Eric Labastida: Bordertown: 1992-2002
I actually don’t remember when I met Eric Labastida. I think it was during the 1996 political convention in downtown San Diego. Another young guy with a Leica trying to make sense of it all. We started hanging out and all these years later we are still friends. We go for long periods with no communication and then suddenly I get an email about a Special Forces flashlight, or a question about Xtol at 1:1 or 1:2? This is just how it works. The photo-life, you just play along.
Eric is from the Diego, and I have to say, from what I know about him all these years later, I can tell you he was influenced in great part by his parents. His mom, well, just good people is all I can say and she cooked or us which means I will forever have a small tattoo of her on my stomach. Eric’s dad is a legend. Eric’s dad is a man, the real kind. If I showed up at Eric’s and his dad was in the driveway gutting a moose it would seem completely normal. And if I asked him, “Nice Ernie, where did you bag that?” and he replied “the zoo,” this would also seem completely normal. If you were looking for someone to walk the length of Baja with only a juice box and plastic fork, Eric’s dad would be the guy but would probably say, “I don’t need the fork.” I think to be a photographer you have to pull from the foundation you were given and Eric seems to have done that.
Spending almost twenty years growing up in Texas meant I had crossed the Mexican border many times. Matamoros, Nuevo Laredo, Juarez, etc, and my subsequent photographic life had taken me to other spots like Ciudad Acuna and Nogales. Eric had Tijuana. It was only natural that at some point he and I would go to “TJ” and we did. For me it was a break, something different, a challenge, a bit of action if you will, but for Eric it was far more, it was an obsession. From 1992-2002 Eric was consumed by Tijuana.
Recently, during a conversation about developers, photography, changes in our lives, etc, the topic of “TJ” once again came to the discussion. “Hey, send me some pics and I’ll do a post,” I said. Well, actually, I said “Send me your best five images.” A few days later I get an email, “Hey, is it okay if I send six pictures?” I said, “Sure, go ahead.” And then being the absolute twisted mess that he is Eric pings with me an email…“Okay, I SWEAR TO GOD, I’ve narrowed it to TEN IMAGES MAXIMUM.” Before I could even reply he said, “Okay, twelve.” I’ve added a few additional, but the guts are all his. I also sent him a few questions that should fill in the blanks of who he is, why he does what he does and what this Tijuana obsession was all about.
DM: In 1992 you were a very different person than you are today. Where were you, what were you and what was your photographic outlook?
EL: There’s something I didn’t realize as a young photographer, and that is the fact that you can photograph anywhere. But it takes practice to see the extraordinary in the ordinary. Definitely something not learned overnight. I had the very rare opportunity to wander at my own pace with a camera for years. I did it for so long that it became an inseparable aspect of my life. Sam Abell used to call this “the shooting life”. That being said, I also believe that if you go to an environment that you’re not used to it’s easier to “see” things that you wouldn’t otherwise. At the time I was living in San Diego, literally right across the street from Tijuana. For a twenty year old in search of high adventure Tijuana fit the bill. At the time I wasn’t thinking project, story or book, I was just interested in life.
DM: Your father is quit the adventurist, which tells me your mom is too. What impact did they have on your pursuit of docentary photography?
EL: When my dad was about twenty-something he was in the army; he didn’t have a lot of extra money. So when he wanted to go on a hiking trip he just used army issue gear. He took many trips into places like the Olympic National Park and the Sierras. He also had with him his trusty Exacta with a 50mm lens. He shot Kodachrome, first 25 then 64. He would photograph and later have his slideshows. I loved looking at his slides. Because they were shot on Kodachrome they looked like they were taken yesterday. I don’t think you can say that about digital, the jury is still out. I’d like to think I had an original thought when it comes to documenting my life photographically but what I’m really doing is continuing a tradition.
DM: What kind of formal training, if any, do you have, and what is your opinion on the rather common, modern view that studying photography perhaps isn’t really necessary in the age of the internet?
