Rafa Cardenas "Let Me Tell You Something"
By Jian Huang
There is a weight in Rafa Cardenas’ work: deep shadows, faceless figures, the black silhouette of a stranger against a sunlit wall. These are the deliberate choices of an artist who not only understands contrast in a picture, but the contrast of a city’s history.
Born in Mexico, Cardenas was raised in East L.A. and now lives in Boyle Heights. “When you’re little, your world is your block,” he says. “When I was in high school, my world was between Atlantic and Soto.” Even in a metropolitan city like Los Angeles, neighborhoods situated next to each other, like East L.A. and Boyle Heights, often experience a distance. This kind of isolation is not something that visitors to the Downtown of today understand. It is a painful past in our city’s history - tension, anger, redlining, division between race and class - just some of the issues that are still on the minds of Angelenos today.
Cardenas eventually did theater in college, which brought him to L.A. theater in Downtown. Back then, in the 90s, Downtown was a ghost town. “I get out late at night and just remember seeing rats on the streets,” he says. “The only people I’d see were homeless people. Little by little that’s all changing.”
The shifts in Downtown have been drastic over the past decade with heavy investments and a real estate boom. Some of the buildings in Cardenas’ photographs from 2010 are already gone. The streets have changed, too.
Rafa Cardenas "King of the Hill"
Cardenas approached photography somewhat by accident while writing for a magazine in 2009. He wanted to shoot his own photos, so he bought a used digital camera off of his then editor. “I didn’t set out to do it,” he says. “Photography just grabbed me.”
His photographs are visceral and often heavy, capturing a moment in time, a surrounding, an atmosphere and a fleeting sense of place. “It’s an insight to this community and the people I grew up around,” Cardenas says, balancing the idea of the artist as humanitarian and the artist as creative.
“Three people have already passed away,” he says from his book “Mas Aca”, published in 2016. Two were teenagers, one of which died from alcohol poisoning. “I knew that the building would change, but these youths are disappearing. The photos preserve some of that pain. That’s part of life.”
“Wish There Was Someone To Help 1” from his series called “Man on the Holocene” is a scene of a woman walking at Broadway and 5th Street. She gazes briefly, perhaps with a sense of recognition, at a man hunched over his wheelchair. In all the progress that has been happening in Downtown, Cardenas manages to capture these moments of emotion, of those who don’t fit in. “Not everyone can march in that line,” he says. “There’s always someone suffering. She’s just one step away from where he’s at.”
Rafa Cardenas "Wish There Was Someone To Help 1"
Rafa Cardenas will have a solo exhibition at the Vincent Price Art Museum Solo Exhibit in Spring In 2018. He also has a website featuring his images and thoughts about the people he shoots. [view]