Rule Breakers: Ruben Natal San Miguel

“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule.

Rule Setter: Jon Feinstein, Curator and Photographer, and Humble Arts Foundation Co-Founder
Rule Breaker: Ruben Natal San Miguel

I never want to see another nostalgic photo-homage to New York City’s disappearing past. These images are often ripe with hackneyed outsider tropes, and, despite their warm intentions, can read as overly idealized visual tourism. I grew up and spent my early adulthood in the city before moving to Seattle in 2013, and have seen plenty of New York City-based photographers retreat to their studios, shying away from this kind of material for fear of doing it to death. While Diane Arbus, Bruce Davidson, Jamel Shabazz, Nan Goldin, Harold Feinstein (of no personal relation!), Helen Levitt, Martha Cooper, Robert Herman and countless others have shot the city so well, few have been able to replicate with fresh or non-derivative eyes.

Ruben Natal San Miguel’s pictures, however, break this tradition with thoughtful clarity. San Miguel, a 13-year Harlem resident and 9/11 survivor, has spent more than a decade photographing nearly every inch of New York City, intimately recording the culture that’s too rapidly replaced by big box stores and waterfront condos. Traversing Coney Island, East New York, The South Bronx, probably the most over-photographed location—Central Park, and nearly everywhere in between, San Miguel’s images may soon exist as a shrine to the communities who continue to get pushed further and further out. While his work brings to mind many of the aforementioned photographers, his sensitivity to his subject matter, ranging from drag culture to a man grieving his late wife in Central Park, bring an elegant, honest vision to the city’s many vanishing moments. San Miguel’s exhibition, Street Life: A New York City Vanishing Act is on view at SoHo Photo Gallery in Manhattan through October 3, 2015.
—Jon Feinstein

Lady Money Sings The Blues, 2011, Harlem, NYC

Edwin, 2015, East Harlem, NYC

Dollar Diva, 2015, East Harlem, NYC

9/11 Window, 2014, Central Park, NYC

Glamour Break Diva, 2009, Harlem, NYC