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Seeking out New Mexico’s ‘authentic’ stories

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The Albuquerque neighborhood formerly known as the War Zone is a familiar scene for photographer Frank Blazquez.

Its nickname came from a reputation for crime, though several years ago, the city relabeled it the International District. For years, while it struggled with drug addiction, the area around Central and Louisiana was where Blazquez says he would both buy and use drugs.

Now fully clean from painkillers since fall of 2016, the 31-year-old visits that area for a different reason: to document the people, stories and symbols that represent life within.

His photography project, “Barrios de Nuevo Mexico: Southwest Stories of Vindication,” will be the focus of an exhibition opening this week in the Historic Santa Fe Foundation’s El Zaguán gallery on Canyon Road.

The “Padilla-Gutierrez Living Room,” taken in a South Valley Home, is a part of Frank Blazquez’s photo series, “Barrios de Nuevo Mexico: Southwest Stories of Vindication.”

There will be a reception Friday evening from 5 to 7 p.m. and the work will remain up until Feb. 1. Though he’s shown one or two images in New Mexico galleries, this is Blazquez’s first solo show displaying the project en masse.

Blazquez started taking his photographs around late 2015, around the time he starting to get off of drugs and returning to college. Since then, aside from receiving a history degree from UNM earlier this year, he’s spent much of his time taking photos in the “War Zone.” But he’s also done shoots in Grants and Silver City, and hopes to also expand to more northern New Mexico towns going forward, including Santa Fe and Chimayó.

A theme that often appears in Frank Blazquez’s images is New Mexicans’ state pride. This photo, which is on display at the Museum of Spanish Colonial Arts, shows a man’s tattoo, with three crosses representing the history of his hometown of Las Cruces.

The series of portraiture and other images that reflect life in these areas has gained the attention of publications like VICE Mexico and The Guardian, where he wrote about his work and showed off several photos. In his artist statement, he describes the project as depicting “Latino signifiers on the New Mexican landscape” through themes of counterculture, economic inaccessibility and surviving addiction.

“I’m not trying to make this area look bad,” he told the Journal of the places in Albuquerque he frequently shoots, “but I think I have a responsibility to show my experience. So it definitely reflects my experience of the people that I’ve encountered and have relationships with.”

Blazquez refers to the photo series as stories of “vindication,” he said, because of the people who share their stories with him, some – but not all – are still “trapped” within substance abuse. They all have one thing in common: the desire to better their lives.

“Whether it’s going back to school or trying their best to get back with their own artwork, if they’re tattoo artists or sketch artists, they’re all trying to put one foot in front of the other and trying to succeed and to stop (their substance abuse).”

The Chicago-area native and former optician moved to New Mexico along with his parents in 2010 as a chance for a fresh start. But struggles still followed him to the Land of Enchantment.

“There were times I got clean; I would get clean for a few months, binge out for a few months, on and off, and on and off,” he explained.

He was inspired to start the project because of the people he met during this time. He was inspired to pick up a camera, he says, because of his long-time fascination with film. His background as an optician who fitted people for eyeglasses and made lenses also helped him pick up a visual art form. He added that his uncle, poet and author Luis J. Rodriguez, was also an inspiration. Blazquez said Rodriquez’s writing on “Latino barrio life” motivated him to capture similar themes with his art.

Stemming from his photography project, Blazquez started creating the web series “Duke City Diaries.” The mini-episodes focusing on Albuquerque residents who share their personal journeys with him and cinematographer John Acosta are now being produced by Colin R. Moniz, who is also executive producer for the Netflix docuseries “Fightworld.” (See the Jan. 4 Venue section of the Journal or go to abqjournal.com, for more on “Duke City Diaries.”)

Aside from portraits, Blazquez also photographs some inanimate objects, such as Catholic iconography, within subjects’ homes.

A prominent theme in his work is a state and family pride that Blazquez feels is unique to New Mexico. He’s taken several photos of face and body tattoos, including many from when his subjects were in prison. The tattoos include state and city-specific symbols, such as 1706, the year Albuquerque was founded, and Hispanic surnames common in New Mexico.

One of Blazquez’s images of a man’s fully tattooed back currently hangs in Santa Fe’s Museum of Spanish Colonial Art. The tattoo images, Blazquez noted, include three crosses, representing the founding story of the city of Las Cruces.

“Where I’m from back in Chicago and Illinois, I never saw people getting Illinois tattooed on their heads and their skulls, and I see that a lot out here,” he said. “What I’ve told people in the past is just as much as a politician that is working for the state here, some of my subjects have a lot of state pride and are very proud of it.”

The Historic Santa Fe Foundation’s executive director Pete Warzel learned of the series through Blazquez’s article for The Guardian. While the organization focuses heavily on promoting education and preservation of architectural history, Warzel said it also strives to promote the same for the state’s cultural history. By photographing people and things inside what Blazquez refers to as barrios, Warzel said, he is documenting a “deep cultural history.”

“It’s easy in Santa Fe to get tied into the incredible architecture, the history, the east side Canyon Road, et cetera, but there’s a much bigger world out there we ought to be concerned with and try to highlight.”

Blazquez said he views his images as a type of “visual anthropological evidence,” likening it to something that could be seen in a textbook decades from now. But at the same time, he said, he’s simply taking pictures and presenting them to an audience.

“I just try to present pictures of things that I consider authentic and real to New Mexico.”

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