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Photographer Hiram Maristany first picked up a camera as a teenager in 1959 at the urging of a social worker named Dan Murrow. He used it to document his world in El Barrio — or East Harlem — a close and vibrant Puerto Rican community that regularly dealt with poverty and violence. His photographs show metaphors for hope in scenes of everyday life, without glossing over the grit.
But unless you closely follow the Puerto Rican Arts Movement or go to a lot of art shows in East Harlem, you may not have seen his work. Maristany is protective about sharing his photographs online, and some of his newer work remains unscanned.
Luckily, some of his photos are on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum as part of Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography. The show celebrates the work of 10 Latinx photographers who belong to the communities they document.
Having an exhibit at the Smithsonian is a big deal for Maristany, but to some people in his community, he's still just the guy with a camera.
"They refer to the Smithsonian as Smith and Wesson," he says. "'You finally got into the Smith and Wesson. What's the big deal?'" he recounts a family member in El Barrio saying. "He doesn't mean any harm, he just has a different perspective."
The photographers included in the show vary in approach and location, but the exhibit uses the "urban crisis" — a period in the mid-20th century when American cities were gutted by highway construction, abandoned by many for the suburbs, and left to cope — as a jumping off point for a visual conversation on the duality that exists in those places.
"You see this beauty and you see this destruction, and it's like how do you reconcile that? How do you express outrage over that?" asks curator Carmen E. Ramos as she walks through the gallery looking at the images she picked for the exhibit. "I see a lot of these works as a form of intervention."
That was certainly the case for Maristany, who used the photography skills he'd developed as a young teen to document the activism of the Young Lords starting in 1969. The radical Latino (mostly Puerto Rican) activist group was inspired by the Black Panthers and Maristany was not only a member, he was the official documentarian. But his work wasn't always so overtly political.
While Maristany acknowledges the difficulties of life in El Barrio, showing the positive aspects of the neighborhood motivated him.
"That I even survived was a major accomplishment," he says, but adds, "there were a lot of people who cared about each other, who did a lot of positive and beautiful things that never got recognized. East Harlem was always represented in the most negative way that the media would portray it."
A lot has changed for East Harlem since the 1970s. Last year The New York Times called it one of the "Next Hot Neighborhoods." But Maristany has been there through it all. Fifty years after many of these images were taken, I asked him if he'd kept in touch with any of the people in these photos. "They're all around me I can't get away from them," he laughs.
While Maristany has always lived among his photographic muses and says he knows 80 percent of his subjects, it's not exactly true that he can't get away from them. Many are simply no longer there.
He went to a Father's Day event, and says, "there was food, there was music, there was good companionship. That used to happen all the time. Now it's rare. I took some photos of my contemporaries. It was a celebration of a different era. It's the exception rather than the rule. Each year there are fewer and fewer of us. Most of the Puerto Ricans who are still here are seniors; the young children cannot afford to live in East Harlem."
The dissolving of community, Maristany says, "is the first level of gentrification. The destruction of history is another level."
It makes sense that reverence for history is valued by someone who has dedicated his life to documenting what he sees.
"Every day I see people coming out with suitcases and they are oblivious to the history who was here before them. They're oblivious to the history that this community was an Italian community, further back an Irish community, further back a Jewish community," he says. "That history is gone because the gentrifiers don't care about history. They believe the party begins when they arrive."
And yet Maristany keeps at it, documenting a changing community. He hopes his art will encourage someone else to thoughtfully pick up a camera.
"Some younger artists need to hear my voice," he says. "I hope for young people who are in similar realities, it will give them inspiration to love their community, to love their culture, to love their people, to be engaged."
Maristany says when he first told his mother he wanted to be a professional photographer, her response was dream destroying: "'Hiram, there's no such thing as a Puerto Rican photographer.' But three months later I came back and said, 'Well Ma, I'm gonna be the first one.' She looked at me and smiled and said, 'Why did it take you so long?'"
You can see more images from Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography here.
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