A native of Los Angeles, Harry Gamboa Jr. is a photographer, performance artist, writer, educator, and founding member of the Chicano collective Asco. He will be the subject of several shows this fall, including a comprehensive exhibition of his ongoing “Chicano Male Unbonded” series of portraits, opening at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles on September 16, 2017, and a retrospective of his Asco photographs, which is on view at Marlborough Contemporary in New York through October 7, 2017. Here, Gamboa discusses his recent projects and the evolving context of his practice.
I GUESS I’VE COME TO THE ATTENTION OF THE AUTHORITIES. Recently, the LA County Board of Supervisors suddenly felt they needed to give me a commendation. It’s one of those things where someone points a finger and you must appear, which is absolutely the opposite of the reception I got when I was young. We make an arc.
The Asco group began in 1972. Immediately, I started directing and having people perform. The absurdity of being in LA just bled through everything. Early on, I figured out how to make staged events look as though they were documentary, manipulating perception and playing with the themes and techniques of Hollywood cinema. After watching a film, I remember just a fleeting moment, and it always costs multimillions of dollars to make them, so why go through all that trouble? We decided to just shoot the single image that everyone is going to remember. We called these “No Movies.”
The fotonovela, a kind of graphic novel illustrated with photographs, was a format that was used in Italy, Spain, and Mexico around the time of World War II. They were very sexualized, fantastic, and very violent. I just finished designing twelve fotonovelas for the Getty Museum in a project titled See What You Mean, to be presented sometime this fall. The agreement was that I would use reproductions of some works in their collection. I immediately took an image of the Van Gogh painting Irises, 1889—which is basically the visual identity of the Getty—out into the streets and put it alongside the freeway. In the end, my work is always used to typify the opposite of the emotions Van Gogh’s work evokes.
The “Chicano Male Unbonded” series that will be shown at the Autry began in 1991, at a time when there was so much concerted effort to promote negative Chicano stereotypes. I felt it was necessary to play with those stereotypes. In terms of the people I choose as subjects for these portraits, I’m usually looking for someone who has shown me some element of personal integrity. There wasn’t enough time to print or include an image of him in the exhibition, but the person that I photographed most recently was an Episcopalian priest named Father Richard Estrada. I saw him being arrested while protesting against deportations in Houston, and given the way the police were roughing him up and the dignity with which he handled it, I immediately figured that’s the kind of guy I had to find for this series.
Photographs of a total of eighty-four men will be displayed at the museum. These men all have style in the first place, but I ask them to come dressed as they would like to be seen in two hundred years. Because this is LA, I shoot everything in a film noir style, only at night and only with available light. All of a sudden, my subject and I both become vulnerable. While we’re out working, we could be confused with negative stereotypes. Sometimes people come up and ask me what kind of gang this is, but all of the men I photograph are either colleagues or other artists, or writers or lawyers. I’d say half the people in the group have very advanced degrees from top-tier schools. As it turns out, it is an absolutely essential project, given this situation where we have a president that refers to males of Mexican descent as “bad hombres.”