Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography

May 11, 2017 — August 5, 2017

Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F 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.

Rather than approach the neighborhoods as detached observers, these artists deeply identified with their subject. Activist and documentary photographer Frank Espada captured humanizing portraits of urban residents in their decaying surroundings. Hiram Maristany and Winston Vargas lovingly captured street life in historic Latino neighborhoods in New York City, offering rare glimpses of bustling community life that unfolded alongside urban neglect and community activism. Working in Los Angeles, Oscar Castillo captured both the detritus of urban renewal projects and the cultural efforts of residents to shape their own neighborhoods. Perla de Leon’s poignant photographs of the South Bronx in New York—one of the most iconic blighted neighborhoods in American history—place into sharp relief the physical devastation of the neighborhood and the lives of the people who called it home. John Valadez’s vivid portraits of stylish young people in East Los Angeles counter the idea of inner cities as places of crime. Camilo José Vergara and Anthony Hernandez adopt a cooler, conceptual approach. Their serial projects, which return to specific urban sites over and over, invite viewers to consider the passage of time in neighborhoods transformed by the urban crisis. The barren “concrete” landscapes of Ruben Ochoa and Manuel Acevedo pivot on unconventional artistic strategies—like merging photography and drawing—to inspire a second look at the physical features of public space that shape the lives of urban dwellers.

The title of the exhibition is drawn from Piri Thomas’ classic memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967), where the author narrates his upbringing in New York City’s El Barrio. Like Thomas, these photographers turn a critical eye toward neighborhoods that exist on the margins of major cities like New York and Los Angeles. The exhibition is drawn entirely from SAAM’s collection and showcases many new acquisitions by Latino artists. It offers a chance to see how these photographers responded to the urban crisis in the communities where they lived and worked.

Down These Mean Streets is organized by E. Carmen Ramos, SAAM's deputy chief curator and curator of Latino art.

Credit

The Latino Initiatives Pool of the Smithsonian Latino Center provided generous support for the new acquisitions featured in this exhibition. The Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund supports the installation and programs.

 

Online Gallery

The American city underwent unprecedented transformations after World War II. As middle-class populations shifted to the suburbs and new highways cut through thriving neighborhoods, many cities began to experience economic and social disintegration, especially in Black, Latino, and working class communities.

Down these Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography unites the work of ten artists who critically reflect on the state of urban America primarily between the 1960s and early 1980s, when government initiatives that sought to address the needs of cities in crisis sparked public debate. The title is drawn from Piri Thomas’s classic 1967 memoir Down These Mean Streets. Like Thomas, their work challenges perceptions of embattled cities and explores the human narratives that unfolded in communities across the United States.

This exhibition examines how Latino photographers, many of whom came of age in urban neighborhoods, frame their environment. They approach the street not as detached observers but as engaged participants by turning to portraiture, urbanscapes, serial photography, or unconventional manipulations of the photographic image. Many contribute to a long tradition of socially driven documentary photography. Others adopt conceptual strategies or use color photography to capture a less romantic image of the American city. Their work reexamines neighborhoods often viewed as places of social decline and affirms the strength of community in urban America.

The Latino Initiatives Pool of the Smithsonian Latino Center provided generous support for the new acquisitions featured in this exhibition. The Bernie Stadiem Endowment Fund supports the installation and programs.

Deciphering Urbanscapes

Urban neglect was especially visible in the deteriorating condition of city streets. Rather than simply document blight, the photographers gathered here draw out the stories embedded in the physical environment in transformative ways.

On the Sidelines

Anthony Hernandez has devoted his career to examining the landscape of his native Los Angeles. In the late 1970s, Hernandez started using a large format camera to capture a detailed and panoramic view of people in their milieu.

Picturing Activism

Photographer Frank Espada was also a respected activist who fought for improved living conditions in African American and Puerto Rican neighborhoods across New York City. 

Rising Above

Communities targeted for urban renewal were often labeled slums, a characterization that many local residents and activists contested. Hiram Maristany often took to rooftops, fire escapes, and windows to capture a dramatically different perspective of his El Barrio neighborhood in New York City. 

Tracking Time and Change

Since the early 1970s, Camilo José Vergara has chronicled the shifting fate of urban communities across the United States. As an immigrant settling in New York, he was first drawn to neighborhoods that were transitioning into Latino enclaves.

Community Portrait

Inner-city neighborhoods are communities where human narratives unfold. Births, marriages, and friendships take center stage in the photographs gathered in this section.