All That Glimmers

A profile of Louis Bernal's work shows the photographer's grasp of life's fragile beauty.

When the distinguished photographer and teacher Louis Bernal died in Barrio El Hoyo on his 52nd birthday in 1993, it was both a tragedy and a release.

He had been comatose for more than three years after being hit by a car while bicycling to work at Pima Community College. For many of us in Tucson who did not know him, we think of the shock and distress of Bernal's countless friends at what had happened when we hear his name.

For this book, five of Bernal's friends--Ann Simmons-Myers, James Enyeart, Luis Jimenez, Patricia Preciado Martin and Leslie Marmon Silko--contributed essays that help restore his memory to its proper context. Their memoirs are all valuable and moving; Silko's is something more. Still, the book, like Silko's northwest bedroom, belongs to Bernal's tender, technically immaculate photographs of barrio life, and to the spirit of the man who held the camera.

Bernal, who grew up in Douglas and, later, in the mean Phoenix of the '50s, was a man whose politics shaped his art. According to Enyeart, he said that his work was about "Chicanismo," and he felt profoundly the contradictions and injustices of white America's treatment of Norteamericanos. Yet to define him as a Chicano photographer, or a photographer of Chicano life, or even as an activist, is to do him a grave disservice. While Bernal's luminous images are obviously informed by his beliefs, they're not about those beliefs.

The least interesting images in Barrios are the most topical. You don't even need to check the date of a series of absurdist black-and-whites of people holding a Nixon mask in front of their faces to know it was executed in the mid-'70s. Bernal's mature work has nothing to do with easy irony, and his great portraits of barrio-dwellers and their rooms and yards and cars draw no morals. The images are too smitten by complexity and beauty of what they record to be reduced to messages.

Take the stunning 1983 photo, La Reina de Mi Vida. The black-and-white image is of a young man pulling up his shirt to reveal a tattoo of La Virgen that takes up most of his back. In his essay, Enyeart singles out this photo as an "ardent symbol of Chicanismo" whose title "symbolizes the depth of religious devotion as part of the culture" while raising the question of the tension between a religious symbol and the gang violence with which tattoos, rightly or wrongly, are often associated.

Maybe that's there, but it's not what the photograph is, and in 50 years, it'll have nothing to do with what's visible. And people will be looking at it in 50 years. Stripped of sociological pieties, the innate fascination of what Bernal has seen becomes even more striking: the devotion so extravagantly declared and suddenly revealed, the strength of the man's hands and the immediacy of his gesture, the way the shape of his torso frames the virgin's penumbra, the unexpectedness of this impulse to become an image.

Most of the barrio photographs swarm with subsidiary images, and the interplay between pictures, words, things and the people who stand or sit before them is, you begin to feel, one of Bernal's central interests. His portraits are deeply kind--skin, hair and cloth glow with gorgeous, powdery natural light, and even a woman in curlers retains her dignity before him--but often what you take away from them is color, pattern and detail. In fact, many of the photographs are like private altars, both in form and in feeling. A calendar above a girl's head, family photographs and hairbrushes on a dresser, a "Marines" sticker on a wall beside a crucifix--Bernal's barrio rooms seem about to overflow with inexpressible meanings. That sense of mysterious significance in the everyday is, of course, as much Bernal's creation as his subjects'. Like all real artists, he doesn't just record the world, he reveals it.

Silko, who sold Bernal a camera when she first moved to Tucson, suggests the depth of his intention in her terrific essay: "I realize a number of my notions about photography came to me through Lou and his work. ... Some truth about ourselves resides in the play of light between the eye and the image."

Bernal was a master not just of people and place, but of that glimmering space between.

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