From Scratched Corneas to Critical Focus
Artistic Practice (16/29)

From Scratched Corneas to Critical Focus

The “Make Love Not War” bumper sticker on Harry Gamboa Jr.’s VW in 1970s East L.A. stood out against the police brutality his Chicano community experienced. One incident in particular left him bloodied and disoriented. He recounts the events that gave him the critical focus for his photographic artistic practice.

Harry Gamboa Jr. first published on ArtsEverywhere in the Polity of Literature series, edited by Matthew Stadler. That essay, titled Nosebleed on Blacktop, is an account of his coming-of-age in 1960s East L.A. This second essay looks at the emergence of his photographic artistic practice. The text concludes with a gallery of works spanning decades of his work.

On January 31, 1971, twenty Los Angeles County Sheriff deputies were in attack formation on Whittier Boulevard while facing a peaceful group of youths who were marching slowly along Arizona Avenue in protest against human rights violations against Chicanos in East L.A.  The police pointed their rifles, shotguns, and pistols at the protesters and fired a barrage of live ammunition without warning, inflicting bodily injury without discretion or mercy.  I saw several acquaintances fall to the ground wounded or lifeless.  Many people were hit in the shoulders, legs, and arms.  I recognized a neighbour who was strewn across the sidewalk bleeding out through a terrible head wound.  The sound of bullets flying past me and then striking the flesh of others seemed to take place on a separate audio track as screams of terror and anguish subsided to almost a whisper.  The brutal atrocity was one of many undocumented attacks in East L.A. during the 20th century. 

            I managed to run in a zigzag pattern and escaped death through clouds of acrid tear gas while getting to the next block where I found my friend John Ortiz crouched down in the back seat of my 1966 VW Beetle.  Several deputies advanced forward making a brutal sweep of the area while randomly firing their weapons.  I put the key into the ignition and started the engine as a volley of buckshot hit the car’s concave hood, causing lead pellets to ricochet and shatter the windshield.  Glass fragments tore into the skin around my eyes while plastic/rubber lining particles scratched both corneas.  The bleeding, tears, and pain made it difficult to see the road as I dodged those fleeing along Hubbard Street and accelerated to avoid a blockade at Ford Boulevard. Finally we made it to the onramp of the northbound 710, then picked up speed when I transferred over to the 10.

            The continuous burst of smoggy wind that blew in my face caused streaming blood to become a crimson spray that covered much of the car’s interior.  John was already smeared with the blood of others and was laughing as he used a pocket knife to etch amateurish pictures of pigs onto a stolen deputy’s helmet.  He had “liberated” it from a burning patrol car that was set alight during the chaotic response to the police riot.          

            “Those motherfucking pigs were trying to kill all of us, but we were already born dead.  Not enough guns to kill all the Mexicans. Besides, they mostly shoot themselves. Suicide is always the easy way out for those pussies.”

            “John, don’t let anyone see the helmet or we’ll be targeted.  You can dump it when we get to the free clinic. I need someone to take care of my eyes.”

            “You’re a blind angel, man.  You act like there is so much more left to see.  Drop me off when we get to Soto Street. 

            John strapped the decorated helmet onto his head when I pulled over to stop just past the freeway offramp.  He got out and spoke to me through the broken windshield.

            “You look like a zeroed-out zombie with those eyes.”

            He walked away without looking back, seemingly unaffected by all of the violence, the blood, and the existential absurdity of illegally wearing the semi-metallic headdress of law enforcement.

            “Hey John, I can barely believe my eyes.”

            The continuous bleeding obscured my vision and I was having trouble keeping my eyes open.  I drove cautiously until I managed to arrive safely at the Rap House Free Clinic where I often worked various freelance jobs as a Youth Peer-Counselor and as a projectionist for the weekly informational film screenings regarding pregnancy prevention, sexually transmitted diseases, and psychedelic drugs.  Dr. Terence Cronin was on duty and promptly stitched my wounds to halt the loss of blood.  He handed me a complimentary packet of Erythromycin capsules to ward off infection and a small bottle of medicated eyedrops.  He and the several other volunteer physicians were experts at emergency care resulting from their experience as mandatory military medical service personnel in the Vietnam War.  I would often have conversations with him about contemporary literature, urban lore, and film-noir. 

