LOS ANGELES — Harry Gamboa Jr.’s series Chicano Male Unbonded indicates in its title some feeling of release and relief for its subjects — free from the expectations and fears mapped onto their brown bodies. Started in 1991 and consisting of over 100 black-and-white photographs of Chicano men standing proudly and steadily at night on the streets of Los Angeles, the series is on view in its near-entirety for the first time at the Autry Museum of the American West through August 5.
Being “unbonded” suggests being once tethered, and this point of tension right before the break is where Gamboa makes these portraits. Where identity wants to be celebrated, but not typecast; where one wonders why discrimination based on look, dress, accent, and culture sticks; and where one might bear the somewhat guilty insecurity of being averse to oneself. In all cases, Gamboa takes care in uncovering the vagaries and familiarities of identity as we construct it.
Each image in Chicano Male Unbonded is intimately scaled at 16 by 20 inches, reminiscent of photographs for the mantel or desk that are looked at with affection; organized by curator Amy Scott at the Autry, they are set into an enveloping grid on three walls of a small gallery. Looking around, your eyes try to assimilate the poses and read the series as a whole, but little details in the portraits give each subject an accomplished individuality. Gamboa includes each person’s profession in the photographs’ titles — from phytochemist to composer to elementary school teacher — to refute misleading stereotypes of the Chicano male as lazy delinquent.
In “Jack Vargas, Librarian” (1995), Vargas stands tall on the patio of the Central Library, hands held behind his back but leaning ever so slightly forward, as if sliding into a comfortable new groove or balance. Vargas wears a long, black coat with a single shiny top button that cuts a stark silhouette in the grainy dusk. His face is good natured; a loose quiff has fallen to meet his eyebrow, and he meets our gaze confidently and almost a little amused, as if he knows a joke we don’t. The library’s lights blur white in the background, and Vargas’s shadow splits and doubles faintly at his feet.
Shadows are pronounced in Chicano Male Unbonded, and heighten the shrouded but miraculous beauty of these men. In “Jesús ‘Chuy’ Torres, Poet/Performer” (1997), Torres’s shadow extends over the gravel in the street, and cuts across and defies the prescribed diagonals of a nearby fence; they act as anchors, or legs almost, planting this immigrant identity as one to stay. Torres wears an oversize polo pullover tucked into black jeans, bunched up and billowing at his wrists and waist — it’s a bit dramatic, with hints of a Regency-era ruffled shirt. His eyes squint, and he gazes at us with a cool determination, asking how we choose to identify him first: poet, performer, or Chicano?
Torres stands on the curb next to a bus stop, the glossily painted fire lane bisecting the image diagonally and propelling him toward the viewer. In this and other portraits in the series, Gamboa photographs subjects in seemingly random, everyday parking lots and street corners. Such placement forces viewers to reckon with their irrational unease of “dangerous” Chicano males just walking home at night like everyone else, while also raising the larger question of how we decide, project, and police who belongs in which public spaces. At the same time, however, it almost doesn’t matter where each person stands. The background seems to fade as Gamboa closely collaborates with each subject to have him create and hold his own ground. That subjects still look so dynamic in mundane, unprepared settings speaks to how ready they are at any given moment, and how their identity is just a part of how they carry themselves. You almost want to step back, out of a mix of intimidation, respect, and awe.
With the exception of photographer Oscar Castillo who stands with a Mamiya twin-lens camera on a tripod, none of the subjects in Chicano Male Unbonded are shown with props — it’s impossible to guess what their profession might be, which goes to show how impossible it is to define or judge someone based on how they look or dress. Gamboa shows that being Chicano isn’t about fulfilling any one cultural or societal demand; rather, when one is raised a person of color, an immigrant sensibility will come out in how one stands, works, and simply lives.
Gamboa says that he started Chicano Male Unbonded in 1991 after hearing an announcement on his car radio that warned: “Be on the lookout for a Chicano male. He is dangerous.” It was an empty descriptor that served only to pin blame on a racial group marked as “other.” That Chicano Male Unbonded continues today — with recent portraits like that of artist Hugo Hopping made in 2017 — is invigorating in its charisma, but also a little crushing. Do we continue to feel nervous around Chicano men, and continue to see them in a negative light?
There are so many photographs on view at the Autry that you can’t get to them all. But perhaps that’s the point; the pleasant surprise is trying to find a portrait you were drawn to initially, and ending up being caught by another Chicano male’s gaze. For me, one particular portrait resonates and stands out: that of Gamboa’s father, “Harry T. Gamboa, Printer (retired).” Gamboa Sr. is sharply dressed in a herringbone suit, his pants perfectly pleated. A trace of a silver mustache graces his curved mouth and his hands rest wrinkled, worked but open, near the pockets of his jacket. Gamboa Sr.’s eyes are large, but soft; he is rested, but determined and ready. He seems to know that being “unbonded” is just being given some slack — and that one is still able to dance with their identity, duck and dive under its swing and come up for air, fully and assuredly themselves in the career and life they’ve built.
Harry Gamboa Jr.: Chicano Male Unbonded continues at the Autry Museum of the American West (4700 Western Heritage Way, Griffith Park, Los Angeles) through August 5.