Elizabeth Ferrer is Principal Coordinator at BRIC, a Brooklyn-based non-profit arts and media organization. She is also the author of a book Latin photography in the United States: a visual history. The Ferrer family is Mexican American, born and raised in Los Angeles. She loved art as a child, and grew up on the rise Chicano Civil Rights MovementShe saw how life directly shaped art. “One of the things I remember seeing when I was in elementary school was the neighborhood murals. I didn’t have much access to museums as a kid, but I definitely saw it and saw the way art can be used for social change and for society.”
She carried the idea of Art for Social Change with her through school and in her career as a young curator and champion of Mexican American and Latin American art. We spoke with her about how discovering unrecognized Latino photographers as a young woman created a platform for her and the artists themselves.
How did you become interested in photography?
I gravitated towards photography in high school and started taking a lot of pictures. I went to Wellesley for art history, and then to Columbia. When I was studying art history, there was very little in terms of Latin art, Chicanas art, or Mexican art, which I was very interested in. When I moved to New York and started working in contemporary art, I became very interested in the art scene, and began traveling to Mexico City. I started getting to know the artists there and curated a number of exhibitions on Mexican art and photography at venues in the United States beginning in the 1990s. I love Mexican photography, and I still follow it, but I’m starting to realize that there are Latin photographers closer to home who are doing important work. I started working with an organization called En Foco in New York, which was founded in the 1970s by a group of New York photographers. Through En Foco, I became acquainted with many Latino photographers across the United States who were, to a large extent, left out of the discourse on the medium. Their work has been largely excluded from museum collections, and has not been seen in major survey shows of American photography nor in photo galleries. Simply put, there was very little vision for these photographers. I decided to work on this book to address this gap in the way we understand the history of American photography.
What caught your eye while working in Mexican photography?
I went to Mexico as a young curator, thinking I was going to put up an exhibition of contemporary Mexican artists that could be seen in the United States. You are beautiful green. I didn’t really know the people there but I started going to the galleries. There was one gallery that had a single gallery of photos by Garduño . flowerAnd this young, up-and-coming traditional photographer was in the black and white school of modernist photography that was so strong in Mexico for most of the 20th century. It is very poetic. I was so amazed that she was photographed and I bought a picture from the show.
Did you feel that you had to fight to get museums or galleries in the US to get to know this business?
Earlier in my career, I was fortunate to have a strong interest in Mexican art in the United States. The Columbus Quincentennial event took place in 1992, and I was also involved in a large exhibition for the Museum of Modern Art where I was co-editor of a catalog for a huge exhibition, Latin American Art in the Twentieth Century. Essentially every museum wanted a display of Mexican art or Latin American art. I was lucky, it was the right place at the right time and I was able to do many exhibitions and projects. But there was much less interest in Latin art and photography in that era; It took a lot of time. The interest was not strong, and this took a lot of time. Certainly in the past few years there has been a growing interest in African-American art, and to some extent in Latin art as well. People are beginning to realize this gap between what they know and what they don’t know, and there is a thirst for knowing all things Latin.
En Foco was started by a group of Puerto Rican photographers in 1974 who were visually experiencing these same issues. They were knocking on doors but not getting assignments from the mainstream media. And they certainly didn’t get their work done in museums, but they saw white photographers who were. A good example of this is Bruce Davidson who wrote it East 100th Street, Documenting a poor block in Harlem, it was published when there were African American photographers covering this particular community. The same was happening in East Los Angeles, where I grew up. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, there were plenty of protests and demonstrations, along with a drive for racial pride and greater political awareness among Latinos. You know, magazines were covering a lot of these demonstrations, but they were sending Magnum photographers into these neighborhoods. Local photographers who were spending their lives day in and day out photographing these communities were also covering these things, but their work was not seen nationally.
When I got involved with En Foco in the ’90s, they were very active and organizing exhibitions, awarding fellowships to photographers to do new work, publishing new light magazine. Although En Foco is important, it is still not mainstream. Obtaining that mainstream coverage is still a huge challenge. I hope my book helps give these photographers a great show, but it’s just a start.
Many of these photographers in the book should have had a written study of them, and they should have had solo exhibitions. Many of these photographers are quite successful, but much of the magic that has been associated with Latin American art and has been adapted by major institutions like MoMA, has not happened to Latino photographers.
Plenty of organizations exist today to connect the mainstream media with lesser-known photographers, and Diversify Photo and Indigenous Photo comes to mind. Can you see the difference over the past few years?
I think it has changed a lot as we have moved from focusing on print to digital. This was a big change. In print, there has always been a gatekeeper. There have been smaller publications such as new light, but this can’t compete with the glossy mainstream publications.
Once the digital space opens up, with news sites and blogs proliferating online, an organization, for example, dedicated to Aboriginal rights is likely to hire an Aboriginal photographer who may live in that community or have a long-term residence in that community. Of course the other big shift is the rise of social media, and many photographers, even older ones, have Instagram feeds and can use that as a platform without a gatekeeper, without a filter, to showcase their work.
The one thing that always worries me about seeing these photographers is the photography market. There are many Mexican photographers, characters like Manuel Alvarez Bravo or Graciela Iturbide, Who have a strong market, and whose work you see at trade fairs. But Latin photographers are largely excluded from trade fairs, there are quite a few of them. Especially for photographers who came out in the ’80s and ’90s, that wasn’t part of their experience. They were able to earn a living by teaching or obtaining grants, but not by selling their work. The photo gallery is important because a good designer is the one who will help you get the museum exhibits, and who will help put the work into permanent collections. The exclusion of Latinx works from exhibitions and from those aspects of commercial photography is something that hinders their ability to have a long-term and permanent presence for their work. When artists die, what happens to those works? What happens if this business is not appreciated from a business perspective?
Going back to what I said about Latino photographers who put their lenses behind everyday social issues. In your opinion, what role do Latin photographers play today in covering these ongoing political issues?
It’s the border, but it’s also the status of Puerto Ricans. They are issues of immigration and equity. There are photographers in the book who put their lenses at the service of farm workers who were pushing for unions in California in the 1960s. Or someone like Hiram Maristani in New York, who was the photographer for Young Lords, the Puerto Rican activist group. But I find that all of these photographers, even those of the newer generations who work with more conscious artistic or conceptual approaches, still maintain this political stance, a desire to reflect their own society. I would especially like to mention Harry Gamboa and his main series Chicano Unrestricted Male. He started this series after hearing a radio announcement that the police were looking for a Chicano man. That stereotype of young Mexican-American men as a criminal, in the same way African-American youth are demonized, was the spark for him to create this large series of portraits of Chicano men of different ages and professions, just standing in the frame. . Some of them are actors, lawyers, dancers, judges and priests, deliberately filming them at dusk, sometimes looking aggressively or resolutely at the camera, forcing you to confront your own stereotypes.
What do you want readers to gain by understanding the importance of seeing the visual history of the United States through a Latin lens?
Showcasing more than 80 photographers, this book relates a history dating back to the 19th century. It’s important for people to see that not only were we a part of that history, but we were creating in that history. For example, there are quite a few Latino photographers who worked in the ’80s and ’90s whose work really has insight as to how digital tools are now used by photographers. I want people to see and learn about individual photographers and appreciate their work. I felt it was important to write a book for Latino photographers because they were so invisible, but ultimately these Latin photographers should be seen as American photographers. They are part of American art history, from American photography. I don’t think the entire history of photography has been written, there is a lot that has been left out.
For this richer and more vibrant history of American photography to be written, it must include more Latino photographers, African American photographers, Asian American photographers, and Queer photographers. This date has so far been too narrow to define.