Taste of Uruguay: Navigating a Portrait

It was hours before the big show. The post breakfast drowsiness compounded by the sun through car windows as Martin navigates the streets of Montevideo. We have a plan. “These guys are going to be getting ready and we will try to get permission to photograph.” Flashes of light and dark, searing sun and reflections of inverted buildings. I close my eyes. Four of us, all waiting to see what we will see or what we won’t. “Llamadas” approaches but we want to “set the table” beforehand. We need to BUILD this story and body of work. We are here for about ten days, maybe more, and can only hope for so much. Little victories are what matters. We mostly ride in silence. Martin parks and we spill out of the tiny car. The scene is slow, mellow and movements can be FELT. There is no secret, we are all here to work, to make pictures and fortunately for us they are game to play. There is an inside area and an outside area, both with decent to good light. The sun is still high so the people outside hunt for shade. This is good for us. I start with the Leica, almost to get them used to me, but with the color and paint I know I want the square.

“Can I make your portrait?”
It begins. Open shade, broad light over my shoulder and now all I have to think about is focus and my composition. The square solves a lot of things for me, after all, it’s square. CLUNK, WIND, CLUNK, WIND. I’m wide open, at 2.8 and I’m at close focus. I only want his eyes sharp. At frame twelve I need to reload and the great dance begins. Flip the lever out, wind until I hear the leader come free, twist the side door, pull out the insert, unhinge the film, spool it tight, then slowly, VERY slowly lick the tape. This NEVER fails to get people involved. “Did you just lick that?” “Yes.” Take out new roll, pull off the tape, invert and load into the insert, spool the end, twist tight, insert the holder, close the back and wind until it stops. Pull the dark slide. “Listo?” I ask and move in again.

These images are not really up to me. I begin by putting myself in position but the rest comes from the other side of the lens. The first shot is serious with intensity in the gaze. During the second shot the serenity and connection are broken as someone from the edges says something. Like cracking through a sheet of ice. The genie is out of the bottle and now I can only react. If I force it and ask him to settle back into me it won’t work. The magic is gone, so I just stop talking and keep shooting. It’s nice for me. I like to be here, but invisible to those around me. I can have conversations with myself, or daydream, while I’m working. It’s part of being on the road, and part of life behind the lens.

Make it count. There is no need to shoot endless imagery. Ever been on the other side of the camera? “Relax and just be normal.” Impossible. It’s all artificial, we either both accept the game or we don’t bother playing. This is your chance to act and it’s the same for them. They are not themselves, not during these little moments. They are actors in the world stage and for just a brief moment I am the conductor, the composer or the chief mechanic. They don’t really know what it is I’m attempting to do. I must relay this by speech and emotion. Win them over, get them on my side and do to them what I need to do. Sometimes it feels good, other times no so much, but the internal battle is what makes it all interesting. And then suddenly it is gone. If it went well the memory alone will fuel you to the next encounter, and if it went poorly it can stain your mental existence for days, weeks, even longer perhaps. Fragility is real but worth continual exploration. Is it good enough? Am I good enough? Does any of it matter? There is a weight to the exposed film and comforting to look down and see the rolls piling up. I can’t see it, but I can feel what I have or what I missed. I try to be in the moment but my mind begins to build the mental puzzle of imagery. What pieces still remain?

As I close my eyes I see light blue and the stars upon a face.

10 responses to “Taste of Uruguay: Navigating a Portrait”

  1. Ed says:

    A beautiful dance, thanks for sharing it so intimately. The light blue, white, and black feels so Argentinian and/or Uruguayan to me, I guess from my history of knowing rugby and football, so these works so well!

    • Smogranch says:

      No problem. Glad you enjoyed it. It’s funny. I feel the same when I see certain colors now. Green and yellow…brazil, etc. Futbol is to blame!

    • Chris Fuller says:

      Try the colors here in Mexico (still here on vacation). Amazing. If you have not been to Mexico City, make some plans soon. The juxtaposition of cultures, sights, and sounds engages all of your senses. The food, from street vendors to fine dining, is also outstanding. I have coined the phrase “exuberant improvisation” to try and explain this fascinating (and inexpensive) locale.

    • Smogranch says:

      Mexico is great, like ten different countries in one. I’ve been but don’t go as often as before. It’s dicey down there in certain places.

  2. Chris Fuller says:

    Dicey, yes, in the border towns where the drug war has a strong hold. However, Mexico City is far removed from these problems. As long as one takes the normal precautions that one would take in other big cities like New York, London, or Rome, Mexico City is as safe and as much of a pleasure to explore as they are (in fact, I think one’s chances of experiencing petty theft are greater in Rome). My wife and I walked the streets la Colonia Roma every night without every feeling in danger. For an interesting examination of the gap between the perceptions and the reality of Mexico City, see “First Stop in the New World” by David Lida.

    • Smogranch says:

      Hey Chris,

      I’ve had conversations with two friends, both of whom live pretty far south in Mexico, who are under total lockdown at night. They told me of driving by headless bodies along the road and being robbed at gunpoint in the “safe” neighborhoods at night. I know MC is okay, other than the normal petty big city stuff, but the drug war seems to be well beyond the border. And lets not forget the shooting in the MC aiport two weeks ago, and the Gulf Cartel actions in the Acapulco. Even places like Monterrey and Veracruz are getting hit. Three photogs killed there a few months ago. I love Mexico and would still go, not a problem.

  3. LionelB says:

    The only real escape from the ‘knowing’ portrait is to photograph someone when they are so intent on doing something else that they have no capacity to pose. Operating a lathe, controlling a horse. In your case, participating in a procession. I suppose the question is whether we want to be boxed into that corner by a human landscape that has become increasingly media savvy.

    • Smogranch says:

      I think you would be surprised. The answer to your question is very simple. Time. Spend time and you will get all the real images you wish. Go quickly and you are at the mercy of the public.

  4. Bueno amigo. Am really enjoying these behind the scenes and inside your mind on shoots posts. Glad to see the blog back and firing on all cylinders.

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