Perla de Leon’s poignant photographs of the South Bronx in New York place into sharp relief the physical devastation of the neighborhood and the lives of the people who called it home. The artist discusses her 1980 series "South Bronx Spirit," which capture the life, laughter, and resiliency of the community in which de Leon was teaching at the time.
PERLA DE LEON: My name is Perla de Leon, and I'm a New York City photographer. I am here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum talking about my photography series called, "South Bronx Spirit."
I've always lived in Manhattan. I grew up in Harlem. We did not have the fires that the Bronx and the Lower East Side and some areas of Brooklyn had. I knew it could be an area that had had some difficulty, but I had no idea that it had completely burned down the way it did.
At first, maybe they thought I was a newspaper person, then they thought maybe I was a cop. They weren't very comfortable with me until I just started to talk to them and explained that I was teaching down the block and that I was very concerned about what the community looked like and that I wanted to take pictures. Then they were really helpful.
One gentleman called "Pepe" noticed that my car had tires that were on their last threads and he said, "I'll get you some tires if you need some tires, because it's important that you tell people what's happening here." Then I was received really well. He was a very nice human-being and he showed me where he and his family used to live and introduced me to some friends. Then eventually brought me this little diary that belonged to a friend that he wanted to show me, someone who had written about the neighborhood.
When I first arrived on Charlotte Street, the infamous Charlotte Street, besides teaching at the little school up the hill, I was very aware, because it was still nice weather, of all this laughter and children giggling. It was like, ok, there's some life here, let's follow, let's go see where these children are.
I remember him walking down the block and kind of doing his moves. The minute he took that leap, I just quickly prayed that I would catch him, and I was very fortunate that I caught him just as he was in the air. I was always looking for moments like that where you are just capturing what someone is enjoying. He was by himself. It's not like he stopped me and said, "Watch, photograph me." He was into his own thing, and I said, "Ok, this boy is going to leap."
Everyone has captured the fires as they would happen. It was always in the news. It didn't interest me as much. You can see it, obviously, in the background and in the photographs, but I wanted to show more of the life that was there. I feel that my photographs capture the spirit of the kids. For me, it's just resilience.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
America’s urban streets have long inspired documentary photographers. After World War II, populations shifted from the city to the suburbs and newly built highways cut through thriving neighborhoods, leaving isolated pockets within major urban centers. As neighborhoods started to decline in the 1950s, the photographers in this exhibition found ways to call attention to changing cities and their residents. Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography explores the work of ten photographers—Manuel Acevedo, Oscar Castillo, Frank Espada, Anthony Hernandez, Perla de Leon, Hiram Maristany, Ruben Ochoa, John Valadez, Winston Vargas, and Camilo José Vergara—who were driven to document and reflect on the state of American cities during these transformative years.