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The unexpected face of Mexico

Photographer adds dimension to the meaning of race with photos of descendants of African slaves.

October 08, 2007|Sean Mitchell | Special to The Times

Race is not an issue for Tony Gleaton, the photographer told students at Loyola Marymount University recently. Yet an irresistible musing on the meaning of race has been his destiny. Born with blue eyes and a fair complexion, Gleaton, 59, has spent his life explaining to people that both of his parents were black and that he is "not biracial," while wondering why anyone should care. It's not surprising, perhaps, that Gleaton has made his reputation with a series of portraits of black Mexicans, descendants of slaves brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadors 500 years ago, "before the first black slaves came to Colonial Williamsburg," he pointed out.

He began taking the photographs in the 1980s, and exhibitions, sponsored in part by the Smithsonian, have carried them across Southern California, the nation and the world for the last 15 years and now back to Los Angeles, where "Africa's Legacy in Mexico" is on exhibit at LMU's Laband Art Gallery through Nov. 18.

The relevance of Gleaton's fine-art photographs of these people from villages on the Pacific Coast has not diminished as immigration and multiculturalism continue to challenge traditional views of what it means to be an American. The exhibition, in fact, is part of a larger colloquium on migration and immigration taking place this fall at the university.

Before his informal lecture in the gallery, Gleaton spoke about his work in an interview and wanted to make clear that he does not take credit for discovering that descendants of African slaves were living in Mexico. "What I did was provide the first visual depiction of something scholars had written about," he said.

A native of Detroit who moved with his parents to Los Angeles when he was 19 and attended UCLA and the Art Center College of Design, Gleaton learned his trade working in fashion photography in New York City but at the age of 35 made a course correction. In the world of fashion photography, he said, he came to feel that he was "propping up an aesthetic that was not in my best interests, photographing 15-year-old ingénues."

He left New York and set out to apply his skills to more thematic subject matter, hitchhiking through the West while photographing cowboys, Native American ranch hands and black rodeo riders, "reconstructing an American myth," part of the title of that collection.

Following the rodeo south to Mexico, he heard from an acquaintance about some isolated villages on the coastal plain south of Acapulco where the inhabitants were black. He doubted the truth of this until he journeyed there and saw for himself. Drawn to the notion of an unexamined African diaspora, he proceeded to document the evidence his own way, living among his subjects for months at a time and posing them for photographs intended to magnify their humanity and beauty. "This is not journalism," he said. "I am making art. I'm trying to craft a photo. I don't record moments. I make a statement."

In the gallery, surrounded by the 44 framed and mounted photographs that make up the exhibition, he told the students that they should view the painterly black-and-white portraits of these common folks as reflections of the photographer as much as his subjects. "These photos are about me," Gleaton said, somewhat provocatively. "It's an image of where I might be coming from at a particular time. These are lies telling a larger truth."

Where Gleaton was coming from was, if not strictly reportorial, then sociological and aesthetic. "What's important about these photographs is that they gave a face to something that nobody had really thought about before. And it's a place to begin the discussion about what we suppose Mexico to be. We have a stereotypical view of what Mexico is, and Mexico is many things. You can have freckles and red hair and be Mexican -- and you can have very black skin and be Mexican."

Invoking the prejudice that "You can't be too thin, too rich or too white" as a residual "post-colonial mindset" in Mexico, as well as the U.S., Gleaton said he chose not to classify his subjects as Afro-Mexican, "because that's more the way we see things. I don't believe in race. It's a social construct, not a bio-empirical fact."

Asked what, if anything, his experience in high-fashion photography contributed to these glossy, vibrant portraits of fishermen, farmers, teenage couples and children, Gleaton stretched out his long arms, pointing to the walls in both directions. "Everything," he said. "These are beautiful photographs of people who are not normally portrayed in beautiful ways."

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