“I have always felt as though I needed a weapon against evil,” famed American photographer and filmmaker Gordon Parks told author and art director Martin H. Bush for a 1983 compendium of Parks’ work. The camera, a relatively democratic and portable medium, has been that tool for many photographers, who often use it to document the working wo/man and the dispossessed. Dorothea Lange’s photos of subsistence-level migrant workers in the Imperial Valley in the mid-1930s and Parks’ 1940s portraits of Ella Watson are among the most indelible images, and contemporary practitioners include Sam Hollenshead’s work for the Labor Research Association, and the LostLabor archive site, which reclaims portraits of the often-anonymous pre-tech laborer from official company archives.
Dulce Pinzón’s The Real Story of the Superheroes, on view at Trinity University through February 22, fits cleanly into this history, but with its ironic self-awareness is also unmistakably contemporary. Twenty photo shoots star working men and women from Latin America on the job in New York, dressed in North and South American superhero costumes. The Thing wields a jackhammer; Wonder Woman tends a washateria; The Hulk unloads a grocery truck. One portrait alone — a delivery man on a bike in Superman garb — would nail the artist’s statement: to acknowledge the struggles of these people who risk so much to move to a foreign country, work long hours for low wages, and send a significant portion of their earnings home.
But that alone would make it a one-note show, more polemic than art. The costumes add pathos: Where is Catwoman when we need her to get the kids at school and fix them dinner so we can pick up the double and make rent? And hope: You may save someone back home. And maybe someone will champion your efforts as precisely the pilgrimage that made this country the economic powerhouse it is.
Superheroes is even more compelling when contrasted with another well-traveled photo exhibit by a Mexican photographer: Daniela Rossell’s Ricas y Famosas, which showed at Artpace in 2003. In that collection, Rossell captured Mexico’s super-rich in their private fantasylands, posing in and on furs next to enormous taxidermied beasts, in Taj Mahal-like pools and faux harems. The two series are sides of the same consistently weak currency.
Displayed in the context of South Texas, where the so-called American Freedom Riders have just announced a political assault on day-labor sites, and a few hours’ drive from heavy Minutemen activity and several proposed border-wall sites, Pinzón’s portraits take on added urgency — perhaps it is enough to make some anti-immigration activists see these workers as human beings with families to care for and a work ethic no less stringent than their own. Maybe the captions, containing the amount of money each subject sends home on a regular basis, will, as Pinzón intends, help people realize that our economy is already inextricably tied to our southern neighbor’s. At the very least, as we gaze at Spider-Man taking a squeegee to a window high above the Manhattan skyline, maybe we’ll be grateful that someone is doing that dangerous job, and once and for all quit conflating him with the protagonists of a distant crime-and-drug war on a border he crossed long ago.