Being in the spotlight isn’t something multidisciplinary artist Diana Solís ever sought, despite capturing influential socio-political movements through her camera for decades. But now, having just turned 67, and with the release of her new book of photography, Luz: Seeing the Space Between Us, the spotlight on her has never been brighter or so deserved. It’s a new kind of attention, unexpected and abundant, and Solís is grateful.

“I’m often quiet about what I do and lately, I’ve gotten a lot of attention,” Solís says about the overwhelming support she’s received after publishing Luz. “It’s been a little different, but normally I don’t talk a lot about the projects I’m working on.”

In Pilsen and beyond, Solís has been capturing the lifeblood of the community since the late 70s. Her visual artistry embodies Mexican, Chicano, and Latine cultures. Her work inspires rumination and curiosity. She is a visual storyteller who contemplates identity and inclusion through her portraits, murals, and photographs. As a multidisciplinary artist, she also explores painting, printmaking, comics, and photojournalism.

Solís took some time off from teaching last year so she could produce and work on Luz. The idea for the book began during the initial stages of the pandemic when Solís decided her early morning walks would include photos she’d take on her iPhone. “A month after we were on lockdown, I was walking the streets in Pilsen at six in the morning. I realized that even though there were people on the streets, what I was seeing was something I haven’t seen for a long time, which was the community in this very different light. The community is, like most of us, always on the go, and we don’t really slow down. So I felt this was amazing, this was great, I could photograph forever,” she says.

“I think the book is bigger than me in the sense that this latest project was about my return to photography, and about a love letter to my practice of photography and my community. I think the book holds not just the images, but the sense of COVID, the gentrification process, and the community. The changes that are portrayed in the book, it’s about the place and people. It’s more portraiture, not photojournalistic. It goes beyond my personal journey, you know, what got me started on this book,” she says. 

Luz: Seeing the Space Between Us by Diana SolísFlatlands Press, paperback, 120 pp., $45, flatlandspress.com

“What this has done for me is enabled me to go back to photography in a way that I didn’t even think about years ago. It’s always been there, I just wasn’t photographing for 20-plus years.”

Solís contemplated taking a break from photography after graduating from the University of Illinois, Chicago in 1997 because she wanted to dedicate herself to painting and drawing. After a brief trip to Europe, she returned to Chicago and focused on this new art form. 

“Little by little I sold my equipment. It didn’t happen overnight, but it was something I was thinking about when I went back to school,” she says. “I think I still took a couple of photos here and there up until 2000, but I went into the mode of how to be an illustrator.” 

“It’s not like I had a traumatic experience with photography. I never let it go in the sense that I always kept up with photography shows, I bought photo books, supported photographer friends, and it was something I’ve always been interested in, something that’s been a part of my life for such a long time. But I was really happy pursuing drawing, painting, and illustration. I started doing abstract work, which I still do from time to time, but not too much because photography has kept me so busy. That’s the thing, it’s hard to balance two very demanding subjects, like photography and illustration/drawing. But the fact is if I want to do work, or gigs in illustration for freelance, it’s really hard.”

A shuttered panaderia in Pilsen, in 2022, from LuzCredit: Diana Solís

It takes a special kind of artist to pick right back up where they were decades ago as if time had stopped. It’s amazing to see Solís so effortlessly pick up the camera after so many years away from it. It says so much about her creative mind and passion.

“I’ve been working quietly for many, many years. In the sense that, sure I talk sometimes about what I do, I’m not afraid to talk or give a lecture. But I’m not one to put a lot of crema on my tacos,” she laughs. “Or constantly say ‘look what I’m doing’ or ‘look what I’ve done.’ I feel like I need to just do the work more than anything.”

Solís was born in Monterrey, Nuevo León, in 1956 but grew up in Chicago where her family moved when she was a few months old. She grew up in Pilsen and Little Village, surrounded by family, books, music, and community. 

An early self-portrait, with the artists’ younger siblingsCredit: Diana Solís

By the early 80s, Solís was traveling—first to Peru, then eventually living in Mexico City where she attended Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. 

“I was part of a summer session and it was very eye-opening. The school was very radicalized and politicized, and we were right in the thick of things.” She became involved with student movements, protests, and marches and documented all of it on her camera. She also got involved with queer community activism through groups like FHAR (The Homosexual Front of Revolutionary Action) and OIKABETH (Ollin Iskan Katuntat Bebeth Thot, which translated means “movement of women warriors paving the way and scattering flowers”).  

These were some of the first public queer organizations in Mexico, along with Ácratas and Lesbos, that formed just before the first national Lesbian & Gay Rights March in Washington, D.C., in 1979. Solís captured all of these historic movements through her lens. Her archives are massive, so she is working with Nicole Marroquín, a professor at the School of the Art Institute, to organize thousands of negatives of moments she’s captured along the way, including visits to Paris, Spain, Peru, and from across the U.S. 

