Changing the Art World, One Image and Viewer at a Time: En Foco Inc’s Thirty-Fifth Anniversary

From En Foco's Archives
A flyer from En Foco's Archives, 1974

Over the course of thirty-five years En Foco has developed a strong following and given many photographers national exposure. It’s a small group that thinks big, and believes deeply in working within their local community. But it is also a national organization that commands a lot of respect in the photo world. Chicago based photographer Myra Greene puts it best, “All artists need support and you can find that support in different communities. En Foco has been great because it’s a community that I’m a part of, but what I think they do well is they engage non-minorities in a conversation about underrepresented artists.”

One of the ways En Foco has changed the art world, is by insisting that the act of looking at photographs made by artist of a particular culture should not exclude any viewer-ship. This along with the unfailing energy of the staff and their pure love of photographic expression have been a constant source of inspiration for me and made me eager to contribute this story. As an independent curator I have seen En Foco change the direction of artists careers in ways both large and small but I have also been personally swept up by the staff’s enthusiastic advocacy for new and interesting work. En Foco is constantly reminding me why I do what I do, and why I love it.

“People learn about En Foco through Nueva Luz or one of their programs, and then they keep learning about it.” Greene, who teaches photography at Columbia College in Chicago, was one of the many exuberant and loyal follower of En Foco that I spoke with. For Greene, the impact of the organization on her career has been tremendous. She describes 2008 as her “Year of En Foco.”

When Nueva Luz issue 12:3 was released, one of Greene’s black glass ambrotypes provided the striking cover image. She recalls, “a lot of people saw it and that was great… My work was on the cover and then I got honorable mention in their New Works Photography Fellowship Awards program. Then they gave me a Touring Gallery show in New York City at Umbrella Arts.”

Nueva Luz 12#3, featuring Myra Greene. The cover image is available through En Foco's Print Collectors Program
Nueva Luz 12#3, featuring Myra Greene. The cover image is available through En Foco's Print Collectors Program

After En Foco’s Executive Director Miriam Romais curated that show, she made sure that Greene’s exhibition was on the radar of other curators both in and outside of the New York area. Andrea Barnwell curator at the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art in Atlanta visited the exhibition. Greene feels that the exposure she got from appearing in the journal along with Romais’ encouragement lead to being included Spellman’s upcoming show, Undercover: Performing and Transforming Black Female Identities (September 10 – December 5, 2009).

“The thing that’s great about En Foco and why Miriam is so good at her job is because she is all about the artists. It takes a lot of energy, but she does it for a lot of people. In that way, En Foco is like a family but the difference is that this ‘family’ grows every year – En Foco becomes an amazing advocate for artists and that’s really important because as I said earlier, no one can do it alone.” This is a theme I heard over and over. As Greene says,

En Foco reminds me and everyone that the photo world isn’t just about galleries.”

Astonishingly, with as much as En Foco accomplishes with their full roster of established programs, they continue to expand their reach, finding ways to become more responsive to the larger community while still focusing on providing exposure and critical dialog for diverse artists. The organization has just announced the winners of it’s first photo competition (People/Places/Things) open to all artists regardless of nationality, and this fall and next spring the organization will host mini-benefits to raise money for its programs, in true En Foco community spirit.

Founded by Charles Biasiny-Rivera and several other photographers in the Bronx in 1974, the organization has grown tremendously from a small group of Puerto Rican photographers serving their local NY community, to an internationally known organization that serves a broad range of photographers of color. Over the last three and a half decades En Foco’s mission has expanded but the core initiatives of the 70s still inform their guiding principles.

Bill Mindlin, Editor of Photograph, has great respect for En Foco and its unique model for education and exhibitions within the New York art community. In a telephone interview from his office in New York, Mindlin shared his deep admiration for the organization. “They have survived in the Bronx, where there is not a big gallery presence – there is the Bronx Museum and a few institutions … and they continue to do programming and host events in unusual palaces, in community spaces. It’s a very interesting and democratic model. They bring photography from the people to the people.” Mindlin marveled at the organizations determination as well as their consistency.

They show photography in a serious and respectful manner and give photographers a voice.  Their events continuously put forward a presence for a lot of people that are talented but just don’t have a chance to get seen.”

Mindlin also points out the value of En Foco to other art professionals such as professors, art critics, curators and gallerists. En Foco “provides an important curatorial function. It let’s you find a nugget of talent among the overwhelming number of photographic works” and practitioners in circulation today. And he was quick to recognize the enormous value of such an organization in today’s world of 24-hour information, image overload and the massive number of artist portfolios now available for review on the Internet.

There are so many unedited avenues of information that it’s impossible to find things. If you can have a place with a consistent reputation that you can turn to online or in print that’s very valuable.”