            “You are definitely hanging around with the wrong set of comrades.  The blabbing KFWB radio bullshit just announced that all of you Chicanos were threatening the police and that they had to defend themselves by using force.  You’re lucky not to be in a body bag.”
            He offered me a worn paperback book, Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry.

            “It’s a great read but seems highly unlikely that the British, Nazis, and Mexicans would celebrate Day of the Dead with such high-octane tequila so close to my favorite two volcanoes, Popocatepetl and Iztaccihuatl. Maybe you like to play with fire too.”

            He lit a cigarette and blew a perfect smoke ring towards the ceiling.

            Thank you doctor, I’ll read the novel when I can get my eyes to follow the printed word.

            “You’re nineteen years old without even the slightest sliver of social status.  When are you going to let everyone know why we should care if you live or die?  It’s your responsibility to share your vision while you still have eyes in your head.  How are you ever going to be the object of desire and not just another easy target of hate?”

            He placed a small orange plastic container filled with Valium in my shirt pocket.

            “Find yourself a place to rest, take two of these, and today’s nightmare will seem like a distant dream.”

            I walked out of the clinic relieved to think that I might heal soon.  When I got into my car, it occurred to me that I was fortunate to have recently purchased it from a family who had lost their son to the war.  The car allowed me safe passage out of a deadly situation and also the freedom to go anywhere.  I drove the length of Sunset Boulevard from Boyle Heights to Echo Park, Beverly Hills, Bel Air, to Pacific Coast Highway and then continued northward past Malibu to Zuma Beach.  I pulled over to park at the edge of the sandy beach as the sun dipped into the ocean just before nightfall.  The deep scratches in my retinas were still burning as tears flowed uncontrollably.  It had been an incredibly bloody day. I wished I had pictures.  I leaned my head back on the car seat and placed several drops of medication on each eye and swallowed two capsules.  The burning sensation seemed to seer the memory of people being struck by police bullets.  No one had expected to be wounded or murdered.  My angry tears were momentarily at a safe distance from East L.A.  The soothing sounds of the Pacific Ocean waves and the psychopharmacological effects of the drug lulled me into a dreamless sleep that kept me comforted through the night.

            “Hey, buddy, you doing O.K.?  You alive?” An elderly man was tugging at the door handle, causing my car to almost tip over.

            “Barely.” I opened my eyes but everything looked foggy in the bright sunlight.

            “You’ve got to move your car or you’ll be towed.  They’re making a Hollywood movie and I’m not sure if it’s gonna be Linda Lovelace or Annette Funicello, but one of them wants to give Zuma Beach a mind-blowing performance.  You wouldn’t want security to throw sand in your face.”

            “Now that would suck.  Thanks for the warning.”

            The old man laughed at me as he took a sip from a small bottle of cheap vodka.

The car started quickly but was there enough fuel for the fifty-mile drive to Los Angeles State College?  I was enrolled full-time there, intent on remaining as an undeclared major while performing at a nominal level to pass a few classes as a full-time student so that I could maintain my Selective Service Class II – S (Student Deferment), to avoid getting shipped to Vietnam.  I was against the war and wasn’t interested in being at war in Los Angeles.  I was not a violent man.  The Make Love, Not War bumper sticker on my VW stated my views and practice succinctly.  The speeding cars, trucks, and motorcycles competed for open space on the road endangering each other in their rush to reach the freeway.  The wind blowing through the gaping hole where my windshield used to be played havoc with my vision, but I managed to overcome traffic jams and reckless speed demons to arrive safely at my usual parking spot on a hill known as “Metro,” overlooking the college.  I stepped onto the asphalt and was amazed by the numerous pockmarks on the VW’s sturdy metal exterior inflicted by the insufficient firepower of the brutal L.A.P.D. deputies.


            Many other students managed to find free parking spaces along the winding streets and were walking down the familiar pathways that would lead us all to the main entry point of the college campus where several long-haired young people were wearing headbands, love beads, and fashionably torn clothes distributing mimeographed flyers that announced forthcoming protest actions:




            The majority-white student population of the college contributed to the popularity of Students for a Democratic Society, a radical organization that often staged protests and other actions (without fear of being gunned down in the streets, as was a common police tactic at Chicano protests in the surrounding Mexican American neighbourhoods of East L.A.).

