As a lifetime resident of Newark, New Jersey, twenty-nine-year-old photographer Cesar Melgar grew up on its gritty streets in the company of skateboarders and graffiti artists. These early cultural influences are still very much a part of his life, as he continues to be a part of a positive creative scene in a city that has been known for its share of urban problems.
One look at his photographs and you will see that Melgar has the ability to prowl his familiar Newark streets with the stealth of a cat, at ease in places outsiders may not want to tread. Whether it is a photograph of hardworking people waiting for a morning bus or walking the alleyways at night, Melgar delivers an inside look at the places he is most comfortable in, the places he considers home, and contrary to popular thinking, “home” is not an easy topic in the arts. Home has the ability to overwhelm one with nostalgia; to hide in plain sight the problems and dysfunctional parts you know all too well; and to veil itself as something more soft and palatable for outside eyes. Melgar falls for none of that. What he delivers as a photographer is an unvarnished look at his home—the city streets.
Melgar says he now lives “practically in the shadow” of The Prudential Center, home of the New Jersey Devils hockey team. “When construction started in 2005, hundreds of families were uprooted and displaced by the building of that arena. My neighborhood was flattened—bulldozed for a surface parking lot. Can you imagine? During those years my friends (the neighborhood skaters) and I banded together to survive. We squatted in an abandoned warehouse. We fully furnished it and sourced everything from nearby homes and used it as a space which we desperately needed (a skate park, a place away from our displaced homes.) This building was our ground zero and we held onto it for about two years. My documentary photography really started at this time, and while wandering through the buildings, I ran into a gentleman who later curated the first group show I was in at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in 2007. This time period was very special to me, and really informed what I love to photograph until this day. The photos I shoot today took root during this time.”
Melgar received his first camera more than ten years ago through a high school program, where students were given free instant cameras (with expired film) to go out and photograph what they wanted. “I used the free cameras to photograph my friends at the skateboard parks. It was that early teacher, Yoland Skeete—that provided the spark I needed as a visual artist.”
Today, Melgar belongs to a close-knit collective of artists and friends who lend support, people he considers extended family. But artists who find success, a word with many definitions—find it by pushing their own personal limits and working hard to give meaning to what they make. Melgar is on the right path—his own path—and appears to have always has been.