SANTA FE, NM — For New Mexico-based self-taught artist Frank Blazquez, his portrait photography, mixed-media art, and video documentaries are more than just creative output — they are key facets of his personal addiction recovery strategy.
Via Zoom from his studio in Santa Fe, Blazquez candidly told me about his path from experiencing active opiate addiction (roughly 2011 to 2015), to teaching himself photography beginning in 2016, and now seeing his portrait “The Gallegos Twins, from Belen, NM” (2019) hanging in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s The Outwin 2022: American Portraiture Today exhibition.
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“There’s this feeling when you’re on opiates that’s this warmth — like warm honey that’s pouring down into your spine — that is like the warmth of feeling loved,” said Blazquez. “When that feeling dissipates, you want to get it back. I feel like my chasing that comfort, that feeling, was what brought me to photography.”
As a former optometric technician, Blazquez had a head start in understanding photographic concepts. “Learning shutter speed and aperture is almost the exact same concept as how the human eye works with the iris and the retina — how light travels through a transparent orifice — so I was able to pick up all of that stuff really quickly.”
When Blazquez began weaning off opiates, he became intensely interested in capturing what was addiction-adjacent. “I started to dwell on the things, people, and places I was seeing and became a very conscious observer of little nuances and details,” Blazquez explained, “like going to my drug dealer’s house and seeing his decorations — viewing little signals or totems of other people’s lives that I thought were fascinating.”
In 2016, Blazquez began creating the portraiture that would become his ongoing Barrios de Nuevo México: Southwest Stories of Vindication series, financing his first camera purchase by supplementing student loan remainders with plasma donation. “I just started doing street photography [in Albuquerque] along Central Avenue and in the War Zone [sic] district. At that time, I didn’t have an audience, so I just wanted to take pictures of stuff I wanted to look at.”
While Blazquez’s portraits of people from his Chicanx community evidence technical proficiency, the core of his work is deeply rooted in an intense identification and connection with and to place and region. “Here in New Mexico, I’ve found that it’s a primary identifier for people to say that they’re New Mexican first, before anything else,” said Blazquez. “Place is held really heavily in peoples’ hearts.”
Other elements that have captured Blazquez’s attention and defined his portraiture are gray and black prison tattoos and Southwestern symbolism and iconography, from chain link clasps and color combinations to regional vernacular and religious symbols. These vital documentary details allow Blazquez to curate counter-narratives that represent the resilience and persistence of people who typically receive short shrift in the commercial art world.
In addition to his ongoing Barrios de Nuevo México series, Blazquez’s other artistic focuses are his Made in Tejas portraits, his Duke City Diaries video documentaries, and his mixed-media series Mexican Suburbs.
Occupying a liminal creative identity — insider as a Chicano and a former addict and outsider as a transplant from Chicago — the subjects and environments that Blazquez is drawn to are not without risk. He reveals that he was mugged once, and critics of his work have ranged from gallerists to armchair art world observers. When New Mexico’s The Magazine, now Southwest Contemporary, selected one of Blazquez’s portraits for cover art in 2020, someone smashed his windshield and left issue copies tossed around downtown Albuquerque like litter.
While Blazquez admits he is nourished by positive feedback, he actually finds the critical input he receives — whether as a YouTube comment or social media message or a more visceral variety — much more revealing of both the human condition and the aspects that differentiate his work from mainstream gallery portraiture.
He considered whether to continue his work after the aforementioned mugging. “That moment was when I started to reconsider, should I keep doing this, is it too dangerous — but then I was like, this is something that I have to keep forging and pushing through,” said Blazquez. “I’m just starting out and it’s still really early in my career to stop or veer off into a different genre or topic that just won’t be as fulfilling. I’m still really curious, and I feel sparked by this sense of urgency.”
Some of that urgency is fueled by the cycle of poverty, addiction, and violence that is part of his portraiture and documentary subjects’ lives. One of the first Blazquez portraits to catch this reporter’s eye was “Sleepy and His Daughter.” Sleepy — who Blazquez photographed hugging his young daughter while flashing the prison gang sign for Los Padillas — died in February 2022. Blazquez’s portrait of Sleepy now serves as both narrative and memorial, and it’s on display through July 10 at the National Hispanic Cultural Center as part of the Tempo y Tiempo exhibition.
Beyond artistic concerns, Blazquez’s work is also a means of personal enrichment and part of his ongoing recovery journey. “I get little pieces of that warmth [I experienced with opiate use] when I can collect or capture certain portraits and then do an inventory on them. Looking back on it right now, I feel capturing these photographs is almost like creating your own dioramas, like little miniature worlds or environments. To me, that’s what photography and video feel like — these little dioramas or little worlds that bring me comfort by just creating them.”
About his inclusion in the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery’s The Outwin 2022 exhibition, Blazquez said, “A friend recommended the Outwin 2022 call for entry opportunity. I remember researching older works from the previous triennials and I did not see any portraits from rural New Mexico. For that reason, I thought it would be a great opportunity to include ‘The Gallegos Twins from Belen, NM’ as a piece that could potentially change that pattern. I started capturing portraits in a deliberate fashion in 2016, so it was humbling to achieve a National Portrait Gallery exhibition in such a short time span. Also, this whole experience was encouraging overall as previous art professionals told me that my ‘type’ of photography would not be appropriate for museum or gallery environments.”