            I arrived on time at King Hall for my Psychology 101 class taught by the acclaimed psychologist, Dr. Michael Wapner.  He would often drink coffee and always smoked cigarettes along with half of the students who would puff away in the classroom.  His manic movements and hypnotic speaking style held students in suspended animation during two hour-long lectures that delivered brilliant insights into human consciousness and unconsciousness.

         “We are being consumed by the daily media meat grinder.  Television is a terrible way to treat your mind, learn to be human beyond yourself.  Seize the horizontal and vertical controls and you will achieve the power of perception over others.”

         My bloodshot eyes and bloodstained shirt appeared to have impressed another student in her late 20’s who was sitting next to me.  I recognized her as someone who was usually present at political rallies, sit-ins, or whenever students had campus-wide protest marches.

         “You look like the luckiest guy in the world,” she said to me. “I’m sure that if Jimi Hendrix had some of your expertise he would’ve lived to enjoyed another day.” She held out three LSD tablets. “Maybe you should try this Purple Haze to push you into the next realm of reality.”

         “No thanks,” I said. “All of my hallucinations are too real.”

         “Suit yourself, free love is never free, unless I say so.”

         She leaned over and kissed me on the mouth as an industrial bell rang loudly, announcing the end of class.  The enticing bait of assertive sexuality and mint-flavoured lips would have persuaded me had I not noticed the glint of a badge and a gun in her handbag as she got up to leave. Probably she was connected to the dark legacy of COINTELPRO, an illegal domestic surveillance program, under the direction of J. Edgar Hoover and Richard Nixon, designed to entrap activists and ensure their imprisonment or disappearance.  Professor Wapner looked nervous and agitated.  I could sense his trepidation as he lit another cigarette.

         “She was pouring it on thick.  Your autonomic nervous system could have blown a fuse.  Fucking uncover cops.  Luckily, your picture didn’t appear in today’s newspapers. More than a dozen Chicanos have been charged with assault on police officers and other serious crimes.  Better get rid of that blood splattered shirt.  If there isn’t a revolution of consciousness soon, we’ll all be targeted by the police state.”

         “Thank you, professor.  I’ll try to avoid the spies in our midst.”

         The idea of a police state was too abstract for me to fully comprehend at the moment. I left class and walked down the crowded hallway bathed in pinkish fluorescent light making everything nauseatingly off-colour while eradicating the shadows of the many nameless students.  I had the momentary sense that I was invisible and everything around me was a mirage. King Hall was also a nuclear fallout shelter for general use in case of a National Emergency.  The thought of being entombed forever in this brutalist structure by a thermonuclear blast was demoralizing and I was happy to exit as quickly as possible.

         A bank of vending machines in the middle of the campus commons area sold junk foods and canned soft drinks to anyone with coins.  I placed some dimes in the two newspaper racks for single copies of the Los Angeles Herald Examiner and the Los Angeles Times. According to their reports, the police encountered rioters in East L.A. and they were compelled to utilize force resulting in one death and several injuries to some police officers.  The black and white photographs of young Chicanos clenching their fists did not truly reveal that they were actually pleading for the police to stop shooting at us. Other pictures implied that the police were in fear for their own safety.  There were no images or written text indicating the many critically wounded or possibly dead protesters or anything that would indicate an opposing Chicano point of view.  I was struck with the realization that they had cameras and we did not have such a technological advantage to advance our voice to a broader public. 

         Pus was dripping from the corner of my eyes and infection threatened my vision despite my repeated use of eye drops.  It would be unsafe to drive, so I left my car parked on the hill and decided to walk from campus for several miles along City Terrace Drive and across the hilly terrain of Hazard Avenue to rejoin the dysfunction of family life in the small house where I had grown up in Boyle Heights.  When I arrived there in the early afternoon, I crawled into bed and emptied the drops into my eyes, swallowed a combination of several antibiotic capsules and anxiolytic tablets, then pulled the blanket over my head.   For the most part, I remained there motionless and silent for over a week until the early morning of February 9th when the powerfully destructive 6.6 Sylmar Earthquake struck all of Southern California.  The intense shaking caused a portion of the roof to literally crash down on me.  I crawled free and uninjured from under the rubble and made sure that the rest of the family was safe too.  I dusted myself free of crumbled stucco particles and dressed myself in my usual attire of denim pants and a black sweatshirt.  My inexpensive work boots would protect me against walking over broken glass or any other sharp objects. A ballpoint pen, folded sheets of lined paper, a few coins, and my car keys were already in my pocket.  I had more than twenty-five dollars in my wallet along with a valid driver’s license and the life-saving II – S draft card.  I stepped out onto the street feeling reassured and confident as a survivor of yet another disaster.  I walked towards Esperanza Street while looking at the structural damage to the neighbourhood. 

