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Remembering Hiram Maristany Share This on LinkedIn   Tweet This   Forward This

17 March 2022

Hiram, there's no such thing as a Puerto Rican photographer," Hiram Mirstany's mother replied when he told her he wanted to be a professional photographer. Three months later he returned with the news, "Well Ma, I'm gonna be the first one."

"Why did it take you so long?" she smiled.

Maristany, who documented life in Spanish Harlem for nearly six decades, died from cancer on March 10 in St. Petersburg, Fla., where he was visiting a friend. He was 76.

He was born in Manhattan to immigrant parents. His father was in the merchant marine and his mother was a homemaker.

Although he dropped out of high school, he later took college courses without getting a degree.

'Some younger artists need to hear my voice.'

In 1976, when he was in his early thirties, he married Gwendolyn Mitchell. The couple had a son and a daughter before their divorce.

A social worker had given him a camera when he was 13 and he was still a teen when NBC featured his black-and-white images on Show of the Week. They were published by The New York Times Magazine as well.

As the magazine article pointed out, the photos were all shot with a borrowed camera. "His had been stolen."

Maristany didn't shy away from the poverty and overcrowding in El Barrio but he wanted to show the other side of Puerto Rican life in New York City.

"One of the things that I had to deal with as a young man was that all the images depicting Puerto Ricans were negative," he said recently. "We were either committing a crime or a crime was being perpetrated against us. We were always in handcuffs. Our sisters were depicted as teenage mothers -- without any morals or ethics."

In later years, he bemoaned the gentrification of his community.

"Every day I see people coming out with suitcases and they are oblivious to the history who was here before them," he said in a 2017 interview with NPR's Becky Harlan. "They're oblivious to the history that this community was an Italian community, further back an Irish community, further back a Jewish community. That history is gone because the gentrifiers don't care about history. They believe the party begins when they arrive."

But he had hope that his work would inspire another generation to document their communities.

"Some younger artists need to hear my voice," he says. "I hope for young people who are in similar realities, it will give them inspiration to love their community, to love their culture, to love their people, to be engaged."

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