In a recent interview, En Foco co-founder Biasiny-Rivera recalled the group’s formative years. “We started out as a few New York-Puerto Rican photographers, displaying our work at block parties in the South Bronx. The initial reason that we formed En Foco was that we noticed that we were not visible as Puerto Rican photographers. So we decided to make ourselves visible by organizing exhibitions and creating events. We were interested in identifying ourselves to ourselves. None of the artists seemed to be getting any recognition for their artistry. We decided to show our work in the community – reflecting the subjects that were important to us – reminding the community of our worth – [photographs of our] family, work, our churches… positive and more realistic portraits of our community. NOT West Side Story”, he said with a chuckle over the phone last week.

From the Archives: En Foco's Street Gallery, 1978
From the Archives: En Foco's Street Gallery, 1978

Biasiny-Rivera further recalled the organization’s grassroots foundation fondly, “we had a street gallery and would set up a Polaroid studio in the community – parks and schools. We would photograph and teach instant photography with Polaroid’s and wedding photography at block parties, setting up photography booths at either end of the street, answering people’s questions, signing people up for workshops…. We finally decided that we needed an official profile and we got an official certificate of incorporation and we were then able to get more funding.

En Foco had exhibitions at the City Gallery at New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs in Manhattan (where Graciela Iturbide was one of the artists). We also received $5,000 from them to produce Nueva Luz, as a large tabloid. We started printing on newsprint because that’s all we could afford, and we had a wonderful cover that we were all really proud of.”

The first issue of Nueva Luz featured Sophie Rivera (cover), Tony Mendoza and Kenro Izu
The first issue of Nueva Luz featured Sophie Rivera (cover), Tony Mendoza and Kenro Izu

“Everybody wanted to be published”, he remembered, “so we did it. Guest editors and writers, that’s very important, and that’s what the journal is still doing – we presented large portfolios every issue, reviewed by independent professionals in the field… Being published is really important for an artist. I’ve traveled internationally a lot as a photographer and I was surprised at how many people new about us through Nueva Luz. We didn’t distribute to those countries but they were finding out about us through the journal from the photographic grapevine. But globally this is what’s next. Our community is not just the Bronx; it is Europe, Latin America… We are everywhere!”

“Even David Rockefeller, Jr found us. He was doing site visits for organizations that had been nominated for the Praemium Imperiale, and he walked into our office one day. It ended up that En Foco was too small to qualify, but he really liked us and later on in the mail we received $5,000 from him. He personally donated that to us.”

New York Times reporter, David Gonzalez became involved with En Foco right after college. After discovering his love of photography as an undergraduate at Yale, Gonzalez moved back home to his parents’ apartment in the Bronx. “My parents were working class … they thought I was going to Yale and would become a doctor. When I graduated and said that I wanted to be a photographer, they flipped. To them, being a photographer meant that I was going to take pictures at people’s weddings. To me, it was what Lee Friedlander did.

Charlie gave me that opportunity to learn and practice, and I immersed myself in it. He called me a photographer. [Biasiny-Rivera] hired me on the basis of one meeting. I wanted to work as a photographer in a cultural setting and En Foco was the only place around that gave me that opportunity. Through En Foco I met many young photographers that greatly influenced me and shaped my vision.” The communal spirit of En Foco’s early days was a great influence to Gonzalez.

In the Fall of 1979, Perla de Leon and David Gonzalez taught a Visual Literacy workshop at two South Bronx schools. Here, Perla shows a student at CS 61 how to use a Polaroid camera. The images would then be put together in a story book written and illustrated by tams of young people.    CS61 was known for two things: it had a principal who actively encouraged the arts as an essential part of the curriculum. It was also one of the few remaining structures on Charlotte Street, the infamous urban wasteland visited by politicians and tourists.  Photo by David Gonzalez, All Rights Reserved 2009
"In the Fall of 1979, Perla de Leon and David Gonzalez taught a Visual Literacy workshop at two South Bronx schools. Here, Perla shows a student at CS 61 how to use a Polaroid camera. The images would then be put together in a story book written and illustrated by tams of young people. CS61 was known for two things: it had a principal who actively encouraged the arts as an essential part of the curriculum. It was also one of the few remaining structures on Charlotte Street, the infamous urban wasteland visited by politicians and tourists." Photo © by David Gonzalez, All Rights Reserved 2009

We had this almost naïve idea that we could bring photo to the masses. We thought that if we could teach photography, it could tap into people’s lives. We figured photography was something that everyone could approach – everyone had pictures in their house or had a camera. It was widespread among average people in the community, even more than today with digital cameras, and we thought photography as a medium would be the most important things to teach.”

