Kathy Vargas on searching for truth and meaning through photography

"Money Talks" © Kathy Vargas

An artist, activist and educator, Kathy Vargas was born and raised in San Antonio, Texas, growing up during a time of great change–the Civil Rights and feminism movements across the country and the Chicano movement closer to home. 

The cultural and social awakening of the 60s and 70s, along with her Catholic faith and stories of her family history have been strong influences on Vargas who is celebrated as one of the most prominent Chicana artists to come out of that era.

Much of Vargas’ work acknowledges magical realism and religious and folk symbolism, often with a social justice message. With an expansive eye to creative possibilities, her work has often shown influences of Mexican and pre-Columbian myths, as well as the works of writers such as Gabriel García Márquez and Isabel Allende. 

An internationally-recognized artist, whose papers are held by the Smithsonian Archives of American Art, Vargas is known for collages and hand-colored, double-exposed prints. While she has had solo exhibits around the world, one of her most notable shows was a 1996 traveling exhibit that included acclaimed photographers Nan Goldin, Sally Mann, Jim Goldberg and Jack Radcliffe. The exhibit explored hospice care in America.

She is currently an associate professor at the University of the Incarnate Word, in San Antonio, and continues to produce her work. She is also working on a novel. 

In this interview with Focus on the Story, Vargas discusses her history in the context of the rich experiences as a professional and her teaching.

Kathy Vargas is speaking at Focus on the Story 2019 in Washington, DC.

Mike Lee: Tell us about your background and the San Antonio you grew up in the 1950s through the 1970s. In reading about your life and work, I was struck by the strong influence of family storytelling. How did these experiences inspire you to do visual work and the directions they led you through your formative years as an artist?

Kathy Vargas: When I was a child, I had no idea I’d been born into a world that was still segregated. San Antonio wasn’t like the rest of the South, but I heard my parents talk about segregation and about the lack of opportunities with which they’d been met when they were young: clubs that were closed to them, jobs that seemed out of reach, educational opportunities that ended at high school.

Family and culture were, for me, about two things: reality and fantasy. Reality meant the political realities of the times: my dad’s brother, Cruz Vargas, was a major player in the Texas Democratic Party, and I got to shake hands with LBJ when he was running for Vice President with JFK; I was ten years old at the time. My mother was, through our (Catholic) church, a member of grassroots organizing committees helping to re-shape the city.

“Fantasy” came via my dad’s family/indigenous mythology: where in Mexico we were from, indigenous folk tales, etc. Fantasy, as far as I was concerned, also came from my mother’s Catholic mythology of icons, incense, and miracles, which, by the way, were also mixed with Catholic social teaching and its social justice message. It was all fused together, and that fusion of reality and fantasy has been a part of my visual storytelling, always.

"The Living Move (Self Portrait)"

As for San Antonio, it has always been a predominantly Latino city, but we Latinos didn’t know the power we had until the late 1960s and early to mid-1970s when the city’s politics began to change. Before that, most of the city’s elected officials were not Latino. In the late 60s, thanks to grassroots movements, more Latinos registered to vote, the city was re-districted, and San Antonio got a lot more Latino City Council members and eventually a Latino mayor (Henry Cisneros).

My first photos were documentary images of my neighborhood, which was a mix of African-American and Latino people. And since I was already politically involved, those photos had social/political overtones. Fact mixed with fantasy early on.

From "Missing"
"I Was Playing Out My Fantasies"

Lee: Elaborate on the work you did working in the darkroom and how that impacted your work as professional photographer, and later as a member of the Con Safo group.

Vargas: By darkroom work I assume you mean my double exposures, because to this day, all my photography is film/darkroom based. I like its surprises more than I like the possibility of digital over-structuring. I started doing double-exposure work in the late 70s/early 80s. As a matter of fact, experimentation is what prompted me to leave Con Safo.

Con Safo was a part of the Chicano Art Movement and started long before I was asked to join in 1975 by Mel Casas, who was my design teacher at San Antonio College. For a long time, Con Safo had been about art for and about the people, but by the time I joined it was also about opening the doors of museums and galleries to Chicano artists whose cultural references were not easily accepted by mainstream institutions.

“To this day, all my photography is film/darkroom based. I like its surprises more than I like the possibility of digital over-structuring.”

I was admitted to Con Safo on the basis of my early documentary work, but when I started making more abstract and personal work, they asked me to go back to the earlier work. I couldn’t do that, so I left the group. That’s the short version of the story.

The long version is that it was a time of change for Chicano artists, who, like me, were going to college and wanted to engage with contemporary art movements. The women’s art movement was going on; so was the Conceptual Art movement; Mel Casas was successfully making work that was Conceptual as well as Cultural, and that’s what I was trying to do with work that was both abstracted and cultural.

