I recently went to Comodoro Rivadavia in Patagonia. It’s a booming oil town on the coast. Imagine the plains of Montana, crossed with northern Mexico, with oil and ocean. I passed through the city about ten years ago on my way to southern Chile and the place kind of stuck in my mind.
Since the beginning of this year I’ve been frustrated by the flatness of Buenos Aires. I’ve wanted vistas and perspectives. In my series Lungs I sought views by going up in buildings. I wanted to go somewhere in Argentina but outside of Buenos Aires, far from the flatness of the Pampa. Maybe I’ve been looking at too many Robert Adams photographs but I felt this desire to go to Comodoro and take pictures. So I went. And I took pictures.
Eastern Patagonia is a dry, broad, flat plain, punctuated by occasional mesas and broad valleys. The landscape is austere and hypnotizing. The town, which sits in one of these valleys, on the Atlantic coast, was founded in the early 20th century following the discovery of oil. Long a company town of YPF, the state oil company, it languished in the 1990s with the layoffs that accompanied the privitazation of YPF and low oil prices. Starting first in 2001 with the devaluation [which quadrupled the peso-price of dollar-denominated oil] and the subsequent rise in world commodity prices the city has boomed, doubling in size in just ten years. New construction is everywhere. Relative to the rest of Argentina, wages are high and work is plentiful.
The city sprawls over 30 km, with small original settlements located near the orignal oil wells. Subsequent urbanizations are filling in the gaps.
A cheap and popular option for new housing are these prefabricated “log cabins”. Really only the siding is of wood. They are kind of looked down upon as wood construction is very unusual in Argentina. The Alpine aesthetic struck me as bizarre situated on the harsh, windblown plain. The Andes are a good 500km to the west.
There are also a decent number cookie-cutter style developments. Seeing these I was reminded of Alejandro Cartagena’s series of suburban developments in Monterrey, Mexico. Unlike Mexico, in Argentina there is no mortgage industry or consumer credit. That was one of the casualties of the 2001 crisis. Most of these developments are funded by the government or various workers’ unions. Most houses in the city are owner built and occupied, lending the city a very haphazard feel.
I also tried something new for this trip; I stayed with a family I met on CouchSurfing. The Rough Guide introduces their brief coverage of Comodoro thusly, “austere Comodoro Rivadavia is not a place you’re likely to want to stay for longer than the time it takes to make your bus connection.” There are no cheap backpacker hostels. Being an oil-town, everything in ridiculously expensive. Staying with a local family saved me a lot of money and also gave me access to neighborhoods and people I never would have met. It strikes me that CouchSurfing is an incredible resource for photographers.
The family lived in this recently constructed complex of green houses on a mesa top in Km. 4 [in reference to its distance from downtown]
The story of how this neighborhood got built is emblematic of Argentina’s recent history. It was started in 1999 by a cooperative of professors from the nearby university. The mesa was leveled and foundations were poured. Then the crisis of 2001 hit. Their savings were frozen and then covered into devalued pesos. The project sat idle for years. In the last few years they were able to restart construction with loans and assistance from the current government. In return they were asked to paint the houses apple green, which is the visual branding of the current governor Mario Das Neves. The neighborhood sits on a prominent hill, clearly visible from the main highway leading into town. Das Neves is trying to position himself as a candidate in next year’s presidential election, so the advertising was surely important.
Perhaps the most visually striking and distressing element of the landscape was the ubiquitous plastic trash which littered the landscape, blown by the strong and unceasing wind and tangled up in the thorny shrubs. The Chubutenses [as they are called] are aware of this problem and have banned plastic bags at supermarkets. A lot of the trash seemed to be tarp and wrapping for construction materials. I have to admit that when backlit by the sun, the brilliance of the white plastic was visually seductive. I took a lot of pictures of trash.
A brief note on equipment: I took just my Fuji GSW 670 II, a medium format, range finder camera known as the “Texas Leica” due to its comically large size. It’s built like a tank but also incredibly simple, with few moving parts and zero electronics. It was the right tool for Comodoro. The wind is strong and constant. The dust is ubiquitous. My delicate view cameras would have been ripped to shreds.
With a range finder you can’t do precise compositions since you aren’t looking through the lens as with an SLR or view camera. I remembered this detail as I was composing this shot, trying to line up the bottle cap with the horizon. I took three pictures at varying heights and this was the closest I got. The perfect camera doesn’t exist.
I took a lot of pictures at dawn and dusk. They look good. Too good. Comodoro, honestly, is not a nice place. It’s a testament to what people will put up with to achieve a house, a car and a stable job. Gorgeous, twilight landscapes don’t really convey this.
I’m not sure what to do with these photos, which is partly why I’m writing such a long post here. In the end, this was just a four day trip. I felt I had to get out of Buenos Aires and go somewhere within Argentina to get, literally, another perspective on the country.