Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
February 18, 2022
Elizabeth Ferrer Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2021. 280 pp.; 43 color ills.; 62 b/w ills. Paper $34.95 (9780295747637)

In Latinx Photography in the United States: A Visual History, Elizabeth Ferrer highlights the contributions of Latinx individuals to the history of American photography. Loosely defined as a term whose genesis resides in ethnic, linguistic, and class-based systems of identification, “Latinx” quickly turns into an exhortation to abandon the implicitly exclusionary structures of language through an affirmative, gender-neutral, and inclusive form of self-identification. With this claim, the author intervenes in the historiography of the medium by calling for more inclusive narratives. The book is illustrated with emblematic images of aesthetic and historical value and provides more than eighty biographical entries. Each chapter is accompanied by an introductory essay that contextualizes and thematizes a broad range of practices that extend from the use of the first photographic cameras in the American West during the nineteenth century to the boom of photojournalism through the 1950s and 1960s and the rise of street photography and conceptualism in the 1980s and 1990s.  

Intended for a general audience and structured as a reference book, Ferrer’s study addresses the marginal position photography has historically occupied within the fine arts as well as its role in the social life and political activism of communities bonded by a common cultural background and a shared experience of disenfranchisement. Notwithstanding the broad and at times seemingly boundless scope of the author’s project, Ferrer remains attentive to the discourses that have influenced and been influenced by the photographic medium as both an aesthetic and critical practice. With a shrewd eye for addressing the construction of ethnic and racialized identities in the last century, the author weaves in the various themes and approaches cutting through the Latinx photographic archive.

A writer, curator, and arts activist, Ferrer has organized multiple curatorial projects about photography in the United States and Latin America. According to the author, recovering archives and artistic practices that fall outside the official history of American photography has prompted a series of questions about the ways in which the photographic record has shaped historical narratives, documented the experiences of marginalized subjects, and created a shared sense of identity. Part of a recent revisionist turn toward exhibition and collecting practices, Ferrer’s curatorial projects have brought attention to the ways in which institutions and academics have privileged art produced in Latin America, usually by white, male canonical figures, over that of immigrant, Indigenous, and Black artists from Spanish-speaking communities living in the United States. To redress this omission, the book showcases exemplary works by Latinx photographers and artists from diverse backgrounds, who engage a wide range of critical and aesthetic approaches to the medium.

The book is divided into ten chapters that can be grouped in three general sections. The first two chapters take a historical approach to the early use of cameras—for either personal or commercial purposes—by individuals of Hispanic heritage, exploring their role in shaping a sense of cultural, social, and political consciousness. Tracing the roots and antecedents of Latinx photography since 1840, the first chapter includes a handful of nineteenth-century individuals of Hispanic descent who were among the first camera owners in the country. Fanny Vallejo’s masterful daguerreotype portraits of her family members in California and Adolfo Rodrigo’s documentation of the American West reveal the complex demographics of a national historical record. Other photographers, who have remained somewhat obscure figures, appear as early practitioners of commercial studio photography in areas with large Hispanic or Latino populations. The author also considers photographers working in the first half of the twentieth century who pioneered an aesthetically unique Latinx photographic lexicon while engaging a modernist sensibility and remaining part of international artistic and intellectual networks.  

Chapter 2 traces the interconnected histories of documentary photography and the civil rights movement in the United States from the 1960s through the 1980s. Focused mainly on the emergence of a “Chicano cultural consciousness” sprouting from the political and social movements that lead to “new expressions of ethnic and cultural pride,” this chapter introduces the reader to photojournalists who worked closely with activists and printmakers (16). At this point, the author shifts away from the term Latinx to address the specificity of the Mexican American experience in the Southwest of the United States, particularly in the city of Los Angeles. The term Chicanx is used as a gender-neutral adaptation of Chicano/a, a term referring to people of Mexican heritage that carries with it a sense of pride as it is rooted in the social movements of the 1960s. Whether they worked in the photo-reportage mode or pursued more artistic ends, Chicanx photographers demonstrated tremendous technical prowess. They made important contributions to the documentary aesthetics of black-and-white film and mobilized the poetic lyricism of color photography as they captured scenes of everyday life. Providing a counterbalance to homogenizing interpretations of the Chicanx photographic archive, this chapter ties together the history of Puerto Rican activism in Chicago and the East Coast through brief introductions to lesser-known as well as canonical Latinx photojournalists of the civil rights movement. The resulting triad provides an opportunity to reflect on the shared visual languages that emerged from the translocal networks that formed with the rise of countercultures and political activism across the United States starting in the 1960s.

