Louis Carlos Bernal

Louis Carlos Bernal, El Gato, Canutillo, New Mexico, 1979. Gift of Morrie Camhi.
© Lisa Bernal Brethour and Katrina Bernal. 97.46.38

Louis Carlos Bernal (1941–1993) was born in Douglas, Arizona, and grew up in Phoenix. After completing his M.F.A. at Arizona State University in 1972, he joined the faculty of Pima Community College in Tucson, where he remained for the duration of his career, developing and heading its photography program. In 1979, Bernal, along with four other photographers – Morrie Camhi, Abigail Heyman, Roger Minick, and Neal Slavin – received funding from the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund to photograph Chicano culture in the Southwest for an exhibition and a book project entitled ESPEJO: Reflections of the Mexican American. The commission brought him closer to his ethnic roots and fueled a passionate direction for his work that gained him international recognition for championing regional diversity while symbolizing his exploration of identity as a Mexican American.

Following a tradition of Latin American documentary street photography, Bernal photographed in the barrio – a young girl and her grandfather in a corner barber shop, a girl taking her quinceañera, or locals posing in front of colorful wall murals – images that captured the unique character of Chicano life. He wrote, “My images speak of the religious and family ties I have experienced as a Chicano. I have concerned myself with the mysticism of the Southwest and the strength of the spiritual and cultural values of the barrio.”

Bernal also centered on the family and the home, believing these two elements combined to form the most significant structure within the Mexican-American community. As he wandered streets from Texas to Los Angeles, and met people who were soon drawn to charismatic personality, he was often invited into their homes. He asked permission to photograph them surrounded by their treasured possessions, their family portraits and mementos, and their shrines decorated with saints, candles, and flowers. His subjects appear at ease and confident in front of his camera, a product of Bernal’s deep respect for them. Bernal’s interest in what people chose to surround themselves with led him to photograph the interiors of homes without people. These sensitive portraits of both prized and everyday items in living rooms, bedrooms and gardens were perhaps his most significant innovation.

Bernal’s interest in strong compositional design and technical expertise are evident in both his skillfully printed black-and-white images and his color work that luminously captures the bright pinks, blues, and greens of interior painted adobe walls, window curtains, and religious icons. He felt a particular urgency to document the streets, people, homes, and artifacts in historic neighborhoods, as many were undergoing rapid changes or being bulldozed to make way for urban renewal. In recording the Mexican- American experience of Southwest towns and barrios, Bernal created a visual document that preserves the specific iconography and reveals many aspects of this distinct culture.

The Louis Carlos Bernal Collection contains 98 fine prints, both black-and-white and color, and research materials that include project records, correspondence, clippings, writings and publications.

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