Photographing the vibrant subcultures of downtown Albuquerque
From tattoo parlors to private nightclubs, a new exhibition follows photographer Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli’s exploration of the city.
Photography Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli
Downtown Albuquerque is steeped in legend and homegrown traditions, from offbeat after-hours spots to all kinds of experimental music and art. The infectious sound of camaraderie ripples beyond Central Avenue, where the neighborhood’s charm is on full display through a combination of community and irreplicable style. Souped-up automobiles cruise through city corridors in an effervescent expression of individuality, signaling how here, a lowrider isn’t only a type of car – it’s a flourishing lifestyle.
Albuquerque-based photographer Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli couldn’t help but feel seduced by the spectacle of it all. He had lived near downtown since his childhood, so the bustling area conjured equal parts nostalgia and intrigue, beginning when he picked up a camera around 2009. Though it took him a while to harness the city’s true potential as a subject, he eventually thought up an exciting project after seeing his hometown from a fresh point of view during the COVID-19 lockdown.
“I was always trying to travel far away, to take pictures of people in exotic lands or something. I had some fantasy in my head of what I should be doing,” Nathaniel says. “Because of the pandemic, I started going out locally with my camera more than ever before. And that changed everything about my photography.”
Roaming the streets of Downtown Albuquerque with his Leica Q2, which he never leaves home without, Nathaniel watched the colorful characters of ‘Duke City’ come to life through his lens. He prowled tattoo parlors, private nightclubs and more popular hangouts in and around the area, documenting Indigenous dancers, partygoers in glittering heels and other scenes epitomizing the city’s eccentric soul. His encounters with these alternative personalities are the focus of a new exhibition at 516 Arts in Albuquerque: Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli: Downtown. Featuring 22 captivating black-and-white and color pictures, many of which were taken between 2017 and 2022, the show sheds light on some of Albuquerque’s most vibrant urban subcultures, depicting their idiosyncrasies from an authentic insider perspective.
“I try to capture people having a good time and enjoying themselves. I'm not looking to cast people in a negative light,” Nathaniel says. “Maybe that’s why my subject matter is a little bit narrower. These people may look scary on the outside, but most of them are super nice. They have a different culture, but they're not very different from you and me.”
Gang-related crime, widespread income inequality and a deadly drug epidemic all contribute to Albuquerque’s seedy reputation. Despite recent strides to revitalize the area, downtown still lacks the infrastructure of larger cosmopolitan centers across America. There are the usual bars or restaurants, of course — most of which are interspersed among abandoned office spaces — but the actual fun often happens outside, away from the rules of licensed establishments. Locals driven by a DIY spirit spill out onto the sidewalks, fire up their grills and fill coolers to the brim with cold beers, celebrating nothing in particular besides another memorable day in the ‘Burque.’ Imagine it like a sprawling block party — the ideal atmosphere for a curious-minded photographer. Soon, everyone knew exactly what to expect when Nathaniel showed up with his camera.
“When I did more street photography, I’d shoot from a farther distance. But I could never find the right angles and I always wanted to go closer,” he says. “Now I’m really close. Some of the photos are so candid because they’ve stopped paying attention to me and I’m just kind of there. I can start snapping away and nobody cares.”
Using a fixed focal length forces Nathaniel to stay within spitting distance of his subjects, giving his images an added sense of liveliness. Somewhere between completely candid and posed, the dynamic photos immortalize otherwise fleeting situations, like a dolled-up drag queen on a cigarette break or a classic car rolling up to the smoke shop. A few shots showcase quintessential New Mexican motifs, as faith and countercultures collide in the form of elaborate body modifications. Intricate tattoos inspired by religious iconography highlight the shared humanity of each person Nathaniel photographs. “Without closeness and trust, I wouldn't be able to make my photos,” he says. “I couldn’t take any of them if I didn’t have access through my relationships. I try to befriend whoever I meet, even if it’s only for a minute.”
Sometimes all it takes is a second to capture an endearing moment. Once, during a memorial cruise honoring a resident who died, downtown buzzed with friendly chatter and the clamor of car horns. A random vehicle paused amid the mayhem, and suddenly, a man popped out to take a selfie. Nathaniel’s swift instincts kicked in to snap the precise instant the subject struck a pose, resulting in one of his favorite images in the entire exhibition, Selfie. It’s also one of the defining photos of his whole downtown collection, encapsulating the remarkable energy of Albuquerque’s predominantly Latinx lowrider culture. He had impeccable timing too: shortly after Nathaniel took the photo, the driver hopped back in the car, zooming off quicker than he’d arrived.
“Holding up a cell phone with a phone case showing a photo of a young family member is a perfect representation of the subject’s values,” writes the exhibition’s curator, Daniel Ulibarri, in an accompanying brochure. “The driver stands on his throne in motion, a symbol of the unique artistry, community, culture and family of which they are a part. Lowriders, and the people who create and drive them, embody the heart and spirit of New Mexico.”
Refusing to be pigeonholed in what he photographs or constrained by harmful stereotypes, Nathaniel cuts through the noise to represent the real Albuquerque, emphasizing the proud people who’ve helped shape the city into what it is today. Downtown offers a unique opportunity to explore the metropolis through familiar eyes and get a glimpse of Albuquerque at its finest. “This is the Albuquerque I see, how I interpret everything around me,” Nathaniel says. “Obviously that’s not all the city is, but this is my version. It’s my own little slice of reality.”
Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli: Downtown is on view at 516 Arts until September 3rd, 2022.
Photographs by Nathaniel Tetsuro Paolinelli