Taste of Uruguay: 2

Leica M6, 50mm f/2, TRI-X, rated at 250 and processed normal, Xtol developer.

I think I could be perfectly happy with only my M4 and 50mm. No, I KNOW I could be perfectly happy with only my M4 and 50mm. After looking at documentary photographs, and wedding photographs(my last) in the past 24-hours, I can see this camera/lens combination is perhaps the best I’ve ever had. But, enough of the gear talk.

I put these pictures from Uruguay in this post because I think they are representative of a “typical” day or short period of time during a project. I get a lot of questions about working in the field, what I’m thinking about, how I navigate, etc, so I thought these pictures might be good starting point. First of all, I wouldn’t HAVE these photographs were it not for two suave Uruguayan guys named Martin and Diego, also known as Dokumental. As with any other documentary project, I am in great part at the mercy of other people. This could mean other photographers, as in this case, or just civilians who grant me access, lend a hand or point me in a certain direction. There were four of us total on this project, and I gained or accessed parts of this project, in some way, shape or form through them. It’s rare for me to work with other photographers, so this was a treat and the laughter and insanity alone was well worth it. We were also able to band together during strange or tense times, like when we heard Alcatrån had been spotted near the Argentinian border.

There are obvious similarities to these images. Black and white, yes, shot from behind, yes to that too, but the FEELING is very different as are the moments they were made and the requirements in human interaction needed to make them. The only guarantee I can give you is the “typical” day or shoot during a documentary project probably won’t be. Like a song you have listened to over and over and over again, a typical day brings you up, slams you down, makes you intensely happy and reflective, or sad, all within a matter of minutes or hours. You make plans and they don’t really fit or play out, or maybe they do, and people this is the beauty and brilliance in this work. In some ways I don’t want everything to work out. Mystery and chance are powerful intoxicants, and once you take the first hit it’s hard to put down the pipe.

This first image was made in Montevideo during the buildup to a major carnival-like event happening later that night. All four of us were working this one small scene. When this happens there really isn’t a lot of dialogue between us. You just work together, move together, shoot what you want and try not to get in anyone’s way. We all work differently, so even though we are working the same scene we get different photographs. And language is an issue. The damn Uruguayans speak a Spanish that might as well be Finnish. In short, it’s not like the Spanish I kinda know. So without Martin and Diego there would be no photographs like this.

I’m not a heavy shooter, so when I know I’m in a spot where there are images I’m putting myself in the best light, at the angle I want and then waiting for the composition to unfold. I’m guessing, moving, gesturing, and by doing this, in some ways, I’m influencing what happens around me. You do this long enough you learn small tricks that help you get from point A to point B. In this case I knew I wanted the two guys against the wall. They were painted up and in the perfect light. It was harsh during this moment, but they were in open shade with a nice bright, large light source in front of them, so perfect catch lights in the eyes and their white face paint was lit up. I knew when I burned down the wall their faces would pop. But the two of them against the wall was not enough. I needed a foreground to build a little depth. So I waited. Waiting can be torture. You have to come to grips with the fact you might not get it. I’ve seen photographers crack, pay for photographs or stage things. Me, I like pain, so I wait and talk to myself. I play scenarios in my head and honestly they are not always pleasant. I can find some dark places at times, but it seems to work for me. When another of their troupe emerged and stood before them, I knew I had my shot. This was not a difficult shot. This was an environment where people were somewhat expecting to be photographed, so it was not a photographic mining operation, more like finding clarity in the clutter.

This second image was a very different setting. This was not on the same day, but it was probably within a day or two. We left the chaos of the city and converged on a very quiet place in a somewhat remote location. All of us were working but we were in different places, each doing our own thing. I’ve always been drawn to water, or the waterline, so I gravitated to this spot along the river. I also love to fish, so when I saw these guys I was pretty confident there was an image or two there for me to make. Scrambling down a dirt embankment I somewhat burst out on to this quiet little scene. I think for a moment there were probably thinking, “Jesus Christo, who is the photo-gringo?” I know just enough Spanish to get a conversation started and then get myself totally lost, but that’s okay. I probably shot ten images here by the river, and I started with the younger guy near the water, the one in the background. I knew I had my layering with this guy in the foreground, and I knew the kid in the back would give me my background. I also knew I had two dynamic elements, the drainage pipe and the fishing rod, both leading out of the frame. But what I really wanted was simply this light. The light was late day, directional. It was also great color, but shooting black and white I don’t have to think about color, only direction and form. I knew the light would give paint the edges of the guy in the foreground and separate him from the dark rock background, thus giving me depth. I used as wide an aperture as possible to force you, or try to force you, to look primarily at this guy’s shoulder. This was a quiet place, a quiet moment and I wanted you to feel quiet when you view this. A shoulder blade might not be something we think about a lot, or photograph a lot, but it was the key element in my mind when I saw this scene. I talked to the guy for a minute and then I just started shooting. There was never any odd feeling or wondering whether it was okay to shoot. You can FEEL those things as soon as you enter a scene.

