Photographing the vibrant subcultures of downtown Albuquerque
Downtown Albuquerque is steeped in local legend and lore, from quirky after-hours venues to all kinds of experimental music and art. The infectious sound of camaraderie reverberates beyond Central Avenue, where the neighborhood’s charm is on full display through a combination of community and unmistakable style. Hot rods roam the city’s corridors in an effervescent expression of individuality, signaling how here, a lowrider isn’t just a type of car – it’s a thriving lifestyle.
Albuquerque-based photographer Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli couldn’t help but feel enthralled by the spectacle of it all. He had lived near the city center since childhood, so the bustling neighborhood evoked both nostalgia and intrigue, from the time he picked up a camera around 2009. Although it took him a while to harness the city’s true potential as a subject, he finally thought up an exciting project after seeing his hometown from a new perspective during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I was always trying to travel far, take pictures of people in exotic countries or something. I had a fantasy in my head of what I should do,” Nathaniel says. “Because of the pandemic , I started going out locally with my camera more than ever before. And that changed everything in my photography.
Scouring the streets of downtown Albuquerque with his Leica Q2, which he never leaves the house without, Nathaniel saw the colorful characters of “Duke City” come to life through his lens. He prowled tattoo parlors, private nightclubs and more popular hangouts in and around the region, documenting native dancers, revelers in glittering heels and other scenes that epitomized the city’s eccentric soul. His encounters with these alternative personalities are the focus of a new exhibit at 516 Arts in Albuquerque: Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli: Downtown. Featuring 22 captivating black-and-white and color images, many taken between 2017 and 2022, the show shines a light on some of Albuquerque’s most vibrant urban subcultures, illustrating their idiosyncrasies from a perspective authentic insider.
“I try to capture people having a good time and having fun. I don’t try to portray people in a negative light,” says Nathaniel. narrower. These people may look scary on the outside, but most of them are super nice. They have a different culture, but they’re not much different from you and me.
Gang-related crime, widespread income inequality, and a deadly drug epidemic contribute to Albuquerque’s poor reputation. Despite recent strides to revitalize the area, downtown still lacks the infrastructure of major cosmopolitan centers across America. There are of course the usual bars or restaurants – most of which are interspersed with derelict office space – but the real fun is often outside, far from the rules of licensed establishments. Locals with a DIY spirit spill onto the sidewalks, fire up their grills, and fill coolers to the brim with cold beers, celebrating nothing in particular but another memorable day at the “Burque.” Imagine it as a sprawling block party – the perfect atmosphere for a curious photographer. Soon everyone knew exactly what to expect when Nathaniel showed up with his camera.
“When I was doing more street photography, I was shooting from a greater distance. But I could never find the right angles and always wanted to get closer,” he says. “Now I’m really close. Some of the photos are so candid because they stopped paying attention to me and I’m just kinda there. I can start to crack and nobody cares.
Using a fixed focal length forces Nathaniel to stay at spitting distance from his subjects, giving his images an extra sense of vibrancy. Somewhere between completely candid and poised, the dynamic photos capture otherwise ephemeral situations, like a dolled-up drag queen on a cigarette break or a classic car driving towards the smoking room. A few shots feature quintessential New Mexican motifs, as faith and countercultures collide in the form of elaborate body modifications. Intricate tattoos inspired by religious iconography showcase the shared humanity of each person Nathaniel photographed. “Without closeness and trust, I wouldn’t be able to take my photos,” he says. “I couldn’t take any if I didn’t have access to them through my connections. I try to make friends with everyone I meet, even if it’s just for a minute.
Sometimes it only takes a second to capture an endearing moment. Once, on a memorial cruise honoring a deceased resident, downtown was buzzing with friendly conversation and car horns. A random vehicle stopped amidst the chaos, and suddenly a man came out to take a selfie. Nathaniel’s quick instincts kicked in to capture the precise moment the subject struck a pose, resulting in one of his favorite images in the entire exhibit, selfie. It’s also one of the defining photos of his entire downtown collection, encapsulating the remarkable energy of Albuquerque’s predominantly Latin lowrider culture. He also had impeccable timing: shortly after Nathaniel took the picture, the driver got back into the car, driving off faster than he had arrived.
“Holding a cell phone with a case showing the photo of a young family member is a perfect representation of the values of the subject,” writes the curator of the exhibition, Daniel Ulibarri, in an accompanying brochure. “The conductor stands on his moving throne, a symbol of the unique art, community, culture and family of which he is a part. Lowriders and the people who create and ride them embody the heart and spirit of New Mexico.
Refusing to be pigeonholed into what he photographs or constrained by harmful stereotypes, Nathaniel cuts through the noise to portray the real Albuquerque, emphasizing the proud people who helped shape the city into what it is today. today. Downtown offers a unique opportunity to explore the metropolis through familiar eyes and get a glimpse of Albuquerque at its best. “It’s the Albuquerque that I see, how I interpret everything around me,” says Nathaniel. “Obviously that’s not all the city is, but that’s my version. This is my little slice of reality.
Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli: Downtown is on view at 516 Arts until September 3, 2022.
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Photographs by Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli