Elizabeth Ferrer is chief curator at BRIC, a Brooklyn-based non-profit arts and media organization. She is also the author of Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History. Ferrer’s family is Mexican American, and she was born and raised in Los Angeles. She loved art as a child, and growing up during the rise of the Chicano civil rights movement, she saw firsthand how life shaped art. “One of the things I remembered when I was in elementary school was the murals in the neighborhood. I didn’t have much access to museums when I was a kid, but I definitely saw that and I saw the way art can be used for social change and for community.”
She carried this idea of art for social change into school and into her career as a young curator and champion of Mexican American and Latin American art. We spoke to her about how discovering underrated Latinx photographers as a young woman led to a platform for her and the artists themselves.
How did you get interested in photography?
In high school I became interested in photography 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 the way of Latinx art, Chicanx art, or Mexican art that I was very curious about. When I moved to New York and started working with contemporary art, I became very interested in the art scene and started traveling to Mexico City. I started getting to know artists there and curated a number of exhibitions on Mexican art and photography for locations in the US starting in the 1990s. I love Mexican photography and I still follow it, but I started to realize that there were Latinx photographers closer to home who were 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 Nuyorican photographers. Through En Foco, I became aware of countless Latinx photographers in the US who were generally excluded from the discourse on the medium. Their work is largely excluded from museum collections, they have not been featured in major retrospectives of American photography or in photo galleries. There was just very little visibility for these photographers. I decided to work on this book to address this gap in the way American photography history is understood.
What struck you while working with Mexican photography?
I went to Mexico as a young curator, thinking that I would curate an exhibition of contemporary Mexican artists to be seen in the United States. I was quite green. I didn’t really know people there, but I started going to the galleries. There was one gallery that had a solo exhibition of photos by Flor Garduño, and she was this young emerging traditional photographer, very much in the school of a modernist, black and white photography that was very strong in Mexico for much of the 20th century . It’s very poetic. I was struck by her photography and bought a photo from the show.
Did you feel like you had to fight to get museums or galleries in the United States to recognize this work?
Earlier in my career I was lucky enough to have a lot of interest in Mexican art in the United States. The Columbus Quincentennial took place in 1992, I had also been involved in a major Museum of Modern Art exhibition where I co-edited a catalog for a blockbuster exhibition, Latin American Art of the Twentieth Century. Basically every museum wanted a show 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 at the time, there was much less interest in Latinx art and photography; that took a lot of time. The interest was just not that great and that took a lot of time. Certainly in recent years there has been a growing interest in African-American art and to a certain extent also in Latinx art. People are starting to realize this gap between what they know and what they don’t know, and there is a thirst for knowledge of all things Latinx.
And Foco was founded in 1974 by a group of Puerto Rican photographers who were experiencing the same problems with visibility. They knocked on the door, but received no orders from the mainstream media. And they certainly didn’t get their work in museums, but they saw white photographers that were. A good example of this is Bruce Davidson, whose book East 100th Street, documenting an impoverished block in Harlem, was published at the same time as African American photographers captured this community. The same thing happened in East Los Angeles, where I grew up. During the civil rights era of the 1960s, there were many protests and demonstrations, along with a push for ethnic pride and greater political awareness among Latinx people. And you know, the magazines covered a lot of these demonstrations, but they sent Magnum photographers to these neighborhoods. The local photographers who spent their lives photographing these communities day in and day out also photographed these things, but their work was not seen nationwide.
When I got involved with En Foco in the 1990s, they were very active, organizing exhibitions, giving grants to photographers to create new work, and publishing Nueva Luz magazine. As important as En Foco is, it’s still not mainstream. Getting that mainstream coverage is still a big challenge. I hope my book helps raise awareness for these photographers, but it’s just a start.
Many of these photographers in the book should have monographs written on them, and should have solo exhibitions. Many of these photographers are quite successful, but much of the glamor associated with Latin American art and adopted by major institutions like MoMA has not happened to Latinx photographers.
Today there are many organizations that connect mainstream media with lesser-known photographers, such as Diversify Photo and Indigenous Photo. Can you see the difference in recent years?
I think a lot has changed now that we’ve moved from the emphasis on print to digital. That has been a huge change. In busy, there was always a gatekeeper. There were smaller publications such as New light, but that could never compete with glossy mainstream publications.
Once the digital space has opened up, with the proliferation of online news sites and blogs, an organization dedicated to Indigenous rights is more likely to hire an Indigenous photographer who may live in that community or have a long-term residency in that community. Of course, the other big shift is the rise of social media, and so many of the photographers, even the older ones, have Instagram feeds and can use that as a gatekeeper, no filter, platform to showcase their work.
One thing that always worries me about the visibility of these photographers is the photography market. There are several Mexican photographers, figures like Manuel Álvarez Bravo or Graciela Iturbide, who have a strong market, whose work you see in commercial galleries. But Latinx photographers are largely barred from commercial galleries, there are only a few of them. Especially for photographers emerging in the 1980s and 1990s, that just wasn’t part of their experience. They could earn a living by teaching or receiving scholarships, but not by selling their work. The gallery is important because a good gallery owner will be the person who will help you get the museum shows, who will help place the work in permanent collections. The exclusion of Latinx work from galleries and from those aspects of commercial photography is something that hinders their ability to have their work long-term and lasting. When artists die, what happens to that oeuvre? What happens if this work is not valued commercially?
Going back to what you said about Latinx photographers putting their lens behind social issues of the day. What do you think is the role Latinx photographers play today in addressing these lingering political issues?
It’s the border, but it’s also the status of Puerto Ricans. They are issues of migration and equality. There are photographers in the book who put their lens at the service of the farm workers who pushed for unions in California in the 1960s. or someone like Hiram Maristany in New York, who was the photographer for the Young Lords, the Puerto Rican activist group. But I find that all these photographers, even those of more recent generations who work with more conscious artistic or conceptual approaches, still maintain that political stance, that desire to reflect their community. I would especially mention Harry Gamboa and his big series Chicano Man Untied. He started this series after he heard on the radio that the police were looking for a Chicano male. That stereotyping of the Mexican-American young man as a criminal, just as young African-American men are demonized, was the spark for him to create this large series of portraits of Chicano men of various ages and occupations, simply standing in the frame. Some of them are actors, lawyers, dancers, judges, priests, and he purposely photographed them in the twilight, sometimes looking aggressively or assertively into the camera, forcing you to face your stereotypes.
What do you want readers to achieve by understanding the importance of a visual history of the US through a Latinx lens?
This book profiles more than 80 photographers, it tells a history that goes all the way back to the nineteenth century. It’s important for people to see that we were not just a part of that history, but that we were innovating within that history. For example, there are quite a few Latinx photographers at work in the 1980s and 1990s whose work is really prescient in terms of how digital tools are now used by photographers. I want people to see and get to know the individual photographers and appreciate their work. I thought it was important to write a book with Latinx photographers because they had been so invisible, but in the end these Latinx photographers have to be seen as American photographers. They are part of the history of American art, of American photography. I don’t think the entire history of photography has been written, there is so much that is left out.
To write this richer, more vibrant history of American photography, there must be more Latinx photographers, African American photographers, Asian American photographers, queer photographers. That history has so far been too narrow in its definition.