Standing in the massive second-floor gallery of the Vincent Price Art Museum in East Los Angeles, amidst more than 40 years' worth of his work, photographer George Rodriguez looks around at his images on the walls and says, "I never thought that it would end up here this way." Staring back at him from the more than 130 photos in the exhibit are people from all walks of life: musical legends of the Sunset Strip and Hollywood icons to farmworker activists in Central California, as well as friends and family he photographed during the mid-1950s when he was a photography student at South Central’s Fremont High School.
As the 82-year-old walks wide-eyed through the exhibit, he reveals, “I never thought that what I was up to really mattered that much,” his tone including both genuine surprise and excitement on this October morning, a day before the opening of his solo exhibit, “George Rodriguez: Double Vision.”
Rodriguez isn’t used to such attention. The average American would not know his name, though his images have been featured in magazines, newspapers, books, and even record covers seen by millions. His photographs have also been exhibited in many museums: the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County, the Museum of Latin American Art, and the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery among them. And just last year, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) also awarded him with a Lifetime Achievement Award, Leadership in the Arts for his decades of documenting the Latino experience in the city. Yet, Rodriguez still is humbled by this.
This is him being treated as a subject, after decades of making everyone his. The Vincent Price Art Museum is making him the celebrity, taking his close-up in the form of a retrospective, his first.
After snapping his first photos on a large-format 4x5 camera as a teenager at Fremont High, he learned his craft by going on to work at photographer Sid Avery’s Avery Color Labs, developing film shot by some of the greats of the time (including Avery, Lawrence Schiller and Frank Bez). He followed this with a job in the darkroom at Columbia Pictures and freelancing on the side. Rodriguez took every opportunity he could to grow his portfolio. This included capturing the beginnings of the Chicano Movement on the streets of East L.A. during the ’60s, as he eventually started to land higher-profile assignments. And then the assignments just kept coming.
Since then, he has amassed a collection of significant and everyday moments in Los Angeles's history and beyond. At Vincent Price, one wall is dedicated to his black-and-white images of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers during the Delano Strike in 1969 while Rodriguez was on assignment for Los Angeles Times’ now-defunct West magazine. To the left of it is a wall-size image from 1970 of hundreds participating in the Chicano Moratorium March in Boyle Heights against the Vietnam War, which he shot in his free time. On another wall are color photographs of a then up-and-coming rap group out of Compton called N.W.A in 1990, against a spray-painted canvas backdrop by graffiti artists Larie Ruelas and Keen of ITS crew. Elsewhere in the gallery are photos of Marilyn Monroe, Angela Davis, Hillary Clinton and Fernando Valenzuela, along with numerous other familiar faces. His collection is that vast. This is the beauty of the exhibit and Rodriguez’s work: many unlikely worlds and events intersecting through his lens. And depending on who you are, the community you come from, you may classify what was significant and what was everyday in the exhibit differently.
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“When you walk through the show, it’s hard to believe that one person could have shot all of this,” says museum director Pilar Tompkins Rivas. “I think George Rodriguez’s work reflects this multiplicity of different vantage points that one person can have.” Indeed, it’s doubtful you can find any photographer whose subjects include Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Rosa Parks and Pee-Wee Herman. From the memorable portrait of Paul Reubens (a.k.a. Pee-Wee) against a plain red background to the iconic black-and-white portrait of Chavez in Delano against a red brick wall with a Kennedy campaign flyer, Rodriguez’s lens wonderfully captured the qualities that drew people to each: the endearing silliness of Pee-Wee Herman and the sincerity and determination in the eyes of Chavez. As with each photograph in his collection, you can sense his subjects trusted his vision.
The exhibit itself was inspired by the first book to feature both his entertainment industry work and the L.A. Chicano experience, “Double Vision: The Photography of George Rodriguez.” It was released last year and edited by author and scholar Josh Kun, who also is the retrospective’s curator. The book accurately describes Rodriguez as “an underground figure who’s been everywhere.”
Seeing Rodriguez and Kun interact, it’s clear that there is so much admiration and gratitude for each other’s work and passions. Their book collaboration and their production of a large-scale exhibit together is a testament to this. The two met when Kun was curating a show for the Grammy Museum on civic unrest, Rodriguez recalls: “He came to my studio [in 2011], and like everybody, he was surprised that I work in so many areas. He asked me if I would consider doing a book, and I told him I was doing a book, but my book had to do with the Chicano experience. You know, just a ‘Mexican American thing’ . . . but Josh thought it was bigger than that.”