The book’s middle section introduces the reader to a great number of photographers who documented the social life of marginalized groups within urban environments at a moment when photography was slowly starting to be institutionalized as an art form. Entitled “Documents, 1970s–Present,” chapter 3 focuses on the decades that followed the civil rights movement. No longer just a tool for advancing political agendas, photography would become a site for articulating a series of critiques against the high commercial value of the art object and the art world’s exclusionary practices. Further, the use of the medium as a personal and intimate form of documentation radically transformed the meaning of the political. The street became not only a site for community bonding and social interaction, but a space where cultural and political life took place, animated by a broad range of aesthetic experiences. The Nuyorican photographers and members of En Foco—following in the steps of the Kamoinge collective founded by African American photographers in 1963—turned their gaze to the everyday life of hardworking people and moved away from stereotypical depictions of marginality to engage the complex social and cultural dynamics of Latinx life in the urban centers of the United States. Mobilizing a broad range of aesthetic strategies and visual referents that go from the stylistic modes of the Polaroid snapshot to Hollywood narrative cinema, their work enriched the language of photography while denouncing the criminal-justice system and the violence inflicted against immigrants.

During the 1990s, exhibitions such as Chicano Art: Resistance and Affirmation (CARA) were dedicated to revalorizing the artistic and cultural contributions of Chicanx individuals. What is undoubtedly the most culturally and artistically active Latinx community in the United States comes into focus in chapter 4, as debates around notions of institutional whitewashing and homogenizing forms of representation shocked long-held notions of cultural identity. Artists interrogated depictions of Mexican Americans in mainstream culture and reclaimed Chicanismo as a singular, positive, and modern experience. Placing the individual at the center to challenge traditional tropes of group identity, art collectives such as Asco intervened in public spaces through transgressive and visually provocative performances that engaged the strategies of religious satire and the aesthetics of punk culture. Questions around the integration of grassroots culture within mainstream artistic circles were further problematized by female and queer artists whose work probed the politics of identity.

Chapters 5 through 9 are dedicated almost entirely to showcasing the work of a new generation of artists and photographers from different backgrounds who further investigate an identity-based discourse while pushing the boundaries of photography through experimentation and unconventional modes. Chapter 5 looks at how cultural and personal identity collide in the work of artists who challenge stereotypes through the staging of self and social performance. Chapter 6 considers the foundational role of family in Latinx culture as a way of safeguarding personal and collective memory, while chapter 7 draws from Jacques Derrida’s seminal text Archive Fever to contextualize the work of contemporary artists working with the photographic historical archive in highly conceptual modes. Entitled “Geographies,” Chapter 8 brings together a multigenerational group of artists who reconfigure notions of belonging by questioning how a place acquires meaning beyond that established by arbitrary geopolitical divisions. Moving fully to the terrain of conceptual art, chapter 9 highlights the work of artists who take a critical approach to the formal and discursive modalities of the photographic medium. Finally, chapter 10 provides a brief history of photography in Puerto Rico through a critical approach to its disenfranchisement by the US government and its heterogeneous social and cultural landscape.

Latinx Photography in the United States is a critical resource for enriching and expanding current scholarship in the fields of American photography and visual culture—even though the term Latinx itself appears to be plagued with contradictions. Controversial and contentious, the term must at the very least be understood in both local and translocal ways, such that it is possible to acknowledge the conjoined and multilayered histories of Latin American and Latinx art through migration, shared languages, and a common cultural heritage without disregarding the specificity of each context and experience. Within these current debates, Ferrer’s book does more than provide an account of the artistic and cultural contributions made by a growing demographic group within the United States. It underscores the urgent need to rewrite a history of the medium from a more inclusive and generative approach to the aesthetic, social, cultural, and political experiences that have shaped it.

Patricia Ortega-Miranda
Department of Art and Archaeology, University of Maryland, College Park