Looking At Photographer George Rodriguez

Jun 30, 2018
Originally published on July 1, 2018 12:17 am
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Photographer George Rodriguez chronicled Los Angeles for nearly six decades from Hollywood to the Chicano movement to hip-hop and beyond. As NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, his work is now being celebrated in a new book and his first gallery retrospective.

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MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: George Rodriguez takes pictures everywhere he goes.

GEORGE RODRIGUEZ: Absolutely. People don't recognize me without my camera. I like to kind of document everything that's going on.

DEL BARCO: With his camera and a fly-on-the-wall approach, Rodriguez has documented many worlds. Cultural historian Josh Kun edited the book "Double Vision: The Photography Of George Rodriguez."

JOSH KUN: The duality that emerged was his commitment to Chicano culture and Chicano social justice movements and his equal commitment to documenting the worlds of Los Angeles celebrity and fame.

DEL BARCO: The 80-year-old Rodriguez grew up downtown near his dad's shoe repair shop on Skid Row. He picked up photography as a high school student in South Central LA, and he was still a teenager when he landed a job at Columbia Pictures in 1960.

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RODRIGUEZ: The photographers that I was developing film for would get credentials to go to, like, film premieres - you know, "Lawrence Of Arabia," "Breakfast At Tiffany's." But they wouldn't go because it'd be kind of beneath them to go because they were shooting these stars in their studios. Somebody like that can't show up behind a rope on the red carpet. But I could.

DEL BARCO: With borrowed credentials, Rodriguez went to splashy film premieres and awards shows. He took candid shots of Marilyn Monroe, Frank Sinatra, Lucille Ball, Natalie Wood and Warren Beatty.

RODRIGUEZ: My favorite thing is just taking pictures and people aren't aware. And you can get some incredible stuff.

DEL BARCO: As the '60s rolled along, Rodriguez decided to document what was happening on the other side of town. During his lunch breaks, Rodriguez went to East LA, where high school students were walking out of their schools to protest discrimination. He captured images of Chicano demonstrators and police with batons.

RODRIGUEZ: Police departments had a field day. You know, the kids in the walkouts were just youngsters. They were, like, 14, 15 years old. They're not violent. They're not trying to hurt anybody. They're just trying to make a statement. But they're treated like criminals.

DEL BARCO: Rodriguez chronicled Vietnam War protests in East LA, then traveled north to Delano to document farmworkers suffering miserable conditions.

RODRIGUEZ: They're picking grapes, and they die in the fields. It still happens. The fight for rights for farmworkers still goes on and on.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Unintelligible).

DEL BARCO: For years, Rodriguez photographed protests, boycotts and hunger strikes by the United Farm Workers led by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, who says they were grateful Rodriquez's images inspired public support.

DOLORES HUERTA: George was kind of part of the movement himself. He is Latino. He understood the culture. He understood the reasons why we did some of these things - the march to Sacramento, the strike, Cesar's fasting. He was presente, as we say, present in terms of being a justice fighter himself to end the discrimination. And - although we know that he maybe had a schizophrenic life because (laughter) here he was photographing beautiful women in Hollywood and movie stars, and then he would come back to his world.

DEL BARCO: That world included boxers, baseball players and Michael Jackson.

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DEL BARCO: A Rodriguez photo is on the back of the first Jackson 5 album cover. He photographed Frank Zappa, Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix. In his portraits of N.W.A., the rappers look defiantly at his camera.

RODRIGUEZ: I just love these guys. As it turned out, I realized that Dr. Dre went to my high school, Fremont High School, in South Central. Easy gave me four cassettes, and it just blew me away. It was "Straight Outta Compton." I loved it.

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N.W.A.: (Rapping) Word to the mother, yeah, straight out of Compton, Compton, Compton, Compton.

DEL BARCO: It's still George Rodriquez's favorite and only rap cassette. Mandalit del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.