Latino Photographers

Document Urban America

Introduction
A generation of Latino photographers came of age since the 1950s as American cities underwent massive transformations. Urban neighborhoods on the East and West Coasts already had Latino enclaves, but these regions experienced population booms as immigrants arrived from Latin America and Puerto Ricans moved to the mainland. The photographs gathered in this online exhibition coincide with the decline of urban neighborhoods during the postwar era, when middle class populations moved from the cities to the suburbs and newly built highways cut through thriving communities.  Latino photographers were driven to capture both the experience of urban neglect and the ignored beauty—to use a term coined by photographer and painter John Valadez—of urban residents during periods of social and economic struggle.
Featuring pictures largely taken between the 1950s and the 1980s, this exhibition unites urban-themed photographs by Manuel Acevedo, Oscar R. Castillo, Perla de Leon, Hiram Maristany, Ruben Ochoa, Sophie Rivera, Joseph Rodríguez, John M. Valadez, Winston Vargas and Camilo José Vergara. All are drawn from the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s pioneering collection of Latino art.  
People
Latino photographers, drawn to the richness of urban daily life, created intimate or monumental portraits of everyday people. More than straightforward likenesses, these works reflect on the act of portraying people and cultures that are often stereotyped in the media or unincorporated into accounts of American history. Some artists approach their task as documentarians, recording individuals and their larger context. Others celebrate the subtle individual markers of dress, style, and attitude to capture the beauty of the commonplace.

Winston Vargas born Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic 1943

Child Playing, Washington Heights, New York, 1970, gelatin silver print

Frank Espada born Utuado, Puerto Rico 1930—died San Francisco, California 2014

Untitled (One boy pulling another in a wagon, Long Island City), 1956, gelatin silver print

This and the next photograph depict the same pair of boys. This picture sets them against a stone wall to suggest the vulnerability of children who live in big cities.

Frank Espada born Utuado, Puerto Rico 1930—died San Francisco, California 2014


Untitled (Two boys in a wagon, Long Island City), 1956, gelatin silver print

This image of the same boys is a close-up shot where they smile eagerly at the camera, indicating their awareness of Espada’s presence. Unlike the tradition of street photography, which relies on the spontaneity of the quickly taken picture, Espada directly engaged his subjects in order to capture their unique personalities.

Hiram Maristany born New York City 1945

Group of Young Men on 111th Street, 1966, printed 2016, gelatin silver print


Hiram Maristany’s photographs of young people playing or hanging out on 111th Street celebrate a sense of community in El Barrio, New York where Maristany grew up.

Hiram Maristany born New York City 1945


Young Man with Roses, 1971, gelatin silver print

The relaxed intimacy of pictures like Young Man with Roses stems in part from Maristany’s personal relationship with his subjects. The people he photographed were friends and neighbors.

Hiram Maristany born New York City 1945

The Gathering, 1964, gelatin silver print

John M. Valadez born Los Angeles, California 1951

Brooklyn and Soto, Selection from the East Los Angeles Urban Portrait Portfolio, ca. 1978, inkjet print


John Valadez is best known as a photorealist painter, yet photography has always played a central role in his art making. Valadez often traveled around Mexican American neighborhoods taking pictures of people going about their daily lives. His East Los Angeles Urban Portrait Portfolio vividly captures young people who have carefully composed their public persona. For Valadez, his street portraits counter stereotypes of urban youth and instead celebrates their creativity.


John M. Valadez born Los Angeles, California 1951

Couple Balam, Selection from the East Los Angeles Urban Portrait Portfolio, ca. 1978, inkjet print

Frank Espada born Utuado, Puerto Rico 1930—died San Francisco, California 2014


Tito (Blake Avenue), 1963, gelatin silver print

Next panel: Cindy (Blake Avenue, East New York), 1963, gelatin silver print

Photographer Frank Espada was also a respected activist who fought for improved living conditions in African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods across New York City. In the early 1960s, he founded East New York Action, a grassroots organization that fought for better housing conditions in the Brooklyn neighborhood where Espada lived with his young family. The sharp contrasts that he witnessed between people and their milieu inspired a series of informal portraits that emphasized the humanity and individuality of urban residents, especially young children.

Winston Vargas born Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic 1943

New Addition, Washington Heights, New York; 1970; gelatin silver print

Sophie Rivera born New York City 1938

Untitled, 1978, printed 2006, silver gelatin print

Sophie Rivera’s monumental portraits of Puerto Ricans in New York (or Nuyoricans) counteract the stereotypes that have circulated in the mass media. The artist found her subjects by asking passersby outside her building if they were Puerto Ricans. If they said yes, she invited them to her studio and photographed them against a dark background. Rivera’s subjects remain anonymous but never powerless. Her direct photographs allow the unassuming individuality of everyday people to speak for itself.