While in Mexico City, Solís worked at Televisa, one of the country’s leading multimedia companies, doing what she calls paparazzo work. “Part of my job at Televisa as a staff photographer was working on telenovelas and the studio sets where they filmed. I always knew in the back of my mind that this was not what I wanted to do for the rest of my life,” she says. However, the opportunity felt like a way of legitimizing what she did, learning how to do that type of photography and how to deal with people. “It was very painfully clear to me that this was an industry that perpetuated entrenched racism, and I experienced it firsthand trying to get jobs. The color of my skin, and the way I look—I have a lot of Indigenous ancestries—so I just bristled all the time with all these things. It was horrible, and it continues to be the same thing today.”

In 1983, also during her time in Mexico, Solís cofounded and literally built Cuarto Creciente, a coffeehouse and feminist space where she became the cook, even though she didn’t know how to cook at the time. Because of the combined connections of the four founders, the cafe was an instant success. The space was able to feature legendary writers like Cherríe Moraga, Sandra Cisneros, and Norma Alarcón. 

“I have photographs of all of them performing at the Cuarto Creciente. It was a night of Chicano and Mexican writers together. Those are the kind of things I did at the coffeehouse, besides having to go once a week to the Central de Abastos to buy all the food and vegetables and learn how to cook.” The cafe was only around for two years because it was housed in a historic building, and it was eventually seized by the government in an act of gentrification. 

When she returned to Chicago, Solís again made her home in Pilsen, reactivating her involvement in the burgeoning art community and photographing artists and poets.  

Writer and poet Gregorio Gomez graces the cover of Luz.Credit: Diana Solís

Gregorio Gomez, the poet who graces the cover of Luz, met Solís through a mutual friend when he was the managing director of the Latino Chicago Theater Company in the 90s. Although Gomez knew very little about Solís when they first met, he noticed she was always carrying a camera around. “She was very personable and could hang with anybody and so she fit right in with the poets and she fit right in with the theater company, so she just became part of the family.”

Solís began attending the open-mike poetry nights Gomez led at Weeds, which was one of the longest-running poetry nights in Chicago, and captured the poets and spoken word artists sharing their work. Gomez says Solís was hardcore about taking photographs and wonders if at any point she knew that the people she captured on camera would become known in their respective art worlds. 

“I don’t know if she knew she was photographing leaders of our movement at the time,” he says. “She captured a movement and community, Latino and LGBTQ, and how each one of those worlds were swirling around each other and making an impact on the city of Chicago, even though sometimes we didn’t even know we were doing that.”

One of those leaders is fellow artist Marroquin, whom Gomez says encouraged Solís to do something with her collection of photos. Marroquin was astonished at everything Solís shot during that time, referring to its entirety as a treasure. It became an even bigger treasure when in 2022 it formed part of “Diana Solís: Encuentros, Photographs of Chicago Poetry Communities, 1978–1994” held at the Chicago Poetry Foundation, curated with the help of Oscar Arriola and Marroquín.

The inquisitive, bold, and almost rebellious nature in Solís’s work was present even while she attended UIC, from where she received a BFA in photography in 1997. She remembers her teachers didn’t appreciate that work, and instead, she says, “were more interested in me doing conceptual artwork, so I was getting somewhat berated by them in the critiques. I stuck to my guns. I stuck to what I wanted to do.”

A 1983 memorial march in honor of organizer Rudy Lozano, who was slain that year.Credit: Diana Solís

Growing up in Pilsen, Solís saw the rise of the local punk scene, including the creation of the Spanish-language hardcore punk band Los Crudos. She had met Martin Sorrondeguy, the band’s singer (also known as Martin Crudo), through his mom Patty, whom Solís worked with at Mujeres Latinas En Acción, a social services organization for women. Sorrondeguy was 11 when she first met him, before his music endeavors. 

“I used to go to punk events back in the day because my brother was a bouncer at one of the clubs,” she says. “He’s the one who told me about this new punk band Los Crudos, and when we arrived at the show I saw it was Martin. A bunch of us would go to the shows and support the group. We loved it.” They’ve been friends ever since. 

In 2016, when Los Crudos’s 25th anniversary came around, Sorrondeguy asked Solís to showcase some of her work at a celebratory exhibition titled “Desafinados.” She was surprised to be included because she wasn’t active in the punk scene, but Sorrondeguy said that didn’t matter.

“He went to my studio, saw some work he liked, and picked out some pieces,” Solís says. “The three pieces are basically about being an outsider, being in a different state of mind, and in a different world. They’re all characters and creatures, which is usually what I draw and paint. They’re heroes to me. They live in dream worlds, but they’re also worlds not unlike our own where they are cast aside by a society that wants to silence us. All these characters are part of that.”

Solís herself is a hero for many. She embodies perseverance as she confronts and contends with ongoing extreme and life-threatening health issues, including several bouts of cancer. Her positive outlook, however, is unwavering. “I think, you know, in order for me to move forward every day in my life, I have a lot of gratitude—with myself, with my doctors, with my friends, with my community. And that, for me, allows me to do the things that I do, my work, which I love. I am doing the things that I love the most. These are the best times of my life.”

Solís explains the challenges of heading into the next bracket of adulthood, including the realization that not working is not necessarily included when declaring retirement. She’s been an educator for more than 40 years and continues in that profession, teaching courses at Benito Juarez Community Academy and Volta Elementary School and developing curricula related to social consciousness, social justice, critical thinking, and critical race theory. 

