Kids playing hopscotch on the street.

Spanish Harlem: El Barrio in the ’80s

5 Aug 2019 OUTDOORS
Man with dragon tattoo with hand stretched out in there sky.

Featuring: Joseph RodrĂ­guez

Presented by United Photo Industries


Curated by Sam Barzilay


Exhibition Design by Andy Outis

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 RodrĂ­guez’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 RodrĂ­guez’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.

Make sure to also check out related Talk Spanish Harlem.


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 Associate of Applied Science at New York City Technical College. He worked in the graphic arts industry before deciding to pursue photography further. In 1985 he graduated with a Photojournalism and Documentary Diploma from the International Center of Photography in New York.

He went on to work for Black Star photo agency, and for 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, and shot advertising campaigns for Levi’s, AIG, IKEA.

He has received awards and grants from the New York Foundation for the Arts, Artists’ Fellowship, USC Annenberg Institute for Justice and Journalism, the Open Society Foundation Justice Media Fellowship and the Open Society Institute Katrina Media Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, Mother Jones International Fund for Documentary Photography, the Alicia Patterson Foundation 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/DAP, as well as East Side Stories: Gang Life in East Los Angeles, Juvenile, Flesh Life: Sex in Mexico City, Still Here: Stories After Katrina, published by Powerhouse Books, and Spanish Harlem El Barrio in the 80s, published by Powerhouse Books.

Recent exhibitions include Aperture Gallery, Galerie Bene Taschen, Cologne, Germany, Reva and David Logan Gallery for Documentary Photography at the Graduate School of Journalism, Berkeley, California, Bronx Documentary Center, New York City, Gulf + Western Gallery, New York City, Hardhitta Gallery, Cologne, Germany, Irene Carlson Gallery of Photography, University of La Verne, California, Third Floor Gallery, Cardiff, Wales, UK, Institute for Public Knowledge, New York City, Moving Walls, Open Society Institute, New York City, and Cultural Memory Matters, 601 Art Space, New York City.

He has been visiting artist at Stanford University, The Institute for Diversity in the Arts, Stanford, California, The University of La Verne, California, Columbia University School of Journalism, New York City, University of Texas at Austin, School of Journalism, Ringling College of Art and Design, Florida, The University of Helsinki, Finland, Aarhus University, Denmark, Royal University of Art, School of Architecture, Sweden, Loyola Marymount University, Los Angeles, California, Hostos Community College, New York City, CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, New York. He presently teaches at New York University Tisch School of the Arts and The International Center of Photography.

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