the beautiful young woman in Kevin Bubriski’s photograph, captured looking out of a car window in Albuquerque, possesses a quiet confidence. Although there’s nothing terribly dramatic going on, it’s an arresting image, and it was a great choice for the cover of his book Look Into My Eyes: Nuevomexicanos por Vida, ’81-’83. The volume, just out from Museum of New Mexico Press, shows 82 photographs of Northern New Mexico Hispanics ( Nuevomexicanos) — some images obviously harking back to a cultural moment more than three decades past, and some looking like they were taken yesterday.
“He is sensitive and open to Nuevo Mexico, a world unlike the Northeast,” Miguel Gandert writes about the Vermont photographer in the foreword. “Kevin was respectful of Hispano New Mexico. His feelings for this place are revealed in the way his subjects have accepted him and the intimate way he has entered their world.”
Get a copy of the book or visit the current Bubriski show at Verve Gallery of Photography, and you’ll notice in a few images that the men with their T-shirts and tattoos exhibit an in-your-face bravado. Other men and women are shown just hanging out in Albuquerque’s San Gabriel Park or naturally posing, like the two boys holding a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe on Guadalupe Feast Day or the couple,
Lil Al and Angel Eyes, regarding the camera in the midst of an affectionate clutch. There are also candids, such as the guy gymnastically angling for a quick kiss at the 1983 New Mexico Lowrider Car Show and Dance and a small group of older men resting near a pile of firewood at the 1981 El Rito Fiesta. The faces are always striking.
It is evident that Bubriski was trusted by his subjects. In an account he gives of a New Year’s Eve at Albuquerque’s La Bamba Club, we can guess that he may have been just another guy who turned up to listen to Al “Hurricane” Sánchez play. “Well, as a photographer, you’re the outsider, even though you’re in the middle of everything,” he said in an interview from Vermont, where he lives and teaches photography and documentary studies at Green Mountain College. “Sometimes photography is my priority, and I make sure I’m where I get the pictures. But you are someone with a camera. It becomes part of who you are, like an old, comfortable coat, and everybody knows that’s you.
“I was shooting with a Leica Rangefinder camera, which is very quiet and unobtrusive, and it was always with me. Now the iPhone is always with me. If I’m working for somebody or doing a longer-term project for myself, I use the big, heavy DSLR [digital singlelens-reflex camera]. But just this morning [Super Tuesday] I took pictures with the iPhone at the polling station when I went to vote.”
Bubriski first used a camera in high school in northwest Massachusetts, although his first serious portfolio came out of his Peace Corps service in Nepal. He came to Santa Fe in 1981 to study at the Anthropology Film Center that used to be on Upper Canyon Road. With the center’s Carroll and Joan Williams, he studied documentary filmmaking and 16 mm cameras. At a certain point he realized that the fundraising necessary to make movies wasn’t his strong suit. And he became energized at the immediacy of using a 35 mm camera. He would attend as many fiestas, religious celebrations, and parades as he
could. “After I was at the Anthropology Film Center, I ended up being the person who would fill in when [photographer] Barbara Ellen Koch would go on vacation, so I actually worked at the New Mexican off and on, and I really enjoyed that.”
In those days he was shooting Tri-X with a small camera, but he remembers that he bought a 4x5 field- t ype view camera at The Camera Shop on San Francisco Street and would take field trips with photographers Walter Nelson, Ray Belcher, and Doug Keyes. At the end of the summer of 1982, he moved to Albuquerque and spent most of the next year working full-time for the semiweekly New Mexico Sun newspaper. Busy with assignments, he became familiar with all of Albuquerque’s neighborhoods, and he started taking pictures of his own around San Gabriel Park, a favorite hangout for young people. Look Into
My Eyes finally presents a selection that was curated by Marilyn García in 1983.
Bubriski, who has photographed extensively in the United States and around the world for 30 years, also harvested images from some of his oldest work when he published Kevin Bubriski: Nepal 1975-2011 (with Radius Books and Peabody Museum Press) two years ago. “The first 50 images are from right out of college,” he said. The photographer’s first one-man exhibition was back in 1981 at Nicholas Potter Bookseller, when it was located at 203 E. Palace Ave. Today his work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and International Center of Photography in New York and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, among other institutions.
The list of grants and fellowships Bubriski has won over the years includes a Hasselblad Masters Award in 2004. Hasselblad is known for its jewel-like, expensive, medium-format cameras, but Bubriski has composed memorable images on a great range of instruments. “I started off with a 35 mm Miranda Sensorex, then I had an Olympus, and then the Leica. When I was in the news world, I used Nikons. In 1987 I was helping John Gruen, who was a very fastidious image maker and printer, clean out his studio in New York, and he offered me a Rolleiflex TLR for $100 cash. The next day it was mine, and when I went back to Nepal in 1987, I took it with me and it took beautiful images. I used Hasselblads in the early 1990s, but the Rolleiflex was special. It was so quiet and so precise.”
He made the switch from film (analog) technology to digital cameras — “I kind of tiptoed into it” — in the early 2000s. “I’ve used a Canon 5D Mark II digital SLR for five years, but I was shooting with Tri-X 120 film and a Hasselblad right up to 2012. That was Columbus Day weekend in New York, and I was photographing Occupy Wall Street. That was my last piece of analog.”
The people and landscape of Nepal have been a continuing interest of Bubriski’s ever since the Peace Corps. He was there last summer and again in November. The changes during his long acquaintance are profound. “It is unimaginable what has happened since I was first there more than four decades ago. For one, there are countless young, quite brilliant Nepali photographers right now. They are covering Nepal, and a lot of them are associated with international agencies. The urbanization of the Kathmandu Valley is incredible and the outmigration, especially during the civil war from 1996 to 2006, shook up communities and broke cultural fabric, and then the earthquakes [of April and May 2015, which killed
thousands] have further shattered the sustainability of remote mountain communities.”
He knows less about the details of change in the Latino community we see in Look Into My Eyes. “I haven’t been around Albuquerque much since the 1980s, but I think the lowrider car culture is alive and well, not just in New Mexico and southern California but in Latin America and Japan. And Havana, oh my gosh, these guys with fedoras and 1950s Chevys and Studebakers are just very much part of the Havana culture.”
Bubriski cited an important fan of the new book. “My daughter, who is twenty-nine, feels this work is the best ever that her dad has done. She just loves the photographs and loves everybody in them, and I think if that’s what this book can do — give people a sense of connection with the people in the photographs — that’s what it’s about. That’s what doing documentary work and what storytelling is all about.”
KEVIN BUBRISKI WAS RESPECTFUL OF HISPANO NEW MEXICO. HIS FEELINGS FOR THIS PLACE ARE REVEALED IN THE WAY HIS SUBJECTS HAVE ACCEPTED HIM AND THE INTIMATE WAY HE HAS ENTERED THEIR WORLD. — Miguel Gandert, foreword, Look Into My Eyes
Kevin Bubriski: above, Chimayó Fiesta Parade, 1982; top center, El Rito Fiesta, 1981; opposite page, New Mexico State Fair, Albuquerque, 1982
Above, Santa Fe, Carnival, 1982; right, San Gabriel Park, Albuquerque, 1983;
opposite page, Lowrider Bikers, Chimayó Fiesta Parade, 1982