Vicente Munoz’s photos are nothing if not visually striking. At first glance, they look like snapshots of an alien world: The bright red trees, marauding iguanas, and surreal yellow skies are something the planet builders of Magrathea could have cooked up in Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. As you look closer, however, more recognisable, down-to-earth details start to emerge.
“Famously humid, industrialised and covered in concrete, Guayaquil lacks the laid back charm of Ecuador’s capital Quito”
There are docks, covered in hulking great cranes and shipping containers. There are buildings where the plaster is peeling off. And there’s no way Douglas Adams’ super-race, who made “custom-built planets [as] luxury commodities” for the richest people in the universe, would ever have allowed the sort of messy slums that appear in some of Vicente’s pictures.
These are, in fact, photos of Guayaquil, Ecuador’s commercial capital and the place where Munoz “was born and lived for 19 years” before moving away, first to London, where he attended Central Saint Martins, before finally settling in his current hometown of New York.
Famously humid, industrialised and covered in concrete, Guayaquil lacks the colonial-era architecture, the cool Andean climate, and the laid back charm of Ecuador’s capital Quito. It’s not normally a place that people would describe as beautiful. But Munoz’s images – part of a new collection called “Sublimis” – are designed to challenge perceptions.
“I’ve always thought of photography as a way to review [the world],” he says. “I feel like I need to see things through photography to understand them better; I can see more clearly what I’m looking for.”
In this instance, what he was looking for was the ways in which human beings and our cities encroach on the natural world, transforming it in the process. “I have been focusing on architecture for the past five years,” Munoz explains, and with this latest body of work he’s zeroed in on where the built environment meets nature, examining the relationship between the two.
“I think that these photographs have the power to invite conscious meditation about our resources and our built environments,” he says. “I want to think that what we are building as mankind is justifiable, but that’s not always the case…”
Munoz’s use of infrared film, which turns the trees and plants that shocking red, highlights the last vestiges of vegetation in what otherwise appears to be a sea of concrete. Our eye is drawn to the forests behind the sprawling ports, or the individual trees that poke out of suburban backyards.
“I also liked the fact that infrared signal is imperceptible to the human eye. This goes back to my idea of shooting to understand the world better – you’re seeing the intangible through film.”
Originally developed for use in war zones (where it made machines easier to distinguish from foliage) infrared film is now increasingly difficult to come by. “It was very hard,” says Munoz, who had to trawl through specialist forums until he “eventually found someone in Germany who had bought a large stock from Kodak”. But with the company having filed for bankruptcy in recent years, this particular kind of infrared film is all but extinct.
As difficult as it was to find, the scarcity of his chosen medium adds an extra layer of meaning to the work, according to Munoz. “I see a direct analogy between the inevitable extinction of this film and the way in which we use and occupy natural resources. I want these photos to remain as a documentation, a survey, of the terrain we had at this period in time. A bit of an urban fossil.”
Creating a record of Guayaquil is more important than ever, as the city is changing fast. “The urban development towards the more hilly areas has destroyed large portions of the forests,” Munoz laments. “Same with the tidelands where our grandparents used to go swimming. They are now so polluted.”
This might sound like a fairly straightforward environmental story, but the picture is more mixed than it might seem. “Guayaquil has poor zoning laws and I think that a lot of the effects of that (sprawl, lack of public space) is visible in this work,” Munoz says. “But Ecuador is also a place with incredible natural resources and natural resiliency – so it’s a complicated relationship.”
His aim was to reflect that nuance in these photos, whose message is more than just: Man = bad, Nature = good. “I’ve found that I keep returning to abstraction to a certain degree in my work,” he says. And in many ways, although they are of concrete objects (quite literally in many cases) these photos have an abstract quality. Certainly Munoz views them that way, as evidenced by his choice of name for the series.
“The name came from one of [abstract expressionist] Barnett Newman’s works Vir, Eroicus, Sublmis (or Man, Heroic, Sublime) which was a very large, red canvas. It was first shown at the Betty Parsons Gallery in New York with a sign that invited viewers in for a closer inspection or confrontation.”
“I wanted these infrared works to ask the same of the viewer – because of their scale and striking palette, they are meant to be inspected up close.” As with their namesake Newman painting, every repeat visit reveals something different. And it’s only by looking more closely that you can see the wood for the alien-looking, bright red trees.