Wednesday, January 30, 2013

THE SOUTH BRONX: Seen Through the Eyes Of 'Seis del Sur'

On Saturday, January 19, a new photographic show opened up at the Bronx Documentary Center. The show was titled Seis del Sur, or Six from the South, an exhibition in Black and White by six photographers from the Bronx.  The photographs date from the late 1970s to the 1980s, a time when the Bronx had declined through a combination of factors including real estate redlining, the misconceived policy of planned shrinkage of municipal services, a boom in high-rise housing projects in the area, and of course, the real “bull in the china shop,” the construction of Robert Moses’ Cross-Bronx Expressway.

As young photographers who, with one exception, did not know each other back then, these six men documented life in the South Bronx, capturing both the massive destruction of building infrastructure (much by arson) and the ever-fascinating human drama of life on the street.  As Michael Kamber, the founder of the Center, states, "There is a lot of community, social activism, families and people just going on with their lives the best way they could."  This is a wonderful show, and I encourage all to come up and see it.

I have selected a few works by these men, which I will show at the end of this blog post;  but, in order to record them, I had to return the next day.  Attendance at the opening of the show was so enormous that viewing the art was impossible, getting to the beer, wine and food table was a major challenge, and at least half of the attendees at any one time were socializing on the street outside as a consequence of the opening's success.

So, on Saturday, I turned my camera on people at the show's opening and even managed to capture some of the artists.  I begin with these portraits, then follow them with some pictures of the art on display, which I took the next day.

South Bronx People, now:

Bronx Documentary Center, 614 Courtlandt Ave., Bronx, NY

Opening night, Seis del Sur show, Bronx Documentary Center, Saturday, January 19, 2013

Opening night, Seis del Sur show, Bronx Documentary Center, Saturday, January 19, 2013

Opening night, Seis del Sur show, Bronx Documentary Center, Saturday, January 19, 2013

Corrine & Amanda, Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Libertad & Linda, Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Mychal, Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Kali & John ("Chi-Chi" Rosado), Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Moncho and daughter, Opening night, Seis del Sur show

Edwin Pagán, Opening night, Seis del Sur show
Edwin Pagán is one of the photographers who also would take up filmmaking.  He may best be known now as the founder of the website and online publication, Latin Horror, and is currently producing a documentary film, Bronx Is Burning, chronicling the rise, fall and resurrection of the South Bronx.

Ángel Franco, Opening night, Seis del Sur show
Ángel Franco is another of the photographers featured in Seis del Sur.  Today he is a Senior Photographer at the New York Times and was part of a team that won the Pulitzer Prize for a ten-part series of articles in 2000 entitled "How Race Is Lived in America."   In recalling this earlier work of his in the Bronx, he felt the need to set the record straight, because officials "just called it crime...So I said, I'm going back to photograph our holocaust."

Francisco Molina Reyes II, Opening night, Seis del Sur show
Francisco Molina Reyes II is a third of these Bronx photographers. He has been a street photographer ever since he started shooting in the South Bronx in 1975, but that street life also seduced him to become a writer and chronicler of the Latin Music scene.

Joe Conzo, Jr., Opening night, Seis del Sur show
Joe Conzo, Jr.,  the fourth of these six photographers (and the last of them that I managed to photograph on opening night), started to take pictures at the age of nine.  Because his father, Joe Conzo, Sr. was Tito Puente's publicist and archivist, Joe, Jr. may have developed an extra appreciation of the local musical scene, only shifting allegiances from "El Rey del Mambo" to the Hip Hop movement of his generation.  He collaborated with musicologist Johan Kugelberg in 2007 in the publishing of the book, Born in the Bronx: A Visual Record of the Early Days of Hip Hop,  and he notes that the tenets of Hip Hop still inform his subjects and approach to photography.

The South Bronx, then:

Bronx Documentary Center, Seis del Sur show, General view

Bronx Documentary Center, Seis del Sur show, Couple 

This couple is looking at two photographs that deal with the subject of prostitution.  On the left is Francisco Reyes' piece of 1980 with the self-explanatory title,  Not In Our Block: Community Members Prevent Actors Hired To Play Prostitutes for the Film Fort Apache, The Bronx From Entering Their Neighborhood.  On the right is a partial view of Edwin Pagán's 1986 photograph, Working Girl and Johns.

Seis del Sur show, E Pagán, D Gonzalez, J Conzo [left-to-right]

In Summertime Fun of 1987 [left], Pagán captures a typical scene, still prevalent today, as youngsters play in the street that has been partly flooded by an open hydrant. 

