Picture this

Tom Ridgway introduces the cinematographer Gabriel Figueroa

Text by Tom Ridgway

Gabriel Figueroa was born in 1907 in Mexico City and by the time he began working as a cinematographer in the early 1930s was part of the city’s lively art scene and friends with Diego Rivera and José Clemente Orozco. His early career coincided with the “Golden Age” of Mexican cinema – helped by the slowdown in US production during World War II – and during his over 50-year career he worked both in Mexico, notably on seven films with Luis Buñuel, and Hollywood, with John Huston and John Ford. “Figueroa and other filmmakers created the image of a country that is fiction, but Mexican society still recognises itself in those films,” says his son, Gabriel Figueroa Flores. “They contain the Mexican essence”. Figueroa himself said that he wanted to create “una imágen mexicana”.

His work is proof of Robert Bresson’s dictum on lighting that, “Things made more visible not by more light, but by the fresh angle at which I regard them.” Figueroa’s fresh angle was to increase visibility by using less light – what his son calls “lighting with shadows” – building his amazing compositions by revealing what is not there and sculpting the void, a technique reminiscent of both chiaroscuro painters and his contemporary, groundbreaking Hollywood cinematographer Gregg Toland. Meanwhile, his love of low-angle shots reveals his inherent sense of drama (look at the soldier and his gun!), a deep love of Mexico’s poetically dramatic skies, and a determination to keep his feet firmly on the ground, as if the “Mexican image” he was working to create was one forever in touch in the land and the people who live both on and from it. §

All images by Gabriel Figueroa, © Gabriel Figueroa Collection

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