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19 August 2015
Race, Tony Gleaton once said, is "a social construct, not a bio-empirical fact." His photographs of blacks in Latin America proved the point. "You can have freckles and red hair and be Mexican -- and you can have very black skin and be Mexican," he said.
The photographer passed away last Friday in Palo Alto, Calif. at the age of 67.
He himself was light-skinned with green eyes but he made himself at home south of the border. He would roll into the village on the local bus, encamp at the local church, working for his meals and getting to know the people through the parish priest.
"For a long time," he wrote in Oaxaca Diary, "I felt I was taking pictures of things that mattered to me and no one else."
His black-and-white images focused on communities that were ignored, populated by the descendants of the African slaves that the Spanish brought to the New World hundreds of years ago.
"These villagers, who became friends, sustained my quest; their effort to win long-sought recognition by Mexican society inspired me to travel many miles to return here time and time again. Now, as always, everyone is more than helpful when I ask permission to photograph. There is often no question about my repositioning subjects to create an effect, or having fathers embrace sons at my suggestion rather than theirs," he wrote.
'For a long time, I felt I was taking pictures of things that mattered to me and no one else.'
And, as a slide show accompanying his obituary in the New York Times shows, he was not documenting these lives. He was posing them. "This is not journalism," he explained. "I am making art."
In the Diary he added, "The photographs that I create are as much an effort to define my own life, with its heritage encompassing Africa and Europe, as an endeavor to throw open the discourse on the broader aspects of 'mestizaje,' the 'assimilation' of Asians, Africans, and Europeans with indigenous Americans."
Born in Detroit in 1948 as the youngest son of an elementary school teacher and a police officer, he moved with his family to Los Angeles in 1959. In 1967 at the age of 19, he joined the Marine Corps and served in Vietnam.
On his return to California, he enrolled in the University of California at Los Angeles where the photography bug first bit him. He studied at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena and the University of California at Berkeley before moving to New York to work as a fashion photographer's assistant. He would shoot for Details magazine among others before he left town.
After three years in New York he hitchhiked to Nevada where he photographed Native American ranch hands and black rodeo cowboys. He continued that theme in Texas, Colorado, Idaho and Kansas, assembling a show Cowboys: Reconstructing an American Myth in the process.
He followed the rodeo to Mexico with a group of Charros from Los Angeles, his medium-format camera with its one lens in a bag with a few rolls of Tri-X, shooting in available light. Before he was done, he had completed the project for which he was best known, Africa's Legacy in Mexico, which was exhibited by the Smithsonian in the U.S. and the Mexican National Council of Art in Mexico and Cuba.
"The images I produce," he said in an artist statement, "most often, are ones in which people directly and openly look into the camera, yet the most important aspect of these portraits is the giving a narrative voice by visual means to people deemed invisible by the greater part of society and in doing so deliberately crafting an 'alternative iconography' of what beauty and family and love and goodness might stand for, one that is inclusive not exclusive."
Beauty and family and love and goodness. In that, he showed us, we are all are created equal.