Photographer George Malave got his start documenting New York’s Puerto Rican community during the 1960s and ‘70s, chronicling a people persevering against the odds.
“My life’s work has been to record this journey through time and space. It’s a record of people encountered, places seen, events experienced, a visual diary reflecting who we have become, the images are a mirror of our collective selves,” he says. Malave is now looking back at this seminal era amid the new online exhibition, George Malave: A Collection of Photographs from 1968 – 1979.
Shortly after he was born in Aguadilla, Puerto Rico, in 1946, Malave moved with his mother to Brooklyn. Growing up in Williamsburg long before it was gentrified, he was attuned to energetic flow of street life. “As inner city kids, the streets became our playground where we discovered ourselves, learned about the world and each other,” he says.
Street shower, 1968
While studying at the Educational Alliance under Dr. Al Freed, Malave embarked on his first series, Varet Street Kids (1968-9), creating an insider’s look at youth coming of age amidst a backdrop of urban decay. “Photographing Varet Street Kids became a way of rediscovering the manner in which I grew up, exposing how lives are influenced by the way we interact with one another and how the world is seen and understood through children’s lives,” Malave says.
“Through fun and play children drowned out the deplorable surroundings in many of the poorest neighbourhoods in New York. My focus was to use my mind’s eye to record the innocence of childhood and the importance of interpersonal relationships in the development of a human being.”
Malave points to the seminal 1973 exhibition, Dos Mundos: Words of the Puerto Rican, as a turning point. Featuring the work of 12 photographers from New York and Puerto Rico, the exhibition brought independent artists together in community for the first time.
Johnny on the Pony, 1968
“Dos Mundos was the first large-scale exhibit to show how Puerto Ricans saw themselves,” Malave says. “We gained inspiration, mentors, and lifelong friends by entering its doors and began collaborating on various exhibition projects over the years. It spoke to us as creatives with similar issues and experiences. We had been using photography to record our own lives, our own history, in our own way.”
From this exhibition, the Puerto Rican photography collective En Foco was born, of which Malave was a founding member. It was set up to nurture, exhibit, and publish new talents, and still does so to this day.
“If photography teaches anything, it’s that everything encountered becomes a part of us,” Malave says. “We are made up of bits and pieces of people, places and things. We grow and acquire knowledge and power when we collaborate and contribute what we know. Any good or harm we do to others we do to ourselves, we get what we give. Life’s joy and value is in making the world a better place because of our existence.”
Third Avenue El, Light Shaft, 1972
Boy with Bird
Third Avenue El, Gun Hill Road Curve, 1972
Varet Street from above, 1968
Third Avenue El, Cross Bronx Expressway, 1972