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 decaying cities and their forgotten residents. Down These Mean Streets unites works by Frank Espada, Camilo José Vergara, Anthony Hernandez, Ruben Ochoa, Manuel Acevedo and others who were driven to document and reflect on the state of our cities during these transformative years.
Down These Mean Streets showcases many recent acquisitions and offers a chance to see how Latino photographers responded to the urban crisis in the communities where they lived and worked. The title is drawn from Piri Thomas’ classic memoir Down These Mean Streets (1967), where the author narrates his tough 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.
Rather than approach the neighborhoods as detached observers, they deeply identified with their subject. Activist and documentary photographer Frank Espada captured humanizing portraits of urban residents in their surroundings at a time when they were often stereotyped in the media. Camilo José Vergara and Anthony Hernandez adopt a cooler, conceptual approach. Their serial projects, which return to specific urban sites over and over, consider the passage of time. Ruben Ochoa and Manuel Acevedo use unconventional strategies—like merging photography and drawing—to inspire a second look at the physical features of urban space.
Credit: Exhibition overview from museum website