Spanish Harlem, New York’s oldest barrio, is the mecca where Puerto Ricans first established themselves in the U.S. during the 1940s. One of America’s most vital centers of latino culture, Spanish Harlem is home to 125,000 people, half of whom are Latino.
Shot in the mid-to-late 80s, Joseph Rodríguez’s photographs bring us into the core of the neighborhood, capturing the spirit of a people that survive despite the ravages of poverty, and more recently, the threat of gentrification and displacement. In a now-distant landscape littered with abandoned buildings, ominous alleyways, and the plague of addiction, the residents of Spanish Harlem have persevered with flamboyant style and gritty self-reliance.
The heart of the work comes from Rodríguez’s intimacy and access. The trust and familiarity he built with his subjects—repeated visits with no camera, no photographing, then little by little, a peek here, a shot there—enabled him to transcend surface level sheen and exploitation, capturing images that reveal the essence of the neighborhood, and of the era. The intimate access, paired with a sharp eye for detail and composition, and the practiced and disciplined ability to find the perfect moment, led to the creation of an entirely unique and breathtaking narrative.
In images ranging from idyllic scenes of children playing under sprinklers on the playground, to people performing the traditional bomba y plena on Old Timer’s Day, and the shocking images of men shooting up speedballs and children dying of AIDS, Rodríguez reveals a day in the life of the barrio in the 1980s.
Joseph Rodriguez was born and raised in Brooklyn, New York. He began studying photography at the School of Visual Arts and went on to receive an AAS from New York City Technical College. He worked in the graphic arts industry before deciding to pursue photography further. In 1985, he graduated with a degree in photojournalism and documentary from the International Center of Photography in New York. He went on to work for Black Star photo agency, and print and online news organizations like National Geographic, the New York Times Magazine, Mother Jones, Newsweek, New York Magazine, Esquire, Stern, BBC News and New America Media, as well as advertising campaigns for Levi’s, AIG, and Ikea.
He has received awards and grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts Artist Fellowship, USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism, the Open Society Institute Justice Media Fellowship and Katrina Media Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography, the Alicia Patterson Fellowship Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Konstnarsnamden Stipendium. He has been awarded Pictures of the Year by the National Press Photographers Association and the University of Missouri in 1990, 1992, 1996, and 2002. He is the author of Spanish Harlem, part of the American Scene series, by the National Museum of American Art/D.A.P., as well as “East Side Stories: Gang Life in East Los Angeles,” “Juvenile,” “Flesh Life: Sex in Mexico City,” “Still Here: Stories After Katrina,” and “Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ’80s” (Powerhouse Books).
Recent exhibitions include Aperture Gallery, Galerie Bene Taschen in Cologne, Germany, Reva and David Logan Gallery for Documentary Photography at the Graduate School of Journalism in Berkeley, California, the Bronx Documentary Center in New York, NY, Gulf & Western Gallery in New York, NY, Hardhitta Gallery in Cologne, Germany, Irene Carlson Gallery of Photography at the University of La Verne, California, Third Floor Gallery in Cardiff, Wales, U.K., Institute for Public Knowledge in New York, NY, Moving Walls at the Open Society Institute in New York, NY, and Cultural Memory Matters at 601 Art Space in New York, NY.
He has been a visiting artist at Stanford University, the Institute for Diversity in the Arts, California, the University of La Verne, California, Columbia University’s School of Journalism, New York, the University of Texas, Austin’s School of Journalism, Ringling School of Art and Design, Florida, the University of Helsinki, Finland, Aarhus University, Denmark, Royal University of Fine Arts’ School of Architecture, Sweden, Loyola Marymount University, California, Hostos Community College, New York, and the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, New York. He has taught at New York University Tisch School of the Arts and the International Center of Photography.
United Photo Industries (UPI) is a New York based nonprofit organization that works to promote a wider understanding of, and increased access to, the art of photography.
Since its founding in 2011, UPI has rapidly solidified its position in the public art landscape by continuing to showcase thought-provoking, challenging, and exceptional photography from across the globe. In its first seven years, UPI has presented the work of more than 2,500 visual artists in gallery exhibitions and public art installations worldwide.
Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ’80s
Featuring: Joseph Rodriguez
Curated by: Sam Barzilay
LocationsView Location Details Download a detailed map of this location Brooklyn Bridge Park – Emily Warren Roebling Plaza
1 Water St
Brooklyn, NY 11201
This location is part of Brooklyn Bridge Park
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Joe Rodriguez and David Gonzalez will be discussing his groundbreaking National Geographic cover on Spanish Harlem in the 1980s, looking back on a vital New York City community that is undergoing increasing gentrification.Learn More