Project Series 18: Christina Fernandez
Christina Fernandez’s new work—seven photographs from the Lavanderia series—reflects her long-standing interest in exploring personal, cultural, and social issues within a larger historical and political framework. For almost ten years, Fernandez has used the medium of photography, filtered through the lens of personal and familial history, archetype, and myth, to address cultural borders and historical relationships within Southern California. By responding to the urban landscape of East Los Angeles in the storefronts of Lavanderia, Fernandez creates images that combine the personal and historical and, in doing so, further explore the complex issue of photographic representation.
In past work, Fernandez’s interest in using photography to explore the trans-personal has manifested itself in topographical studies of social and archeological landscape sites and semi-documentary narrative tableaus. Using the strategy of photo-narrative, she typically examines a specific subject or environment through a combination of documentation and artifice. In Manuela S-T-I-T-C-H-E-D (1996), Fernandez combined stark formal photographs of anonymous East Los Angeles garment factories with fragments of an often poignant text, to create a subtle message about sweatshop labor. In her Multiple Exposure series (1999), Fernandez re-photographed images of Mexican women taken by well-known photographers, and using multiple exposures, inserted a ghost-like image of herself onto the historical image. In contrast to the personal tenor of this work, her topographical images highlight a formalist, reductive approach to the landscape in the manner of photographers Lewis Baltz and Anthony Hernandez.
With this current body of work, Lavanderia, Fernandez conflates her interests in exploring the personal and historical, utilizing a formal, frontal aesthetic, and expanding the documentary traditions of photography. Photographers have long been interested in labor—from Lewis Hine’s early twentieth-century documentation of underage factory workers to Dorothea Lange’s photographs of harsh Depression realities in rural America. With Lavanderia, Fernandez extends this documentary tradition to domestic labor.
In the Lavanderia photographs, Fernandez attempts something entirely new to her—capturing the movement of people and the artificial light of night through photography. To do this, she photographs storefronts at night using a 4 x 5 view camera with very long exposures, enabling her to capture simultaneously the domestic activity within the building and the graffiti on its windows. The graffiti’s calligraphic flow acts as a record of movement that mirrors the lyrical physical movements of the people inside the buildings. Fernandez is also concerned with capturing the aesthetic of light in urban spaces—as exemplified in Edward Hopper’s paintings of isolated city dwellers—and the architectural relationships of building facades and interiors.
Christina Fernandez’s exhibition is the eighteenth in the Pomona College Museum of Art’s Project Series, an ongoing program of small exhibitions that brings to the Pomona College campus art that is experimental and that introduces new forms, techniques, or concepts.
Lavanderia started as a series of photographs of storefronts along César Chávez Boulevard and other main streets in East Los Angeles. I have always been interested in how the urban landscape speaks through the bits and pieces we leave behind in our day-to-day lives and through other agents of the neighborhood, their graffiti tag names emblazoned on walls and windows of buildings.
Buildings tell of the people who inhabit them and the social context in which they exist. In many ways they are a stage for the daily dramas of life—the mundane, the tragic, the ordinary. Buildings simultaneously conceal and reveal the labor within, the subject of my former work Manuela S-t-i-t-c-h-e-d. A series of eight photographs of sweatshop buildings in East Los Angeles, Manuela S-t-i-t-c-h-e-d was part of an installation that combined the images with text created from the narratives of women who had worked in garment factories.
Photographers have long been interested in labor, from Daguerre’s blurred shoeshine boy in his untitled 1839 photograph of Rue du Temple, to Lewis Hine’s documentation from 1908-1918 of underage workers in factories and mills for the National Child Labor Committee, to Dorothea Lange’s photographs illustrating the harsh Depression realities of rural America for the New Deal’s Farm Security Administration, among others. In these instances, labor was clearly defined as the backbreaking work of the fields, factories, and docks.
The blur of labor, the anonymity of the laborer, the stillness of leisure—Lavanderia is a further investigation of these as well as something entirely new to my work: capturing the movement of people and the artificial light of night through photography. The painter Edward Hopper portrayed the strange light emanating from buildings at night and the emblematic lone figure waiting or contemplating. Hopper’s focus on the mundane details and the psychological tensions of everyday life is echoed in this new body of work.
The men, women, and children pictured in Lavanderia are subjected to the watchful eye of the photographer. The blur of their domestic labor—folding and sorting of clothes, controlling and keeping entertained the bored child—is transplanted to the public realm. The handprints of youngsters on windows illuminated by fluorescent lights are evidence that the washing of clothes is a family event. The etched and graffiti-marked windows are an obstacle to my perfect view. The short depth of field (the shallow range of focus due to a wide-open aperture) further obscures the sometimes lone figures, reinforcing their anonymity.
Lavanderia is rich with binaries—working and waiting, the beautiful but oppressive graffiti, obscured views through windows that are a kind of impenetrable membrane. Although the camera forces engagement between my subjects and myself, as I ask permission to photograph them, Lavanderia is less about connection than about our inability to bridge the spaces between subject and artist.