Barbara Ramos: A Fearless Eye
Words: Steven A. Heller
This is a story best told by the photographer herself, Barbara Ramos. A story that is entirely unique and destined to become an integral factual account of a journey that few in the 195+ years of photography’s history have been able to recount from the first-person perspective. After nearly 50 years of silence, the work of Barbara Ramos looms on the horizon of enormous and well-deserved recognition.
Suppose that every photograph ever taken since Niépce’s view from the window at Le Gras in 1826 would be considered a time capsule unto itself waiting to be lost and ultimately rediscovered? Suppose every nuance, grain and pixel of knowledge in that photograph revealed something previously unknown or forgotten until prompted by the visual reference? Suppose that is the underlying philosophy of the photographic medium waiting at the edges of time to be told?
Over the course of several months, Black & White magazine had the exclusive opportunity for in-depth interviews with Barbara Ramos as she looked back almost half a century to revisit imagery that had been hidden away, much as the clay tablets of the Gilgamesh epic.
Born in New York City, Ramos was the youngest member of her family, which moved to Los Angeles when she was six. Her father worked in the film industry, conceiving, writing, producing and editing trailers for coming attractions. “I never thought of him as being visual, but in reality, he was,” she says. “It was exciting to walk through the sets with him, and it made a great impact on me. At home, I saw black-and-white photographic stills on his worktable, but I wasn’t able to connect to them at the time.”
A baby boomer child who often felt shy around people, Ramos discovered after moving to San Francisco a world she had never known growing up in Los Angeles, and decided to attend the San Francisco Art Institute in 1969. Although missing the quirky people and light of Southern California, she found that her shyness quickly disappeared, and “I had no problem going up to strangers and taking their photograph.”
The tradeoff was that San Francisco seemed too conservative, the architecture lacked character and “the light was too gray.” Following art school and then a graduate degree at San Francisco State, Ramos confronted one of the more difficult aspects of life—how to make a living, and at the same time raise a family.
Like many photographers, Ramos considered herself an “observer” within her family environment. She had a passion for painting and, at an early age, “drawing sequences of pictures of people doing everyday things like brushing teeth or combing hair.”
“From the beginning, I found the act of photographing a very athletic activity,” she states. “I don’t stand still when I photograph. I am participating in the photo. During my college years in Los Angeles, I worked in a couple of photo labs, and in San Francisco I worked as a ‘camera girl’ photographing tourists at the Fairmont Hotel, Top of the Mark and Finnochio’s. The reality of being a photographer and being told what to photograph was not something I wanted to do. In a way, I felt I became like the people that I was photographing; I became the photograph.
“Every waking minute, I was obsessed by looking, by exploring the world. It was exciting to look at the negatives, which I developed myself, although I rarely proofed or printed. But my negatives from this body of work were literally hidden away in cardboard boxes for five decades. I became intensely involved in making a living in an art jewelry business; still visually creative, but in a more decorative and commercial form. It was the pandemic that forced me to confront my past.”
At the urging and support of her husband, Ramos began the painstaking task of editing through boxes of negatives and taking advantage of the pandemic restrictions to begin digitizing the work. The process evolved into a newfound level of encouragement and admiration as she began to post the work on social media platforms. “Forty-five years ago, I began to throw away some negatives, but my husband immediately retrieved them from the garbage. After that, I just put them away in boxes; out of sight, out of mind. It was my husband, Covid and plenty of time on my hands that signaled the return to that former photographer I had been so consumed with becoming.”
Ramos’ journey bears a striking resemblance to that of Vivian Maier’s lifelong secret obsession with photography. There are numerous parallels between the women, and a shared vision more in common with such legends as Robert Frank, Diane Arbus, Mary Ellen Mark, Lee Friedlander, Henri Cartier-Bresson. Looking over her shoulder at the work of these influential photographers, Ramos strives to [re]discover her influences and distinctions.
“I saw Cartier-Bresson’s photography as purely art, and understood the intentions. I identified with Frank as the ‘outsider looking in,’ but I also saw the quirky, even surreal scenes that puzzled me. Arbus and Mark, often working on assignments, knew how to direct a photo; I often felt part of the photograph, and didn’t direct people, simply because they were often moving elements of the situation. I basically worked with abandon, without restrictions. I can see how [Maier’s] work is similar to mine, as we both had an intense curiosity about mostly urban people in urban environments.”
