Hiram Maristany, 76, dies; “People’s Photographer” from Spanish Harlem

ByDavid M. Conte

Mar 17, 2022

“Being naive,” he said, “I felt like I could fix all these negative issues.”

The Times in 2019 quoted him as saying, “When I documented, I didn’t do it from the outside in, but from the inside out. I knew that if I didn’t take these images, we were going to leave them with someone who doesn’t know anything about us, and they would define everything there is to know about us.

Mr Maristany became, as Sotheby’s put it last year, “one of the most prolific and important Latinx photographers of the second half of the 20th century”.

Reviewing “Down These Mean Streets,” an exhibit at El Museo del Barrio in Manhattan inspired by the 1967 book of the same title by Spanish Harlem author Piri Thomas, Holland Cotter wrote in The Times in 2018:

“Mr. Maristany works in a genre that mixes documentary and portraiture. He sees what is wrong with the immediate world he lives in – the poverty, the overcrowding – but also sees the creativity encouraged by having to unraveling and the warmth generated by bodies living in close and loving proximity.

In 1969, Mr. Maristany helped fellow artist, Raphael Montañez Ortiz, establish El Museo del Barrio, a leading Latin American cultural institution. He was its director from 1974 to 1977.

At the beginning of his career, he resolutely declared that he defended “dignity rather than fame”, which meant that he intended to maintain control over his works. But his photographs were then presented by the museum in the exhibitions “¡PRESENTE! The Young Lords in New York” in 2015; “Culture and Peoples” in 2019; and “Taller Boricua: A Political Print Shop in New York” in 2021, an exhibition of prints supporting Puerto Rican independence and workers’ rights and denouncing imperialism, all produced by the hundreds, mostly in the 1970s, by Puerto Rican Workshop Activists.

The workshop flourished much at the same time as the Young Lords, whose shrewd mastery of the media and theatrical public displays – in one instance, a “trash offensive” leading to a spectacular bonfire of uncollected trash; in another, the transformation of a local church into a community center — has paid off.