         A strange sense of clarity came over me as the sun was rising.  My eyes were feeling much better and were not overly sensitive to the light and cool air.  The subtle range of hues and the shadows cast on the walls stood out in sharp relief.  The texture of the blackened asphalt and disparate blades of green lawn grass appeared to take on previously unrecognized connected patterns between nature and human products.  The obvious movements of trees in the slight breeze contrasted with the few clouds that flowed slowly in the sky.  As I continued to walk, I encountered several people who were intent on getting to work on time despite the catastrophic event.  I noticed their determined faces, all Mexican, with impressively combined Aztec and European traits that formed radiant dual-warrior smiles from disparate lands as they struggled through the uncertainty of late 20th-century angst.

         “Hey, where you going?  The earth is going to swallow us anyway.  Man, my house fell down and now there is nowhere for me or my kids to sleep.  The terremoto will set the dinosaurs free to eat you and me.  Can’t you see?  I’m a poet.”

Gloria Le Meur was always walking around the neighbourhood looking for her unidentified husband whom she married when she was only fifteen years old.  It had been less than a year when she had found him hanging by the neck from the flagpole in front of the library.  The death was officially declared a suicide but everyone assumed it was a gang-related murder.  She performed improvisational spoken-word poetry at his humble funeral then went home to shave her head, and began wearing his clothes, and often carried a portable radio that played white noise static that usually matched her state of mind.  Many people believed that she was the doppelgänger of her departed spouse.

         “My Mister was going to meet me somewhere, mind if I walk alongside you, you know, just for kicks?”

         Her twin boys were eleven years old and they took it for granted that they would have to hunt down their mother on a regular basis.  Their resilience was proven by their relentless pursuit of enterprising activities in school and in the neighbourhood.  I was certain that they would be looking to return her to the safety of their fenced-in front yard.

         “There is no way for me to stop you, Gloria.  Maybe you’ll enjoying walking with me for seven miles in a straight line to L.A. State College.  I need to pick up my car and set everything into motion.  I’ll give you a ride back from there.”

         We were almost at Whittier Boulevard where the Julian’s Furniture store building is located adjacent to the cemetery, an aftershock shook everything with an extreme jolt that caused a few bricks to fall off and crash on the sidewalk only a few feet away from us.  A large, deep, gaping fissure opened up in the middle of Esperanza Street that stretched for more than a city block.  I looked down into the unstable crevice and was surprised to see millions of wriggling earthworms.

         “The goddamned corpses of the muertos make the worms so fucking fat.”

         Gloria was holding my hand as her razor-sharp nails scratched my lifeline with unexpected tenderness.  Several hundred headstones were visibly swaying as the liquefaction affected the landscape that was often used as a playground or as a place for lovers to fulfill a dying wish.

         “My husband, my husband, my husband…”

         Another sudden major shaking of the earth caused Gloria to lose her footing.  I pulled her up against me as the momentary ditch sealed itself with a loud crash that caused the asphalt surface to shatter into brittle flakes of rock and hardened tar while releasing an enormous cloud of dust that was imbued with radiogenic argon-40 gas.  There were strange lights flashing in the sky that could have been prompted by the earthquakes to form electromagnetic activity in the atmosphere.  Gloria turned up the volume on the radio as we walked on Whittier Boulevard towards Indiana Street. Shattered windows, broken beams, and twisted steel were interspersed with super-sized potholes to create a surreal layer of visual cues on top of an already dilapidated environment of hundred-year-old structures.  Many of the business establishments had faded painted multilingual signage in German, Spanish, Japanese, Russian, Hebrew, Lithuanian, Italian, and English that indicated the historic demographic shifts of various ethnic groups that had passed through Los Angeles.  Everything appeared to be so vivid to me at that moment. 

         “I don’t want to live in a city that is shaking all of the time.”

