Luis Garza got his start as a street photographer as Chicanos themselves were taking to the streets. He’d just arrived in Los Angeles from New York City unsure of what he wanted to do. But a contact told him about a protest and said “bring your camera.”
Garza soon became staff photographer for La Raza, a bilingual tabloid in East L.A., taking thousands of images from 1968 to 1972.
Some 66 photos, all in black and white, are on display at the Riverside Art Museum in an exhibit titled “The Other Side of Memory: Photographs by Luis C. Garza.”
“Accidental aesthetics” is how Garza, 80, describes his work.
“My work is not pre-planned. It’s of the moment,” Garza said.
He was interviewed at the museum on Sunday by Jennifer Nájera alongside Christina Fernandez, whose show at the nearby California Museum of Photography, “Multiple Exposures,” is also a must. A couple dozen of us turned out to hear them despite the rain.
After experimenting with a Brownie camera, capturing moments at home or around his South Bronx neighborhood, Garza got a Pentax 35mm camera before relocating to L.A. He’d never heard the word Chicano, had never seen so many Mexican Americans. It was a heady time.
“La Raza became my training ground. I didn’t get a degree — USC, UCLA,” Garza said. “My training was OTJ: on the job. I went into the streets. I photographed.”
Protests, marches, lines of deputies and a dead bystander on the pavement are among the subjects. There are also moments of sly humor and poignancy in scenes from downtown L.A.
An old woman selling newspapers on the sidewalk gives a side-eye to the bare legs of a young woman in a miniskirt. A vendor in an outlandish get-up gulps a drink on the street, one eye comically bugged out. Title of that photo: “Cheers!”
Another, “Sueno” (Sleep), depicts a blind man seated on a bench, resting his head on a cane.
Garza said he read Life and Look magazine, both photo-driven, and studied the work of such masters as Dorothea Lange and Cartier Bresson to learn about storytelling via photography. Some of the pictures make me think of Robert Frank.
As Fernandez mused during their joint talk: “Black and white photography lends a sort of legitimacy to the observation. It feels more real and profound.”
In those pre-digital days, photographers clicked the shutter and hoped for the best, not knowing until developing their film in a darkroom whether they had good images or not. And Garza was often on the run.
“I didn’t know what I had. I had police dogs chasing me, police helicopters chasing me, I was loading and unloading film,” Garza said.
His travels took him back to New York City for a women’s march and to Budapest, Hungary, where he met the Mexican muralist David Alfaro Siqueiros. They spent hours in conversation, some of it over Garza’s head, but all of it fascinating.
“I’m proud to say I got drunk with Siqueiros,” Garza recalled. And he shot two now-iconic portraits of the artist.
His Eastern European trip continued to Uzbekistan, source of a very funny photo in the exhibit. A factory manager is giving a speech in short-sleeved white shirt and tie, one hand raised. A portrait of Vladimir Lenin behind him seems to watch approvingly. Photo title: “Lenin Speaks.”
As Garza told me in a chat after the talk: “I see the humor and the darkness and the various shades.”
After La Raza, he gave up photography for nearly three decades, instead working in independent films, documentary programming for L.A. TV stations, theater, even handyman jobs, whatever would put food on the table.
“I had put all my work away. I wasn’t making any money from photography,” Garza said. “I had to sell my camera equipment. I had no darkroom access.”
Then in 2002 he ran into an old acquaintance, photography collector Armando Durón.
Durón saw one of his photos in an album and asked what he wanted for it. Garza made up a number: $1,000. Durón stunned him by pulling out his checkbook.
“I wished I’d named a higher number,” Garza admitted.
In the years since, Garza has curated or co-curated shows at the Autry Museum on La Raza and Siqueiros and taken up photography again. Durón curated the Riverside Art Museum retrospective, choosing photos of Garza’s from New York, East L.A., Budapest and Russia.
“None of these are set shots. Luis was not doing this for aesthetic reasons. He just shot pictures of whatever was in front of him,” Durón told me. “There is some very poignant and powerful imagery. It tells you he’s got this eye he didn’t even know he had.”
Garza has hopes that his more than 7,000 photo negatives at home in Echo Park can be digitized and documented “for the historical record.”
Just having this show is validating. “It only took me 50 years,” he said.
“The Other Side of Memory” is on view through March 19. Another artist event with Garza is planned at RAM on Feb. 25.
Everyone Sunday wanted to meet the good-humored photographer. As we chatted, standing, an older Latino with pomaded hair interrupted to tell Garza he might be in some of his photos: “I was a young sheriff’s deputy.”
“You were one of the people chasing me,” Garza said wryly.
“Nah,” the man said, a bit obliviously, “we never did anything to anyone who didn’t deserve it.” He gave Garza’s arm a friendly squeeze and walked away.
I rolled my eyes and joked to Garza: “Tell that to Ruben Salazar.”
Garza, indicating the former deputy turned art lover, said: “You just know he was one of the guys clubbing people.”
People tuning in to a recent Minnesota Vikings home game briefly saw a couple in the stands holding a sign reading “Vikings Fans From San Bernardino.” When someone posted a screenshot to a Facebook group for San Bernardino, Tommy Negrete stepped forward to reply: “That’s us! … We had to let everyone know in Minnesota that San Bernardino is in the house!” And on the field too: Viking running back Alexander Mattison is a San Bernardino High alumnus.
David Allen, who hopes for a viking funeral, writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Email firstname.lastname@example.org, phone 909-483-9339, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.