Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A Vague History of La Nota Roja

My attempts to find out about the origins of the trend for Mexican Crime reporting have ranged from tall sounding tales of dying revolutionaries, drawing their last breath with bloodied declarations of Republic in their hands, to Enrique Metinides holding a DVD copy of Spiderman in his Mexico City apartment and proclaiming that he considered Peter Parker's capers to be as good an example of 'Nota Roja' as one might find.

This paper, by William Straw, helped me shed some light on the subject, defining 'Nota Roja' as: "a Mexican term for the chronicling of violence and crime" which helps us with the term itself but not with it's origins, it's visual etymology.

I'm interested in this form of journalism as a language within Mexican society and am always curious to understand how images of the more macabre side of life somehow arrived and stayed in the mainstream of the Mexican press. Death and violence are a daily front page certainty in Mexico's tabloids.

Something that could be considered shocking or inappropriate in other parts of the world is a pre-requisite for the Mexican front page.

In the West publication of 'explicit' images seem somehow most justified to their readership if the victims are seen to be terrorists.

Images of the corpses of Muammar Gaddaffi or of Uday and Qusay Hussein are widely published examples but generally editors of Western papers prefer to stay away from the blood and guts, hooking their readers on the cult of the expose and the grainy CCTV portrait.

Perhaps it's a case of the 'Tell All' rather than the 'All Told' approach.

In Mexico City tabloids however, a victim of a car crash can be enough to warrant a full page cover with the headline "MALA SUERTE". In other words it's violence for it's own sake. As opposed to reinforcing a broader moral standard of good versus evil, it seems to be suggesting that life is short and bad luck may lurk anywhere, so beware.

The only reference to Nota Roja on Wikipedia is in a biography entry for Metinides. This is unsurprising as for many he remains the 'Padrino' of Mexican crime photography...his decades of spectacular images first published in La Prensa paving the way for interest in the subject.

Straw's article, while not delving into the history of this transition into the mainstream does provide answers as to why Mexican true crime reporting emerged as a distinct visual language.

He cites the time - when snappers like Metinides came of age - as a kind of Belle Epoque for newspaper publishing, a time when graphic boundaries were being pushed in Mexican tabloids.

It was an era when the layout and design in publications like Metropoliciaca, Nota Roja, Policia and Prensa Policiaca shaped a new style in how their photo stories were presented to the public, using graphic type faces and paneled images over multiple pages to foreground the sensational photography. Straw states:

"The history of the Mexican nota roja, has been interwoven at important points with that of the Mexican comic book, from which crime magazines borrowed a penchant for the telling of stories using sequential photographs."

When I came across this Post Card photograph "Rebel burnt in the street" at a Mexico City market however I returned to the question of the beginnings of this genre and wondered what the precedent of true crime photographs in Mexico had been before the time of Metinides and the graphic novel style.

Surely there was a time when the taboo of publishing images of the death and suffering had been broken and the 'Policiacas' had crossed over to the mainstream media? I wondered whether these type of picture Post Cards formed the beginning of this culture?

The Mexican Revolution was one of the first conflicts to be documented in images from the front lines. Events on the Rio Grande unfolded at the same time as photographers began moving out into the world: eager to capture 'life as it is today'...

"Using glass plate cameras and early cut film cameras, primitive by today's standards, the photographers faced injury and death to obtain negatives which would be printed on postcard stock and sold to the soldiers and general public on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border. Some of the views were obviously posed, and others showed the death and destruction resulting from the violence of a nation involved in a bloody civil war."

Whether images of this type from sometime in the 1910s were distributed for news value or for shock value is not certain but like the classic era crime images of the 50s or the modern Mexican tabloids, these vintage images do not shy from shock value and retain the kind of sensationalist edge that epitomises the style of La Nota Roja.

Perhaps then, the genre emerged fully formed out of the photographic box? History shows us a combination of factors that made it viable: a public hungry for news and for the first time able to see conflict in images; the idea, indicated above, that some of these images blurred the lines between fact and fiction thus elevating them to a kind of mythical status.

These are traits that still inform the style of Nota Roja today and why some point to the Revolution and others to Hollywood blockbusters as valid examples of the genre.

Maybe it's the idea of spectacle that best informs what La Nota Roja is and is not...regardless of it's origins.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this!
I recently stumbled upon the phrase "la nota roja" and simply couldn't find out what it meant, until i found this post :D

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