SAN DIEGO — What distinguishes Richard A. Lou's socially provocative "Inner-City Portraits" from most street photography is the subjects. They are not real.
Sure, some of the 18 black-and-white images on exhibit at the Centro Cultural de la Raza look like the usual inner-city stereotypes: a Skid Row bum in torn T-shirt sitting on the pavement, legs splayed, pants rolled up to the knees; a gang member haranguing the photographer; a nighttime photo of an angry prostitute.
The artist has created images he hopes we will recognize and feel comfortable with.
Lou adds to these creations by linking each picture, in a diptych format, to a page including typed biographical "data"--name, date of birth, sex, marital status, education--and a statement by each subject made during the portrait session.
But the people caught by the camera are reflections of the photographer. Each image is a self-portrait of the artist, playing the role of an inner-city denizen. The subjects' comments are Lou's thoughts.
While it's a gimmicky idea, the self-portraits do encourage visitors to attend closer to the photographs and the subjects' statements.
At their best, these images and photographs create vivid characterizations.
With an ear-to-ear grin, Hernando (Chano) Zateca, a busboy and dishwasher, sits on a tipsy stack of boxes behind a restaurant. In his broken-English statement, he tells of the honor of his hard work. He comes across to the photographer as humble and happy. But visually, Chano appears defined and confined by his work. The rungs of a ladder on the wall behind him frame his head. The restaurant hose coiled at his feet may be a snare.
One of Lou's messages seems to be that this country is an insoluble mixture of haves and have-nots.
The comments of George (Stick) Marcos and Allen Marcos point up this concern.
We see Allen Marcos, a city councilman, standing before a brick-columned building looking loftily ahead. Allen reveals that he has risen from the barrio but has no illusions that middle-class society will do anything to wipe out its horrors.
The other Marcos--are these two brothers?--is a gang leader. The photographer has caught him wearing his gang bandanna, shaking his finger at the camera. Stick's anger and frustration boil out in his statement: "Don't be tellin' us what we ain't, 'cause we know! Ya hear me!"
To create this portfolio, the artist, a native San Diegan who lives in Imperial Beach, literally put on the roles. He dressed up as a white-collar, drug-addicted accountant.
He dressed down to create the image of a radical Latino farm worker from the 1960s.
He donned women's clothes to portray several female figures: There's the attractive attorney, who devotes herself to the downtrodden; a plain-Jane waitress who tells about her love fantasy; an aging beauty operator who refuses her family's pleas to move her business from a neighborhood that is now crime-ridden.
The problem with this exhibit is that there are too many different characters with too many stories. Usually an exhibition of photojournalism has a theme. Even though the artist created everything in the exhibit, its theme remains unclear.
"Inner-City Portraits" at the Centro Cultural de la Raza in Balboa Park continues through Sunday. Gallery hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday through Sunday.