Cecilia Portal

About the Artist
Cecilia Portal, Photographer

I grew up in Havana, Cuba, in a sheltered, middle-class family of Spanish immigrants. I remember Cuba as a visual experience: white buildings, blue ocean and sky, lush green mango groves, white Panama hats. My family left Cuba soon after Castro took power.

First, we migrated to the racially segregated North Carolina, and the shock was so profound that after only one year, my father decided to move the family to Mexico, a Spanish-speaking, Catholic country. We drove to Mexico City, a car full of adults and children searching for our place in the world.

As a young woman in Mexico City I worked concurrently as a freelance photographer and a nurse, professions that informed each other in unexpected ways. I photographed for clients in medical, dental, architectural, product, and scientific settings. As a nurse I learned to closely observe sthe patient's breathing, color, and movements. I applied that skill in making portraits, and as my perception expanded I became aware of the pain of humanity and its joy. In my artistic work, I tried to capture aspects of the human condition and its tension of opposites, from jubilant parade dancers to a child snake charmer to elderly blind men gathering on a park bench. Mexico's visual vibrancy and compelling subject matter made composition easy; to get good images, all I needed is a camera, an educated eye, and clarity of my pursuit.

My social consciousness, which evolved both through nursing and through observing political movements in Cuba and Mexico, informed my early work. I addressed topics such as Mexican attitudes toward women (Sexy and Exotic) and the abusive conditions of a Mexican psychiatric institution (The Farm). This thread continues through some of my work today, including my two oral history projects joined under the title Women of the River and the Wind (separate site). The recent project Documentada | Documented explores my immigration experience through the official documents that have defined my identity in my three countries of residence.

In Mexico City, I apprenticed with Manuel Álvarez Bravo, Walter Reuter, and Julio Pliego. Bravo taught me the sensibilities of magical realism, and he showed me that images can be found or constructed from an idea: Photography can be abstract or factual. His influence is present throughout my work.

When I emigrated to the United States in 1981, I first lived in Boston, where I attended the New England School of Photography. I found this unfamiliar society to be visually disorienting, a phenomenon that inspired me to construct more conceptual, abstract images. For Flesh and Bone, I drew on my background in medical and dental photography, exploring the human body through macro views that are enlarged until the body takes on landscape proportions. Later, when a succession of nude, masked figures appeared to me in recurring dreams, I transformed these visions in the Dreams & Myths series. Other compositions originated in memories of my early childhood in Cuba. I felt a certain freedom as an immigrant, less constrained by nation and culture; I began to find my voice as an artist, clarifying a vision that became fully my own.

In 1994, while printing with platinum and palladium, I became ill from chemical exposure and was forced to give up the darkroom. I have since embraced digital photography, which has allowed me to increase the scale of my work, as well as its tonal range, through innovations in printing technology. Exploring this new technology is tremendously exciting, and I feel I've found my true medium.

I was awarded the Guggenheim Fellowship in 1991-1992. I have received grants from the U.S.-Mexico Fund for Culture, the New Mexico Endowment for the Humanities, the New Mexico Community Foundation, and the McCune Foundation. My photographs have been exhibited in the United States, Latin America, and Europe.