Sophie Rivera born New York City 1938

Untitled, 1978, printed 2006, silver gelatin print

Joseph Rodríguez born New York City 1951

Mothers on the Stoop, 1988, chromogenic photograph

Joseph Rodríguez’s photography captures views of urban America that are often overlooked or forgotten. His first major series, Spanish Harlem, focused on the residents of El Barrio, or the East Harlem neighborhood of New York. In pictures like Mothers on the Stoop, he documents the close-knit camaraderie between residents.

Place
Despite the struggling condition of many American cities, Latino photographers highlighted the vibrant community life that unfolded in urban neighborhoods. Their pictures offer glimpses of transplanted Latin American traditions rarely documented in the history of American photography. Scenes of burgeoning Latino businesses, family milestones, and active street life reveal how Latinos culturally shaped the cities in which they lived.

Hiram Maristany born New York City 1945

Casa Evita, 1965, gelatin silver print

Hiram Maristany’s street photographs of El Barrio are an ode to his beloved neighborhood. Titled after a store where shoppers could haggle over merchandise, Casa Evita captures the hustle and bustle of the street life beneath tall tenement buildings, whose open windows and billowing curtains themselves show signs of life. Signs in Spanish and English language pepper the streetscape

Hiram Maristany born New York City 1945

Lechón/Roasting Pig in Alley, 1971, gelatin silver print

Hiram Maristany often took to rooftops, fire escapes, and windows to capture a dramatically different perspective of his El Barrio neighborhood in New York City. His pictures of children playing on the streets or adults roasting a pig in an alley—a tradition transplanted from Puerto Rico—portray a community teeming with life and culture.


Hiram Maristany born New York City 1945

Kite Flying on Rooftop, 1964, gelatin silver print


The rooftops of tenement buildings, often called tar beaches or playa negras, were community gathering spaces from which Maristany took many photographs. He was drawn to scenes that evoked Puerto Rican cultural traditions recreated in New York. Here he focuses on a young man flying a kite against the El Barrio skyline. While not unique to Puerto Ricans, kite making and flying was a competitive pastime that was passed on from generation to generation.

Frank Espada born Utuado, Puerto Rico 1930—died San Francisco, California 2014

Untitled (Three Kings Day Parade – leaving), 1981, gelatin silver print

In the 1970s, Frank Espada began The Puerto Rican Diaspora, an ambitious exhibition, book, and oral history project that documented Puerto Rican communities across the United States. Espada followed the trail of migrants who had settled in cities from the Mid-West and East Coast to Hawaii. His photographs show people going about their daily lives and the activities of Puerto Rican leaders and institutions like El Museo del Barrio, New York’s premier Puerto Rican and Latino museum founded in 1969. By the late 1970s, the museum started its annual Three Kings Day (January 6th) parade that often featured participants dressed up as the Three Kings and strolling through El Barrio with rented camels, sheep, and donkeys. Espada wanted to capture how artists and cultural leaders worked to maintain Puerto Rican traditions in New York.

Winston Vargas born Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic 1943

Domino Players, Washington Heights, New York; 1970, printed 2016; gelatin silver print

During the 1960s and 1970s, many inner city neighborhoods welcomed new immigrants. Winston Vargas emigrated from the Dominican Republic to the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York while still a child. When he became a photographer, he documented the daily life of his immediate community. His scenes of burgeoning Latino businesses and people socializing on sidewalks show a community setting roots in a new environment. Upon closer inspection, political graffiti tagged on walls conveys the fraught social context in which their lives were unfolding.

Winston Vargas born Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic 1943

Wedding Day, Washington Heights, New York; 1970, printed 2016; gelatin silver print

Winston Vargas documented family milestones and cultural landmarks in his New York City neighborhood, which welcomed new immigrants in the years surrounding the unrest of the 1960s and 1970s.


Perla de Leon born New York City 1952

Caribe Village, 1980, gelatin silver print

Perla de Leon documented the South Bronx around the time that activists were protesting the making of the 1981 film Fort Apache the Bronx, which presented a degrading view of the neighborhood. Her photographs offer a counter-narrative that portrays the resilience of the neighborhood’s predominantly African American and Latino residents. Amidst the rubble of buildings, children play on the streets and adults walk briskly to work. Caribe Village depicts a casita (or little house) that was erected on a razed site. Casitas were built in the South Bronx and other parts of New York as local residents reclaimed abandoned lots and turned them into community gathering sites.

Oscar R. Castillo born El Paso, Texas 1945

‘47 Chevy in Wilmington, California;
1972, printed 2012; inkjet print

Oscar Castillo’s photographs reveal how Chicanos transformed the urban landscape of Los Angeles. ’47 Chevy in Wilmington, California shows a local market whose façade is peppered with references to Mexican foods. Parked outside is a vintage lowrider, a major signifier of Chicano urban culture.

Transformation
Using both traditional and non-conventional photographic strategies, Latino artists reflected on the dramatic physical and social transformations taking place in urban America. With striking conviction, Latino photographers placed into sharp relief the physical devastation of cities and the lives of the people who called urban neighborhoods home. Others sought to decipher urban landscapes as gateways to the memories and histories of local residents and communities. Some photographers deliberately altered existing images to draw our attention to the features of public space that shaped the lives of local residents.

