Antonio Caballero’s most famous image is of the Hollywood Babylon variety: at a press conference in Mexico in 1962, Marilyn Monroe stopped for the adoring press gaggle and inadvertently flashed Caballero, who was then a working photojournalist. Monroe died a few weeks later.
It’s the kind of anecdote that can define an artist, and the combination of lurid sensationalism and tragedy is an apt backdrop to the second career that makes up this book. Las Rutas de la Pasion was the name of just one of the publications for which Caballero photographed and directed fotonovelas, the serial melodramas that were the soap opera equivalent of comic books. Caballero worked on some 500 stories in his fifteen years in the business. And like comic books, the fotonovela format is not well respected — a New Yorker review of a Caballero exhibition at Sikkema Jenkins & Co. in Chelsea dismissed it as ephemera, mere source material for what another critic called the more “conceptually rigorous” likes of Cindy Sherman. How sad that the search for conceptual rigor can blind one to the sartorial and narrative surprises of these photos.
Caballero also has an eye for the unusual, not something you find in just any mass-market purveyor of ephemera: what is that stuffed poodle doing in the picture of a married businesswoman on the telephone? And is the image of two women looking at their distorted faces in a fun-house mirror a commentary on how we view art? Perhaps the latter is just for entertainment, but such work is proof that a singular vision and personality can reveal itself in even the most commercial of sources. Caballero’s keen sense of composition and narrative sense makes these images more than ephemeral. And taken out of context, they gain a mystery that goes well beyond their pulp sources, and, in this critic’s estimation, more than the much-vaunted narcissistic rigor of Cindy Sherman herself.
The exhibit at Sikkema Jenkins took isolated frames and enlarged the medium-format negatives to exhibition format, and was a tantalizing selection of just a fraction of his commercial work. The 2005 monograph takes a broader view of Caballero‘s work of this period, which includes ordinary pinups and the occasional dog-show shoot. Motifs abound: lovers meet clandestinely in a park, as is their wont in the melodramatic world of the fotonovela. But the variations on standard motifs can be startling: in one remarkable sequence, the lovers meet in a barren urban landscape of severe skycrapers that looks straight out of Michaelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura — and in fact was shot in 1960, the year Anontioni’s film was released. Coincidence? Las Rutas de la Pasion is not an easy volume to track down, but the photographs of Antonio Caballero (not to be confused with the work of a Colombian novelist of the same name) is well worth seeking out.