Preservation and Decay: Xavier Nuez’s photographs find beauty in insects and inner cities

“When I started this series several years ago, I would get the most horrible nightmares,” Xavier Nuez admits. He is standing before “Atlas: carried a weight,” part of a set of photographs in which the artist cloaks the dusty, desiccated bodies of long-dead insects in the imagery of ancient heroes (other entries include “Rhodius: fallen hero of Troy” and “Asha: jewel of the Nile”). In “Atlas,” the dried corpse of a weary-looking fly appears to strive toward a light that shines elusively through a hole in a black cardboard wall. Nuez describes his process in creating the pieces as follows: “I build these tiny little sets, and then I look for the right bug for the part,” employing an especially long, accordion-like camera lens to capture the bugs and manipulating the light around them to achieve the desired effect. “I’m trying to glorify them,” Nuez says of the bugs in the photographs. “I’m trying to give them respect.” Nuez later adds that the theme linking these insect pieces to his photographs of inner cities is that, in all his works, he’s “trying to find beauty in something ugly.”

It is these pictures of inner cities for which Nuez is best known. Late at night, he travels to the most run-down parts of urban areas and takes long-exposure shots (some of which involve locking the camera’s shutter open for up to ninety minutes) of abandoned buildings and dark corners. Inspired by stories of his father’s childhood homelessness and a life-long love of dark alleyways (as Nuez tells it, he used his first roll of film to take pictures of a street alley with his brother at night), Nuez has made a career of distilling the aesthetics of vicious urban settings. Much of the beauty in these photographs is accidental: regular city lights on long-exposure turn out to produce vivid green and orange colors. In the case of an abandoned stadium in Miami, leaving the camera for an hour and a half resulted in a previously inky-black interior being transformed into a panoply of neon graffiti and bright echoes of city streetlights. Another “very, very, very happy accident,” as Nuez describes it, is the color of the night sky looming above his photographs of Chicago. “It’s funny,” he says, “that the radioactive sky that seems to be over the city gives me this beautiful pink color.”

Catching images in the right conditions is rarely without danger. Nuez notes that he has been accosted by gangs in Detroit, New York, and, of all places, Indianapolis, although “the closest I’ve gotten to getting myself killed was in Compton.” There, he and two friends found themselves cut off by a Latino street gang with $20,000 worth of photographic equipment, a situation Nuez was only able to escape from after the gang leader mistook him for a friend of a friend. As Nuez’s decision to not give up late-night picture-taking after that incident suggests, his dedication to capturing the perfect shot is palpable. Showing an image of central Detroit, he explains, “To get this I had to set up in the middle of a street.” Cars angrily whizzed past and he wound up getting yelled at by a cop, Nuez says, “but it was the only way to get the right shot.”

After scanning wet negatives onto a computer, Nuez adjusts brightness and contrast on Photoshop–he is careful to emphasize that he doesn’t otherwise digitally alter the photograph in any way–and prints out various sizes using a large printer. They’re shown the second Friday of every month as part of the Chicago Arts District’s gallery night, and by appointment in the Pilsen apartment where Nuez also lives. Newly arrived in Chicago from San Francisco, Nuez says he moved because Chicago is “my favorite city” and “one of my best markets,” but also for aesthetic reasons. “Miami, San Francisco, California, it’s hard to find something gritty,” he explains. “Chicago–you can’t throw a stone without hitting an old, run-down building…In the next few years I expect to scour the city and get a zillion shots.” That could mean that the next Chicago publicity campaign will include, alongside regulars such as Millennium Park and the Sears Tower, a photograph of the abandoned Hyde Park Hospital, windows glowing under a pink sky.
1932 S. Halsted St., studio 402. By appointment only. nuez.com

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