Gonzalez left En Foco to become print journalist and in recent years has come full circle, back to photography. As a foreign correspondent in Central America and the Caribbean, his photographs were often published alongside his news stories, and he now continues to shoot for the pieces he writes on the Times’ City Room blog. He recently wrote about the early days of En Foco for the blog that includes photographs of the En Foco team in action in the Bronx in the 1970s: From the Archive: Bronx Street Art in the NY Times’s Lens Blog, an audio slide show titled Revisiting the South Bronx, 35 Milimeters at a Time, and Faces in the Rubble.

The importance of being part of an artistic community, recognized by accepted as a fellow artist and professional is something that young photographers still value. Today, En Foco’s annual Portfolio Review Sessions is often the first place that some emerging or self-taught photographers find that sense of community, as it brings together photographers at every level of their careers together with editors, curators and art dealers from around the country.

© Selina Roman
© Selina Roman, Frida, 2009

As Selina Roman, an attendee at this year’s review held this past June commented, “ I was ecstatic when I found an organization dedicated to emerging artists. It’s a great feeling to know that I am not alone… Before the review, my only feedback had been from friends and a smattering of other photographers, which was great. But hearing from professionals entrenched in the art world was amazing.  Their comments allowed me to think about my work in different ways, which will ultimately mean a stronger body of work.  The whole experience was invaluable.”

Monica Ruzansky, who also showed her work at the 2009 review said, “We live so immersed and isolated in our own work that it is very important to have a community of photographers, to share ideas, work and experiences… that keeps you grounded sometimes.” Ruzansky, who is originally from Mexico City but relocated to New York a few years ago, said that she had found out about the portfolio review from reading En Foco’s journal Nueva Luz.

© Monica Ruzansky
© Monica Ruzansky

The photographic journal provides En Foco with a way to celebrate outstanding photography while expanding the dialog about issues of identity and creative expression in the larger art world. In lavish color, it provides each photographer a multi-page portfolio spread.

Nueva Luz is as handsomely produced as it is respected in the field: for the past two years the publication has been a finalist for the Lucie Awards as “Photography Magazine of the Year.” In addition to the accomplished staff, the journal regularly includes commentary and critical writing by distinguished guest editors, writers and curators, such as Los Angeles Times Staff Writer and Creative Capital/Warhol Foundation grantee Sharon Mizota, who recently contributed an article on collaborative artists Tarrah Krajnak & Wilka Roig, Luis Delgado, and Rania Matar for Nueva Luz 13:3. Guest Editor Darius Himes, founding editor of Radius Books, produced a special issue focused on contemporary race and photography in the 13:2 issue that featured images by Hank Willis Thomas, Sanaz Mazinani, Ian Ramirez and Nontsikelelo Veleko.

As Executive Director and Editor, Miriam Romais states, En Foco is all about “Community, Community, Community”, but the community she advocates for is interested in and respectful to all.While En Foco began with a dream for change 35 years ago, it continues to focus on Latino and other artists of diverse cultures, often telling stories that do not get heard or seen through conventional means or mainstream galleries. We celebrate the vitality of inner neighborhoods and rural areas alike, and rejoice that we can bring attention to an artist or a meaningful project that should be seen by a wider audience. The artists are free to explore or reinvent cultural traditions, challenge preconceived notions, and engage audiences in a manner that honors everyone. Great knowledge can come through art – and photography is no exception.”

If En Foco has made a difference in the lives of artists, this is the time to talk about it – organizations need the support too” says Romais. “It would be nice if we [organizations] were no longer relevant with the rise of the supposed ‘post-racial culture’ in North America, but that is not the case. Are we all still relevant? We think so, but more importantly, our artists and communities adamantly say yes.”

While many people would argue that the En Foco has time and again proven it’s relevance, Romais’ question is an important one. Many non-profit organizations are grappling with this question as the country approaches the end of President Obama’s historic first year as Commander-in-Chief.

The question is also a neat segue to announce that En Foco will be the co-Chair of next year’s Society for Photographic Education’s national conference: next spring En Foco will break new ground. The conference, titled Facing Diversity: Leveling the Playing Field in the Photographic Arts will be co-chaired with Hannah Frieser, Director of Light Work in Syracuse, and feature speakers such as Dawoud Bey, Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie and Veronica Passalacqua, Deborah Willis, Elizabeth Ferrer, Don Gregorio Antón, Kip Fulbeck and many others. The conference will take place in Philadelphia from March 4-7, 2010.

—–

Want to know more? Anyone interested in photography can see a variety of work by some of the artists that have been exhibited or published by En Foco, by visiting the Photographers Section on their website. By signing up for their free email newsletter (or following them on Facebook, Twitter of Flickr), photographers and photo enthusiasts can also find out about upcoming exhibitions, artist talks and it’s 35th Anniversary events that are open to the public. Soon, their Permanent Collection will be seen by the public for the first time, in a traveling exhibition funded by the National Endowment for the Arts and curated by Elizabeth Ferrer.



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