Sunday, September 15, 2019

Prof. Delano presents photographic history of Puerto Rico

Pooja Savansukha ’15

Arts Editor

Last week, the Thursday Common Hour and Faculty Research Committee Lecture Series presented a talk, “The Lives of Photographs: Puerto Rico 1980 and Beyond” by Fine Arts Professor Pablo Delano.  The talk explained the context under which Professor Delano’s father, and prominent photographer Jack Delano’s photographs, documented social conditions in Puerto Rico in 1942, assumed new meanings in 1980. The lecture also addressed the idea of a re-photography project and digitization.

Professor Pablo Delano’s parents, Jack and Irene Delano were extremely prominent photographers, particularly in Puerto Rico. Jack Delano’s photographs are particularly interesting in the way that they are specific to the people of Puerto Rico. In the 1940’s. He worked on a project where he captured a breadth of photographs representing the lives of Puerto Ricans, as a Farm Security Administration photographer.Working on this project acquainted him with Puerto Rico, and also made him fall in love with the place and its people.

Delano’s archive of Puerto Rican images was furthered by a series he did in the 1980s when he revisited some of the same places and people that he had originally encountered in the 1940s. He continued to  photograph people until the 1980s’ and kept working until he passed away in 1997. Professor Delano revealed that it was interesting to compare the change in the depictions of the photographs from the 1940’s and the 1980’s. Puerto Rico through Jack Delano’s lens appeared to have evolved into a completely different place than it used to be in the 1940’s. The photographs revealed a shift in purchasing patterns (evidence of supermarkets and small malls), employment patterns (newly created jobs), industrialization (factory workers) as well as a shift from horses to vehicles. While an overall development was evident, there was also evidence of drug abuse, crime, and poverty. Given Delano’s primary interest in people, it was significant to note that even though the photographs depicted a changed Puerto Rico, the primary values of Puerto Rican society such as generosity, humility, and love of the neighbor seemed to have been maintained. The preservation of these valueskept him and his wife on the island until their death. 

Additionally, Professor Delano also provided an example where, among the images in his fathers exhibition after the revisit that was eventually published in “Puerto Rico Mio,” there was one of a funeral, which depicted a  man walking down the street carrying an infant’s coffin on his shoulder, with a few people behind him. A visitor at the show thanked  Delano in the guest book, because the photograph allowed him to witness his sisters funeral as she had passed away before he was born. This was indicative of the emotional connection the people developed with Delanos’ photograhs.

 Professor Delano plans to edit his fathers’ photographs and produce a book, as he has received a grant allowing him to travel and bring back images that his father had captured in Puerto Rico.

Professor Delano admitted in his talk that although he is first and foremost a photographer, he doesn’t plan on doing a photography project continuing his father’s legacy in Puerto Rico for a number of reasons. He believes that his fathers’ work must stand on its own and should not be viewed through a different perspective than his own. Addtionally, unlike his father, he does not live in Puerto Rico. This means that his perspective becomes that of an outsiders which is by default different than his fathers’ perspective. That being said, Professor Delano also announced that he currently working on a project in the Caribbean and he is writing about Trinidad, which is an idea that has been born out of his Puerto Rican experience.

Finally, arriving back at the concept of “The Lives of photographs,” Professor Delano explained that he had the opportunity to meet with people, or families of the people that his father had photographed in Puerto Rico. This was an extremely meaningful experience as it provided a way to track the way the lives of specific people and their generations had changed since they were photographed. It was an emotional experience for not just Professor Delano but also for the families as they were able to gain access to the images of people that they my have not had the chance to meet. This gave Professor Delano a clearer picture of the way that photographs had impacts on the lives of people. The fact that Delano’s muses were traceable has more recently also resulted in the Center for Railway Photography and Art in Chicago to plan an exhibit showing his photographs along with new photographs depicting the current lives of the same muses, and their families.

Speaking of the contemporary state of the photographs and responses to them, Professor Delano narrated an incident where his father was approached by an artist who wanted to enlarge his photographs , work on them them and then display them in a gallery. Jack Delano was against this because his photographs were taken for the sake of the people(to help them) rather than for the sake of earning a profit. Despite this the artist went ahead with undertaking his proposed project, and today there are several copies and versions of Delanos’ photographs that are commodified, thus taking away from the very purpose of their portrayal.

Towards the end of the talk, to return to a “happier note,” as Professor Delano claimed, he reiterated the folk uses of his fathers’ images. The photographs served the purpose of documenting lives and lifestyles to eventually facilitate a way to help these people.

The lecture was very well attended, and the audience consisiting of students and faculty were engaged and intrigued by the extent to which photography can impact society. Delano is respected as a societal figure in Puerto Rico, for his work. If there were one thing that the audience may have taken away from the talk, it would be that art is not always for art sake; as exemplified by Delano’s work, it is capable of making a real difference in peoples’ lives.

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