Finding your vision as an artist can often come late in your career. An artist might suddenly look back at their work and realize a unifying thread. However, if you are focused early in your career on your artistic voice, this can help expedite your artistic journey. In fact, it may be the key to finding an audience for your art while your career is still in its infancy.
Identifying an artistic voice is easier said than done. It can be the result of many things — family heritage, current environment or access to resources. The idea behind making efforts to develop your voice as an artist is to lock in on a path and stick to it, until you achieve the result you desire. Like all things done with a camera, the focal point should be clear and in focus to tell the most effective story.
Frank Blazquez on finding his voice
An artist named Frank Blazquez was able to find his voice early on as a creative with his authentic depiction of street culture. His subjects include gang members, drug dealers, victims and former prison inmates native to Albuquerque, NM. Like the subjects Blazquez chooses to document, his journey in life has not always been in focus.
During Blazquez’s early years as a kid growing up in Chicago, his parents worked a lot. He would spendmany hours at home on his own. One thing Blazquez remembers that shaped his voice as an artist early on was passing the time alone watching true crime documentaries.
“I have a great love for docs, I remember watching Paradise Lost when I was 8 years old. It was a film, about the West Memphis Three; it scared the shit out of me. My parents showed it to me to scare me into staying out of trouble. It was a doc about children being murdered and tortured and it did scare us!”
As Blazquez grew older, the docs he used to watch as a kid left an impression on him. They inspired him to take screenwriting classes in college. He was chipping away at classes, managing one or two courses a semester as a part-time student. Despite going to school to pursue his dreams of being an artist, he found himself with a lot of free time in between classes. He filled the gaps by drinking and using cocaine.
In 2010, Blazquez then 21, hit a fork in the road.
A change of scenery
At the time, Blazquez’s parents decided to move to the southwest. Albuquerque, New Mexico is eventually where they made their new home.
Blazquez intention was to help them move and then return to Chicago. But he also dreamed of a new beginning in the sunny southwest. Blazquez was working in an optometry office in Chicago at the time. He figured he would submit his resume for a similar position in Albuquerque. He found a job as an assistant to an optometrist and started anew in the 505, hoping to leave his demons behind. However, he quickly found that life in Albuquerque led him back down a similarly dark path.
“I wasn’t shooting up or anything, but at my worst times I’d be in the optometrist’s office and when the doctors weren’t in the office, I would smoke oxy’s off of tin foil at work. I was hiding it from the doctors and doing the secret agent thing, feeling really bad about it and feeling really paranoid.”
Even though Blazquez’s path as an artist was blurry at this point, the experiences did help shape his vision for his work later on.
“At that time my friend introduced me to an area off of Central and Louisana called the War Zone. I was hanging out with strippers from TD’s” (a local ABQ strip club), “going to little raves at gutted out condos and doing a whole bunch of ecstasy and smoking oxycontin all night.”
Life in ABQ
Albuquerque, New Mexico, is primarily known for its spicy green chile, world-class mixed martial arts fighters and the ABQ Balloon Fiesta. But the city is also infamous for its portrayal in the hit show Breaking Bad.
One of the reasons Breaking Bad shot most of its principal photography in New Mexico was the authentic backdrop Albuquerque provided. The show is about a high school chemistry teacher turned meth dealer set in the criminal underworld of the southwest.
The area has also been the subject of the MSNBC reality show Lockup New Mexico, and Albuquerque was named the tenth most dangerous city in a recent CBS news survey based on violent crime rate per resident — beating out notorious crime capitals like Chicago and Oakland.
This was the environment in which Blazquez was able to find a seed of inspiration during some of his darkest times partying.
“I saw a lot of people that interested me with black and grey tattoos on their faces, skulls on their necks. Got to meet some of them during that time and maintained a friendship with them. Seeing all different types of people and different types of looks, dudes with 1706 state pride and gang tats — I was fascinated by that. I wanted to get clean and come back to these spots.”
By the fall of 2016, things started to come into focus for Blazquez. He was really open and honest with his parents about the drug use situation and ended up living with them for a few months to get sober.
During that time, he reenrolled into school at the University of New Mexico to continue his college education. He was also able to get clean.“Re-enrolling back at UNM really helped me… 24/7 keeping myself around other students who were being productive. Also what helped the most were those suboxone strips you wear on your nose.”
After getting back on track with his life, Blazquez shifted his focus to his art.
He reached out to some of the subjects that initially caught his eye while partying and asked if he could take their portraits. “That’s just the content I want to expose because I find it really interesting,” Blazquez says.
