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Tracking the South Bronx: Photos by Carlos Ortiz

By Centro Staff

Photographer, documentary filmmaker and long-time South Bronx resident Carlos Ortiz (1947-2008) captured life in the Bronx and documented the evolution of Latin jazz and salsa music by showcasing its greatest stars. Ortiz was born in Fajardo, Puerto Rico and raised in the South Bronx. When his family moved to New York, they settled in a tenement on Dawson Street in the Longwood neighborhood of the Bronx, eventually moving to a brownstone a few blocks away on Beck Street, where he would live most of his life.

His photographs were published in such journals as The Livable City and Neighborhood: the Journal for City Preservation, published by the New York Urban Coalition. They were also included in the Bronx Museum of the Arts catalog for Devastation / Resurrection: The South Bronx. A Documentary Exhibition (1980). Ortiz’s work, spanning over 20 years, found its way to larger audiences through gallery shows and museum exhibitions. His Longwood Avenue 1973-1993 was featured along with the Urban Masculinity show at the Longwood Arts Project Gallery (1993). His photographs were also exhibited under the title An Undeclared War as part of the Urban Mythologies: The Bronx Represented since the 1960s, at the Bronx Museum of the Arts (1999).

The Center for Puerto Rican Studies (Centro) is honored and proud to house the extraordinary Carlos Ortiz Collection at Centro’s Library and Archives. Last year, we organized an exhibition of Ortiz’s photography and put it on view at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work in El Barrio. The work featured in the exhibit, entitled Tracking the South Bronx, presents an important counter-narrative to the prevailing images of the Bronx in the 70s, 80s, and 90s – a time when outside journalists published exploitative articles and images, focusing on physical destruction, drug abuse, and poverty. Noticeably missing in much of that work – which, sadly, manufactured the image of the South Bronx in the popular imagination – were the stories of resilience, determination, and community documented so brilliantly by Carlos Ortiz. Ortiz did not shy away from the very real problems faced by him and his friends and neighbors during those years, but he knew there was much more to the story. In his own words: “Since President Carter’s historical visit to the area, journalists in all media have described the terrible devastation. I propose to focus on something different…I would like to concentrate on the people from this community.”

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Carlos Ortiz is best-known for his tremendous work in music documentaries, and rightly so. But photography was anything but a side project—he had a way of capturing humanity in all its messiness, and of providing crucial context to a misunderstood place and time. Ortiz’s relationship with his beloved South Bronx is on full display in the following images. The quotes accompanying each image were taken from various archival documents from the Ortiz collection. Ortiz’s words have been added to the pictures as narrative to enhance the already rich and impactful photographic style.

He confronts the realities of life in the South Bronx in all their complexities and portrays his long-time neighbors and friends as he knew them: actively resisting the crude stereotypes in which they were portrayed, driven to rebuild, and living their lives in the face of official neglect. As Ortiz himself said in a proposal for a film on the same subject: “I would like to offer an in-depth and sensitive view of the Latin community of the South Bronx with its rich social and cultural life taking place in homes, social clubs, churches, streets.”

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The exhibit Tracking the South Bronx consists of photos from just one of the nearly 60 boxes of material that Ortiz donated to the Centro Archives. His life and work are extensively documented in that material, and we invite students, researchers and the community at large to visit the Archives and be among the first to explore the incredible work therein. Tracking the South Bronx is also available as a traveling exhibit for community, educational and cultural organizations. If you are interested in hosting the exhibition please contact Surey Miranda at sm1159@hunter.cuny.edu.

The arrangement and description of the Carlos Ortiz Collection was made possible in part by a grant froom the Documentary Heritage Program of the New York State Archives, a program of the State Education Department.

© Center for Puerto Rican Studies. Published in Centro Voices on 26 June 2015.