May 18 to June 30, 2023
15 Canal Place, Bronx, New York 10451
What does f-stop mean in photography?
(Focal-STOP) The f-stop is the “aperture” opening of a camera lens, which allows light to come in. It also determines how much is in focus in front of and behind the subject (see depth of field). The title of this exhibition is both a play on the camera term and coming to a complete standstill.
Photographers arrest moments in time, ensnaring their subject in the viewfinder and holding it endlessly for us the viewer to bear witness. Photography insists that we come to a full stop—trapping us in its grip, either through pristine beauty, unflinching candor, or mystifying illusion. We gaze upon images that the photographer carefully selects, and through our own knowledge, understand that what we see is just what they wanted us to see. We are left gasping for the just-before and just-after.
The works selected for this exhibition can be viewed as a harnessing of a bleak and solitary existence of fringe communities of color and the underpinnings of the sleek outward-facing veneer that is American life. To come “full stop” before these images brings us to face the faceless and nameless individuals on which this empire is built and sustained. However, there is another reading: one of transcendence as envisioned by the creators behind the lens. Their thirst for an understanding of humanity keeps them scouring hungrily for the right image—the right moment—amid a thousand shutter stops, beyond the genre, beyond the format of portraiture, even beyond the frame and wall.
What struck me immediately across the selections I viewed during my studio visits with each of the artists was a sense of lift—elevation, to be more precise. While many of the subjects are captured within hostile architecture and landscapes, the level of reverence for the sitters in this work is palpable through the lens. These are real people living real lives, attempting to create a semblance of normalcy within the harsh lighting of a crab processing plant, having una cerveza fria (a cold beer) in a humble watering hole in a Southwestern community, or the familiarity of densely crowded neighborhoods. We know these places, spaces, and faces. Our individual lived experiences, when applied to viewing this work, pierces the veil and stretches us past the frame.
This is not to deny the tragedy of displacement and geographic separation of immigrant communities. These works—and the exhibition installation itself—reflect the density and compression of bodies and spaces emphasizing the stretching and pulling of an imagined a life that is beyond what is available to us. This exhibition expects the viewer to crouch down low and stretch up high, to rummage through archives, to dream past our expectations of photography, even past our ideas of love, self, and sanctuary.
Thalia Juárez brings her experience as a documentary press photographer to capture the experiences of women migrant workers at a crab processing plant in a remote location in Maryland. Separated from their families for up to nine months per year, renting a home from their employers and without independent transport, these women work and live daily under grueling conditions. Juárez’s photos capture the isolation and harshness of their environment, but also the small moments of sisterhood and support that they create for each other in this shared space outside of their labor contributions.
Ashley McLean’s tender images of families, specifically Black men and their children at leisure in lush natural settings, become the antidote for the barrage of stigmatizing negative images of Black men across media. In these works, McLean cradles her subjects gently in foliage and warm light as a child plays in a garden under a parent’s watchful eye in the distance. The work normalizes families at rest and deserving of proximity to nature and beauty. McLean’s photographs serve as a sanctuary.
Ryan Frigillana’s suite of photos are inspired by his own Filipino family narrative and pushes against the images he found while researching Filipinos in the Library of Congress. Those images depict people at work in large fields, stooped over, working, often photographed from behind and backlit, presented as much a part of the landscape as faceless mounds or beasts of burden. He counters these images with photos of his father tending to his own abundant garden in a halo of mist from a garden hose. Frigillana mines archival images of his immediate family and juxtaposes them against institutional images to rehumanize the individuals who are oft overlooked and underappreciated.
Mateo Ruiz Gonzalez’s Chilluns’ Croon (2021) series focuses on the town of Wilson, North Carolina, a predominantly African American community, and specifically the Louis Neil museum, created in his garage. Neil has dedicated his life to archiving and preserving the stories of African Americans in Wilson. The town was included in what was known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, first published in 1936 and last published in 1966, that listed spaces where Black folks were welcome. (Note: It deserves mentioning that four issues have been reprinted and are currently in circulation.)
Pratya Jankong’s autobiographical photography and installation work developed from the invasive procedures of naturalization in the United States that he and his partner endured. Expected to produce evidence of a loving relationship to caseworkers, he documented banal minutiae such as his view while sitting in a waiting room or intimate moments with his wife. These moments prompted Jankong to conflate those images with copies of filed documents involving their case and create variations of a physical timeline that are at once tender and dehumanizing.
Eduardo Rivera’s work is based on his family’s migration from Mexico and settlement in Phoenix, Arizona. He uses old family photographs as archives and returns to them as an anchor for his practice, pointing to the lives and intimacy that his family built together. His work explores moments where time can be open and also examines how bodies and architecture echo each other. Rivera says, “I am drawn to the poetics of this place, and how elements of metaphorical light and evidence of people act as guideposts”.
Samantha Box is a citizen of multiple diasporas, Indians from Trinidad/Jamaican, and examines how identity and knowledge shift across borders. She uses photographs to find conclusive points around people and personal landscapes, utilizing mirrors, objects, and textiles that are referential to family life. Box’s work also asks what is True Land. Where do we come from, how do we create spaces of Caribbean paradise and artifice that occur within the studio, as well as collapsing the body until it resists identity?
Àngel Añazco’s Renacimiento (Rebirth) (2021–ongoing) series examines the artist’s Andean ancestry and pre-colonial recognition and respect of the third gender, validating their gender transition and drawing connections to the celestial. Through digital painting over self-portraiture, the artist reimagines themself as divine, other-worldly visions inspired by conflating ancestral folklore and futurist gestures.
Ana Vallejo’s intuitive photo collages speak to shared trauma, love, addiction, and self-medication. Her most recent work examines universality through collaborative experiments with female-presenting friends and commonality, and asks how trauma builds resistance, and examines the forces that connect us.
Tanya Bindra’s photojournalistic approach to her family life in London as a Southeast Asian interrogates the complex relationship between her grandfather, the British royal family, colonial rule, and the impact of colonization within migrant communities both here and abroad. The similarities of migrant communities across international divides is strikingly similar to the patterns observed in an equally populated city like New York, and is evidenced in her claustrophobic organizing of individual images that feel cast away and precious only to those with intimate connections to the photos.
This exhibition and publication are a culmination of ten early career artists whose excellence in the field of photography has been recognized by a jury of professionals drawn from ninety-three applicants across the state of New York. Accompanying this recognition comes an unrestricted cash prize, a guest-curated exhibition, and a feature in En Foco’s biannual journal Nueva Luz. I would personally like to extend my gratitude for the invitation to curate this exhibition. As an artist, scholar, and Bronx-bred native, I felt deeply honored to be entrusted to thread these stories together cohesively with love and care.
En Foco is supported in part with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council, National Endowment for the Arts, New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Kathy Hochul and the New York State Legislature, BronxCare Health System, The Mellon Foundation, The Joy of Giving Something, Inc., New York Community Trust Mosaic Network & Fund the Phillip and Edith Leonian Foundation, Ford Foundation, The Lily Auchincloss Foundation, Mertz Gilmore Foundation, Jerome Foundation, The Hispanic Federation and Aguado-Pavlick Arts Fund.