But Con Safo tended to be more conservative and resisted those changes, even though Conceptual and other contemporary art trends had been a part of California’s art scene for years. The group dissolved about six months after I left, everyone going their own way, but they broke tremendous ground for Chicano/Latino artists.

As for being a professional photographer, I did that very briefly and mostly to make tuition money. Just out of high school, I worked in the animation department of a place that made TV commercials, but I hated animation. In the 70s and early 80s I also did architectural photography and photographed artwork for other artists, and I worked with Texas Folklife Resources, which was very much about community arts.

I’d also done some rock and roll photography in the mid to late 70s. My first photo teacher, Tom Wright was a rock and roll photographer. He would take some of us with him to the shows he photographed. I managed to get my foot in the door when a friend of mine became the vice-president of a booking agency.

She helped me get work that paid well. Back then tuition was cheap, and I could make a semester’s worth of tuition and supply money in three assignments. But at a certain point the music changed, and I realized that I was more interested in being an artist than I was in continuing to do rock and roll photography. Good thing too, because I was never as good as Annie Leibovitz, and there’s not much rock and roll left anyway.

Still – I’ve kept some of my old friends and have now written lyrics for two of Albert Bouchard’s solo CDs. (Albert is a former member of Blue Oyster Cult.)

Lee: Tell us about Innocent Age, and how you went about discovering the underlying connections between what is seen in a snapshot, and visualizing the stories that lie underneath and bringing them forth.

Vargas: It started with a local TV news story about a little boy whose family had starved him to death. While the narrator read the horrific facts, the screen showed a photo of a happy, smiling child. The photo of the child showed no sign of the reality of his suffering. A few weeks later there was a story about two children killed by their mother and thrown under the house in garbage bags; found only when their bodies began to smell. The grandmother appeared on the news holding a photo of the children with bruises on their arms. She explained that she’d taken the photo to Child Protective Services, to let them know the children were abused and in danger, but nothing was done for them. Either Child Protective Services didn’t see the bruises, or they didn’t accept the photo as “truth.”

That led me to question how we “read” photos and whether we find them still capable of truth – especially childhood photos, which we want to read as happy and carefree. So, I found and re-photographed several childhood photos: some from truly happy childhoods and one photo of a child who was physically and mentally abused – enough that not only her life but her children’s lives were unhappy, and in her daughter’s case, tragically so; the daughter died in an auto accident that happened while she was being chased by drug dealers to whom she owed money.

I asked viewers if they could identify the abused child. They couldn’t. The question is: when does photography fail us, and when do we fail photography? Do we not believe when we should? Do we not look beyond the surface of a picture?

"Innocent Age, Digale a Jesusita"

“The question is: when does photography fail us, and when do we fail photography? Do we not believe when we should? Do we not look beyond the surface of a picture?”

Lee: In your long career as an educator, what was the personal impact working with students, and nurturing their potential and was it a driver in your own creative process?

Vargas: On the first day of class I tell my students – both the beginners and the ones who are taking their eighth or tenth photo class – that I expect greatness from them, and that greatness is possible for them. It scares them a little, but it also gives them confidence.

My belief in their greatness comes from two things: 1. learning to see light and 2. learning to think photographically. Seeing light, I admit, doesn’t come easily for some of them. I wonder if it’s a factor of the digital age where light on the screen “just happens” and seemingly doesn’t have to be “perceived.” Some of them can see light so much more quickly than others. My personal artwork is about light and darkness, both physically and metaphorically.

Working with my students makes me realize how important that juxtaposition is to me. It also makes me work harder as a teacher, to get them to literally “see the light,” to visually register how light and shadow change things: to stop to look at the overabundance of light on a bright day; its softening on a foggy day. I need for them to be able to tell the difference between light’s beautiful long shadows in early evening vs. that point in the evening when light ceases and the scene is enveloped in a murky residue – or the harsh light of mid-day in July, in Texas. I keep asking myself how some students keep shooting through these differing lights expecting the same results. Getting students to see light is harder than it sounds!

The second, learning to think photographically, is easier, because, for the most part, all I need to do is explain the history of photography. Photography has taken some interesting journeys in its life, and that raises some interesting issues.

For instance: Matthew Brady made the Civil War real by showing the bodies of the dead; Dmitri Baltermants showed the horrors of the Nazi regime by photographing the bodies of Jewish prisoners killed by German soldiers on the Russian front; Viet Nam war photographers showed us the atrocities of war and the bodies of the dead: “ours,” “theirs,” and innocent civilians. So, why do we see less of that reality now? Is it out of respect or out of fear? Are we turning away from the truth of death, or the truth of war, or a truth that politicians don’t want us to see?

