Documenting the Unseen in the Photography of Luis-rey Velasco

Luis-rey Velasco, Confirmation, Raising of the Candles, 2005

Courtesy NCMA
Luis-rey Velasco, Confirmation, Raising of the Candles, 2005
In an Exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Velasco Seeks the Essence of Farm Labor Communities in North Carolina and California

In an Exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art, Velasco Seeks the Essence of Farm Labor Communities in North Carolina and California

Luis-rey Velasco

Eric, 1999

“Velasco’s photographs shed light on the complexities of farm labor…. In doing so, he contributes to an ongoing historical archive.”

Jared Ledesma

In an exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art, the photographs of Luis-rey Velasco capture the intimate lives of Latinx farm laborers in rural areas of both North Carolina and California, recording their work under a sweltering sun as well as personal moments and community events, such as confirmation rites, home life, and children at play. While he created many of these black-and-white photographs over 20 years ago, Velasco spotlights a contemporary issue.

Executed between 1998 and 2005, all 15 gelatin silver prints are from the NCMA People’s Collection. The exhibition was organized by Jared Ledesma, Curator of 20th-Century Art and Contemporary Art, who shares that during this period, Velasco focused on the essence of Mexican, Colombian, and other farming communities. “He expressed a particular interest in documenting these communities' dedication to preserving cultural traditions, underscoring the significance of his work as a visual record of their…heritage,” explained Ledesma.

Ledesma points out that Velasco’s sensitivity to children in these communities speaks to the photographer’s own background. Velasco’s maternal grandfather was a seasonal migrant farm worker in California who told his daughter that instead of returning to high school, she would start picking cotton to help support the family. According to Velasco, these regions, with their long history of Latinx farm labor, have not changed.

Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, 104 Degrees, 1998

“Twenty years [later], the work still stands today," Velasco told Art & Object in a recent interview. "I witnessed this [while] working with my father as a land surveyor assistant. He has taken me to fringes of society that [have] been unseen and unheard [in] the San Joaquin Valley of California. This was less than a year ago.”

In 104 Degrees, an image taken in 1998, Velasco chose to photograph a farm worker in the early afternoon, trading a wide value range for predominant highlights to convey the intense sunlight and heat during the late summer harvest. Velasco stepped rather uneasily in front of the tractor to take this image, shares Ledesma.

In Eric, Velasco depicts the titular youth sitting on a tractor in dappled light. Ledesma cites this work and its community-focused narrative as particularly poignant. Eric’s grandfather — the only Black tobacco farmer in Stovall, NC — had just passed away, so locals were helping Eric’s family cure and farm tobacco. After Velasco photographed the laborers during lunch, they encouraged him to continue while they worked, later asking Velasco how much they owed him for his photographs. “There was a great amount of humility,” said Velasco.

Velasco conjures evocative narratives with certain compositions. In an untitled work from 1999 taken on the same day as Eric, a stern adolescent sits inside a doorway, working with tobacco leaves. The white-hot exterior light spills around the young laborer and into the barn, illuminating the boot-printed texture of the dirt floor before gradually dissipating into the pitch-black interior in dramatic contrast reminiscent of a Caravaggio painting.

Luis-rey Velasco, Confirmation, 2005
Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, Confirmation, 2005

Luis-rey Velasco, Presentation, 2005
Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, Presentation, 2005

Luis-rey Velasco, Untitled, 2000
Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, Untitled, 2000

Luis-rey Velasco, Untitled, 2000
Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, Untitled, 2000

Luis-rey Velasco, Stovall, 2002
Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, Stovall, 2002

Luis-rey Velasco, Mr. Munn, 2002
Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, Mr. Munn, 2002

Luis-rey Velasco, Untitled, 1999
Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, Untitled, 1999

Luis-rey Velasco, Untitled, 1999
Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, Untitled, 1999

Luis-rey Velasco, Confirmation, Raising of the Candles, 2005
Courtesy NCMA

Luis-rey Velasco, Confirmation, Raising of the Candles, 2005

In Mr. Munn, he segments the space into vertical thirds. Showing the level of community trust given to the photographer, the farmer not only allowed Velasco into his home, but also left the bedroom door open, revealing an unmade bed.

A mysterious woodland setting dominates the angular, wedge-shaped composition of Untitled (2000). A distant group gathers in the light on the far right; there are boxes scattered beneath the trees. Velasco leaves clues to their hidden activity through two other nearby photographs.

Ledesma explains the importance of the photographer’s work: “Velasco comes from a family with roots in farm labor. This aspect of the United States economy, which is crucial to its success, is often misunderstood, overlooked, or completely invisible. Velasco’s photographs shed light on the complexities of farm labor…. In doing so, [he] not only documents the present, but contributes to an ongoing historical archive, ensuring that these stories remain an indelible part of our collective consciousness.”

The exhibition Luis-rey Velasco will be on view at the North Carolina Museum of Art through January 28, 2024.

About the Author

Amy Funderburk

Amy Funderburk is a professional artist and freelance arts writer based in Winston-Salem, NC, specializing in visionary works in which she explores the intersection of the physical with the more fluid, spiritual and emotional realms. She works out of the Sternberger Artists Center in Greensboro, NC, and maintains a blog, Drinking from the Well of Inspiration, to provide deeper insight into her creative process. Follow her on twitter: @AFunderburkArt and on Instagram: @AmyFunderburkArtist.

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