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A Mexican Photographer Reveals Another Side of David Bowie

The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, U2 and Led Zeppelin—now that would be an amazing festival lineup for the ages. These legends are among the luminaries Mexican photographer Fernando Aceves has captured over his stellar 25-year career, and fans have the opportunity to see his iconic images in three separate shows this year.

This month in Southern California, Aceves’s solo show, “David Bowie: Among the Mexican Masters,” a collection of photographs shot during the artist’s one and only visit to Mexico City 20 years ago, is on view through June 15 at the Forest Lawn Museum in Glendale. This will be followed by “RockIN México,” which opens on July 7 at the Consulate General of Mexico in Los Angeles, featuring decades’ worth of his images documenting the Mexican rock scene — including portraits of Carlos Santana, Sergio Arau, and Adolfo “Fito” de la Parra — with fellow photographer Oscar Zagal. Jumping continents, images from Aceves’s 1997 Bowie session are also on display in the touring “David Bowie Is” exhibit that recently opened at the Barcelona Design Museum.

"Immersed in Study 1," Diego Rivera’s mural "Man Controller of the Universe," Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City, 1997. | Fernando Aceves, 2007
"Immersed in Study 1," Diego Rivera’s mural "Man Controller of the Universe," Palace of Fine Arts, Mexico City, 1997. | Fernando Aceves, 2007

Looking back, Aceves’s affinity with the camera seemed inevitable. Aceves was born and raised in Mexico City, where his mother introduced him to photography. She used to shoot on a small Instamatic camera using 110 film. “I felt fascination for that small box, like that small box is magic,” he recalls. When he was around 19, one of his friends got a professional camera as a gift. That was the first time Aceves had the opportunity to hold one, and it was thrilling. In ’86, he got his own.

At first, he didn’t know what to shoot. He started with family trips and friends’ events, and by 1988 he started to think seriously about becoming a photographer. His first “serious” subject? Not a rock star, but Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, a contemporary of Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was performing in Mexico and the 23-year-old Aceves shot the show as an audience member. At a later event, he asked Nureyev to sign the photos, and the dancer, upon seeing them, said, “Oh my god.” Aceves notes, “I don’t know if he likes or hates them, but he was very impressed!”

In those days, Mexico lacked concert photographers, partly because the country didn’t have a lot of big arena shows. It wasn’t until 1991 that famous acts from the States and Europe started touring there. For a young Aceves, it was a prime opportunity. He asked a local promoter to give him access to shoot a Billy Joel concert. The promoter agreed, and later, when the budding photographer delivered prints from the show as a thank-you present, the promoter liked what he saw. “He told me, ‘Fernando, you’re welcome anytime you want to come.” Over time, the promoter hired him for some gigs as did musicians and record labels that liked his growing portfolio.

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“I really led the first generation of concert photographers in Mexico. At that time the concert industry was still emerging, so I had no other competition,” says Aceves by phone from his home in Mexico City, fresh off an assignment shooting Sting’s two concerts there.

“Sting was one of my first shows in my career,” referring to when Sting’s Soul Cages tour made a stop in 1991. “And [now he] is 26 years older, and so am I [laughing] . . . I can see the evolution of the musician playing the same songs in a different way. But also I can see myself shooting in a different way.”

By different, Aceves means a number of things: “The technology on the productions are very different,” he says. “The kind of sound, the kind of lighting — everything around production changed.” Also, his own equipment has changed since moving to digital in 2002. “Now I can photograph things not possible before. If my subject was too dark, I was not able to shoot it, but now I can, because of the new lenses, the new sensors, everything changed.” His point of view has evolved as well. At first, Aceves says he was “a young guy looking to be close to the musicians he likes . . . the camera was my passport to be exactly at the front of the stage.” Now at age 52, what is important is “showing to people a different view of a famous person that maybe you didn’t see in a magazine or in this day from the editorial view.”

