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The bleached, botoxed and bodacious socialites in photographer Daniela Rossell’s book “Ricas y Famosas” are, to judge by appearances, ricas of the most blatantly nueva variety. And if they are famous anywhere — apart from in their own delirious imaginations — it is only among the most dedicated readers of Quién, Hola! and other such magazines.
Still, in front of Rossell’s camera, they vamp and pout like Versace models working it for Steven Meisel. One bottle-blond with an Anna Nicole Smith figure spreads her legs on the marble floor of a hall filled with mounted hunting trophies. Another fierce glamazon, this one in a penthouse decorated with blackamoors and wall-to-wall carpet, snatches a peach-colored Kleenex with one hand while she yanks her bulldog’s leash with the other.
“The following images depict actual settings,” reads the one-paragraph introduction to Rossell’s book (distributed by D.A.P. [Distributed Art Publishers]). “The photographic subjects are representing themselves. Any resemblance with real events is not coincidental.”
Rossell should know, because she’s one of them — a member of Mexico City’s elite, whose wealth and political clout go hand in hand. Rossell descends from two Mexican governors, while her father is an attorney and her mother an art collector. She calls “Ricas y Famosas” “a family tree.”
And she has produced a document as intimate and occasionally scathing as only a family member could produce. One dark-haired girl with blue eye shadow — a cousin? — smiles in the family chapel while her pet dachshunds hump each other on the floor.
“There is some theatricality,” acknowledged Rossell, “but I was interested in keeping things as they were. I was interested in people’s concept about a photographer who comes into your home to take photographs — like for Vanity Fair or Hello.”
She says that if her subjects used props — the granddaughter of former president Gustavo Diaz Ordaz, who rests a foot atop a stuffed lion, offering a peep beneath her pleated skirt, for example — it was only something ready at hand. Otherwise, the subjects were free to be themselves, amidst their expensive possessions.
“I would just say, ‘I want to take a picture of you,’ and not explain much,” says Rossell. “Those models [the subjects of “Ricas y Famosas”] were willing to strike these poses, clichés you’ve seen a thousand times. I was interested in letting that happen.”
The pictures have certainly attracted attention. Trendy curator Klaus Biesenbach included Rossell’s photographs in “Mexico City,” a group show that opened at P.S. 1 in New York and is now at Kunst-Werke in Berlin through January. Rossell’s work is also featured at the Armory Photography Show, with a party given by D.A.P. on opening night, Oct. 24. Meanwhile, Rossell’s photographs are bound for group exhibitions in Barcelona, London and San Diego, as well, and the University of Salamanca in Spain plans a solo show of 300 images.
But the buzz in the art world barely registers compared to the public uproar caused by “Ricas y Famosas” in Mexico City. The New York Times even covered the brouhaha, not in the arts section, but with a lead story in the international news section.
“Oh God, was I surprised,” admits the photographer of the succès de scandale in her hometown. In the weeks following her book’s Mexican release in September, Rossell had so many angry calls that each time the phone rang, she says she felt an “ache in my stomach.” But as for one rumor that she had been cut off by her family, she only laughs, “It’s too late for that!” Her immediate family, to the contrary, has been supportive.
But she understands how some of her subjects could have been embarrassed or angered by the backlash against the photos of them.
“They expected to be flattered,” she says. “But when I say flattered, I think of ‘flattened,’ and that’s what a photograph does. They were upset that the photographs were not talking and showing their generous side, but showed just one side that is materialist, maybe conceited, unaware of what happens outside of their homes: extreme poverty. They felt misrepresented.”
Still, Rossell disavows any specifically didactic intent with the pictures, unlike the politically charged muralist tradition that today constitutes the official canon of Mexican art. She calls such works “pamphlet-ish,” and holds that real changes in Mexican society will not be enacted through gallery and museum shows.
“I was looking forward to a confrontation through discussion about the work,” she adds, “rather than putting a sign underneath the photographs that says ‘Rich People Suck.’ And that happened. I’m very satisfied.”