By COLLETTE McGRUDER
This is the first entry in a series of interviews by Jessica Juliao and Collette McGruder, both emerging photographers and CIIS students. They will be interviewing artists whose works are featured in the exhibition En Foco/In Focus, selections from the first permanent photography collection in the country dedicated to U.S.- based artists of Latin American, African, Asian, and Native American heritage. The exhibition opens for the first time on the West Coast on Jan. 22, 2013, at CIIS.
Collette recently had the opportunity to catch up with artist Ricky Flores to discuss New York, the history of his work, and the ever-changing voice of photography in our visual culture.
My obsession with New York began when I discovered the city on a map in my mother’s little black telephone book. New York City, geographically small compared to most states, clearly demanded exaggeration; it had its own area code (only one then) and occupied an enlarged pop-out on the map. This was my first indication that something special was happening there; it would take me 22 years to finally be a part of it.
By the time I got there the 212 prefix I coveted had given way to 917 and the still unpopular 347. Cell phones were taking over and the city’s unwritten code of conduct was changing: dancing had become illegal, smoking in bars was following not too far behind and the grittiness of the so-called mean streets had turned to dust. Where was my Looking for Mr. Goodbar/Wild Style New York? Even the porn theaters had given way to the giant ferris wheel of Toys”R”Us as the new crown jewel of Times Square.
So it is no wonder upon seeing the work of photojournalist Ricky Flores, I became nostalgic for a time in New York I had never really known. Flores knew this time; he grew up in it. His experience is real and tender and goes beyond my Midwestern-based romanticized longing for old New York. Flores photographs offer a thoughtful perspective from a young Puerto Rican man living in the South Bronx during the 1970s.
CM: The piece in the exhibition, FDNY Dispatch: Is There a Fire Over There? illustrates what you describe on your website as "planned shrinkage," a policy wherein police and fire services were withdrawn from areas in hopes of decreasing the population. In the image Carlos and Boogie, we see a beautiful and seemingly fun life moment—uniquely New York—between two men on the subway system. Looking at these images I can’t help but think of your iconic image from 9/11. These images all remind me of my years in New York and how just being there, from the everyday of shuffle between boroughs to dealing with the aftermath of September 11, continues to inform the way I see the world. Can you describe for us what your experience was like during this time and what motivated you to document the moments featured in these two images?
RF: There are many places in the world but not many have an iconic image like that of New York City. During the time that I was photographing my community, I did so with the knowledge that I was witnessing and participating in a profound change in the landscape of the city. What started out as a simple thing of photographing my friends and family became something more simply by the context and time that it took place.
Initially, I used photography as a way to discover who I was as a young Puerto Rican descendent living on the streets of the South Bronx. I was, like many of my friends from my community, a creation of two very distinct cultures forged by history and circumstance. Photography was the tool that helped me bridge the two cultures and allowed me to further understand the history of Puerto Ricans in the United States, and to begin to question the political and social ramifications of being of Puerto Rican descent.
Photographing my community, coupled with the turbulent and violent transformation of the landscape around us, galvanized me to document what was taking place around me. It wasn't an atypical experience to photograph a fire taking place on our block on any given day, just like it wasn't atypical to take photos of kids playing in the park or on the street or in some abandoned building. It was a commonplace experience for us. It always struck us as funny when people would express some horror when we would relate a tale from the block or just simply state that we were from the South Bronx. A social stigma was instantly attached to that pronouncement, one that continues to take place even today.
It was in that context that I took many of my photographs, what might look like an amazing collection of photos of the South Bronx in upheaval was simply my personal photos of my friends and my family.
CM: As a photographer, I have a great deal of respect for journalistic and street photography; I believe it takes a great deal of nerve and determination to pursue subjects and shoot on the spot with candor. Walk us through your process for deciding when a moment becomes one worth documenting. Has this process ever landed you in an uncomfortable situation with your subjects? Was there ever a moment you wanted to document but chose not to do so?
RF: Being allowed into someone’s life who then submits themselves to be photographed is a privilege. You balance your relationship with the subject with walking out of that situation with a photograph that is meaningful and highlights what you think is important about the situation and hopefully that will be conveyed to the viewer if you are successful.
Timing is everything in some of these situations and sometimes the best thing you can do in some moments is to put the camera down and provide an ear to someone who wants to be heard. There is no tried and true way of connecting to someone without the capacity to bond with them in a common humanistic way. That comes from years of experience as well as a real desire to tell the story both for people that you photograph and for yourself. It is a skill set that many photographers of this generation have to learn and master.
CM: With so many blogs and news outlets it seems like everyone is a man on the streets so to speak. How do you feel about the changing face of photography?
RF: Anyone can pick up a camera and shoot an image and many do so with great skill, but there don’t seem to be many who can document a historical event and follow the thread and make it accessible for people to study, learn from and make informed decisions on how to change something for the greater good.
I think that gets lost in the general visual chaff that we see on a daily basis. Conversely you are seeing young and untrained photographers who are naturally connected to what is taking place around them and somehow, without the benefit of a formal training or education, can, with great skill, document history in a way that is on par with some of the best editorial and documentary photographers in the world.
I think that the accessibility of the medium will introduce us to some remarkable talent whose voices are growing even now.