Gifts of Chance:

Jill Hartley's Photographic Lottery


The whimsical figures of the lotería belong to the visual heritage of every Mexican childhood: the skull, avidly silent as it stares at you from bottles of poison and high voltage cables; the watermelon and its summer smile; the staggering drunkard seen from across the street with fear and a tinge of compassion; a ladder leaning dangerously against the sky; a pine tree; a star; less evil than he is mischievous, a carnival devil with scant powers of persuasion; a parrot; a drum; a scorpion or a crown. Consider the characters: the lady, with silk stockings of course; the dandy, his fine manners barely concealing his villainy; the brave one, penniless yet ready to avenge any offense; blackie, all loyalty and involuntary humor. All remind us of those ill-fated romances that have nourished Mexican cinema.

Like the encyclopedia, the zoo, the patent office or the periodic table of elements, the cards of the lotería present a sample collection, a display-case of the world. Fifty-four images, nothing unites them, nothing separates them, yet they suffice to represent the world. There is no system, nor principle of classification. The rose, the bell, the heart, the Apache: the only thing they share is an existence in the singular.

"The art of photography is also a game of chance." Such is the equation that Jill Hartley proposes, and willing to provide us with the evidence, she has propped her exploration of Mexican identity on the ingenuous cards of the lotería.

A great photograph is rather like a toss of the dice. The photographer who explores the modest miracles of the everyday knows that he must rely on the terms of his relation with chance. In her wanderings throughout Mexico, Jill Hartley has befriended a providence that repeatedly sets before her eyes the delicate ingredients of a photograph. Essentially, photography is but vision becoming conscious of itself. The photographer selects his subjects from chaos, traces borders on his field of view, discriminates and arranges. Sifting the meaningful from the superfluous, he registers that meaning with his camera so others may share it and appreciate its existence.

What is Jill Hartley's aim in her photographic dialogue with the lotería ?

She neither challenges nor refutes, nor does she idly mimic the vernacular. Playing the lottery by her own rules, she seeks to demonstrate the reaches of such a sample collection. Open and devoid of any classifying principle, this sampling of the world may well be as vast as the world itself. Only by appealing to chance can one aspire to capture a country and its people in a handful of cards. The pumpkin, the hand, the agave, the lovesick, the devout one, momentary deities in Jill Hartley's lottery, they are all the fleeting gifts of chance.

Echoing the very cards with which she maintains a dialogue, her lotería is suffused with an exquisite candor. Only this naiveté can render the game possible. Ready for surprise, perhaps timidly, Hartley captures her images with the discretion of one armed with a net, catches dragonflies and butterflies. The naiveté in the anonymous drawings of the lotería give them their only coherence. Likewise, the photographs interlace in a style full of lyricism.

In some quiet corner in an ever-changing Mexico, a hunchback* must be waiting as he questions the horizon. He waits in the blind and indifferent landscape to which we have reduced our daily gaze, certain that the eye of Jill Hartley will not pass him by. We too wait to rediscover in her images the subtle magic of which the world is capable.

Alain-Paul Mallard

*The sight of a hunchback, a figure in some versions of the lotería,
is supposed to bring good luck.