After 14 wives and a career as a photojournalist for LIFE, Reader’s Digest, Harper’s Magazine and the United Nations, the man recognized as Colombia’s most important photographer – Leo Matiz – left an indelible mark on visual storytelling in Latin America.
Leo Matiz was born in Aracataca in 1917, only a decade before this colorful hamlet near the Magdalena River presented a giant to the world of letters. The town which inspired “Macondo” in Gabriel García Márquez’s timeless work One Hundred Years of Solitude was also the setting for many of Matiz’s iconic images. Like his contemporary of words, Matiz moved on from Macondo, leaving the town and the heat of the coast to its destiny. His first foray with the visual arts was studying in Bogotá at the National School of Fine Arts. When the artist turned 16, his first caricatures went into print.
Matiz began working as a photographer in Colombia for La Estampa. Although he admitted to having misgivings when he started out, by the age of 24 he was working in Mexico as a professional photojournalist and studio assistant to Manuel Alvarez Bravo. Mexico in the 1940s was a highly politicized scene, and a hotbed of documentary photography.
It takes a sensitive eye to document the forced-labor of Mexico City’s seamstresses, the misery of its railroad workers, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the Middle East, that the United Nations sent Matiz to cover in 1948. “I wanted to be a writer or a painter and became a photographer. But I have been an artist. In the hands of an artisan, photography is just a trade. But in the hands of an artist, it is an art,” Matiz once said.
Matiz went to great lengths to get close to his subjects, once dressing as a beggar to pass unrecognised among Mexico’s poor and another time disguising himself as a prisoner to record the atrocities that inmates suffered. Indeed this approach meant that by 1949, he was recognized as one of the ten best photographers in the world, and would later win awards in Italy and France.
With unruly hair and a propensity to wear colorful jackets, Leo Matiz would often set aside his camera to work as curator with painters who were projecting themselves internationally. In 1951, Matiz held the first exhibition of the Colombian painter Fernando Botero in Bogotá at his Galeria de Arte Foto-Estudio Leo Matíz. The exhibition included 25 works by the up and coming artist, among them watercolors, drawings and oil paintings. The following summer, Matiz held a second exhibition of Botero’s work in which all the artist’s works were sold for a total price of US $2,000.
Matiz’s travels continued around the continent for the next 30 years until in 1979, the twists of fate typical of Macondo came back to haunt Matiz and a premonitory vision he had years earlier came tragically true. Whilst walking through the downtown streets of Bogota, a camera in hand, a thief accosted him and took his left eye – his camera eye – in the attack.
After Matiz’s death in 1998, the Leo Matiz Foundation began to showcase the work of this important artist in major art venues around the world. This month, the National Museum of Colombia, with the support of the Ministry of Culture and Leo Matiz Foundation, will exhibit 128 black and white photographs by this master from “Macondo.”
The exhibition forms part of the museum’s “National Heritage” series and which delves into six decades of Matiz’s work, starting at the beginning of the last century, when the photographer began documenting daily life in the Colombian countryside.
Matiz was a master of symmetry and precision, at a time when the status quo was challenged by workers, unionists and social divisions. Even though he experienced the dark days of Colombia’s La Violencia, with its deep-rooted political hatreds, Matiz’s visual language has more in common with the familiar domestic captures of France’s Cartier-Bresson than the war images of Robert Capa (1913-1954).
As Cartier-Bresson photographed French painter Matisse in his studio in the south of France, Matiz also mastered the portrait with many subjects, including Marc Chagall. Matiz’s tonal range in photography covers the black and white spectrum, from soft grey light to those with sharp contrast. The title of the exhibition ‘Mirando el infinito’ (Looking at the Infinite) is also very telling of the photographer’s emotional landscapes.
Feeling that he was destined to capture tragedy, Matiz once claimed: “I have been saved from hurricanes, from volcanoes, from rivers which break their banks, and from attacks. I cannot sleep, because I have seen the infinite.” And now thanks to this historic initiative by the Museo Nacional, we can appreciate Matiz’s mastery in picture taking and the creative horizon he reached.
Additional reporting by Lisa Blackmore.