The photographic archive Ramos produced is nothing short of remarkable, especially viewed in the context of legendary exponents of the documentary, bystander and street photography genres. “During my 50-year hiatus from photography I didn’t look at any photo books or exhibitions. It’s almost impossible to put into words the reasons. Maybe I thought photography was just part of my former younger self.”
The issue of “privacy” for most photographers is paradoxical, especially given today’s instantaneous ability to upload images to social media and update websites. How did it come to happen that Ramos’ archive has been invisible all these years?
“As far as abruptly stopping photographing, I can honestly say I don’t know why,” Ramos says. “It wasn’t as though I wasn’t still seeing; I just didn’t photograph. It was painful for me to not photograph. Truth be told, I was very private about my work. I just wasn’t ready to bring attention to myself.”
Ramos and her husband established a successful jewelry design business in the early 1970s. In tandem with raising two children, life proved challenging. Ramos’ husband, Joe, is also a photographer, of Filipino and Mexican descent; Ramos’ background is a white Jewish family. “It’s difficult to understand, but when Joe and I would travel doing our jewelry business, I was the one who had to register at the motel desk if we were to get a room for the night. Our children being triracial had to deal with fitting into a white Anglo world. This all added to the conflict of prioritizing where my energies would best be applied. I literally did not pick up a camera. I had somewhat of a phobia about not having the ability to photograph once I’d stopped.”
The urban cowboy immortalized in “Powell Street, San Francisco” connects without hesitation. It might easily be a frame from The Americans for all of its denim grit and sense of looking deeper into the passing parade of faces and forms. “Often when I photographed, I would get into a zone, especially in busy downtown areas of San Francisco,” Ramos recalls. “The graphics were important to me. Maybe the man in the cowboy hat was a tourist, or possibly a real cowboy participating in the rodeo at the Cow Palace. I like the idea of my photographs suggesting a narrative, and that it feels cinematic.”
Ramos may have had misgivings about San Francisco as a prime opportunity for street photography, yet in the city’s North Beach district she made the amazing capture of a man immersed in a spontaneous street serenade. It’s an image teeming with atmosphere and authenticity, the singer’s hand gestures and facial expression so evocative that even the perhaps too-tight framing doesn’t lessen the impact of the passionate expression. “I think he might have been flirting with me, and he was definitely an extrovert. I spent a lot of time between North Beach and Chinatown, as both were very close to the San Francisco Art Institute where I was studying photography.”
Serendipity also struck in near Market Street, where Ramos happened upon an eccentric group of men in dark suits and hats who might have just stepped out of a John Cassavetes film. In another example of Ramos’ bold (yet certainly not careless) approach to composition, the fourth man barely intrudes into the frame, lending an oddly provocative tone to the visual ambience. Yet the image radiates a strange kind of goodwill and humor. This seeming dichotomy is characteristic of much of her work.
Like the men in suits photo, many of the images derive impact from their subjects’ direct engagement with Ramos. She frequently catches them with freeze-frame candor gazing directly at her camera, their expressions by turns startled, wary, bemused, annoyed or various combinations thereof. Willingly or unwillingly, they engage in a kind of unspoken communion with the audacious woman taking their photograph; these metaphysical exchanges provide fascinating entry points for the viewer.
As our exchange continued, Ramos seemed as much reflective of her past as stimulated by the present. That seems appropriate to the eight stages of human development that psychologist Erik Erikson theorized in the 1960s. According to Erikson, it is in this eighth “chapter” that individuals must learn to accept the course of their life, or they will look back at in despair. “Ego integrity” is what he identified as the acceptance of life in its fullness: the victories, defeats and associated wisdom.
Barbara Ramos finds herself wondering what happened to many of the people she photographed. “Interestingly, when I posted a photograph on Facebook of a window dresser in downtown San Francisco Macy’s department store, a friend recognized the man in the window. He told me that he was a friend of his, and that he’d recently passed away. My friend gave me the address of his sister, and I sent her a print of the image.”
“There is a difference between my street photography of the past and my current approach. Back then, I was fully interacting with my subjects. Now, I’m very conscious of the changing environment they have to navigate. In the past, people were comfortable in their environment; now it seems that many people are wandering, unsure of where to be. It was a give-and-take experience 50 years ago, and I still experience some of that. But today people are more cautious about being photographed.”
All images courtesy of the artist, and made in the early 1970s. Barbara Ramos studied photography at the San Francisco Art Institute and exhibited occasionally early in that decade. Her vintage images and new work can be seen on her Facebook page. Ramos lives in San Francisco, and can be contacted at email@example.com.