The sun is setting through a line of trees, casting a golden glow upon a man who lies sleeping alongside a dirt road. Except he’s not sleeping—he’s dead.

That chilling revelation hits you as you look at Fernando Brito's photographs, and for a second, you wonder whether they're stills from a horror movie. They're not. The images in this breathtaking and disturbing exhibition, Your Steps Were Lost in the Landscape, had their genesis in Brito's day job as a photojournalist for the newspaper El Debate in Culiacán, Mexico.

Because the city is a hub for narcotics trafficking and drug-related violence, Brito snaps gruesome crime scenes every few days. But once he's taken the paper's official pictures, which tend not to be graphic, he composes a second set of shots for himself—shots that reach beyond the province of journalism into the echelons of fine art.

Brito frames dead bodies graciously, rapturously, the way rococo painter Antoine Watteau framed figures in bucolic landscapes. He contextualizes them within their surroundings: billows of fog, the glare of midday sun, a cornfield, a river. The serenity of these scenes serves as a visual foil to the brutality wrought upon their unfortunate subjects, some of whom bear evidence of having been whipped, their hands and feet bound, skin ripped by knives or bullets such that the corpses look more like raw meat than human beings.

Most of the bodies lie alone, but others are lined up in groups; some are freshly dead, others in various states of decomposition. Nobody will find this an easy show to look at. Some will deem the subject matter exploitative, while others counter that the end—bringing this violence to light—justifies the means inherent in its shock value. Beyond debate is the work's sheer, dark, terrible beauty. Wisely leaving sociopolitical implications to us, Brito's lens is not moralistic but aesthetic. This is a photographer who knows that "an ethical sympathy in an artist," as Oscar Wilde wrote in The Picture of Dorian Gray, "is an unpardonable mannerism of style."

SEE IT: Your Steps Were Lost in the Landscape is at Blue Sky Gallery, 122 NW 8th Ave., 225-0210. Through Feb. 2.