“When I bought my first camera in late 2015, it was a Nikon with a 35mm prime, a really good photojournalist lens. I had got the stuff I need now to do what I want to do.” Blazquez said.
He also credits his time working at the optometrist’s office with helping him make a smooth transition to the camera. “I didn’t even pick up a camera until 2014 but was able to grasp the concepts right away due to the similarities to making glasses — how the light travels through the Orpheus and so on. I picked up all the nuances quickly.”
Documenting street culture
Blazquez eventually went back to the War Zone areas where he’d spent his time hanging out and getting high. But this time, he had the new purpose of documenting the eccentric characters with his camera.
“I got back to the old spots where I used to chill out, link up with the homies I used to see there. I was fascinated with street culture, it’s really special, there’s a lot of pride in it.” Blazquez said.
Many of the subjects Blazquez asked to photograph were rough around the edges and had their suspicions about Blazquez’s intent to photograph them. Some were cool with getting their portraits shot because of Blazquez’s credibility hanging out with them prior to that. For some, this was the first time someone ever asked to shoot their picture outside of a mug shot.
“A lot of them let me shoot, some said yes, those are the ones you see in the pictures. I really like to capture people’s glances and the way they look in the lens; that’s why I focus on portraits. You get a connection from the viewer to subject.”
Back to school
Blazquez also found inspiration at UNM where he was taking classes.
At the UNM Center for Southwest Research and Special Collections, he studied lots of fine art photography by New Mexico artists like Miguel Gandert, who focused on black and white photos with a Chicano theme that became popular in the late 70’s and 80’s, mostly images of New Mexico and its people. Another inspiration for Blazquez is a tattoo and graffiti artist named Mike Giant. Blazquez draws inspiration looking at Giant’s work, which includes skateboarding, tattoo and New Mexico culture.
Each of these artists, whether working in photography or graffiti, had a focus on street culture that Blazquez absorbed into his work. Blazquez figured his next step would be to do a gallery showing of his portraits. He started reaching out to fine art galleries across New Mexico.
Entering the art world
“With the art stuff, I’ve only been having gallery shows for about a year. I got in contact with curators like Jana Gottshalk who helped me get my work out on more platforms. I did all the groundwork, sending out emails to curators, getting rejected 90% of the time. My goal was to email at least one gallery or publication a day.”
The groundwork Blazquez laid down began to pay off. His work started appearing everywhere. He was booked for local shows like Generation Next at the Spanish Colonial Arts Museum in Santa Fe. Then Blazquez met another curator by the name of Leland Chapin from Northern New Mexico. Blazquez was booked for another show called Without Borders.
Blazquez says it’s important to not only reach out to those curators but to “talk to them and see if they like my work. Getting their two cents and recommendations of if what I’m doing is acceptable for larger platforms was important.”
Blazquez’s confidence started to grow. Yet, even though he’d started to carve himself a space as an artist, but success did not come without adversity.
“There would be times where I got clean for 4-5 months at a time then go on a binge,” Blazquez explains. There is a reason Albuquerque is known for better or worse as the Land of Entrapment.
Blazquez did not let his demons get the best of him though. He returned to his safe space at UNM and got back to focusing on his art with dreams of expanding his vision to different mediums.
During that time in the fall of 2016, Blazquez met a pivotal figure in his young but budding career, a videographer by the name of John Acosta.
“When I met John, that’s when videos started taking off. He shot most of them and helped me learn how to edit. He saw my vision, he had the same type of themes in his work, the stars just aligned,” Blazquez says. That’s when their viral hit series, Duke City Diaries, was born.
Duke City Diaries was an idea Blazquez and Acosta came up with to expand on the vision of Blazquez’s portrait work. “A lot of people saw portraits but wanted to hear who the subjects are and learn their back story.”
The videos series focused on capturing a small slice of the subject’s life and environment. They have built up a huge following on Blazquez’s YouTube page. The most popular video is a portrait on a former Albuquerque Percocet dealer, which has amassed more than 570k views.
Blazquez and Acosta’s goal behind the Duke City Diaries is to “Show a story of something we wanted to see. The first video we published on a former NM inmate named Deko, had only a couple hundred views for 6-7 months, then just spiked up to over 100,000 in the span of a few days. Right now we focus on short docs; we don’t have the resources to make longer ones yet, but we have a multitude of short micro-narratives.”
Blazquez and Acosta’s portrait videos also help create an empathetic connection with the tough subjects they document. Often times focusing on the subject’s journey to get their lives back on track.
