Images Left Behind

Masterful portraits by the late Louis Carlos Bernal wow viewers at PCC West

An old woman's toiletries are arrayed on a lace cloth on her dresser.

An abandoned black comb sits forgotten in a see-through plastic brush. A pink plastic bottle of Cashmere Bouquet powder stands next to a green jar of Avon face cream. Cocoa butter is in a tan tub.

The old-fashioned products are cheap and mass-produced, but reflected in a maple-framed mirror, they gleam like jewels in the soft pink light.

Through the looking glass, other parts of the bedroom are visible: a stack of plain brown suitcases, a slant of bed covered with a gold quilted bedspread, a gray blouse hanging from the maple bureau. A cut-glass container glitters yellow and red. A black purse, useless now, has been neatly left on the dresser top.

The objects are mementos mori, memories of death, as well as memories of a life: They unmistakably conjure up the woman who once used them, who loved their colors, who arranged them in her home with an eye toward beauty. Likewise, the photograph ("Untitled: Aunt's House, Dresser Top," Douglas, 1989) is unmistakably the work of Louis Carlos Bernal.

The late photographer, who recorded life in the barrios of the Southwest in still-lifes and portraits of exacting artistry, has been dead since 1993. Before that, he was in a coma for almost four years. (He was hit by car as he rode his bike to Pima Community College, where he was a beloved photography professor for 17 years.) Yet a cache of his work never before seen by the public is now on view in Portraits, a three-person show at the gallery named for him at PCC West.

This must-see exhibition is made possible by his family, who found contact sheets that Bernal left behind. The artist had apparently marked up these pictures on the sheets, selecting the images he intended to print, but his accident intervened.

Printed posthumously, the 16 color photos—including the lovely four-piece suite documenting his aunt's bedroom—range from portraits of his two daughters as little girls at home to genre pictures of Chicano workers at their places of business.

Especially memorable is his portrait of Luis Jiménez Sr., father of the famed sculptor Luis Jimenéz Jr., who was Bernal's great friend.

The photo goes back to the source for Jiménez Jr.'s artwork. The father's work as a sign-maker was a major influence on the son's own neon-colored public sculptures, and in the Bernal photo, the father stands in his El Paso sign shop, the tools of his trade all around him. Neatly dressed in a button-down shirt and tie, he proudly stands among giant colored letters, his drawing board at hand. A second picture shows one of Jiménez's workers crafting neon in the workshop, pipes and wires and glass glowing in the darkness.

Another El Paso work, also from 1979, pictures Jose Padilla, a panadero, or bread-maker, in his bakery. Festooned with a white baker's cap, he poses in between glass cases lined with silver bands and arrayed with Mexican pastries of all kinds.

All three works are pure Bernal. A master of so-called "environmental portraits," he routinely made portraits not only of human beings, but also of the objects they loved and that helped define them. And his images are visually exhilarating: strong diagonals slice through the picture plane, and the light and colors are gorgeously handled.

A Douglas native, Bernal studied photography at Arizona State University and, more importantly, went on to apprentice under Frederick Sommer in Prescott. Clearly, Bernal imbibed the lessons of still-life from Sommer, an éminence grise whose exacting still-lifes conjured up whole worlds in a plank of wood or a stretch of desert sand.

In 1977, Bernal made a breakthrough with his Benetiz Suite, a luminous series of black-and-white images of the barrio home of a Tucson woman who'd been dispatched to a nursing home. The photographer wandered the abandoned house, chronicling the holy cards and notes tacked above a bureau, the light filtering through a lace curtain.

The newly printed portraits of his aunt in absentia, taken 12 years later in 1989, approaches the poignancy of the earlier Suite.

The bathroom in "Untitled: Aunt's House, Bathroom" is carefully composed, the shapes of its toilet and sink simplified and direct. A yellow curtain hangs over a white-framed window high up on the pink wall. Lit up by the sun, it turns translucent and casts its trademark Bernal glow all over the room.

Just as this work evokes the woman who once lived here, all the photos collectively summon up the missing Bernal. There is one actual self-portrait, camera at the ready, but the truer portrait of the artist lies in the poignant images of others, and their things, that he left behind.

Ann Simmons-Myers, who has headed the Pima photography department for 20 years, succeeding Bernal, exhibits 21 color portraits, all from the year 2010, and all of people living or working in Tucson.

Her aesthetic is quite different from her predecessor's. Her light is bright, not filtered, and where Bernal's best work was indoors, she often works outdoors. She's placed famed photographer Louise Serpa, for instance, in a classic desert landscape lit by a blazing sun.

"Poppy's Clip-Ons" is also shot in the harsh Arizona sunshine; in it, a jokester grandpa has flipped up his dark shades to reflect the sky and trees. "Sharon in Her Garden" is a woman laughing for pure joy, out in the backyard next to a baby mesquite. (Her gigantic smile recalls Garry Winogrand's famous laughing young woman with an ice cream cone, a photo that's in the Center for Creative Photography archive.)

In fact, the happiness meter registers high in Simmons-Myers' works, certainly higher than in Bernal's poignant pieces. A family portrait ("Alex, Laura and Dan") pictures a mother, father and daughter in close-up as they lie on the floor, a merry trio each with mile-wide smiles. A dentist turns comedian, pulling open her mouth with a dental tool belonging to her own father ("Dr. Stolcis and Her Father's Mirror").

Photographic technique has changed since Bernal's day. Simmons-Myers' big, glossy photos are pigmented ink prints on photographique paper. And her contemporary camera allows her to shoot extra-close to her subjects, and capture in extreme close-up the tears of a toddler ("Zander and Tío Freddy") and the folds on a baby's fat cheeks ("Yuzuki Athena Espinoza at Three Months").

But a couple of elements link the two shutterbugs. "Anthony on His Great-Grandfather's Bed" may be read in the context of this show as an homage to Bernal. The work honors family and continuity in the Mexican-American community; Simmons-Myers has chosen to photograph the child as he sleeps on a blanket printed with the image of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

And her portrait of a colleague, painting teacher George Welch, almost certainly gives a nod to the lessons of the late photographer. "George With Shrine for Mom" pictures the affable artist in his studio, but the work is also an elusive portrait of his lost mother; on his lap, he holds a shadowbox filled with her treasures. As Bernal did, Simmons-Myers suggests the lost woman through the objects she loved.

Hirotsune Tashima, head of the Pima ceramics department, fills one small wall with his comical portraits in fired clay in colors. A peeled banana is a central element in every one. Like the other artists, Tashima relies on belongings to signify personality. In "Organic Banana #5," a house-painter emerges upright from the yellow peels, toting a paint brush and a can of red paint. "Organic Banana #1" is a businessman in a banana, cell phone in hand and a Starbucks cup at the ready.