Profile | Joseph Rodriguez – Mi Gente: Spanish Harlem in the 80s

Saturday night cards, Rodriguez family, 1987 © Joseph Rodriguez

Spanish Harlem. It’s an attitude, a mood, a way of living that is open, emotional, and warm. It is dominoes on the street as the sun sets as the music of Tito Puente and Eddie Palmieri wafts through the air from passing car stereos. It’s a place where open bottles and open fire hydrants are welcome in equal measure. Spanish Harlem is the city’s oldest barrio, dating back to the 1940s, when Puerto Ricans first established themselves in this little corner of upper east side New York. Home to 120,000 people, half of which are Latino, the neighborhood has been forced to confront some of the city’s endemic problems of crime, drugs, AIDS, and chronic unemployment, many times as a result of systemic racism. Yet, like most true Yorkers, the people have a spirit and a will to survive.

For photographer Joseph Rodriguez, Spanish Harlem is sacred ground, a place he has returned to throughout his life to engage with the community. Born and raised in Brooklyn, Rodriguez first went uptown to visit his uncle who had a candy store in el barrio. Then, in 1984, as a student at the International Center of Photography, he was given the assignment of documenting the gentrification of East Harlem.

Friday night at the Dominoe Social Club, 1987 © Joseph Rodriguez

Sparked by looking at life through the lens of his camera, Rodriguez began documenting the community deep within its corazon, going into the churches and into private homes. In May 1990, the photographed were published in a 26-page cover story for National Geographic, after which the photo director, William Garrett, was fired. It had been one in a series of stories which challenged the magazine’s conservative politics, and deterred away from its traditional wildlife, tribal, and environmental subjects. Showing Spanish Harlem had hit a little too close to home. Rodriguez observes, “He had been doing edgy stories. The fall of the Berlin Wall. AIDS in Uganda, the Exxon oil spill.” They took an in-house survey that said they should not be doing stories about these communities. I think it had to do with looking in our own backyards. That’s a very uncomfortable thing to do.”

Yet, it was an act of courage, and one that soon expanded, and was further embraced. While in Washington, D.C., Rodriguez visited National Museum of Art.. There weren’t any Puerto Rican artists represented in their collection. Rodriguez soon remedied that. In 1995, D.A.P./National Museum of American Art published his first book, Spanish Harlem, in conjunction with an exhibition of the photographs.

Vietnam Veteran, 1988 © Joseph Rodriguez

Once again, Rodriguez’s work took the national stage, as his story of Spanish Harlem spoke power to truth, challenging stereotypes while engaging in the hard subjects like addiction and its affect on the family. Rodriguez reveals, “I am not going to shy away from the darkest dark. If there’s a problem we are going to show it but we’re not going to just leave you there. People can change. I was an addict. I know what addiction is. I’m lucky to be alive. Most of my friends are dead. I tell my students, don’t shy away from the dark but also balance life with the light.”

It is this light that shines in Spanish Harlem, photographs from which are currently on view in “Mi Gente,” on view at the Hi-ARTS Gallery, NY, now through November 11, 2015. The work, all shot on Kodakchrome, are among the richest, most vibrant scenes of el barrio ever made. Rodriguez observes, “Color is a very important part of our culture. It’s in our saints, our clothes, our churches, our homes. They are all painted primary colors. It’s very important. Also our skin tones. We’re a mestizo race, from dark skin to light skin. Shooting Kodakchrome—it’s a beast of a film to shoot with. If it was there, it was there and if it wasn’t, it wasn’t.”

Night scene, 1988 © Joseph Rodriguez

Perhaps why that’s why Rodriguez’s photographs resonate so strongly. The intense color fills each frame, guiding us through a wide array of emotional experiences. From scenes of pure innocence, with young children enjoying the idyllic pleasures of the playground to the devastation and destruction raged by the twin plagues of heroin and AIDS, Rodriguez takes us into a day in the life of the barrio.

Coming full circle, “Mi Gente: Spanish Harlem in the ‘80s” is on view in the very same building that began this photography project, some 31 years ago. It was upstairs from the gallery (which had not been there at the time), where Rodriguez had attended the ICP class where he received the instruction to photograph the gentrification of Spanish Harlem. From Rodriguez’s photographs, you’d never know gentrification was a threat, let alone a possibility. Much in the same way that photographs at Hi-ARTS are for the people, mi gente.

“Mi Gente” is on view at the Hi-ARTS Gallery, NY, now through November 11, 2015; Rodriguez’s book “Spanish Harlem” will be published by powerHouse Books in Fall 2016.

Miss Rosen is a New York-based writer, curator, and brand strategist. There is nothing she adores so much as photography and books. A small part of her wishes she had a proper library, like in the game of Clue. Then she could blaze and write soliloquies to her in and out of print loves.


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