Meet the Artist: Hiram Maristany on Photographing His East Harlem Community

  • Hiram Maristany’s street photographs of New York City's El Barrio in the 1960s and early 1970s are an ode to his beloved neighborhood.

    HIRAM MARISTANY: Hi, my name is Hiram Maristany. I'm a photographer from New York, El Barrio to be specific. I'm here at the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

    Photography is part history, part documentation, and more importantly, it was more cultural identity.

    Growing up in East Harlem in that era, and I'm talking the early to mid-60s, it was a very tough reality. There were enormous amounts of violence. There was also a lack of space. It's no accident that a lot of the images are of 111th Street. That's the street that I was born and raised on.

    We young men were always finding a way to play. One of the safe places that we had as a haven was rooftops. Rooftops gave us a different perspective that we were not victims. "Night View" is to me very significant because it tries to show what I think is beautiful in our community. It has three elements: it has a sky, a mid-view, and then it has a play street. It shows people moving around in this urban environment, and we're not confined by our poverty.

    "Casa Evita," which is this huge building that is not a high view, but it's a higher view looking down on this building. What I was most pleased with is that the elements of that photograph is very much the way East Harlem looked. At the bottom of that image you'll see the way we used to buy clothes. Poor people didn't have the luxury of going in and sitting down and trying on a pair of shoes. You point to the shoes, and you put them on on the street. My family's in that; one of my nieces is standing on it.

    A lot of my work reflects dual realities and, to a certain extent, contradictory realities. In that image you have both movement and stillness simultaneously. When you look at the image you see the spray and you see some of the joy of being in a hydrant in a community that's 98 degrees and heat is everywhere and this incredible spray of coolness. Anyone who is from East Harlem, anyone who sees that, they know immediately what's going on. I lived at 64 East 111th Street on the ground floor. When I looked out of my window, I saw that hydrant every day of my life.

    Lechón is the roasting of a pig that has a lot of traditional values in Puerto Rico. It speaks to the gathering of people that are going to be celebrating. It's a kind of a thing that speaks to the way East Harlem used to be. It was very, very poor, but we were not defined by our poverty. In my way, I think that I tried to respond to attempting to level the playing field and to show the beauty in the community. East Harlem is a beautiful place, because of what the people were doing within that space.

    There are people that I know that when they come here and they see this, they will feel included in the history of America. That's something that so many people take for granted. Truly, my work is a reflection of a love affair that I've had with my community. One day hopefully I will give some inspiration to some young people or an evolving artist to know their community, to preserve their community, and not allow someone else to do it for them. We have to take responsibility and title to our own history.
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