Artist to Watch: Chris Ortiz

Standing outside his duplex in Baldwin City, Kansas, photographer Chris Oritz holds his guinea pig, which he often uses to test lighting. (photo by Jim Barcus)

The Lawrence-Based Documentary Photographer Turns His Lens to Punk Culture

Punk rock shaped Chris Ortiz’s life, and his latest photography project is his love letter to the culture, the people and the scene.

“I’ve been homeless. I’ve slept in my car. Cement floors. Friends’ couches,” he said recently in Lawrence, Kansas. “I’ve been unsure where I’m going to be from one night to the other. But one constant has been the scene and relying on people in the scene to give that helping hand. The music was always there for me.”

The 36-year-old artist and Lawrence native received his first camera when he was just 6 years old. He won his first award when he was 13. He didn’t take his first photography class, however, until he was in grad school.

“I love film,” he said. “I started photography before the digital revolution. I consider the darkroom my second home. I love the smell of the chemicals. Even if you’ve been away from it for 20 years, you can walk in and smell that smell and memories come back to you.”

His first really big project was called “Portraits of LatinX Identity.” He photographed University of Kansas undergrads, grad students, faculty and staff of any sort of Latin descent. Central American, South American. Third-generation, fourth-generation. Dreamers, people who might still be considered “illegal” here.

He took portraits of each subject in his portable studio. He asked each to think about a moment when they faced discrimination. Then he asked them to speak at length about how being Latino affected their daily lives.

He began this work during the 2016 presidential election. The date of the exhibit’s opening, artist talk and subject panel at KU was about a week after Donald Trump won the presidency.

“It was a very somber mode,” Ortiz said. “It was almost eerie scary to go into that room with all of these people who were fearing for what the future might hold.”

Ortiz is third-generation Mexican American himself, so he felt what his subjects felt.

“I’m lighter-skinned than most, but there’s still that fear of what’s going to happen,” he said. “Going into it, nobody thought Trump was going to be elected. From his announcement saying Mexicans are drug dealers and rapists, there was a possibility his rhetoric could become policy. No one knew at the time that that was going to be the case.”

His second project hit even closer to home. “Living with Sam” documents about two years in the life of his then-girlfriend, now-fiancée, who struggles with PTSD, depression and high anxiety because of a past abusive relationship when she was a teenager.

It’s not easy to get great photos of someone who wants to be left alone, or who wants to stay in bed all day, but the agony in the photos is haunting. Ortiz photographed Sam at home, at work, at family gatherings. There are photos of her sitting naked on the bathroom counter shaving her head. Another of her in bed, seemingly hiding from a world too much to bear.

Because of their relationship, he was able to get to a deeper, more intimate level with his photographs. There were, however, upsides and downsides to that closeness.

“One of the biggest meltdowns she ever had was of her crying — and we talk about this a lot,” Ortiz said. “It was so powerful, she was in tears for an hour. I had my camera, I took one or two shots, and that about ended our relationship right there. What she wanted was the boyfriend, and my first instinct was taking photographs of her.”

An image from Ortiz’s latest series, “We Are All We Have Tonight,” featuring portraits of punk rock fans accompanied by personal statements. (from the artist)

Titled “We Are All We Have Tonight,” his latest project about the history of the punk rock scene, though, is a labor of love. Instead of taking shots of bands and musicians, he’s focusing on the people, the fans. Any fans.

“They may never have been in a band, but they just love the music, the scene and the righteousness of the politics,” he said.

He’s been at it for about two years. He’d love to travel to punk rock enclaves all over the world.

“The history of punk is a world history now,” he said. “There are punk bands in Central and South America and China and Japan. There’s a huge punk scene in Europe. Polynesia. India. It’s literally spread all around the world.”

Even the most insulated have heard of Pussy Riot, the notorious punk collective out of Russia that has seen some of its members arrested and jailed because of their activism.

“Pussy Riot is a prime example of the reach,” he said. “You’re talking about a punk band that gets worldwide attention for their demonstrations and their social activism. They’re all about human rights. It’s incredible.”

Though the “LatinX” portraits were in color, Ortiz is shooting the punk portraits in black and white, in part to give them an old-timey, grimy feel. The 50th anniversary of the music is coming up soon, and black and white appealed to the historic side of the project.

His methodology here is similar to “LatinX,” in which he asks each subject to talk about how they happened upon punk culture.

“There’s this one kid in Denver I photographed,” Ortiz said. “His story is he was in junior high and his mom and dad were already into the scene. He had this horrible breakup in junior high. His dad gave him a punk album. That was his first introduction into the scene: this album his dad gave him to get over that relationship.”

Ortiz feels some urgency to get the project done. Soon some of those early punk fans will be gone. The punk sensibility goes back at least as far as Woody Guthrie, who famously played a guitar inscribed with the hand-carved words “This Machine Kills Fascists.”

“And then you look 60 years down the road at a band like Anti-Flag, and they have songs that basically repeat those lines over and over again, and that was the 1990s,” he said. “The same stuff that Woody was singing about still resonates today.”

That a kid from Lawrence — home to the infamous punk venue the Outhouse — is taking it upon himself to document this culture before it’s gone is nothing shocking.

To Ortiz, punk rock touches everything around him.

“It’s a scene I’ve been in since I was 15 or 16 years old,” he said. “It has shaped my life, and I guess this is my thank you to it, for allowing me to thrive as a person and be who I am today.”

To see images from all of Ortiz’s photographic series, visit www.chris-ortiz.com/portfolio.

David Frese

David Frese is a writer, photographer, artist and community advocate from rural Kansas who spent 21 years covering Kansas City’s arts and culture for “The Kansas City Star.” He is a graduate of Kansas State University.

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