Meet the New NYWIFT Member: Perla de Leon

By Ozzi Ramirez

Let’s give a warm welcome to renowned photographer and NYC native, Perla de Leon! Having received an MFA in Photography from Brooklyn College and attended Columbia University’s Graduate Film Director’s Program, Perla’s work has been displayed at museum exhibitions worldwide, from Mexico City to Puerto Rico and Cuba to Barcelona. Some of her most acclaimed projects include the photo series South Bronx Spirit (1970s – 1980s), The Afro-Descendant Project – Puerto Rico (2017), and Decade of Fire (2018). Over the years, Perla has shared her passion for photography and video production while teaching her craft to high school and college students.

Learn more about Perla’s illustrious career as we discuss the genesis of South Bronx Spirit (featured as part of the permanent collection at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington D.C.) and the social injustices that attracted her to document the urban landscape of the Bronx during the late seventies. Plus, read about Perla’s remarkable connection to a legendary photographer whose art was celebrated alongside Perla’s photographs at NYC’s iconic Gracie Mansion!


NYWIFT Member Perla de Leon


Can you share some stories about your earlier years? How has your relationship with your craft evolved over time?

When I was a child, on occasion, I had the chance to use my mother’s Kodak box camera, which I found confusing but fascinating since you had to look down to see your subject. As a short person, this type of viewfinder was difficult to use.


Your 1979-1980 photo series South Bronx Spirit beautifully captures the magic of its people while addressing some of the economic setbacks that negatively impacted the community. Can you provide us with a brief description of some of these challenges and your commitment to this project?

I received a CETA grant that allowed me to pick a non-profit to work with for the year, and I chose a grammar school. We had no equipment, decent books or supplies, so I taught pin-hole photography using shoe boxes the children brought in from home.

The racist policies that destroyed almost 20 miles of the South Bronx were heart-breaking. I captured as much of the community as I could, but felt impotent to truly help as I had poor writing skills and no knowledge or access to news reporting, which was badly needed at the time.


Perla de Leon’s “My Playground” © 1980


Over the subsequent decades, have you reconnected with some of the subjects and/or revisited some of the locations photographed in South Bronx Spirit? If so, can you tell us about these encounters? 

I returned about 20 years later when I had access to a car and could drive around the many areas I had worked at earlier. I photographed some of the same streets and included them in my upcoming photo book.

Sadly, I have no idea who my subjects were, but will soon hire a young media person to help me track some of these people through social media. It’s important for two reasons: I want to give each person a copy of the photo they appear in and want them to know their image can be found in several art publications, and in the permanent collection of art museums throughout the U.S., including the Smithsonian American Art Museum in D.C.


In 2019, your work was celebrated alongside 43 other extraordinary women as part of the She Persists: A Century of Women Artists in New York. What was your reaction to learning that your work was going to be featured in this exhibition at Gracie Mansion and which of your fellow honorees were you most excited to share this platform with?  

First, as a NYC-born and life-long resident of New York, it’s amazing that my work would hang in the mayor’s home (built in 1799).

While I was studying for an MFA in photography, textbooks only featured European and white U.S. photographers. African, Latin American, Asian, and other ethnicities were not represented, and in 1978, this was common across all areas of art. During this time, Imogen Cunningham was one of the few women I studied and admired greatly. She was my great-grandmother’s age and photographed female nudes, nature, and portraits with dignity and humor. Imogen worked into her nineties and left behind a great legacy in street photography, a format often discredited by academia and critics alike.

To my great honor and joy, one of my photographs hangs right next to Imogen’s work in Gracie Mansion.


Courtesy of Perla de Leon


What brings you to NYWIFT?  

Since Hurricane Maria, I have worked on numerous projects that honor Afro-Descendents in Puerto Rico and the U.S. I also created three historical video shorts based on photography that are used at universities and recently began research on a new documentary short.

Since retiring from teaching photography and video production, I have worked alone and feel the need to interact with other filmmakers for inspiration and advice.


Did the pandemic require you to modify your approach to photography? As an artist, did you come to any interesting discoveries during this time? 

I was fortunate in that I was used to working from home since my retirement from teaching, so I had already worked on editing my videos and writing my first photo-book. The hardest part was keeping myself safe while inside of a building complex with more than 1800 residents, many of who are elderly and have numerous health issues. This made COVID-19 feel particularly scary.

Perla de Leon visiting the tombstone of her great-grandmother who raised her in New York and is one of the subjects of her upcoming documentary short which shines a light on Perla’s Puerto Rican ancestry.


 What’s next for you? Do you have any exciting projects in development? 

I want to publish my photo book as a bilingual book in English and Spanish. Also, I am beginning a documentary short in Puerto Rico, where I will screen my videos at the University of Puerto Rico soon and develop some art collaborations.


For more insights into Perla de Leon’s career and other highlights, check out her website.


Ozzi Ramirez

Ozzi Ramirez Ozzi Ramirez is a current intern at NYWIFT and aspiring film producer and programmer. He studied English Literature and Theater at the University of Vermont and later received a Master's Degree in Mass Communications from Florida International University in Miami. Having moved to NYC in 2019, his interests include moseying through Manhattan with his headphones on full blast, most dogs and cats, coffee, discovering good deals on theater tickets, politics, traveling, and of course, experiencing great storytelling through movies, TV shows, and books.

View all posts by Ozzi Ramirez

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