Luz represents the artist’s return to photography, after more than 20 years away.Credit: Carolina Sanchez

Solís worked with local artists to complete the project surrounding Luz, fundraising through the 3Arts crowdfunding platform and on her own. The first edition made its debut in Chicago at the National Museum of Mexican Art in November 2022; that edition has sold out. Together with her team, they are working on a second edition and are hopeful to have it published in the near future.

Luz captures the community and changes brought about by COVID and gentrification. There is also an intimate quality to the photographs which is communicated by the individual stance and eye contact expressed in every portrait. She has a way of connecting with her subjects through her lens. As Solís explains, the portraits within the book “became moments of emergence for those of us in Pilsen already vulnerable to predatory developers and racist housing policies, during a time when our nation’s inequitable response to COVID, with its variations, further silenced us.” A testament to the resilience of its community, Luz is an important and historical reflection of its people.

Mike, an employee at Angel’s Tire Shop, in 2020Credit: Diana Solís

“My photography is a mix of environmental portraits and reportage of sorts. The work in the book opened up a huge can of worms for me but in a good way. And it’s opened up a way for people to also look at the past work I’ve done and why this work is so important because it’s never been seen before. It’s taking parts of the history of Pilsen and other parts, like the 16 years of poetry communities that haven’t been seen before. And that’s not all, there’s more, but we just can’t include everything.” This led to conversations about putting together a catalog, or smaller book, to include the vast amount of photographs she hasn’t yet shared. Solís is excited about the possibilities. 

In some of her illustrations and paintings, you’ll find colorful, strange, and mythological figures. Their peculiar composition represents our connection to nature, a prominent idea in some of her works. “These characters and creatures began to develop back in the 90s when I started to do a lot more drawing and before I left photography.” Between visits to Europe and Oaxaca, the idea of converging cave art, textures, and layering began to form. “What I ended up doing was creating what I call a hybrid or anthropomorphic figure, which means a cross between human and animal. Without me realizing it at the time, I was beginning to develop this idea of how we relate to nature as human beings.

“A lot of my first drawings were of creatures that . . . had human features and the humans had animal features. And I stuck with that. I loved it and when I was in Oaxaca working, doing my printmaking and a residency, I met so many wonderful Oaxacan artists and their work was the same. Their work was based on mythology, coming from their Indigenous backgrounds and their relationship to earth and animals. I was so inspired by this, it kind of sealed a lot of ways I began to paint moving forward.” 

Gregorio Gomez was always struck by her painting. “She surpassed herself in regard to her photography,” he says. “I mean, a photograph is a photograph and you can Photoshop and do this and do that, but a painting has a different reality and a different visual look to it. And then, of course, have you seen some of her paintings? Where the heck did she get the mind to come up with those characters?! I found that to be genius. I found that to be not only artistic and creative but way, way out of left field. It just made me think how different she was, and is, in comparison to other painters of our generation.”

Much of Solís’s work is labor-intensive. “My paintings, drawings, doing it for many hours a day you can develop issues. I have major issues on my hands because of this.” This laborious process includes pieces where she incorporates collage and papel picado techniques, using Exacto blades, knives, and scissors. 

“I like the idea of merging craft with fine art. Craft is also art, actually,” she says. “A lot of the work I was doing was mixed-media work, which I’ve always done, and it’s where I’m at even today. As a teaching artist, I teach printmaking, drawing, and figure drawing. But in all of that, I have my specialties. I have specialties for creating certain types of artwork and I have a specialty for doing photography. Those are my strongest points, I believe. Photography is probably stronger than anything.”

Reading over some of the praise she’s received recently, it seems unusual that this new work is referred to as a rediscovering of her community. Solís agrees. “I don’t feel I rediscovered it. I think a lot of this wording, there’s a spin put on things. I guess you could say, in a way, I rediscovered certain things about myself through the pandemic. But did I rediscover it? I was always aware that Pilsen was in gentrification mode. It wasn’t like I just woke up one morning and I went, ‘Oh my god, I see all this change, I’m going to have to photograph it!’”

Luz captures the community and changes brought about by COVID and gentrification.Credit: Carolina Sanchez

The growing attention to her art can be overwhelming, she admits, but she’s thankful her work is being exposed to new people, especially the youth. “It makes me happy that Latinos are really, a lot of them, are really doing things that I would never do in my time because there were so few of us going to university. That they’re challenging the canons and the status quo of what other people have always thought we were about. 

“My work actually does the same thing. It challenges that. And I think that’s kind of people’s interest when they discover my work. . . . The other thing [that I’m happy about] is that I’m still alive . . . which is great,” she laughs. 

“I can navigate these waters as a living artist, not a dead one. It’s been exciting! It’s been great.” 

Join Diana Solís and Deanna Ledezma for a conversation about LuzTues 2/22, noon, UIC Rafael Cintron Ortiz Latino Cultural Center, Lecture Center B-2, 826 S. Halsted, RSVP here, free

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