Ozzy Osborne in 1995 | Fernando Aceves
Ozzy Osborne in 1995 | Fernando Aceves
Dave Grohl in 2013 | Fernando Aceves
Dave Grohl in 2013 | Fernando Aceves

With the Bowie exhibit at Forest Lawn, he definitely accomplished that, with the rare opportunity to capture who he calls “the human Bowie, not the character,” without the outrageous makeup, hair, and costumes. Aceves spent two days shadowing Bowie, in addition to shooting his concert. The first day he was commissioned by a promoter who wanted images for press to help sell more tickets to the performer’s stadium show, but the next day was by request of David Bowie himself, who liked Aceves’s “fly-on-the-wall” approach. The images were not intended for promotion. The result is a very personal look at Bowie as he toured Mexico’s historic sites, each chosen by the artist — from the Pyramid of the Sun, at the ancient of city Teotihuacán, to Frida Kahlo’s Blue House and Diego Rivera’s mural at the Palace of Fine Arts, among others. “I really like the way David respects the pieces from these masters,” an admiration that is easily palpable from the images. The show is also significant because it is the first time the museum is featuring a solo show by a Mexican photographer.

"Greeting Tonatiuh (Aztec God of the Sun) 2," Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, State of Mexico, 1997. | Fernando Aceves, 2007
"Greeting Tonatiuh (Aztec God of the Sun) 2," Pyramid of the Sun, Teotihuacan, State of Mexico, 1997. | Fernando Aceves, 2007
Mexican photographer Fernando Aceves | Courtesy of Fernando Aceves
Mexican photographer Fernando Aceves | Courtesy of Fernando Aceves

“I was like a hunter with my camera waiting for that special moment with Bowie,” whose only wish was to catch “something interesting” against the art and landscape of Mexico. “I look back and realize that [the two-day excursion] was kind of a communion between the Mexican culture and his own culture,” he says, “to rock ’n’ roll culture, this universal culture . . . he was highly influenced by others.”

In that short time, Aceves came to see Bowie as “a kind man, always smiling, kind with his musicians,” he recalls. “He was a simple person, very different to other rock stars I have met before, like Mick Jagger or like Paul McCartney — those people, they know very well how to ‘act.’” While Jagger and McCartney were nice to work for, says Aceves, “they were more involved their characters,” while Bowie came across as more like “you and me . . . like a normal person.”

He shot around 120 rolls of film over the two days, and almost 30 images from the shoot are on display with frayed images within frames but no glass, a choice some visitors to the show found especially pleasing, shares museum director Ana Pescador. One person wrote in the guest book, “Mr. Aceves captured Mr. Bowie’s reaction to the art of Mexico exquisitely. Brave presentation of the photographs without glass to cast reflection on the images. I was able to get close as if you were looking at him face-to-face.’” Pescador notes that was her intention. Another guest reflected on the meeting of different cultures: “I was born in the United States and Los Angeles, and I feel so proud to have two identities, to have the Mexican background and being [in the] U.S. in that a rock star, David Bowie, went to my parents’ country and he celebrated and he respected the Mexican culture.”

To see Aceve’s “David Bowie: Among the Mexican Masters” show is to experience Bowie in truly a remarkable way. To reach the museum in Glendale is a journey in itself: you have to drive to through the soaring Forest Lawn’s wrought-iron historic gates of the cemetery, which opened in 1906, wind up its grassy, perfectly manicured hills, passing endless rows of gravestones — and even some recreations of famous sculptures, including Michelangelo’s David — until you reach the top where the museum seems to float among the clouds, as if touching the heavens. It’s a breathtaking site. And then to be greeted with images of Bowie just over a year since his passing, it feels like an appropriate homage to the icon who celebrates the many contributions of Mexico artists in the pictures themselves. And just outside the doors of the exhibit, you can experience 360-degree views of a city that continues to commemorate Bowie’s passing with numerous events. Here, the communion Aceves speaks of continues — and it is as mesmerizing as the music his subject gave the world.

Top Image: Starman 1, Frida Kahlo Museum – Casa Azul courtyard, Coyoacán, Mexico, 1997 | Fernando Aceves, 2007

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