Trinity College Professor Pablo Delano seeks to show the real Hartford with new photography book, ‘Hartford Seen’

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A report by Susan Dunne for The Hartford Courant.

Many photographers have captured the City of Hartford with images of the impressive downtown sights: Travelers Tower, the Old State House, the gold-domed State Capitol, the Boat Building, the Candy Cane Building, City Hall.

Pablo Delano looks for a different view of Hartford. The Trinity College art professor wanders Park Street seeking out lively, brightly colored storefronts. In residential neighborhoods, he stops in front of Perfect Sixes and less architecturally distinctive, even dilapidated, apartments. On busy main roads, he photographs car-repair shops, mini marts, old synagogues transformed into other houses of worship.

“If you look at contemporary images of Hartford, there’s this kind of chamber of commerce aesthetic, let’s make Hartford look good, Hartford the rising star,” Delano said. “I have a lot of affection and love for the city. I think it’s kind of saccharine when a photo just makes everything look pretty.

“In reality, the city is undergoing a huge transformation. Work is going on, a dump truck there, a pile of earth there. I don’t see that as blight. I see that as part of the process of change. … I don’t want to present a cheery, cheerleader perspective to a city that deserves more than that.”

 

In the book, Delano’s images show working-class homes and businesses, most of them lived in by a series of residents over generations or even over a century. These include retail strips, repurposed buildings and buildings “that are sort of in between ugly and beautiful.”

In “Hartford Seen,” Hartford actually is seen, the real Hartford, not the squeaky-clean downtown Hartford that is bustling with white-collar workers on weekdays and vacant on nights and weekends, when those businesspeople retreat to their homes in the suburbs.

Delano lovingly depicts the built and lived-in residential and retail environment of the Capitol City, home to 122,000 people, most of them Black and Latinx. Interestingly, few of Delano’s images include people.

“It was not a conscious decision to exclude people. That was something about the repetitiveness of driving by same place every day. The same people won’t be there. Buildings are always there,” he said.

“Buildings take on personalities the way people do. The people who occupy those buildings leave their identity embedded into the structure as they change them to suit their needs tastes,” he said. “That structure may have been a very somber gray, then transformed to a bright color or different textures. Those kind of changes embody a story or narrative about the city.”

Main Street, 2014
(Pablo Delano, Copyright 2014)

Puerto Rican roots

Many of those narratives are rooted in Puerto Rico. Delano’s parent, Jews with Eastern European ancestry, relocated to Puerto Rico in 1946, where they became respected photographers, filmmakers, graphic artists and composers. Delano was born in 1954 and grew up in that artistic atmosphere, picking up the vibe and making it his career, too. He moved to the mainland to go to college at Temple and Yale, then to New York City, where photography projects focused on Caribbean and Hispanic communities. He has taught at Trinity College since 1996.

Delano said growing up, he never identified as Jewish. “It’s there and it’s something I feel is important. I’m proud of it, but it didn’t really inform my upbringing,” he said.

Rather, his identity is purely Puerto Rican. His photos show his love for the culture and the people. A photo taken on Pavilion Street shows Mary’s Hair Design, which occupied an oddly shaped storefront painted to depict a Puerto Rican flag. Another PR flag is painted on the exterior of Hermanas Grocery, photographed on Broad Street. Paradise Market, photographed on Albany Avenue, shows seven flags of the Caribbean region.

Although people are mostly absent from Delano’s images, the images do include cars. Often Delano shoots at angles that let the shiny car roofs reflect the primary image, as in the shot taken on Albany Avenue, of a mural of Martin Luther King Jr., and the Highland Bowl on Whitney Street.

“I realized I could take reflections and incorporate into the image. Hood of a car or trunk is perfect if the car is clean and reflects,” Delano said. “That is part of the reality of the city as well. You look out see the image reflected in store windows and car hoods. It gives a sense of illusion vs. reality and gives complexity to the image.”

Pavilion Street, 2013
(Pablo Delano, Copyright 2014)Urban matrix

Most of Delano’s images are seen usually in straight-on focus, but sometimes through sagging chain-link fences, cracked and weed-choked parking lots or as a background image shot through a neighboring backyard.

“You want to locate a building in a particular urban matrix. The building is part of larger texture and larger fabric of our city,” Delano said. “That’s what makes the city the city. I incorporate that into the photograph not just as a formal problem but as the essence of the city, where things are on top of each other and you don’t always see things the way you want to see things.”

Delano has been taking photographs of Hartford for years, but began his project in earnest around 2008. It was motivated, in part, by an assignment he gave his students.

“I challenged them to find a subject that was nondescript and uninteresting and make it interesting by the way you photograph it,” he said. “I thought that if I’m gonna assign this to my students, I could do it, too. So I did.”

Nonetheless, Delano came to love not just his photographs but the buildings themselves. “They are actually much more interesting to me personally than the city’s historic structures because they tell their own story,” he said. “They tell the story of the ordinary citizens of the city.”

On July 23 at 6 p.m., Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art will host a virtual talk about the book. The talk will feature Delano; Richard Hollant, who co-designed the book; Laura Wexler, a Yale professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies, who wrote the book’s introduction; and Guillermo Irizarry, the UConn Spanish studies professor who wrote the book’s opening essay.

Admission is free to the event, which can be attended at thewadsworth.org/event/hartford-seen.

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