McCabe rarely gets an exhibit as immediately thought-provoking as the one currently on display. “De Mis Viajes” — “From My Travels” in Spanish — is a photographic exploration by José Galvez of Latin American communities in the United States. The series, organized and curated by Professor Milton Machuca-Gálvez and McCabe Reference and Digital Projects Resident Roberto Vargas, is made up of black-and-white photos in a variety of formats.
The photographs balance a fine line between intimacy and exposition. Every photo shows an entirely different scene, location and perspective. He also photographed all sorts of groups, ranging from recent immigrants to second or third generation naturalized citizens and mixed families of American and Latino descent. However, there is an overarching narrative in the work that reaches through the relative disjointedness between each individual photo.
Galvez highlights diverse sectors of Latin American life in the U.S. They are taken everywhere from Mennonite Pennsylvania to Philadelphia to rural North Carolina, reaching subjects from different walks of life in each locale. There are protesters and migrant workers, teenagers and old women, American citizens and immigrants, families and individuals.
Thanks to this, each photo shows a unique subject and is taken in a photographic genre that can at times err towards the monolithic. The photos seek to both empower and reveal underlying truths about these people’s lives.
On a more technical level, each photo displays ingenuity in its portrayal of subjects. The scenes are reminiscent of photos from Robert Frank’s “The Americans,” a seminal series of work spanning the 20th century. Frank travelled through America seeking to find what constitutes the land, people and myth of the country. Through this project, Frank succeeded in subverting notions of what it means to be American, while creating entirely new ones for an audience steeped in a certain vision of the American people. Galvez seems to be doing something similar, if more focused, for the Latin American community in the United States.
Each photo, whether set in the country, the suburbs or the city, feels deeply personal and employs a smart use of space and perspective. Minus the explicit markers of our time (cell phones, high school musical t-shirts, etc.), these photos could represent any time and place in the Western hemisphere in recent history.
My one criticism is that some of the prints themselves are surprisingly lacking in the technical prowess I have come to expect of exhibited work. Several have a strange, overly grey tonal quality to them, which makes one wonder if they were printed like this intentionally. However, in general the message of the photos in the show overwhelms their questionable technical elements.
In such an eclectic exhibit, some photos are more memorable than others. This is not to say that the other photos are forgettable, it is just to note that these photos were the ones that are most effective in the scheme of the series. The photos that are most engrossing are a portrait of two transgender Latinas in Durham, North Carolina, a portrait of a 10-year-old girl taking communion in Detroit, Michigan and a photo of a Latino man with an American flag draped around his body, also in Durham.
The first photo mentioned is powerful in both its subject matter and its presentation. Queer issues in the Latin American psyche are an entirely separate issue and photographic focus. However, Galvez manages to weave this photo and narrative into his series quite beautifully.
The next photo is technically impressive and one of the portraits in the series that could stand alone and be appreciated solely for its aesthetic value. This portrait shows a different geographic location and a different subject matter than those treated by most of the others. However, this does not detract from its allure. Rather, it serves to diversify the series in age, tone, and subject matter.
The last photo that I found outstanding deals with activism in the Latino youth community. The photo’s focus is on a teenager holding a sign that says “tenemos un sueño” — “we have a dream” — which the description says alludes to the Dream Act, a piece of legislature that would offer a path to citizenship for undocumented minors in the United States. This photo also holds significance because the protest was held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is deeply connected to struggles for equality within American society.
In general, the captions under the photos may bolster the appeal of the project as a whole. However, on an atomistic level, each photo has its own character, and as a whole the series represents something that transcends a need for subtext. Galvez has created a body of work that adds to the canon of 21st century Latin American photography. But this body of work, in its diversity of theme and character, helps to transcend preconceived notions of the Latin American in our country, an underexplored cause in modern photography.
The photos will be on exhibit at McCabe Library until September 26th. The artist, José Galvez, will be coming to speak in the McCabe Atrium on September 24th at 4:15 p.m. with a reception to follow.