Documenting urban decay and the persistence of the people who live within it is a staple of photography. Familiar though such tropes may be, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Down These Mean Streets: Community and Place in Urban Photography offers something fresh, in artistry and in technique. The wide-ranging exhibit showcases the work of ten Latino photographers, focusing mostly on images they made from the 1960s to the early 1980s. That was a period when American cities were undergoing wrenching demographic and economic changes. “As middle-class populations shifted to the suburbs and new highways cut through thriving neighborhoods, many cities began to experience economic and social disintegration, especially in black, Latino, and working-class communities,” the exhibit notes.
The works in the exhibit range from documentary images to portraiture to conceptual projects.
Some themes are familiar, if generally well-executed. Oscar Castillo photographed hopeful murals on decaying walls; others trained their lenses on graffiti-covered walls; several produced surprisingly cheerful portraits of youngsters; and Frank Espada turned overflowing garbage into a recurring motif.
Espada’s East New York portfolio packs an emotional impact. In one image, one child smiles while his friend subtly hides a toy gun. Another image features one boy pulling another in a wagon beneath a towering, black background that calls to mind the inky hues of Roy DeCarava’s New York City photographs. In an accompanying image, Espada captures the two kids in a charming joint portrait.
Hiram Maristany’s work is often equally atmospheric, especially in his moody image of an apartment building covered with grime worthy of Victorian London. Maristany also artfully documented an alleyway pig-roast from above and captured a Henri Cartier-Bresson-style decisive moment—one youngster drawing with chalk on the pavement as another launches into a handstand in the rear.
The 10 artists’ techniques are largely conventional—a lot of black-and-white images, with occasional color. Ruben Ochoa briefly breaks the mold with a large-scale work that uses a “lenticular” format that shows a different image as the viewer moves from one side of the work to the other. It’s a smart way for Ochoa to mull what lies behind a highway sound barrier along Interstate 10 that walls off portions of East Los Angeles.
Camilo José Vergara, whose work has previously carried several impressive exhibits at the National Building Museum, offers one of his signature time-lapse series that tracks architectural changes in a single spot over time. In this case, it’s 65 East 125th Street in East Harlem—a former jazz venue that, between 1977 and 2016 by Vergara’s account, turned into a smoke shop, a clothing store, a mattress emporium, and a storefront church. By 2016, his photograph shows scaffolding, suggesting an ambivalent destination for the address: gentrification.
Ultimately, the exhibit’s two standouts are Anthony Hernandez and Perla de Leon. Hernandez came up with a winning formula for documenting the isolated plight of urban bus commuters in car-dependent Los Angeles. Smartly, Hernandez situated his subjects within a single, recurring landscape format: He photographed Angelenos waiting endlessly for buses, always on a sidewalk hemmed in by a lane of traffic, and on a street that’s always pointed in the same diagonal direction—a bracing formalistic rigor.
De Leon, meanwhile, offers images of the South Bronx that play up the decay. In one, a boy runs down a tumbledown city block under an ominously darkening sky, while in another, a girl stands in a smoking, brick-strewn lot. De Leon’s finest image, however, shows a far-away tenement-style building seemingly perched atop a pile of rubble, looking, from a distance, like a bizarro-world Parthenon—a concise visual encapsulation of how the fates of cities, during the mid-20th century, were being turned upside down.
At the Smithsonian American Art Museum to Aug. 6. 8th and F Streets, NW Free. (202) 633-7970. americanart.si.edu.