Elizabeth Ferrer is the chief curator of Brick, a non-profit industry and media organization in Brooklyn. He is also the author Latinox Photography in the United States: A Visual History. Ferrer’s family is Mexican American, and he was born and raised in Los Angeles. He loved art as a child and grew up with the rise of the learned civil rights movement, he saw how life first shows 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 as a child, but I certainly saw it and I saw that art could be used for social change and community.
He carried this notion of art through school and in his career as a young curator for social change and is a champion for Mexican American and Latin American art. We talked to her about how the discovery of recognized Latino photographers as a young woman created a platform for her and the artists.
How did you become interested in photography?
I became interested in photography in high school and started taking lots of pictures. I went to Wellesley for art history, and then to Colombia. When I was studying the history of art, there was very little in the case of Latinx art, Shikanux art or Mexican art, about which I was very curious. When I moved to New York and started working with contemporary art, I became very interested in the art scene and I started traveling to Mexico City. I started getting acquainted with artists there and created several exhibitions on Mexican art and photography for venues in the United States in the 1990s. I love Mexican photography, and I still follow it, but I’m starting to realize that Latinox photographers are doing important work around the house. I started working in New York with an organization called N Foco, which was founded by New Yorkian photographers in the 180’s. Through N Foco I became aware of the myriad Latin Latin photographers across the United States who were largely excluded from lecturing in the medium. Their work has largely been excluded from museum collections, they have not been seen in large survey shows of American photography or in photo galleries. There was very little visibility for these photographers. I decided to work on this book to bridge this gap in the way that the history of American photography is understood.
What did you have during your work with Mexican photography?
I went to Mexico as a young curator, thinking that I would do an exhibition of contemporary Mexican artists that could be seen in the United States. I was pretty green. I didn’t really know the people there but I started going to the gallery. There was a gallery where Flor Garduano had a solo exhibition of photographs, and he was this young, newcomer and traditional theorist photographer, in a modernist, black-and-white school of photography that was very strong in Mexico for most of the twentieth century. It is very poetic. I was fascinated by her photography and bought a picture from the show.
Did you feel that you had to fight to get a museum or gallery in the United States to get this work recognized?
Early in my career, I was fortunate to have a keen interest in the Mexican industry in the United States. When Columbus Quincentenial happened in 1992, I was also involved in a large exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art where I was co-editor of a catalog for a blockbuster exhibition, Twentieth-century Latin American art. Basically every museum wanted an exhibition 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 lots of exhibitions and projects. But in that era there was much less interest in Latin art and photography; It took a long time. The interest was not strong, and it took a long time. Of course in the last few years there has been a growing interest in the African American industry and increasingly in the Latinox industry. People are beginning to realize this gap between what they know and what they don’t know, and there is a thirst for knowledge in all things Latin.
N Foco was started in 1974 by a group of Puerto Rican photographers who were experiencing these same problems with visibility. They were knocking on doors but were not getting assignments from the mainstream media. And they certainly weren’t getting their work in museums, but they were the ones who saw the white photographers. One great event is Bruce Davidson, whose book East 100th Street, Documents from a poor block in Harlem were released, while at the same time African American photographers covered the community. The same thing happened in East Los Angeles, where I grew up. In the civil rights era of the 1960s, there were many protests and demonstrations among Latinos for racial pride and greater political consciousness. And you know, the magazines covered a lot of these protests, but they were sending Magnum photographers to this neighborhood. Local photographers who spent days and nights photographing these communities also covered these issues, but their work was not seen nationally.
When I joined N Foco in the 1990s, they were very active and organized exhibitions, gave fellowships to photographers to do new work, and published the magazine Nueva Luz. As important as N Foco, it’s still not mainstream. Getting mainstream coverage is still a big challenge. I hope my book will help give these photographers great exposure, but this is just the beginning.
Many of these photographers in the book should have a monograph written about them, should be a solo exhibition. Many of these photographers are quite successful, but many of the glamor associated with Latin American art and that major organizations like Moma have embraced, which is not the case for Latin photographers.
Many organizations exist today to connect the mainstream media with lesser known photographers, diversified photos and indigenous photos come to mind. Do you see the difference in the last few years?
I think it has changed a lot because we have shifted from print to digital. This has been a huge change. In print, there was always a doorman. There were small publications like this New light, But it can never compete with glossy mainstream publications.
Once the digital space opens, with the proliferation of online news sites and blogs, for example, an organization dedicated to indigenous rights is more likely to hire an indigenous photographer who is probably living or living in that community for a long time. That community. Of course another huge change is the rise of social media, and many photographers, even the elderly, have an Instagram feed and can use it as a platform without filters, without a doorman to present their work.
One of the things that always worries me is the market for photography, as far as these photographers are concerned. There are a number of Mexican photographers, personalities like Manuel Alvarez Bravo or Graciela Iturbide, who have a strong market, whose work you see in commercial galleries. But Latinos photographers have been expelled from the commercial gallery, there are only a few. Especially for photographers who emerged in the 1980s and 1990s, it was not part of their experience. They were able to make a living by teaching or receiving grants, but not by selling their work. The issue of galleries is important because a good galleryist will be the person who will help you get the museum show, who will help keep the work in a permanent collection. The exclusion of Latino work from galleries and from those aspects of commercial photography is a matter that hinders the ability of their work to have a long-term, lasting presence. When artists die, what will happen to those companies of work? What if you don’t appreciate this work from a commercial point of view?
Latinox photographers go back to what they said about putting their lenses behind the social problems of the past. What do you think of the role Latino photographers are playing today in covering these ongoing political issues?
It’s the border, but it’s also the state of Puerto Rican. It is a matter of migration and equity. The book features photographers who put their lenses in the service of farm workers to form a union in California in the 1960s. Or someone like Hiram Maristani from New York, who was a photographer for the Young Lords, Puerto Rican activist group. But I see that all these photographers, even the more recent generation who are more consciously working with artistic or conceptual approaches, still maintain the political position that their community aspires to reflect. I will specifically mention Harry Gamboa and his main series Chikano male unbonded. He started the series after hearing a radio announcement that police were looking for a slender man. The stereotyping of Mexican American youth as criminals, much like the way young African American men have become ghosts, was the spark to create this huge series of portraits of men of different ages and professions, just standing in the frame. Some of them are actors, lawyers, dancers, judges, priests and he deliberately takes pictures of them in the evenings, sometimes looking at the camera aggressively or forcefully, forcing you to face your stereotypes.
What do readers want to get by understanding the importance of viewing visual history of the United States through a Latin lens?
This book is a profile of more than 0 photographers, it is about a history that goes back to the nineteenth century. It’s important for people to see that we weren’t just part of that history, but that we were bringing innovation into that history. For example, 1 Latin0 and 1 1990s a good number of Latin photographers are working, whose work is now realistic in terms of how photographers use digital tools. I want people to see and know individual photographers and appreciate their work. I felt that it was important for Latinox photographers to write a book because they were so invisible, but in the end these Latinox photographers should see US Photographer. They are part of the history of American art, American photography. I don’t think the whole history of photography has been written, there’s a lot left.
To write a more vivid history of this rich, American photography, it must include more Latinx photographers, African American photographers, Asian American photographers, queer photographers. That history so far is very narrow in its definition.