This last image was again different from the others. Late night, the center of a vortex of a thousands and thousands of celebrating Uruguayans. “Llamadas” is the carnival-like event that transforms Montevideo with massive crowds, processions of revelers, energy and mood that builds and builds and builds and then explodes. As a photographer it’s all about dissection. The light is low, but brilliant in places, so like a moth drawn to the flame you circle and pounce, circle and pounce. The wind is blowing, the air goes from hot to cold, the crowd presses in and the noise builds to the level of a jet engine. Time passes and you don’t even know. Again, thanks to Martin and Diego, we had total access. And people the two things you can’t EVER underestimate are time and access. Your images are typically in direct proportion to how much of these two things you have. These women were part of the event, as were all the other women in their group. My goal with this was to show the energy. It’s about motion, history, tradition, sex, asses shaking in the night, costumes and drumming. The drumming is all powerful, hypnotic and pulses your clothing as drummers pass by inches away. Overall, the lighting is challenging. However there were several sections with hot spots, street lights or some other artificial light being pumped in. I worked those spots, most of the time shooting into these lights NOT with them. Shooting into these lights backlit my subjects and added to depth and dimension, or at least that was goal. I was also shooting at a about 1/8 of a second and walking at the same speed as the women. I wanted them sharp and everything else out. This is somewhat low percentage shooting, but that is what makes photography so much fun. You win some, you lose some. I probably shot a half dozen frames of this, several of them worked.

My point with all this is to remind myself, and you, that we have to be prepared, but more importantly, we have to be open to what presents itself. You never know what the day will bring.

More Uruguay images on the way.

22 responses to “Taste of Uruguay: 2”

  1. joe dupont says:

    Great photographs, Dan. It is of particular interest to learn how you build a shot that I would otherwise have thought you happened upon. Thanks for sharing, and the lesson.

  2. Sean says:

    Great post as usual. But I’m curious. When you shoot at night, at around 400 ISO I presume, do you accept that most shots will be blurred and just go along with it?

    • Smogranch says:


      I’m rating my 400 at 250, so I’m shooting at lot wide open at slow shutter speeds. Or, I push or use TMZ to get a faster shutter. Also, I don’t shoot all that often at night. I’m normally not that happen with the results. I save that time for pounding beer and getting wild.

  3. LionelB says:

    Thanks Daniel
    This is my favourite post ever from your blog. It encapsulates what it means to work from a simple but rock solid foundation and then wait for opportunities. Much like fishing. Zooms and electronics are like fishing with dynamite or high voltage electrodes. Loads of fish in the haul but no real fishing involved.
    A little stomach churning isn’t it, the way fish always congregate around sewer outlets …

  4. Jason Timmis says:

    Thanks for this one Dan! Really enjoy the posts where you give that behind the scenes / making of stuff. Like the North Shore post(s) back stories, I’m like a kid in the candy store 😉

    ….and I love knowing that ‘walking with them, at night, at 1/8, hand held, back lit, gives a low percentage of keepers’…..there must be button on my new DSLR I can push to take care of that…somewhere, I know I saw it,,,,just hold on a second, tell the carnival to hold up a moment.

  5. LionelB says:

    Just to show that I have been paying attention in class and didn’t fall asleep at the back I have just published my first Blurb book ‘Piramida’ about an extraordinary building in Tirana, Albania. M3, Summicron, Kodak 400CN…

  6. I second more behind-the-scenes posts, this one is really good amigo. Thoroughly interesting stuff. Oh and ditto on the talking to myself!

  7. Eric Labastida says:

    I’m with you on the one camera one lens philosophy. As you know I shot for a decade with an M2 and a 35 summi. When you cut down your day to day gear to one camera/ one lens whither by choice or by poverty (my motivation) it’s really liberating. It keeps your head in the game, instead of thinking of gear gear gear all of the time. Now I use a M4 with a 35 summicron. It’s the best! But that’s like only my opinion man.

  8. Eric Labastida says:

    However I concur, The 50 summicron is a little piece of magic.

  9. Chris Fuller says:

    Simplicity and attentativeness. These are two values I have embraced this past year and your blog has helped a great deal. Two years ago I walked around with two DSLRs, four lenses that ranged from 17mm to 200mm, a 2X teleconverter, flash, and large camera bag. Now I write to you from my hotel room in the Zona Roma of Mexico City preparing for an eight-day cultural adventure with nothing but a Fuji X100 and it feels liberating.

    • Smogranch says:

      I think when you carry all that gear it is almost impossible to actually experience a place, a people, a story, etc. It forms a barrier unless you are shooting with commercial purposes, and then in my experience you never really experience a place anyway because you have other people’s, and corporations, intentions and needs in mind. I think we’ve built photography up to an unhealthy level. Being a photographer is also about experience, not just glossy, commercially relevant images. We have too many of those as it is. I’d rather see three images with meaning than another formulaic travel piece.

  10. Eric Labastida says:

    Is that 1:1 or straight up on the XTOL?

Leave a Reply to LionelB Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *