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Frank Espada Papers Come to Duke

Libraries Receive Photographs and Papers of Noted Photographer and Activist
Brooklyn, 1964, copyright Frank Espada

Durham, N.C. — Frank Espada began photographing Puerto Rican immigrants in the U.S. in the late 1950s. From 1979 to 1981, with support from a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities, he focused his creative energies on documenting 34 particular Puerto Rican communities and their struggle to survive and thrive in America. Photographs from this project have been exhibited across the country and eventually led to the publication of The Puerto Rican Diaspora: Themes in the Survival of a People in 2006.

The photographs and papers that preserve the stories of the communities he visited are now available for research and study in Duke University’s Special Collections Library. This collection of over 16,000 items joins the Library’s Archive of Documentary Arts’ growing collections of Latin American and Caribbean materials, including the work of photographers James Karales and Mel Rosenthal, both of whom documented Puerto Rican communities in New York City during the 1960s and 1980s.

Duke’s Visual Materials Archivist Karen Glynn has been particularly impressed by the empathy she sees in Espada’s work and points out the rapport visible in the images between the photographer and his subjects. Alex Harris, a founder of Duke’s Center for Documentary Studies and of DoubleTake Magazine, is delighted that the Espada collection has come to Duke: “The Duke Library acquisition of Frank Espada's photographs and papers is a cause for celebration, an enormously important and intimate body of work about the Puerto Rican Diaspora, the civil rights movement, the HIV epidemic, and other subjects, photographs and words that encompass particular lives and yet manage to evoke our common humanity.”

Espada was born in Puerto Rico in 1930 and emigrated with his family to the United States when he was nine years old, settling in New York City. He studied on the G.I. bill at the New York Institute of Photography, where he was a student of renowned photojournalist Eugene Smith. A life-long community organizer and activist, Espada has been actively involved in the National Welfare Rights Organization, the National Latino Media Coalition, the National Hispanic Manpower Association, and the National Association of Puerto Rican Drug Abuse Programs. In the 1960s, he became involved in the Civil Rights movement and worked for the City-Wide Puerto Rican Development Program. 

Espada’s rich and vital life is reflected in his archive, which includes 47 boxes of photographic prints, contact sheets, and negatives; oral histories; book manuscripts; correspondence; activist materials; teaching materials; and project materials. Fredo Rivera, a doctoral candidate in Art History examined the collection upon its arrival and is excited about the breadth of the collection. “Frank Espada does an incredible job at portraying the Boricua diaspora, and this collection evocatively portrays spaces of struggle and migration,” said Rivera. “This collection goes beyond the portrayal of Puerto Rican migration, capturing the decline of the U.S. city as well as providing oral histories relative to the photographs. Despite the harsh social conditions portrayed, I was most impressed by the beauty of the photographs—they go beyond the documentary lens, providing a unique artistic portrayal that resonates with the viewer today.”

Holly Ackerman, Librarian for Latin America and Iberia, anticipates that the Espada Archive will attract a wide range of scholars: “In the process of photographing specific communities of Puerto Ricans, Frank Espada has shown us the common ground of all the poor and marginalized people in the U.S. from the sixties to the eighties. Themes of protest, personal struggle and grassroots community solidarity are captured in a versatile collection that will serve researchers both from professional fields such as Social Work and Community Medicine and disciplines in the Social Sciences.”

The Frank Espada papers are processed and available for use in the Special Collections Library. The finding aid for the collection can be viewed online. For more about Espada, visit his website. An exhibit drawn from the Frank Espada papers will be on view in Perkins Library in June 2012.

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Posted 18 July 2011

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Last modified July 18, 2011 4:39:44 PM EDT