The Photography of Luis Medina
Born in Havana in June of 1942, Luis Medina was a Cuban-American photographer based in Chicago, whose work focused on the documentation of marginalized groups, such as the gay and Latino communities. During his childhood, he attended a private military school until 1958 when, at the age of sixteen, he left for Spain to complete his education. In Spain, Medina met the exiled Cuban poet and writer Gastón Baquero, who introduced him to Spanish literature, painting, and architecture. He toured through Europe, working a series of jobs to finance his trip, and visited Italy, Germany and France.
In 1961, Luis Medina migrated to Miami, Florida, and was reunited with his mother and stepfather, who had immigrated from Cuba after Fidel Castro’s rise to power. Supporting himself with temporary jobs, he studied history, philosophy and sociology at Miami Dade Junior College, where he graduated with honors in 1967. At Miami Dade, Medina reunited with old friends, among whom was his closest friend José Lopez, a fellow student from the military academy in Havana.
Sensing he was stagnating in Miami, Medina left the influence of his parents’ Cuban culture and relocated to attend the School of the Art Institute of Chicago with dreams of becoming a sculptor. Reaching a similar decision about life in Miami, José Lopez also moved to Chicago to attend its Art Institute. The two friends found two American mentors at the Institute: Harold Allen, a teacher who was an architectural photographer, and Hugh Edwards, who was the Institute’s curator of prints, drawings and photographs.
A Mormon in upbringing, Harold Allen was a steadfast, quiet man who was well informed in art history and proficient as a photographer. It was Allen who first instilled in Medina a fascination for photography. In working with Allen on site photograph projects, Medina learned how to calculate a precise point of view and capture the quality of light. Self-educated in French literature, Art history and American history, Hugh Edwards came from a working-class family. A friend of musician Duke Ellington, he was trained in classical music, appreciated a wide range of singers and motion pictures, and was well-read in the works of Faulkner, Proust, Whitman, and other notable authors. Through these mentors, Medina and Lopez gained an unique education in photography and North American culture.
Luis Medina turned his artistic interests to photography in a collaborative effort with José Lopez. They had their first joint museum exhibition organized by the Art Institute of Chicago in 1973; versions of the show traveled to Finland in 1974 and Australia in 1976 as a representative of North American photography. After being introduced to Hugh Edward’s Puerto Rican friends, Medina and Lopez began taking images of the diverse cultures in the city of Chicago. In the fall of 1973, they worked with an art historian and an architect in Illinois’s Quincy and Adams counties photographing its architecture and local crafts for the American Revolution Bicentennial Administration’s project, “Community Rediscovery ’76″.
In 1974, Medina and Lopez worked together to document the campus of the University of Chicago for a book entitled “Dreams in Stone”. With their aesthetic and personal points of view diverging, their intimate eleven-year partnership eventually dissolved. After an illness in 1977, Lopez moved back to Miami and gave up photography; Medina inherited their mutual work and stayed on in Chicago. With Lopez’z departure, Medina’s photography shifted in focus; his sudden domestic solitude generated less optimistic and more introspective work. Rekindling his interest in human contradictions and tragedies, he began to develop a more private side of work which, more satisfying and outspoken, gave voice to his Cuban origins.
Luis Medina began a series of photographs on Latin-American life in Chicago, which included Puerto Rican Day parades and local weddings. He also began to photograph Chicago’s LGBTQ scene of the late 1970s and early 1980s with a series of work that documented the community from a unique inside perspective. Beginning in 1977, Medina started photographing the altars and ceremonies of the African-Cuban religious folk cult known as Santeria. Although he continued to produce architectural photos on commission, the main focus of his work became his immediate surroundings. Seeing the explosion of territorial graffiti throughout the city, Medina started photographing Chicago’s neighborhood youth gangs and their personalized graffiti. Through time, he earned the trust of the gangs and began to also shoot their portraits. A solo exhibition of both portraits and photographed graffiti was held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1980.
Beginning in late 1984, Medina was diagnosed with a cytomegalovirus infection, which often is associated with AIDS; his infection possibly developed as early as 1981 and had now become debilitating. Medina lost partial control of his left hand but, through a course of handwriting exercises, slowly regained his dexterity. He kept his rapidly progressing illness a secret from his family and friends and continued to believe in his survival. By June of 1985, Medina was with his parents in Miami and knew he was dying. Surrounded by his parents and a few friends, Luis Medina died, at the age of forty-three, at Jackson Memorial Hospital on October 12th of 1985.
The publishing of Luis Medina’s work after his death was accomplished through the efforts of his mother, Olga Bohorques, who was determined that his work would not be forgotten, and members of Chicago’s Photo Circle and its Art Institute. A retrospective of Medina’s work, entitled “Facts and Fables by Luis Medina, Photographer”, was held at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1993. His work also appeared in the 2018 group exhibition, “Never So Lovely So Real: Photography and Film in Chicago, 1950-1980”. held as part of Art Design Chicago.
Note: A collection of Medina’s photographs, dating from the 1960s to the 1980s, is housed in the University of Miami’s Cuban Heritage Collection. The collection is comprised of approximately twenty-two thousand items of mixed media: slides, silver gelatin prints, negatives and color prints. The collection is unprocessed but open for research.