Frank Blazquez is a portrait photographer in Albuquerque. His work is stark. It is unadorned. It stems from a simple technique: Blazquez sees someone that looks interesting (say, someone shirtless with their face covered in tattoos standing on the street in the area Blazquez still calls “The War Zone”), then he walks up to them and asks if he can take their picture. No chit chat. No establishing a rapport. So began Blazquez’s adventure to document the people in Albuquerque for a project he calls Barrios de Nuevo Mexico. It’s a bold move. He has been robbed several times.
Bold, as well, is having an art opening in the middle of global pandemic; but he along with Jodie Herrera are opening an exhibit put together by Secret Gallery this Friday. Weekly Alibi sat down with Blazquez on the nearly-vacant campus of the University of New Mexico to find out more about his approach to taking portraits, New Mexican identity and getting robbed. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
Weekly Alibi: How do you have an art show during a pandemic?
Frank Blazquez: It was something that we planned to do towards the end of the pandemic, or we tried our best to schedule it when we thought it was going to start to taper off. We thought we could predict when businesses and restaurants were going to start to open again, but as things start to spike now, it seems like it's getting even stronger.
Tell me about the work for this show.
I'm super grateful that I was able to link up with an artist, her name's Jodie Herrera. She's also a portrait artist. I felt like both of our portfolios speak to one another because we both take pictures. We both focus on media and content that focuses [on] human faces.
Definitely. And definitely a Southwest, New Mexico-region type of identity. That's when we linked up with the curator there, his name's Gabe with Secret Gallery. He's someone that was able to coalesce both of our portfolios together.
This collection is from your Barrios de Nuevo Mexico project?
Neighborhoods of New Mexico. A lot of it focuses on the Latinos here. Ninety-five percent of all of the people you see [in Blazquez’s Barrios de Nuevo Mexico photographs] are someone that identifies along the Latino spectrum –Spanish, Mexican, Chicano, Chicanx, Latinx – the whole gamut of different labels and categories and identity that speak to Latin America. It also speaks to a lot of people that were born and raised in New Mexico. I like how people really take pride in geography, where they were born and their family trees here in New Mexico.
You're from Chicago?
I moved here about 10 years ago, and I think that's why I'm so fascinated as an outsider. I'm really fascinated with different signifiers and symbols of the Southwest.
You recently showed some work at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Bentonville, Arkansas. Did you go to Bentonville?
I went there twice, actually. I went there once for the opening and then they had me go back for an artist talk.
That's where Walmart's headquartered.
Walmart was everywhere.
Do you think that people outside of this country think of the American identity as tied to places like Bentonville?
I could definitely see the connection.
Bentonville is quite different than Albuquerque. Much of your work speaks to a counter narrative of being directly tied to the place that they're from. Is that what you're trying to express?
Definitely. I feel like the majority of my subjects are proud to say that they are New Mexican first before they're American. I feel like state pride is really here. I'm from Chicago. There are not too many people that are like, “Illinois pride” or “I'm so proud to be a Chicagoan,” but out here in New Mexico, family trees go back like 400 years.
Oh yeah. Even further than that.
Is there something about Albuquerque that you have discovered in your work that people outside Albuquerque don’t know but should?
I think of stereotypes right away. The first things that come to mind are television series, like “Breaking Bad” or movies. They try their best to capture the spirit of the state of New Mexico, and there's some truth in it, but there's a lot of things that are just made up, that just aren't true. They try to characterize us as a really poor state and there is some truth to that, but I think if you stay here long enough, you start to realize that this is almost like a natural artist in residency just living here. It's one of the most beautiful places on earth. There's a lot of family pride here and a lot of connection here to what this culture is, whether it's Native or Chicano or Mexican culture.
Your subject area is basically just South of the fairgrounds. What is the difference in your mind between calling that area “The International District” or calling it “The War Zone?”
I call it what the people that live there call it. Everyone that lives there that I’ve photographed called it “The War Zone.” I've never met anyone that actually lives there that called it “The International District.” That's a good attempt that they're trying to rebrand it or rename it, but I feel like before you slap a label on something, you actually have to change the infrastructure and the foundation first. It's still pretty bad over there.
Your portraits are very straight forward, even stark. What do you say to your subjects before you take their picture?
If it's a stranger, someone that I've never met before, I actually like that connection. I like not knowing if someone's going to get really angry or if they might let me take their photo really quick, or they might have me there just for a few seconds and then tell me that I have to leave, which actually has happened. Most of the time they say “no.” I'd say about 60 percent of the time they say no, which is fine.
When you walk right up to them?
When I walk right up to them or it's something where we swap contact info and I meet up with them at a later date, like what I did with one gentleman who has two different colored eyes. His name's Carlos.
Like David Bowie?
I saw him and (thought) this would be a really cool portrait. It took several months for me to set it up. Sometimes it's a process. I like going up to people I don't know and making new friends. There's been a couple of close calls. I've been robbed a couple of times. I almost was shot. They told me to strip naked and they stole all my clothes. That was a breaking point where I'm like, “Do I really want to keep doing this? Do I want to take this as a sign to change my strategy?” That's when I decided it'd be safer to go with somebody than going alone.
Maybe somebody big.