is transformed by photography into a sensual and subtly colorful landscape, which creates tensions between the familiar and the unexpected, between violence and biting poetry, when appearances tend to deceive.  The book was presented during the Paris Photo Fair in Paris and has since received great interest.
EJS: What are some of the points you think are most important for the public to think about or to meditate on when looking at your work?
MdlT: Depending upon which project, I believe there’s a common thread that runs throughout my work along the almost twenty years, as an artist. The idea of the trace, de-codification, the marginal and the comprehension of a dark side within all of us. These are, of course, very abstract terms. I would hope that each project would just trigger thoughts of a very personal nature in the viewer, thoughts about their existence, purpose and significance, and why we are doing what we do.
EJS: That’s a perfect ending to our conversation. Thank you.