         Gloria was drifting off into a delusional, internal epic poem that might take her to a phantom place.  Slight tremors were occurring at irregular intervals causing sharp, loud cracks to form on the sidewalks. We picked up the pace on Indiana Street as the sunshine became evermore intense.  The radio hissed and wailed while emitting high frequency tones that frightened the birds, causing them to fly away from the trees and overhanging power lines.

         “The blue jays know how to live while the mockingbirds complain.  Sparrows rob the pigeons and the hummingbirds scare the evil away.  Urban owls are a let-down and a crow has nothing to say.  I am the canary and you are the anti-condor.  Let’s soar to where the air is thin.”

         Gloria waved goodbye with an implied sensuality as she blew air kisses.  I could see that her devoted sons had been following us all along and were happy to embrace their mother in the midst of natural destruction and distress. 

         I noticed that a police patrol car was moving slowly up the street and was not too surprised when it pulled up to the curb alongside me. “We’ve been given orders to shoot looters on sight.  You look like you couldn’t fight your way through a minute in jail. We’d be doing you a favour if you were in fact, a looter.  You know, shoot you.”

         The police officer on the passenger side was giggling.

         “Real gangsters don’t let assholes like you play-act being a homeboy because they’d force you to be their readymade pussy.”

         The police officer behind the steering wheel was laughing out loud.

         “We should run you in just for wearing those ugly bellbottoms.  Better grow up to be a real man before you run out of time.”

         They both smiled menacingly as the cruiser burned rubber with screeching tires and sped off beyond my sightline at a tremendous speed. Their inverted, coloured afterimage hovered before me for a moment as I recalled the details of their taunting facial expressions and the overall lack of humanity in their meaningless pitstop.  I envisioned the insignia, killer weaponry, skin texture and tone of their hands and faces, the black leather gloves as well as the metallic spectral glint from the polished chrome surfaces and plastic emergency light fixtures.  The afterimage faded but not the memory.  I wondered what it would be like if I were able to capture such a threatening image on film when it presented itself in the form of these two intimidating sheriff deputies.

         The remaining two-hour long walking journey was uneventful as the crust of the earth settled down. I peered at the many things and places in my surroundings that had fallen or shifted from place. I was very happy to be pain-free and to have regained my 20-20 vision. The cool breeze was refreshing as I walked up to my car that had been parked in place for more than a week.

         “Hey, man.  Power to the people.  Be cool.  Let me take my things out of the back of the car.”

         A young man walked up to me while he was sipping sugar-free Tab from a can. He was draped in a tattered American flag and lifted his two fingers making the peace sign.  He carried himself as though he were co-starring with Peter Fonda in Easy Rider.  The word “Hippie” was painted across his forehead but recent slashes across his wrists told a different story.

         “Yeah, sure.  My days of using the car as a public storage locker are over.  Time to move out.” He reached in and retrieved two of three cardboard boxes filled with miscellaneous valueless items and plastic flowers. “You can keep my books, and everything else in that box, man.  You know, gratitude, and all that.  I left Boston a few weeks ago in order to escape the weight of inherited privilege, but that was before I found Nirvana, man.  L.A., it’s so heavenly in a dystopian sort of way.  Why the fuck would I want to read libros when there is so much sun to live out my destiny.  Caviar tastes like shit.  Expand your mind dude. Dasvidaniya.

         As he walked away, I rummaged through the remaining box filled with pristine paperback books and a few other items.  I noticed many of the interesting titles by several Russian authors:  Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov, Bulgakov.  I selected Dead Souls by Nikolai Gogol for first reading.  I was surprised to discover fourteen newly-printed ten dollar bills that were inserted between its cover and the title page.  At the bottom of the box was a transparent vinyl coin purse that held several small pieces of folded paper with each containing a quarter teaspoonful of white powder that I assumed to be heroin.  I immediately tossed the purse with its contents into a thicket of bushes that overlooked the hill and emptied my container of Valium into a drainage pipe that protruded from the ground near the edge of a steep cliff. I placed all of the books with my other reading materials into the front trunk of the VW and left the empty box on the sidewalk.  I then drove to the auto repair strip on Mission Road where I found a shop that replaced my windshield, rotated my tires, and changed the oil for less than one hundred dollars. 

