By José Gómez
Gilbert Ortiz was born in 1949 in Los Angeles, California. One of seven boys, he was raised by parents of Mexican heritage, his mother from Texas and his father from California. He moved to New York City in 1970, where he worked for Richard Beattie, a photographer who specialized in advertising. After 30 years of working as a free-lance photographer in various capacities, Ortiz returned to Los Angeles, where he now lives and works.
Ortiz grew to admire Jacob Riis and Lewis Hine, whose photo images exposed unfair labor practices and mistreatment of workers in early 20th Century New York. Under the tutelage of Photographer Beattie, Ortiz in 1970 met W. Eugene Smith, considered by many to be the world’s greatest photojournalist. Ortiz was awed by Smith’s technical competence and skill as a photographer, but he particularly admired Smith’s passion for truth as he fought to protect the integrity of his photographs from publishers who were more interested in monetary gain than in Smith’s personal vision. From Riis, Hine and Smith, Ortiz learned that “the legacy of photographer-as-political-activist, whose documents serve to effect change while simultaneously preserving the time, the struggles, and the lives of people, endures for generations.”
In the mid-seventies, while supporting himself with his photography in New York, Ortiz heard of César Chávez and readily identified with the farm laborers' struggles. Compelled to return home to photograph history in the making, Ortiz was there with his medium-format camera in the summer of 1974 to bear witness, to hear stories from the farm workers themselves, and to serve as their photographer. Two short weeks and 30 rolls of film later, he had managed to document their activism, their faces, and their world of work.
Within days of returning to New York, Ortiz was contacted by the New York Times Sunday Magazine, which needed photographs to accompany a story by freelance journalist Winthrop Griffith. The story ("Is Chávez Beaten?" September 15, 1974) ran with a half dozen portraits of farm workers whose struggle for survival, La Causa, was being threatened by a rival union seeking power, the Teamsters union.
Of his farm worker photographs, Ortiz explains:
In one picture, I sought to capture the inhumanity of el cortito, the crippling short-handled hoe that had come to symbolize stoop labor and the cruel exploitation that the farm workers were fighting. My work follows one history in the tradition of documentary photography, that of allowing images to capture the inhumane treatment of human beings, particularly the exploitation of labor for profit.
The photograph that Ortiz refers to inspired a cartoon (“Man with a Hoe”) by Paul Conrad, Pulitzer Prize winner and chief editorial cartoonist of the Los Angeles Times. In 1975, the California Supreme Court banned "el cortito" from the fields forever. In the ensuing year, farm worker back injuries dropped a dramatic 34%, according to California Rural Legal Assistance, which led the battle in the courts.