A few years ago, the Guatemalan photographer Jaime Permuth researched the archives of the Anacostia Community Museum during his Smithsonian Institution Artist Fellowship, where he found images documenting the Latino Festival. According to curator Olivia Cadaval, the event’s first iteration in 1970 came as a response to an inaccurate census count of Latin Americans living in and around Washington in D.C., giving visibility to that rapidly growing community. It allowed them to celebrate their identity on the streets with food and dance while also bringing attention to the tense political climate in Central and South America. Seeing those faces now makes us think of the contribution of migrants to the smooth running of the city and how the federal government and its related organizations could not function properly without their labor. In the same museum collection, Permuth also found images made by the US Marine Corps in Haiti and the Dominican Republic that showed foreign soldiers occupying the streets, a sight that is always hard to take.*
“At the heart of this project is his aesthetic and conceptual positioning in relation to archival images made by professionals and amateurs alike and housed in a federal institution. Permuth probes the poetics of these images to reveal how their context affects their meaning.”
The inclusion of this second set of pictures makes sense once we know that Permuth grew up during the Guatemalan Civil War caused by American interventionism. At the heart of this project is his aesthetic and conceptual positioning in relation to archival images made by professionals and amateurs alike and housed in a federal institution. Permuth probes the poetics of these images to reveal how their context affects their meaning. He decided to pair these unrelated sets of pictures to turn them into symbols of war and peace. Since they were made using different camera formats and have varying degrees of resolution, he tinted them in sepia and blue-grey, respectively. The color-coding allows viewers to navigate the book more easily. Yet, Permuth’s most significant manipulation consisted of making the images less ‘photographic’ by giving them a look halfway between an intaglio plate and an albumen print. While the images are flat, they seem to invite our touch, as if their surface contained another layer of information.
As altered by Permuth, the photographs provoke a kind of repulsion, not in the grotesque sense of works by George Grosz or Matthew Barney, but in how they hamper lingering our gaze on them. Permuth rejected traditional formal values and conventions in fine art photography so that we come to them with a different attitude and consider more carefully the kind of information they communicate and how they express it. It’s a risky strategy, and I don’t doubt some viewers will promptly look away. Still, if we play along, we’ll find Permuth proposes a reflection on the material and historical processes at play around the fluctuating context of images. After all, our physical reaction to images is never morally neutral. Only those who feel they have nothing to learn from histories of colonial repression can afford to look away.
“Permuth proposes a reflection on the material and historical processes at play around the fluctuating context of images. After all, our physical reaction to images is never morally neutral.”
The coarseness of the photographs relates to issues of resolution described by Hito Steyerl in her well-known essay In Defense of the Poor Image, where she asks us to “redefine the value of the image, or, more precisely, to create a new perspective for it.” Similarly, The Street Becomes highlights the cycles of shelving and reactivation of images and the role that visual pleasure plays once their context has changed. In Permuth’s book, this degradation is not the result of their digital traffic, which only highlights the political nature of his intervention. As Steyerl suggests, a poor definition can imbue images with a new kind of aura based on their sociopolitical register and use.
Permuth’s activation of both sets of images shows the street as a civic space that we should never take for granted, especially those that depict episodes of violence or social unrest. Therefore, it is notable that the book’s selection isn’t sensationalist, emotionally manipulative, or moralistic. The diptychs create a tension full of narrative ambiguity, although the sequence doesn’t mellow down or turn more pleasant after repeated viewings. If The Street Becomes is not sweet to the eyes is because it has set its aims elsewhere. Instead, the book resurrects images that would be difficult to encounter otherwise, and establishes a dialectic vision of the USA, where people can gain civil liberties and social mobility through hard work, but whose state has a history of foreign policies deployed to secure its international hegemony at any cost.
* Permuth extended his search of images by the US Marine Corps in the National Archives in Maryland. Some of the photographs of the Latino Festival were obtained directly from the professional and amateur photographers that had documented the event over the years.
(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Arturo Soto. Images @ Jaime Permuth.)