The Daily Illini
Xavier Nuez’s Alleys and Ruins, Dignifying One “Big Dirty City” at a Time
By Tyler Grand Pre; September 9, 2016
In the heart of Pilsen during one of its renowned art walks, I had the privilege of speaking with Xavier Nuez, an internationally successful, urban photographer whose work has been exhibited in numerous prestigious galleries, museums, and institutions. Just ten days prior to our interview was the 25th anniversary of when Xavier started his still ongoing magnum opus, the Alleys and Ruins series, in which, with nothing more than a vintage camera and a few colored lights, he has been able to capture what Poe described as “that halfpleasurable, because poetic, sentiment with which the mind...receives even the sternest natural images of the desolate or terrible.” To be more plain, he searches out blighted, desolate scenes in cities and with his fifty year old Hasselblad camera conducts long exposure shots at night that can range from 5 minutes to 2 hours; he uses colored lights to give these inherently unattractive scenes “a very slick commercial veneer that makes them accessible,” as he puts it, moving quickly before his camera so as to avoid showing up in the final shot. The result is a series of polychromatic visions of blight and ruin that feel like a fairytale and invite like a commercial ad.
Over a rum-and-coke, and in a raspy voice emulative of Tom Waits and Ron Perlman, Xavier related his early life fears and inspirations as a starving artist. He has lived in Chicago for the past six years, and in response to my question of how it stacks up to the other cities in which he has both lived and worked, he stated that “It’s…the first city that I actually…chose to live in. Before this I lived in San Francisco for three years, moved there because of marriage. I mean [it was] a beautiful city, a fantastic place to live, but...not a gritty city. I like a big dirty city, you know, I like a city that’s been lived in.”
Why he likes “a big dirty city” seems to be that he grew up in proximity to and explored as a kid “places that had lots of old run down stuff,” and he was often regaled by his father’s stories about childhood homelessness. But he became more acquainted and interested in these spaces of urban ruin as a result of his own burgeoning fear of becoming homeless that itself resulted from acute social anxiety.
“When I started the series,” he explains, “I was in my late twenties and was feeling some severe social anxiety; I just needed to be alone a lot.” He later elaborates further stating that “When you have social anxiety, when there’s people there,” he says pointing, “you walk that way…[and] people don’t tend to go to these places[,] so I would just keep going away and [I’d] eventually end up where nobody wants to be.” However, as he notes, “the social anxiety...became so extreme that I started thinking that I could become homeless.”
“I just thought,” he continues, “if I can’t interact with people, what the hell is gonna happen? I’m trying to be a photographer, I’m trying to be an artist, like the odds are already stacked against [me].”
So he explored these urban manifestations of his troubled psyche while barely supporting himself through commercial photography. As he intuitively photographed what resonated with him on a startlingly personal level, Xavier unwittingly began what would become his defining body of work. He shot commercial photography of “the most beautiful architecture” by day and the “ugliest architecture” by night, incorporating his increasing understanding of artificial light usage into his independent work out of doors.
However, his intentions in starting Alleys and Ruins, again, were not quite as clear as they may seem now. “I was going into these places,” he reflects, “thinking I wanted my photographs to be ugly and almost horrifying—that was kind of my goal [because] that’s how I was kind of feeling — but instead they would always be these sort of dreamy, beautiful pictures of these dumpy places. And over time I started to understand that I was trying to deflect all the horror by making these places that I feared into something beautiful, into places that didn’t seem so frightening, and the more I did that…the less afraid I became of them.”
Clearly, from the start, it was very psychological what he was doing, but his work slowly became psychological on more than a personal level. Xavier points out that “these are places that are shunned by society. They are places most people are afraid of. So I give them an extreme makeover. I light them in a very slick way to kind of remove them from what they really are, to create almost a false impression…”
These spaces, which are as much a part of any city as its monuments, tall buildings, and tourist destinations—and perhaps more genuine than all those in terms of human experience—are almost like neglected, repressed regions of the collective, urban psychology. Perhaps, deep down, we all fear them for the same reasons as Xavier. Not all homeless people are threatening, and some of these spaces can be encountered briefly in the middle of some of the safest parts of a city. Therefore, beyond the immediate fear of getting “hit in the head with a rock,” as Xavier comically puts it, why do we feel the need to avoid them as well as shun and ignore their inhabitants? Perhaps we also see and fear the potential of our own desolation and ruin. In that sense, Xavier operates like an Jungian agent of the collective unconscious, helping society to come to terms with it’s darker and repressed regions.
“Even though there’s nobody in the images, [the] images are really all about people,” he states and then continues, “I think of all the characters that have come and gone over the years and all of the stories that have taken place in these areas, because you know there’s a lot of stories, but there’s nobody to ask. So all you can do is imagine…And so I want to help the viewer, I want to present the image in a way where they feel drawn in, and like I said, I always create these openings for them to walk in because I want them to sort of experience them in the way that I do.”
And it is not that he wants his viewers to actually go to these places and face some of the real dangers he has faced—which include being chased and threatened by street gangs as well as having corrupt cops aim guns at him. “I like to imagine,” he states, “that they,” that is the viewers, “start thinking about the location and about the people who were there, typically homeless people, [and] maybe they start feeling a little more empathy.”
Whether or not people who view his art become more empathetic towards the homeless, Xavier certainly achieves what the Alleys and Ruins series is really all about, which is, as he puts it, “dignifying what’s been rejected.”