I spent the rest of 1971 reading Russian literature and attending classes in a sporadic fashion.  Much of my time was situated on the college campus where I met many people but I was also involved in publishing and editing, Regeneración, a limited-edition Chicano magazine that would play a foundational role in the development of contemporary Chicano art.  I recruited three artists, Willie Herrón III, Glugio Gronk Nicandro, and later, Patssi Valdez, to create new drawings for the magazine while I worked with John Ortiz to write as well as to seek out writers so that many new works of fiction and essays could be included in each of the issues for volume five. 

         I had never previously drawn pictures but was inspired to give it a try while being surrounded by the talented artists who I had met during the last year of high school at parties or on the streets.  We would utilize the garage space behind the family homes of Herrón in City Terrace and Valdez in East L.A. to draw throughout the night while talking, joking, and sharing stories. Our youthful enthusiasm and competitiveness ruled out any notion of collectivism.  We would work in tandem but were keen to define our boundaries and were always alert to state our respective claim to authorship of whatever we might say or do.  Humberto Sandoval would often drop by.  He had grown up with Herrón and was hyperkinetic, fun, and always attuned to financial opportunities. We were the irradiated generation that had nothing to lose and much to live for despite the odds.  I was born on the day of the first Hydrogen bomb test in 1951.

         We knew that President Richard Nixon was especially culpable in the disproportionate numbers of Chicanos being drafted into the military to fight and die in what we considered an illegal war in Vietnam.  Many of our friends were already dead or in combat zones.  None of us were interested in confrontational politics but we had ideas on how to attract attention to our concerns.  We wanted to return to Whittier Boulevard to create a spectacle to counteract negative media stereotypes but also to dislodge the fear that permeated our neighbourhoods after so many lethal police actions against Chicanos. 

         In late December, Herrón constructed a huge crucifix out of cardboard, masking tape, and wire.  He invited us to smear mud, paint, and other substances on it to give it a severely polluted appearance.  We carried the crucifix on the morning of Christmas Eve following the route of traditional lowrider cruising culture on Whittier Boulevard in East L.A. and then moved along Atlantic Boulevard to the U.S. Marine Recruiting Center.  Herrón wore a white robe on which he had painted a bloodied Sacred Heart.  His face was made up to resemble that of a calavera from the Day of the Dead.  Gronk wore a green bowler hat with matching jacket while tossing popcorn at people from a large bag.  I painted myself as a conceptual ghoul while wearing an actual bleached dog’s skull atop my head that was tied in place with a stream of white lace.  We proceeded with our nonverbal quasi-religious procession while many shoppers filled the sidewalks.  Seymour Rosen, a National Endowment for the Arts Photography Fellow, took black and white photographs as we walked from S. Burger Avenue to our final destination.  We had already measured the doorway of the site so that the crucifix would fit in place as we shoved it in tightly at a vertical position to block entry, thereby preventing anyone in East L.A. from joining the military on that day. 

         The action was a success, but we were disappointed that no mass media was present to announce our debut performance.  I would not become aware of Rosen’s photographs for many years but at that time wondered what we might have looked like in costume with the crucifix and how it all might in appear in context within the urban environment.  The reality that we did not have a means to adequately capture imagery for use in promoting Chicano culture was dispiriting while the mass media was expending endless resources to create an intensely negative narrative that completely disregarded and disrespected our growing cultural presence.  The end of the year was near and it had been an exhaustive dive into psychological, emotional, and physical stressors that served as a rite of passage into adulthood.  A creative spark provided some hope for a way to lead my way into a more positive light.

In late January, 1972, I was talking with a few friends at my usual spot near the college campus library when a young female student approached and handed me an official blue summons form.  I had no idea how she identified me but I was instructed to show up at the cash disbursement booth in the financial aid office within the hour.

         “Don’t ask me, but somebody must really like you.”

         I laughed nervously wondering how much I might owe in student fees.  It took a few moments for me to be positioned at the end of the line along with forty students who were waiting for their turn to meet with the administrator.

         “Hey you, that’s a summons form, you get to go to the front of the line.” All the other students looked at me with envy.  I moved up front to speak to the woman sitting at a desk, talking to me through a small window.

         “I’ll need to see your student I.D. and California driver’s license or birth certificate.”

         I couldn’t imagine anyone walking around with their birth certificate.

         “Here are my two plastic cards.”

         “Well, that looks good enough.  Please sign in ink, here and here.” 