Camilo José Vergara born Santiago, Chile 1944

Lower East Side, Manhattan from the Old New York series, 1970, inkjet print

Camilo José Vergara visited many parts of New York City, including the Lower East Side, a neighborhood associated with European immigrant communities during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He also traveled to neighborhoods in Manhattan and Brooklyn where Latinos were transforming the culture of the city. While he had yet to develop his signature time-lapse approach, his focus on aging white populations and youthful Latino residents hint at his developing interest in tracking change—in this case racial, ethnic, and cultural shifts—in urban America.

Perla de Leon born New York City 1952

Pepe and Me (part 1 and 2), 1980, gelatin silver prints

These photographs were taken after a conversation between Perla de Leon and a South Bronx resident. After learning about de Leon’s intent to capture a community portrait, the resident asked her to photograph two pages in her diary that offer a heartfelt personal account of the decline of the South Bronx. Her narrative reflects on the “ruins of today and the thoughts of yesterday.”

Perla de Leon born New York City 1952

My Playground, 1980, gelatin silver print

Perla de Leon’s poignant photographs of the South Bronx in New York—an iconic blighted neighborhood—place into sharp relief the physical devastation of the neighborhood and the lives of the people who called it home.

Manuel Acevedo born Newark, New Jersey 1964

Altered Sites #7; 1998, printed 2016; inkjet print

At left, a “Do Not Enter” sign turns away passersby from a deteriorating street corner. Meanwhile, a structure drawn by the artist on the photograph rises up to the heavens and welcomes birds. Manuel Acevedo reimagines the streets of his hometown of Newark, New Jersey, a city shaped by periods of unrest and urban renewal initiatives that tore down existing housing to erect massive housing projects. “I drew on top of the photograph,” Acevedo reflected, “to transform the bleakness of underutilized landscapes into visionary architectural proposals.” His photograph unleashes the potential of derelict public spaces.

Oscar R. Castillo born El Paso, Texas 1945

Shrine of the Virgin of Guadalupe at Maravilla Housing Project, Mednik Avenue and Brooklyn Avenue, East Los Angeles; early 1970s, printed 2012; inkjet print

Oscar Castillo’s photograph of the ruins of the Maravilla Housing project in Los Angeles casts murals as miraculous apparitions that suggest hope rising from destruction. Castillo documents two murals by David Lopez that had become a popular community shrine. The murals were so valued by local residents that they were saved during the demolition and reinstalled at another site. The artist’s detailed title, which identifies the cross streets where the original shrine was located, conveys his intent to record a community memory.

Oscar R. Castillo born El Paso, Texas 1945

Plaza de la Raza; 1970, printed 2012; inkjet print

Oscar Castillo frequently documented how activist artists and civil rights leaders transformed the landscape of Los Angeles. His photographs contrast the gritty streets of the city with views of murals and Mexican American cultural institutions. Plaza de la Raza documents improvements being made to an abandoned boathouse in the Lincoln Heights neighborhood. Chicano leaders successfully petitioned the city to convert the space into a cultural center, which still exists today.

Oscar R. Castillo born El Paso, Texas 1945

East Los Angeles Doctors Hospital on Whittier Boulevard; 1970, printed 2012, inkjet print

East Los Angeles Doctor's Hospital on Whittier Boulevard focuses on two works of art: John Bene’s ceramic murals and David Botello’s Aztec-inspired sculptural planter. Castillo’s photographs not only reveal how the cultural dimensions of the civil rights movement were tied to improving urban life, but they also highlight a community shaping its neighborhood.

Ruben Ochoa born Oceanside, California 1974

What if walls created spaces?, 2007,
lenticular print mounted on aluminum composite

Ruben Ochoa deliberately tampers with the appearance of the I-10, a freeway that runs through East Los Angeles. He created a lenticular print that interlaces two different views of a freeway wall. As viewers walk past his photograph, the wall partially disappears, opening up a portal into an imaginary verdant landscape. Ochoa’s playful gesture alludes to the communities located on the other side of freeways. Starting in the 1950s, freeways like the I-10 were built through many working class neighborhoods in Los Angeles, despite community protests. These massive roads connected suburbs to major metropolises, yet isolated Chicano and African American neighborhoods from the social and economic fabric of the surrounding region. Ochoa’s title poses a question that invites viewers to ponder the impact of the built environment on inner-city residents.

Camilo José Vergara born Santiago, Chile 1944

10828 S. Avalon Blvd., LA; 1980-2013; inkjet prints

Camilo José Vergara takes pictures of the same urban building or street over several years. When he began 10828 S. Avalon Blvd., LA in 1980, the building housed a humble African American Baptist Church. After years of shifting fortunes, the original structure was replaced with a residential home catering to the neighborhood's booming Central American community. Vergara's time lapse photographs capture the visual evidence of social, cultural and economic change in America's inner cities.

Credits: Story

All photographs are in the collection of the Smithsonian American Art Museum. Text is by E. Carmen Ramos, Curator (Latino Art), Smithsonian American Art Museum.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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