"Empty Mask Hiding Behind a Disappearing Flag "

I have always questioned photography. I have always stretched its meaning. And I have always felt that it’s the fault of historical photographers that I do that! Knowing about those photographers gave me a starting point, but just a starting point. Not a finishing point. Photo history lets me know that I can employ experimental techniques for social/political ends (thank you, John Heartfield).

For every generation the question must be: what is photography’s power – still? What do I want from photography? What do I want to say with this medium? How is the medium changing? How does it stay the same? What do I believe it to be capable of? And ultimately – How does it convey truth? I want my students to know enough about photography’s past that they feel confident about questioning its future. I want them to have a conversation with the medium then use that conversation to make strong, GREAT photographs – of which, I believe, they are capable.

Personally, I’m still delving into the history of photography, still reading about both historical and contemporary work. The more I read and see, the more I question; and the more I question, the more my ideas evolve.

Lee: In thinking about the iconography you choose and in your multiple exposure work, I was struck by a statement you made in 2010 about reading Garcia Marquez and his theory about simultaneous time. Could you elaborate further on what you discovered when acting on that in your photographic work?

Vargas: A lot of my iconography comes from Catholicism, and a lot of that leaning toward mysticism flows into the work of Gabriel Garcia Marquez. However, it’s not just Garcia Marquez who’s at fault; it’s also Isabel Allende. And I must give some credit to Stephen Hawking. Sometimes I think that Hawking’s an even better fiction writer than the other two – except that he was writing about a scientific reality that only sounds like fables.

Both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende create works of magic realism that are filled with spirits as well as the living, all moving back and forth in time. And in their own way, both write about political realities. But they go in different directions. Garcia Marquez, turns from political harshness into a magical world. Allende goes in reverse, starting with a spiritual/magical childhood that matures into political activism.

Actually, I think I’m closer to her progression than I am to his, though these days I’m beginning to appreciate his reversal of the process a bit more. Sometimes it’s nice to think that there will be a “magical” rescue.

Now let’s get back to photography: for the most part it is both time-specific and eternal. (That’s a nice equation, and very much a part of that magic realism universe.) Just think about what photo portraiture does for us (back to the history of photography and how grateful the masses were for portraiture). It both catches us at a specific moment in time and perpetuates that moment for eternity.

If you really want to go crazy meditating on this, read Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida. “This will be and this has been.”

In a sense, with photography, we (the photographed) become spirits: stuck in time and also propelled beyond our own time.

Stephen Hawking’s work (and Einstein’s work), like that of Garcia Marquez and Allende, raise questions about the nature and substance of time and matter. Photography has always done that. And if you don’t believe me, you should hear my opening lecture to my darkroom students: it’s Harry Potter time; through the agents of chemistry we will create alchemy; we will mix potions that allow us to capture light and time. Do you want to live forever? Photography is the Philosopher’s Stone.

Sometimes we forget how magical the medium truly is.

From the series "Oracion"
From the series "My Alamo"

Lee: What was (or is) your greatest challenge as an artist?

Vargas: Two: Deciding which idea to work on next/most and deciding when I need to write and when a picture is enough.

I usually have at least two, and sometimes three to five, series going at once. I play with all of them a little, then one rises to the top, but I still need to get back to the others, eventually.

I also love to write. I’ve been working on a novel for several years now, and someday I may finish it. Writing has made me realize that some stories need words and some are okay being images by themselves. The verbal telling is more direct, whereas images alone are about asking the viewer to invest in his/her own interpretation – or not, if they don’t care to. Sometimes I add text to my photos because I need to say very specific things that I don’t want people to “wonder at,” which means I need to spell things out, literally. “My Alamo” was like that. Sorting out which is a words-added story and which is a picture-only story sometimes takes time. Currently, I’m working on a new series that puts the two together in some very interesting ways.

Lee: Could you tell us a little about your upcoming talk at the Festival?

Vargas: My talk will be just like my responses to your interview: mix time and magic with a little autobiography and a craving for the spiritual/eternal, all in the service of questioning the medium to see what it can do, where it can take us, and what journeys still lie ahead.

All images © Kathy Vargas

Mike Lee is a photographer, labor editor, journalist and writer based in New York. His photography was featured in several group shows in the last several years. His short fiction is published in a myriad of journals, including The Avenue, The Ampersand Review, Reservoir, Ghost Parachute and The Airgonaut. You can see more of his work on his website.

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