That’s not the whole story, according to Kun: "There were traditional ideas of what the Chicano experience means visually, images and events that have been well-covered and well-talked about, but also all these other things at the same time." These other things were simultaneous events that magazines and Columbia hired Rodriguez to shoot: celebrity portraits, Hollywood premieres, publicity photography and the like.
“‘People don’t pay attention to the simultaneity of Los Angeles, that on any given day so many things are happening at the same time and in multiple locations across the city,’” Kun remembers Chicano artist and photographer Harry Gamboa Jr. saying so, in so many words, during a panel discussion about Rodriguez's work, “In 1968, there were student walkouts happening at the same time that someone is making their debut at the Whisky-a-Go-Go. We tend to tell those stories as being totally and mutually exclusive. And George’s work, I think, forces us to ask the questions about how are they related. How do they inform each other? And that they’re actually not separated.”
Click right and left to see the range of George Rodriguez's work:
This is what the show emphasizes and celebrates, though Rodriguez never misses an opportunity to downplay his gift and dedication to documenting the youth leading the Chicano movement in ways others weren't while making a living capturing candid shots of Sinatra, Whitney Houston and Ronald Reagan across town. "I never felt that I really was a photographer, not at a level where my friends were, because they were at the networks, they were doing 'serious' stuff [versus celebrity coverage]," he shares. "I never felt that I was really doing anything, but now when you see all this stuff, evidently, I was."
Especially when you view the glass cases in his retrospective, filled with all the ephemera Rodriguez immaculately preserved — press passes, proof sheets, magazine covers — and especially the wondrous faux brick wallpaper that usually is on his downtown studio wall, scribbled with colorful and animated celebrity signatures he collected during photo sessions, it’s hard to believe he feels this way. Seeing all these precious objects makes one think that somewhere in the back of his mind, Rodriguez has been preparing for this day, this exhibit, since he first picked up a camera at Fremont High. Yet he walks around the gallery in wonder, continuing to say, “I never thought that my work would end up here this way, in a museum like this.”
When asked if there’s anyone he wishes he could still photograph, he can’t think of anyone, but there are some people who are heavy on his mind while revisiting his life’s work: “What I think the most about is my family, that they’re gone, they didn’t get to see this…especially my dad, because there’s so much Latino-related stuff here,” he says. “He thought I was a big deal when I was in high school, so for him to be able to see some of this stuff would make it…”
And there it is. The world, the Los Angeles his father — who immigrated here from Mexico in 1935 and opened a shoe-repair shop downtown — lived in, did not have Latino photographers’ work, much less one raised around 60th and Avalon, exhibiting at major arts institutions.
Vincent Price director Tompkins Rivas knows this history well and can understand how it can impact Rodriguez’s views of himself, even with decades of work in front of him. “If we were to really investigate why people really don’t know about him, I think we would probably find a lot of answers to this question that lie in structural racism and erasure of voices of people from diverse communities — perhaps a negation of authorship, or an assumption that Chicano photographers wouldn’t have had access to shoot the kind of images that he did,” she says. “That’s tough, but we want to change that.”
This exhibit and Rodriguez’s book are what change looks like. Now younger generations who visit Rodriguez's retrospective and see his book will know it's within their reach and also be reminded through his photography of how community activism and individual determination — whether its farmworkers unionizing in the Delano grape fields, students protesting on the streets of East L.A., a love-in in Griffith Park, or in the form of a Bolivian American calculus teacher at Garfield High (yes, he shot Jaime Escalante too) — has shaped our city in profound ways.
As for Rodriguez’s next big assignment, the photographer claims that he’s retired. Though he later reveals he only decided this just over a week ago. Then he goes on to say, “I wanna get past tomorrow,” referring to the exhibit opening, “so I can have my life back… I know that sounds weird…” The show was a large endeavor, and after the opening, he does have one thing on his list of to-dos: “I wanna go to the beach,” Malibu Pier, specifically. And he will be taking a camera with him.
George Rodriguez: Double Vision is on view at the Vincent Price Art Museum through February 29, 2020.
Top Image: George Rodriguez, Chicano Moratorium, Boyle Heights , 1970. Gelatin silver print. | Courtesy of the artist.