A Group Of Nuyorican Photographers On The Collective That Has Lasted Half A Century
“The way the art form is moving now, we’re not sure where it’s going to go, but we’re certain more people are involved more than ever.”
In recent years, there has been a renewed discussion of and focus on who holds the camera and documents history-making events and daily life. There have been museum retrospectives aiming to correct the record, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s show about New Women photographers around the world to the Whitney show dedicated to the Kamoinge Workshop, a collective of Black photographers in New York that started in the 1960s. In the last decade, organizations like Diversify Photo and Indigenous Photograph have been formed to elevate nonwhite artists and photographers. En Foco, a Bronx-based photo nonprofit formed by people who made art together and advocated for other photographers, is unique in the sense that the organization has lasted nearly 50 years.
A group of Nuyorican photographers got together in 1974 and decided to put together an organization to help artists of color from all backgrounds. En Foco remains active today as a bridge between the larger art world and photographers from underserved communities. The organization holds shows and workshops for young or emerging photographers and publishes a photo magazine, Nueva Luz.
The collective launched Nueva Luz in 1985, and the publication has not only provided a crucial platform for artists of color but has also addressed social and cultural issues, from immigration to living in the Caribbean diaspora to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
“En Foco was created because it provided opportunities for artists of color,” current executive director Bill Aguado said. “In the late ’60s and early ’70s, artists were being discriminated against, whether they were photographers, poets, dancers, or actors. There weren’t opportunities unless they were stereotypes. As far as photographers were concerned, they lacked access to grants. They lacked access to resources.” A group of photographers that included Charles Biasiny-Rivera, Phil Dante, and Roger Cabán formed En Foco in part to solve those problems.
The goal was never to be a bureaucratic, top-down organization but to help create an equal playing field for artists of color and to support artists’ individual endeavors and group projects. “It was important to create En Foco because there were very few arts organizations that represented artists of color at the time,” Biasiny-Rivera said. “It was also an important resource for the Bronx and its marginalized communities in general.”
While En Foco started out as a group of only Puerto Rican and Latin American artists, it expanded in the 1980s. Nueva Luz became a platform for more artists to be involved with En Foco, and it became a visual record of Bronx culture and the history of the local art scene. In recent years, the organization has digitized past issues of Nueva Luz so now everyone has access to the online archive and can see the artists who have contributed to En Foco’s mission from 1985 to this day. Their physical archive was damaged by Hurricane Ida, which hit New York City in September.
“En Foco became a beacon for photographers to engage in dialogues and to forge venues to profile their work,” Frank Gimpaya, a photographer and designer who helped create Nueva Luz, said. En Foco artists have had exhibitions at museums in New York and all over the country, including the La Familia show at El Museo del Barrio and a traveling exhibition by Elizabeth Ferrer.
Gimpaya, who has been championing exposure for marginalized artists for decades, said of having these conversations in 2021 that it “is exciting to see the blossoming of this dialogue and the changes in perceptions this interest has provoked. It allows for new lexicons to be invented, considered, and valued.”
Aguado believes it is important to create art platforms in a way that that the public has access to them, and he furthers that mission as En Foco’s director. “What’s even more special, as one artist told me, he said, ‘My work lives forever because of En Foco. [People] can search my name and they will find that I’m part of an exhibit, or I’m part of a fellowship, or I’m in Nueva Luz.’ The way the art form is moving now, we’re not sure where it’s going to go, but we’re certain more people are involved more than ever.”