         She pushed two printed documents towards me. I signed them without reading.  

         “Thanks. And these are for you.” She handed me an official letter that stated the three cheque totaling four thousand dollars represented a special one-time award of support for me.  One cheque came from the fundraising efforts of community groups to support underprivileged Chicano students, another was from the federal Model Cities Program, and the last cheque was from an anonymous donor. A letter accompanying it encouraged me to utilize the funds to cover the cost of my college education. I’d never before been in possession of so much money. I ran to my car and drove to the nearest Bank of America where I cashed cheques for two thousand dollars, which I immediately stuffed into my pockets, depositing the rest in my meager savings account.

         I called Herrón and Sandoval from a nearby payphone and asked them if they’d like to join me on my shopping trip to Henry’s Camera on 8th Street in downtown Los Angeles. They were excited and I picked them up right away. We entered the busy store that was famous for their radio, television, and print advertisements offering everything in photographic gear.  I had no knowledge whatsoever regarding photography but knew that I had a unique way of seeing everything.

         “So you wanna buy a camera, not just any simple thing.  Well, have I got the camera for you, it is amazing dollar for dollar.”

         He pulled out a camera from the glass case and ran through a couple of functions showing me how to load the film then placed the camera in my hands and encouraged me to take a few shots that would require me to manually advance the film while focusing the lens.  I photographed Herrón and Sandoval.

         “It’s that easy.  What do you say, is it a deal?’

         I pointed to a different camera that appeared to be a bit more expensive that had a separate body with additional lenses that could be attached for different visual results.

         “So, you’re a professional.  O.K.  This here is the Minolta 101, one of the first 35mm cameras to have full-aperture TTL metering.  The Rokkor lenses are made in Japan and capture light perfectly.  You’ll be needing film too.  The big thing nowadays is slide film, you know, so that you can project your little ideas onto big screens.  I recommend a 50mm lens for everyday use and a telephoto lens when you’d like to see something closer than you can touch.”

         “Great, I’ll take it.  You got any film that makes it look like a movie?”

         The salesman was smiling.

         “This is L.A., and as far as I know we really are in Hollywood.  We sell industrial level Kodak Ektachrome 400 film by the roll.  The studios use it, why shouldn’t you take part?”

         “Cool.  I’ll take fifty rolls.  Where can I get it processed?”

         “Right here, anytime, all of the time.”

         “You’ll be needing a tripod and a camera bag, that’s extra of course.”

         I paid for everything with a stack of dollars.

         Herrón and Sandoval were impressed and wondering where I might have come across enough money to spend it in what appeared to be an extravagant manner. We walked back to the car and put all of my camera equipment in the trunk then drove out to Santa Monica beach where we talked and laughed while drinking some inexpensive wine that I bought from a nearby mom-and-pop liquor store even though all three of us were still underage.  It was a fun moment that seemed like it could last forever.

Nearly half a century has passed since that day, and I have taken countless photographs over the years in order to create a few images that have contributed to intercultural dialogue and understanding while capturing what to me are beautiful personal moments.  My photographs were first exhibited in Mexico City at Museo de Arte Moderno in 1978 and the resulting photographs that I took of Herrón, Patssi, Gronk and Sandoval during the group’s Asco era (1972-1985) were introduced into the American and International contemporary art canon in 2011 with a major retrospective exhibition at Los Angeles County Museum of Art.  Since then, major museums and other institutions have included my photographs in their permanent collections and many publications have featured my works on their pages and front covers.  In 2022, I’ll be serving as Director of the Photo/Media program at the prestigious California Institute of the Arts.  Many intertwining relationships involving the people who are currently present while others have slipped away or vanished from recollection, have made a great impact on the visual narrative of what could be presented in an aesthetic manner or described in theoretical texts.  It has always been wonderful to work with performers who effect a persona that enhance the actual lived experience of an entire era even if only for a fraction of a second via photography.  Photographic images can document and define a period of time, place, and people. 

         Here are selected images for each of the decades that it took for me to arrive at an appreciation for the critical focus it takes to inform the 21st-century viewer/reader:

Filed Under: Articles & Essays


Harry Gamboa Jr. is an artist, author, and educator. He is the founder and director of the international performance troupe, Virtual Vérité (2005-2017) and a co-founder of Asco (1972-1985), the L.A.-based performance group.

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