Roberto Rubalcava (b. 1969) is a photographer from Mexico, currently living and working in London. He sees his work as a long journey of self-discovery - a therapeutic process which he uses to come to terms with the events, emotions and circumstances which have impacted his life. Influenced heavily by his training as a yoga teacher, his photographic practise can be viewed as a moving meditation - an attempt to return to the centre and discover the essence of himself.
Rubalcava is fascinated by the dramatic interplay of light and shadow as he captures the atmospheric qualities of isolated and derelict spaces. His dark and minimalist images constitute a complex collection of thoughts and memories taken mostly on lonely walks at night during trips across Europe, to Japan and back to his home country of Mexico. Oscillating between the grotesque and the reverent, his perspective is influenced by the brutality and drama of Catholic imagery that defined his upbringing as well as feelings of disillusionment, hope and grief which have shaped his adulthood.
After spending his early career as a journalist in Mexico, Rubalcava moved to New York to work as a fashion photographer for over fifteen years. Influenced by this experience, his early portraits of ethereal figures at dreamy lakesides have a seductive, painterly quality. Whilst comfortable in his ability to photograph beautiful people wearing clothes in an artistic way, he felt there was something superficial in the fantasy world he was creating. Eventually, he stripped everything down and returned to shooting on film. Going back to basics has allowed him to find value in seeking out a grittier and more honest understanding of beauty, witnessed in his recent series Away from the Light (2015-2020) and Naoko (2019 - 2020).
Away from the Light
Away from the Light (2015 - 2020) is an ongoing experimental project shooting on film in low light conditions. The series documents Rubalcava’s nocturnal wanderings into isolated and off-limit realms such as breaking the curfew to find a row of abandoned cinema seats in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone or venturing into a dilapidated hospital in The Netherlands. As if hunting with a camera, the series exudes a sense of discovery, danger and transgression, propelled by the artist’s desire to push the limits of what is accessible and make darkness visible. Unexpected subjects and scenery are exposed from the velvety darkness, often only to be revealed when the film roll is processed.
The series is fascinated by the tension between human activity and nature - witnessed in the derelict house taken over by branches or the footprints and tyre tracks leading through the snow into the deep Austrian mountainside. Environmental conditions such as snow, ice or fog are adapted for aesthetic and practical purposes in diffusing what light is available. The natural world is portrayed as having its own character and energy - a field of sunflowers in Andalucia dangle their prickly heads as they loom from the darkness just as the grimaces of wild horses which have returned to the now-uninhabitable areas of Ukraine are caught by the shimmering flashbulb.
The recurring imagery of cemeteries, gravestones and church interiors pepper the series with existential questions surrounding death and religion as Rubalcava reflects on emotions and experiences which have shaped his life. The artist returns to the conflicting feelings of awe and dread he felt as a child when visiting a confession booth and hearing a bodiless voice emerge from behind the screen. These photographs are positioned alongside voyeuristic portraits of anonymous dancers and circus performers contorting their flesh and skeletons. The human body is captured in an intimate chiaroscuro echoing the grotesque theatricality of religious art whilst challenging the prejudicial censorship of sexuality within the Catholic church.
Rubalcava is drawn to locations which invite isolation and meditative repose. Void-like spaces are depicted with a raw, almost philosophical honesty. The entrance to an empty cave in Portugal and the murky water of a disused swimming pool in Sayulita, Mexico draw the viewer’s eye into seemingly infinite blackness. As the artist looks up to photograph a window of the sky from the bottom of a cenote in Tulum, light offers an assertion of wisdom and truth. The dramatic interplay of reflection and shadow expresses the high drama of sunlight in Mexico - an elemental force which has had a powerful aesthetic impact on Rubalcava’s creative perspective and journey as a photographer.
Text by Verity Seward