Seis Del Sur, Dispatches From Home by Six Nuyorican Photographers
When I offered anyone on Facebook a chance to enjoy a trip to the South Bronx with me for the opening reception of a photography exhibit, Seis Del Sur, Dispatches From Home by Six Nuyorican Photographers, Bill was the only one to respond. I recently had the pleasure of re-connecting with Bill on Facebook – a man I hadn’t seen in nearly 30 years. When I met Bill, he had turned into a tall, wiry man with the infectious smile and wry sense of humor. That wasn’t far removed from the kid I grew up with — a lanky, somewhat geeky boy with an impish grin who was always ready for adventure. So Bill and I met for a quick coffee at Union Square, and then headed up to the Bronx.
It was an oddly poetic choice of venues for us to meet. We hadn’t seen each other since the 1980’s and the exhibit contained many of its images from that iconic decade. Odd because the South Bronx of the 70’s and 80’s was seemingly as far removed from the Altoona, Pennsylvania where we had grown up together in the 70’s and 80’s as one can be. Odd too, because the closest I had gotten to the South Bronx before I had moved to New York City in my twenties was listening to the Clash’s Magnificent Seven – a song inspired by old school hip hop whose birth can be directly attributed to the fertile, diverse musical influences germinating from the South Bronx during that time. Who among us that survived the 80’s doesn’t remember the iconic, White Lines Grand Master Flash?
Besides, since living in New York City, I might have ventured into the South Bronx only half a dozen times for cursory visits. As an outsider, the most indelible impression of the South Bronx I had came from the sad, stereotypical images, videos and stories in the media that I had seen growing up. In the news, the South Bronx became a place to be forgotten and avoided. It was a rough, forbidden neighborhood riddled with violence, drugs, poverty and destruction. Think of the South Bronx, and you get an image of a burning building on an abandoned lot surrounded by old needles, right?
Well, this exhibit portrays a much richer South Bronx than that shallow stereotype ever could. Featuring the work of six Bronx-based photographers of Puerto Rican descent whose compassionate work encompasses a wide range of subjects and styles, this inspiring exhibit successfully crafts a rich, nuanced retrospective of a much more complicated time, and place. These photographs celebrate the rich life and diverse culture of the South Bronx during the decades of the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. (http://bronxdoc.org/visit.)
While there, I kept thinking of what Susan Sontag wrote in her book, On Photography, “Still, there is something predatory in the act of taking a picture. To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them that they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as a camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a subliminal murder – soft murder, appropriate to a sad frightened time.”
These six talented men show us a tender, more empathetic side to the South Bronx. There’s nothing predatory about their photographs. No one’s soul is being snatched. Not once did I feel as if I was viewing photograph of a sad, tragic time, even though some photographs were about sad and tragic times. For instance, there is one compassionate photograph of a young boy sitting on a bench in a police precinct who had been found wondering the streets alone in the early morning hours. Yet the oeuvre of these humane photographers transcends the easy interpretation of the South Bronx being a tragic place full of helpless victims and it puts to rest Ms. Sontag’s macabre view of photographer as killer. Whether it come from the whimsical photograph Hombre con Perrito, by Francisco Molina Reyes II of a man washing his small dog in the street or from David Gonzalez’s more somber landscape work, Fire and Faith, where past the rubble of an abandoned block one can see the stable presence of a church, these life-affirming photographs leave us with an inexorable feeling of hope, dignity and heart.
There was one moment at the opening that I will treasure for a long time. Right next to Bill and I, in the back of an already crowded opening reception, there stood an elegant, beautiful older woman. Cameras were popping off all around here. It was like opening night of the Oscars. This woman might as well have been a movie star. But she wasn’t. Her name was Angela. This stunning woman radiated life as she stood in front of her own portrait taken decades ago. Some things, like Angela, just get better with age.
I highly recommend that you to go see this wonderful exhibit before it closes. This exhibit runs from January 8th to March 8, 2013. Gallery hours are Monday-Friday 4-7 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, 1-5 p.m. It’s an easier quick commute on the 2 or 5 train. Just take the 3rd on Avenue-149th Street stop and the Bronx Documentary Center is three blocks away.