“We came to explore a foreign land that seemed an unknown paradise, the Wild West with gothic cathedrals and Spanish palettes in Indian mountains. We had a pact that no one would write about it. Until 1980 when a parvenu wrote a travel piece for the LA Times, expats could live on $2,500 a year.” It was these words written by former Playboy model Alice Denham in her 2013 memoir Secrets of San Miguel that first set Mexican photographer Alessandro Bo’s imagination aflame. After meeting his now wife and moving closer to the Mexican city of San Miguel de Allende (or “Smail” for short), Alessandro stumbled across a hidden enclave that, from the 1950s, had offered immigrant Bohemians a chance to live cheaply and follow their every whim. Digging out archival footage and shooting the last remaining individuals of this community, Alessandro’s book Smail is a portrait of this unorthodox community, which has almost been lost to time and gentrification of the city.
“I realised Smail had interesting material for a series because of the complexity of the story in itself, such as the characters, the historic background and the constant mutation of the place itself,” Alessandro tells It’s Nice That. “All this could not be told in a single image nor in a written essay. I realised that a series of images, and deeper still, a photo book had to be the most successful to express the universe of Smail. This, and many other facts, started to grab my attention and need to express my own story and version of it.”
Born and raised in the chaos of Mexico City, moving to Smail was the first time that Alessandro had lived in a place so small. The project gave him the chance to start the slow process of meeting interesting people from the area and scouting out the surroundings. “The place itself has a very special atmosphere, many people say it has to do with all the quartz crystals created by the volcanic activity on the surroundings,” says Alessandro. Searching for a lost paradise is a common theme in many of Alessandro’s projects. “I’m interested in the experience of arriving as a migrant to an exotic place for the first time,” says Alessandro. “This brings me to my own roots, being the first Mexican generation of a family of European migrants.”
Alessandro got to know the community by attending local meetings, parties and events and soon found a wealth of stories and visual repetitions. “I really don’t have a fixed method or formula during my shooting process,” says Alessandro. “In fact I like to be very open to unexpected things that happen when I am out there. I think it is very important to be perceptive of the opportunities that present themselves. I think I was trying to bring a little bit from the past into the present. I decided to shoot with reversal film, since it gave a special quality that seemed to work for this story in particular. In a way, I was very inspired by David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.
The book itself brings together Alessandro’s photographs with archival fragments documenting the arrival of foreigners to the city between 1950 and 1980. Designed in collaboration with Ana Casas Broda, Ramón Pez and Jose Luis Lugo, the book’s aesthetic has a retro feel with holographic foil capturing the psychedelic visuals of the 60s and 70s. “The type used for the title itself (Iron Maiden Regular) was chosen in order to create a sort of anarchist kind of feeling that made contrast with the concept of paradise,” says Alessandro. “The order of the imagery is meant to guide the viewer, starting with a quiet and perfect paradise that gradually moves into an unexpected place and experience.”
One of the most important goals in Alessandro’s work, which Smail achieves in droves, is to open up more questions, rather than giving everything away at once. “I am really not attracted to images or series that give me all the answers that easily,” he says. “As a viewer I like to be challenged by the photographer or the artist. On the other hand, I like the idea of the viewer to enter a world that may or may not have existed. I like to give away some clues and finally let them make their own conclusions from it all.”