Randall Scott Gallery July 16 - August 15, 2009
Recently at the Randall Scott Gallery in DUMBO (Brooklyn), an expressive slice of New York City life unfolded in a series of black-and-white photographs titled Life on the Block. The photographer, Barcelonan artist Adriana Lopez Sanfeliu, spent six years (2002-2007) observing the milieu on 103rd Street in Spanish Harlem, documenting the lives of young Puerto Rican women, their boyfriends and children. The resulting display of twenty-one silver gelatin prints comprises a serious study in urban anthropology, following several extended families in the Latino community, as seen through a sensual, voyeuristic lens.
Like many photo-documentarians before her, Sanfeliu is attracted to the outsider subculture of graffiti, tattoos (as in the name “Mercy” etched in big letters on a woman’s breast), hip-hop fashion, drugs and children in various states of need.
In Sanfeliu’s exploratory aesthetic, men appear only in a supporting role as a new woman struggles to emerge from a formerly machismo culture through social changes, the ascent of feminism and the inexorable (if still gender-slowed) rise of women’s economic power. But it’s a hard battle.
The story is permeated in the cycle of poverty and is sometimes sad as it touches on alcohol addiction, teenage pregnancies, crime and disease, all contributing to a jobless, dysfunctional society called “the ghetto life” by its protagonists.
Images include the top of a child’s head punctuated by 15 staples holding together a large wound, a young teen showing off the Kevlar bulletproof vest under his hip-hop shirt, and a girl sleeping on the hood of a abandoned car. A striking print called “Missy’s Sweet 16” depicts an attractive, mentally challenged girl in a white dress, expressing through her eyes the cry of silent powerlessness. It is obvious that Sanfeliu was able to elicit acceptance as a visiting artist; the feeling of togetherness with her subjects is palpable and translates into scenes of poignant intimacy.
On her website, the photographer explains, “I have been observing the inner landscapes of these young women. Mercy, Sheila, Amy and Midget are some who invited me into their lives. During this time I have observed these women’s desire to stretch their own boundaries and their inability to do so. I have seen their disappointment, the legacy of their parents’ fallen American dreams. The cycle of survival and apathy eradicates any long-term vision for their own lives.”
But at the same time, Sanfeliu, the “Barcelonan Diane Arbus,” reveals the sheer beauty of the Nuyorican and Spanish Harlem streets: couples hugging (“Amy and Cope”) and dancing, kids getting soaked under the spray of a fire hydrant, romantic landscapes with rushing subway trains as backdrop, an exotic night view of the streetscape, children dressed in hulas (“Hawaiian Party”) and pregnant women in sensuous nakedness.
Another image is a dark portrait of a young man, Mickey, on a bed next to a window covered with nostalgic graffiti suggesting a lost paradise of palm trees. A photo, one of my favorites, of a girl with a giant teddy bear in a rear courtyard of the projects, has the masterful accents of a Bresson or Brassai.
Even as Sanfeliu struggles to shed some of the common stereotypes about the urban poor, she winds up accentuating some and accidentally uncovers more—the violent internecine war among Latino families and gangs fueled by ethnic pride and a desire for territorial control. Indeed, Sanfeliu fully understood that it was potentially dangerous for her to travel alone outside of the protection zone below 103rd Street.
Some photojournalists hide their post-colonial curiosity and aesthetic by looking at such a subject with the superiority of an academic researcher, but these photographs represent the cultural collaboration of fiercely intelligent subjects with a humanistic, talented photographer and artist.