 Joe Conzo's Charlotte Street of 1980 [right] juxtaposes devastation and hope, as an enormous Puerto Rican flag asserts its presence against abandoned buildings and amid the bulldozed rubble of their immediate neighbors.

In the center, David Gonzalez's Dancers, 1979, captures life at its richest in this simple, centered composition of a couple dancing in the middle of a street.  It's pure poetry, and as sexy as it gets.  I imagine that this commandeering of the street is spontaneous (or that's how Gonzalez chooses to show it to the viewer)  and so this couple seems not to have a care in the world.  But this picture offers evidence of the importance of the street in urban culture, particularly with short blocks such as this one.  As Jane Jacobs wrote in her famous book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, "frequent streets and short blocks are valuable because of the fabric of intricate cross-use that they permit among the users of a city neighborhood."

How do I know that this is a short street?  Because I live on it.  This is east 140th Street, looking west to Third Avenue.  I live in the first taller building that you see on the right, the one with some faded advertising letters on its side.  They're still there, only a bit more faded.

Seis del Sur show, Á Franco, R Flores, F Reyes [left-to-right]

Ángel Franco's undated work, A Boy Caught in Crossfire of a Drug Dispute [left] and Francisco Molina Reyes II's 1979 piece, Hombre Con Perrito [right] offer two more views of street life.  Franco's subject might be gruesome in its implications, but in its close-up composition that densely packs the frontal plane, it shares a power and the chiaroscuro of a Caravaggio.  Reyes' composition (even if it nicely lines up the standing dog with the Pontiac grille behind) is less important than is the subject of empathy, as man shampoos dog, once more using the ubiquitous open hydrant found on so many Bronx streets in the summertime.

Ricky Flores' 800 Fox Street of 1983 [center] is that classic representation of "the Bronx is burning," which, by the way was not uttered by Howard Cosell as he announced game two of the 1977 World Series in Yankee Stadium.  ESPN's Gordon Greisman went over the entire broadcast of that game, hoping, without success, to find it.   Still, this oft-quoted clause does capture the shame of this era like nothing else.

Seis del Sur show, Joe Conzo, Jr., CAFA

CAFA stands for the Committee Against Fort Apache.  As the expanded caption under this photograph tells us, "Fort Apache, The Bronx, was a 1981 film starring Paul Newman which was based in the 41st Police precinct formerly located on Simpson Street.   Local community groups protested the film for its stereotypes of blacks and Puerto Ricans and its negative depiction of the South Bronx."  Wikipedia provides a workable summary of the movie, for those interested.

Seis del Sur show, Ricky Flores, Johnny on the Box

Ricky Flores' 1984 photo, Johnny on the Box, captures the icon and possibly most essential piece of hardware of the period, the boombox, aka ghetto blaster.  As Fab Five Freddy tells us, the boombox was essential to the rise and spread of hip hop culture.  It was the means by which new music could be instantaneously disseminated from street-to-street, neighborhood-to-neighborhood. Then the Walkman came along...

Seis del Sur show, Joe Conzo, Jr., Sisters: Abigail & Rachel, 1979

What can I say of this portrait by Joe Conzo that his sitters don't already say without uttering a word?  Maybe a simple "wow" suffices.   Their look is tough and self-possessed; yet these sisters also reveal something vulnerable, at least in this moment captured by Conzo.   The slight three-quarter view is important in revealing ambiguity;  the formality of a full-frontal composition would have  overemphasized their defiance and made them less accessible.  This is just a wonderful double portrait. 

Seis del Sur show, David Gonzalez, Pistoleros, 1979

I end with David Gonzalez's Pistoleros: four boys brandishing five plastic water pistols (and I know where this was taken as well by the angle quoins on the building behind).  These are beautiful kids, and they exude a sense of playfulness and camaraderie.  The guns may be plastic and fake, but the idea of defending turf and acting in solidarity is all too real, and adds tension to their playful gestures.

As delightful as this image is, I can't help thinking of its obverse, and that is kids exactly the ages of these boys, only holding real pistols or AR-15 assault rifles, which is what the NRA and certain other non-profit groups funded by the gun industry is promoting for the youth of America--an attempt "to get newcomers shooting something."  I refer to the front page article in this past Sunday's New York Times by Mike McIntire: "Selling a New Generation on Guns."

David Gonzalez gives us an image of mirth and innocence.  Mike McIntire exposes a new, dystopic future that could make William Golding's Lord of the Flies seem like an innocent cakewalk.

All of a sudden a nostalgia for the Bronx of the later 20th century has washed over me!!

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