But as the buzz on Blazquez work has grown, so have the haters. Blazquez used to have a profile on Facebook for a little bit but after posting some of his “controversial” portraits people started reporting them leading to a temporary Facebook ban.
Blazquez said “I think it’s people from the law enforcement community. We put the Vice link on there and then someone reported it and Facebook banned me,” possibly because the subjects Blazquez documented had ongoing criminal matters.
“I don’t want to go back on there (Facebook). I try to get permissions, make sure people are ok with me taking their picture, using it for fine art and publications only.”
Matching aesthetic to subject
Blazquez claims no gang affiliations or favoritism, “I don’t favor one gang over the other and not trying to claim any set. I like to shine light on all types of stuff. In the end, we are all from the same community.”
The community is small in Albuquerque and Blazquez is very respectful of the sensitive subject matter he has access to. “What I’ve noticed here in Albuquerque: you can see people from rival gangs that are actually cool with each other cause they know each other, their family, cousins and stuff. What you see is rival gangs consolidate together over state pride.”
Despite limited resources, Blazquez embraces the natural elements that come with low-budget shooting. In fact, he uses the aesthetic to his advantage to add texture to the portrait videos.
“We shoot guerrilla style. For some of our subjects, we just don’t have the type of atmosphere to isolate them from their natural element, so we just go with that… The natty pops help paint the environment they are from.” Blazquez says.
The NM street culture theme of Blazquez’s work has caught the attention of some well known national media outlets including Vice and The Guardian. “It’s really cool seeing this get outside of NM.” Blazquez says.
With his fine art photography taking off and the Duke City video diary series growing its audience daily, Blazquez notes it’s important to pursue the art for the right reason. “Whether people see it or not, that’s cool… It’s important I’m doing what I like, having fun doing it.”
Still a war zone
In the fall of 2017, Blazquez came face to face with the street culture gang life he portrays in his work.
“I was wrapping a shoot, I was right near my house, it was around midnight, and got put on the ground and three guns were pulled on me. They were trying to steal my car, but couldn’t steal it because I drive a stick. They stole my backpack, took off my pants… It was right outside of my condo, not sure if I was followed back from the shoot, or if it was people that lived there. I got robbed at gunpoint.”
Blazquez accepts that it comes with the territory and also takes more precautions when going on shoots. “Since then, I haven’t gone out solo on a shoot anymore. This is just the stuff that comes with it and you have to realize that’s what happens…”
On the horizon
Despite the setbacks and imminent danger in Blazquez’s work, he pushes on. His family has helped him out with resources when times were tough and the fine art shows are starting to pay. Blazquez also says a lot of stuff they don’t get paid for, but he has long term vision for his work.
“We are working with a producer named Colin Moniz,” Blazquez says. Moniz is the creator and executive producer of a Netflix show called Fightworld.
Blazquez says “It’s a relationship we are really proud of and doing a feature is something we are working on. We hope to get it on a pitch deck soon. The main vision is to keep the content coming, not be dormant. We do this 24/7 shooting and do side jobs to make rent and put food on the table.”
Like the true crime doc Paradise Lost that originally inspired Blazquez when he was 8 years old, he plans on growing his vision into feature-length series or documentary, but he talks about keeping the theme for his work as the most important thread for his future projects.
“It’s hard and really easy at the same time. It’s that pattern you want to keep consistent and that string you want to connect the pieces together. I focus a lot on people born and raised in New Mexico. It highlights who I am as a Mexican American. My focus is on the Spanish speaking spectrum, Chicano, Spanish mix and the hundreds of different Latin American mixes. Both my parents were born in Chicago, but their parents were born in Mexico. My dad’s side’s Tampico and mom’s Michoacán.”
Finding your own voice
Through the ups and down’s, rejections and acceptance of his work, Blazquez has some simple advice on how to succeed as an artist.
“Biggest thing is getting used to rejection and when people don’t respond… My advice is not just accept rejection, but you have to love it! You have to want to do it for yourself and do something you have fun doing. You need to go with your spirit.”
He goes on to say “I’m pretty satisfied with the street stories. If a feature comes out of that, that’s awesome. Otherwise, we just push forward with the micro stories or do a longitudal story to follow it up.”
Finding your voice as an artist is about finding that common thread in your work that can be recognized by the viewer as your work. Whether it’s a painting, a photograph or a video, it’s the work that speaks to your soul. Blazquez always refers back to the camera and his time as an optometrist assistant as his tool of choice.
“Whether it’s video or still photography, it’s all the same. The camera is like an artificial brain humans recreated. The lens is like the eye that reproduces images that are a mirror to life they have or haven’t seen yet.”