EL: I literally took a small handful of beginning photo classes. But now that i’m thinking about it I’d have to say that my first class, photo 100, taught me skills I still use today. Elliot Erwitt says all you need to learn about photography is printed on the box that the camera came in. I totally believe that. Now mind you, he’s talking about cameras that you could buy between 1950 and 1990. The cameras sold today need an advanced degree from MIT to understand. There’s really only three things you need to know about your camera: one, what film you’re using; two, shutter speed; and three, aperture.I think once you learn the three basics I mentioned above, then taking further classes about how to operate your camera is about as important as taking a class on typesetting.
DM: This is a ten-year project, but did you have any idea when you started this that you would spend ten years of your life in Tijuana?
EL: No, certainly not.
DM:Do you recall the reason why you first went to TJ?
EL: It seemed safer than going to Bosnia or Mogadishu. Living in San Diego, it seemed the logical choice for high adventure on a budget. Actually, I have a buddy who lived very close to the border. He actually started going to Tijuana first, then I started going with him. Tijuana was interesting to me for many reasons. It was the smells, sights and sounds that made me go back year after year.
DM: In a given year, how often would you work on this project?
EL: I was very fortunate to have been able to make many trips during any given year. Typically I’d go down about 2-3 times a week.
DM: When did TJ become an obsession?
EL: I’d say about the second year in. I got caught up in the rhythm of the city and fell in love with the thrill of the pursuit. After I started seeing my results I was encouraged to continue.
DM:Your photographs depict mostly quiet, and some not so quiet daily life moments. Do you consider yourself primarily a street photographer or a chronicler of daily life?
EL: When I first started I considered myself a street shooter because that’s what I thought they called this genre of photography. But after a few years my work started to reflect more daily life situations, and less street shooter kind of pictures. At least in a Garry Winogrand/Lee Friedlander sense.
DM: I would classify this work as classic, black and white documentary work, but how do you view or describe it? And why do you work in this fashion when the world is working in digital?
EL: Too many times I have seen new versions of what was once classic and think “why?”. Why did they feel a need to change something that wasn’t broken to begin with? Film has a look, feel and soul that digital will never have, period. When I start to talk about digital and how it has infected photography I think, “digital photography– that’s really an oxymoron”. Whenever I pick up a digital camera I feel like I’m using a toy not a tool. If they stop making film in my lifetime I’ll just take up charcoal sketching or something. Digital photography is too easy, and when this technology was delivered to the masses it immensely dumbed-down the medium to the point where “a chimpanzee can use it”, as Elliot Erwitt would say. To answer your question, yes I categorize my work as classic B&W documentary work. I catch what is there without influencing the subject–I never ask for them to turn or tilt or smile. I shoot it, soup it and print it.
DM: Was there a particular part of Tijuana you focused on?
EL: When I first started shooting there everything was a wonder to me. However, I usually ended up in one of three sections, the 5y10, downtown or the linea. The “Linea” section or border secion of TJ was by far the most interesting and probably most dangerous to work in because of the drugs and crime that was happening all around. Being 6’2 and 230 is probably what kept me safe, but I’m most likely fooling myself into thinking that. The more I think about it the more I’ve come to the conclusion that I was just damn lucky I didn’t end up dead.
DM: Give me an idea about your mindset when you work? What are you thinking about? What are you looking for? Light? Layering?
EL: They say Cartier-Bresson preferred looking at people’s contact sheets because it showed how the person thought. Um, let’s see, my mindset, I’d say I’m more of a reactionary photographer. I try to make certain prerequisites are in place, like lighting and geometry. As long as lighting and geometry are set on stage all I have to do is be ready like a pouncing cat. Shooting in Tijuana was very often chaotic. I would start the day thinking ok today I wanna shoot street musicians and instead end up photographing prostitutes. You just never knew what you were gonna get. And that’s what I loved about it.
DM: Who was the first photographer who made you think about photography as more than a hobby?
EL: It would have to be my photo 100 instructor Paul Stahalek. One day he showed us his pictures he had done on migrant workers. They were the coolest pictures I had ever seen. Then he pulled out what he used to make these pictures. It was a Leica M6. I remember thinking to myself, really, THIS little camera took THOSE pictures!!!! I was blown away. Later Sam Abell whom I’d met at a workshop introduced me to what I’d like to call a philosophy called the shooting life. It basically meant that wherever you are, whatever you’re doing take a camera with you. I’m going on 22 years of having a camera on me 90% of the time and it’s great.
