Gritty Photos of the Highs and Lows of Mexico City's Underground Nightlife
"My most creative and calm moments happen at night while the fucking bureaucrats sleep."
Credit: Jesús León, "Vida", Edition Patrick Frey, 2018
For more than 20 years, Mexican photographer José de Jesús “Chucho” León Hernández has documented wild moments that could only happen in the dead of night, when Mexico City’s daytime denizens finally drift off to sleep. Chucho wanders the metropolis with his camera, popping into underground nightclubs and dark alleys, capturing stark images of drugs, sex, squalor, glamour, revelry, and death.
Inspired by the high drama of Mexican Catholic iconography and the grandeur of fashion photography, Chucho takes us inside the curious netherworld where he feels most at ease. He shows viewers the ecstatic highs of the Mexico City party circuit, as well as the lurid comedown when the revelry ends.
“I’m not interested in the technical side of photography,” Chucho told VICE in a recent phone interview. “I’m interested in its history and I see myself as an editor of images.” This approach allows him to be completely in the moment as wild scenes unfold, often only discovering great shots the next day, while sifting through the previous night’s haul.
With his whirlwind of portraits, nudes, and documentary shots, Chucho creates a visual rhythm and cadence all his own, one which he likens to “a tale of a city—any city in the world.” In light of the release of his new book, Vida (Edition Patrick Frey), VICE caught up with Chucho to hear about the strange encounters he’s had over the years.
VICE: How has Catholicism influenced you as an artist?
José de Jesús “Chucho” León Hernández: I was raised by two Catholic aunts, and religious paraphernalia was all over my house: souls burning in Purgatory, images of the Passion of Christ with blood running down his body, candles. I was always scared about the end of the world, the prophecies, the apocalypse. Later I discovered the most beautiful Baroque chapels downtown. I was amazed by the use of light on the altars, the legends, and black Christs.
When I was an adolescent I rebelled against this and started to work with Satanic and sexually explicit imagery—mixing gore with Catholic images in zines and listening to garage, punk rock, jazz, and classical music. I started going out at night looking for sex and eventually for parties and friends. I felt like a kid lost in a movie theater or inside a church: excited and fucking afraid of life at the same time.
How did you get involved with photography, and what did you like most about it?
When I was 17 years old, I started with a Polaroid camera that my boyfriend gave me. We were taking nudes on buildings in ruins in Mexico City’s downtown after the earthquake of 1985. We were also experimenting with light and movement. It was a beautiful and romantic time when I discovered photography. Then I started to go to porn cinemas to photograph the remains on the floor: blood and semen stains, any kind of detritus, used condoms, and shadows. I was also taking photos of churches and bleeding Christs. With all this and Catholic paraphernalia, I made collages and zines. I’ve always had this fascination with magazines and the fact that you can tell your own side of things by documenting a reality but at the same time altering it, reinventing it.
What are some of the fashion magazines and books that inspired you?
I’m an obsessively curious person, so I decided to explore photography through books by Anna Piaggi, Diana Vreeland, Alexey Brodovitch, Terry Jones, Patrick Frey, and Walter Keller. I loved magazines like RayGun, Nest, Interview, The Face, and obscure Mexican cult mags like La Regla Rota ( The Broken Rule) and La Guillotina.
Could you describe the nightlife scene in Mexico City 20 years ago when you first began documenting the scene?
The war on drugs by this asshole former President Felipe Calderón Hinojosa had not started yet, so this city was way less violent. I was living in an apartment in the Roma neighborhood, and almost every night we crashed there to listen to music, get wasted, and make more photos.
Artists and musicians and poets in the same building were doing that, too. Underground clubs like Los Ojos and Amsterdam were open till 9 AM, there were porn shows at gay clubs at 4 AM, and punk bands in cheap downtown cantinas now closed due to gentrification. And no one was photographing that!
Could you talk about death, and the way this informs the story you tell in Vida?
I didn’t want a book about nightlife showing just the enjoyment of being young and happy. (I find this tremendously boring.) I wanted to show its sinister side: witchcraft, dead animals, funeral homes, pink caskets, the sorrow, the hospitals, the inevitable crash, the hangover—like in a good von Stroheim or Fassbinder film—as well as the rebirth of every weekend.
When I was younger, I discovered Sanborns, a big magazine store filled with French and Italian Vogue, Artforum, Cahiers du Cinéma, i-D, The Face, etc. and people could browse for hours. It was an important gay spot for casual sex encounters in the bathrooms.
That was the perfect place for a 15-year-old kid who grew up in a city with nota roja all over—a popular form of printed press showing explicit photographs of violence, crime, vendettas, tragic accidents, cops mocking transvestites, narco-Satanism, and then on the very next pages, gossip columns about movie stars and a horoscopes section. Pictures of dismembered bodies could be seen at all the newspaper stands on the streets every day—just like how they appear overnight, lying on the streets of the city and all over the country, these days. So, no happy endings.
What are some of the most memorable moments you’ve had making this body of work?
Since most of the time clubs are so dark, I only can tell little details while working. I realize they are weird scenes when I’m downloading images onto my computer. For example, one girl saw me as I walked into a cantina, and then she disappeared. Later, she came back wearing a full face of exaggerated makeup. The next day, while editing my new work, there she was in my photo: beaten with bruises on her eyes. The photo was full of gruesome details, and the makeup only made things worse.
Also, there were rumors about this famous club that they were practicing Santería; it is something really common in bars and nightclubs to attract good luck. We were dancing, and suddenly the floor felt sticky. I took pictures, and when I saw them, I realized it was blood. Near the ceiling there was an altar. For a while, I photographed slaughtered animals, like chickens and doves and even a calf, lying on the streets while returning home. Strange encounters.
Could you tell us about some of the most important clubs in Mexico City?
My ideal club doesn’t exist. I’ve attended really good parties at apartments and some monthly nights at certain nightclubs. Lately, I organize great ones at my gallerist’s house with my favorite people—a mix of old and young, with artists, hustlers, models, dealers, etc.—but club culture or extraordinary places don’t exist here. It’s more my juxtaposition of people and things—my remake of the México City nightlife through portraits.
At what point did you realize that nightlife was something you would document over an extended period of time?
I love to document growing movements, new people with great ideas, fresh faces, and finding new friends. The night is much more than club culture. The beautiful choreography of light and shadow and lost people like me walking the streets makes me feel like we are in a movie set, where the buildings, prostitutes, and dead animals are also protagonists.
I feel safer at night, in every sense. Secrets have been revealed to me while I walk this city. My most creative and calm moments happen at night while the fucking bureaucrats sleep. I like to go out at night on my bike listening to weird and beautiful music in a trancelike state. I’m a night creature, sometimes full of ghosts and paranoia.
What are some of the things that have remained consistent in nightlife over the past 20 years?
I have this theory that every ten years or so a new movement emerges. By then, people with fresh ideas and alternative points of view emerge, too—new poets and musicians. I’ve seen it and documented it. It will happen again.
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