“Observed” was the impressive New York solo debut for the Peruvian-born artist Milagros de la Torre. Organized by curator and scholar Edward J. Sullivan, the exhibition of 38 photographs—corresponding to a related de la Torre show at the Museo de Arte de Lima (MALI), on view through July 1-constituted a midcareer survey spanning over 20 years. At first glance, the large and small photos and intimate collages are elegant and appealing, yet the works consistently convey a haunting unease.
Hazy portraits with dark red faces and eerie red and white halos dominate an early series, “Under the Black Sun,” 1991-93. Here, exploring themes of race and identity, de la Torre adopted the methods of street portrait photographers in Cuzco, using a box camera in which she directly exposes photographic paper. Like them, she applies a layer of Mercurochrome on the paper negative. The chemical retouching serves to lighten skin tones of the street photographer’s subjects in the final prints, giving the mixed-race or Native-American clients a more Caucasian look. But de la Torre stops at the negative stage, allowing dark red tones to predominate in these images, ranging from wallet size to several feet high.
The daughter of the chief of Lima’s anti-drug military police force, de la Torre grew up in a particularly turbulent time in Peru. During the 1970s and ’80s, the public terrorist acts and threats of personal attack were part of her everyday existence as a child. She had to change her route to school every day to avoid being kidnapped, for example, and her family was under constant threat from drug lords’ hit men. She attended college in London, where she studied photography, and after residing in Paris and Mexico City for a time, she now spends most of the year in New York. But her core endeavor stems from her youthful experiences in Peru, which have global relevance today.
De la Torre shifted toward a highly estheticized, quasi-documentary style in series such as “The Lost Steps” (1996). This engaging group of black-and-white still lifes depicts crime evidence from Lima’s Palace of Justice archives. Grotesque objects, like a bloodied shirt or a belt used by police to strangle a rape suspect
during a police investigation (according to the label) belie the atmospheric sumptuousness of the images. Another series explores the subtle changes in armored vehicle designs in Mexico (“Armored,” 2000), and “Bulletproof” (2008) examines trends in bullet-proof clothing. Consistent throughout her work is de la Torre’s intense scrutiny of the mechanics of violence, its accoutrements and residual effects.
Photo: Milagros de la Torre: Under the Black Sun, 1991-93, hand-dyed toned gelatin silver print, Mercurochrome, 2¾ by 1½ inches; at the Americas Society.