DM: There is an image I’ve included of myself printing in your darkroom. You made this image, but tell me about the darkroom itself?
EL: Oh man, I loved that darkroom. My Dad, who is the kind of man who builds and fixes EVERYTHING, decided to hollow out the dirt under his house so he could have a basement. He started construction i think sometime in 1982 and finished, gosh, i wanna say 3-4 years later? Anyhow, when he was done he used concrete reinforced cinderblock for the walls. You’d need to use C4 to change anything about the basement now. At the deepest section of the basement he designed my darkroom. It is a fully functional darkroom with stainless steel sinks and plumbing. I wish I had one like that here In Vegas.
DM: As far as I know, you have never worked full time as a photographer. Tell me why and what made you do this? Also, do you see this as being a positive thing or do you feel you missed out in any way?
EL: Again, I was very fortunate to be able to work this way, it’s almost like I had a trust fund. The bottom line is this: If you’re shooting for a client then you are responsible to the client. You can’t do whatever you want, unless of course the client gives you complete free range. I had opportunities to work for newspapers in the early years, but I wanted to shoot my own way too often. Much later I showed my work to a friend of mine, Paul Gero, who is a fine photographer who I very much admire. He said “Boy this sure doesn’t look like newspaper stuff” I took that to be a positive thing. Look, I’m not degrading the work of newspaper photographers. Some are VERY VERY good photographers whom I look up to, but it just wasn’t a path I was willing to put myself on. I came to the conclusion pretty early on that if you were the only one you had to please you were much better off.
DM: This project ended in 2002, so what have you been doing with yourself, and what is photography to you today?
EL: In 2002 I shifted gears in a major and good way, I got married and two years later had kids. Now, I’m on the eighth year of a several decade (I hope) project on my life as dad & husband. The process of shooting, souping and printing hasn’t changed very much. As long as Kodak makes film I’ll be happy.
DM:Tijuana now is a very different place than it was back then. I had a problem there a few years back(Got jumped and had to deal with Grupo Alpha). Do you still go and what do you think about the city now?
EL:I wouldn’t work in Tijuana if you paid me. It’s gotten WAY more dangerous to just bum around with a camera. I think it’s the same for any border town: since about 2006 the drug war has made Tijuana a much more dangerous place. I imagine it’s worse than Bogota in the 80’s. In Bogota, you had two main drug cartels controlling everything. In Mexico you have 200 cartels all fighting amongst each other and the government. Way too messy for me!
DM:Did you ever have any strange or scary moments?
EL:Working near the border during the night was always more hair raising than any other area of Tijuana; I saw more arrests, fights and drug activity at night than at any other time. One time we were was chased out of the red light district (the Cahuila, as it was called by the locals) by a knife-wielding lunatic. That was fun. It’s wise to just run like hell toward the touristy section when folks like that are after you. Another time that comes to mind was the time we were stopped and questioned by members of the Grupo Beta or Federal police. That actually was pretty scary because the commandante in charge literally looked like the head of the death squad. Picture this: A man in his mid 40’s with full beard and mustache, mirror sunglasses and dressed in black military fatigues from head to toe. He sat in the front seat of the tinted-window Ford Bronco and only gestured to his lieutenant while holding our ID’s in between his index and middle finger. He let us go after awhile when he realized we weren’t a threat. Unlike the city cops, you absolutely can’t bribe the Federal cops, they will just throw you in jail.
DM:What have you done with this work? Published? Exhibited? What about books?
EL:In 1997 I had a one man show in Tijuana. I was really proud because it seemed really well received by the people. What i kept hearing about the work was ” I can’t believe this is my neighborhood”. My work was also part of a group show in Los Angeles in 2000.
DM:I know you have experimented with Blurb. Tell me about that? And why did you do this? Ego? Curiosity? Or was it to make you think about this work with serious intent?
EL: I’m currently working on a book project through Blurb. I really like doing books using Blurb because I like the control it affords the photographer and the final product you get is just gorgeous. It’s just really nice to have your work in book form because it can’t be wiped away in the blink of an eye. And it’s about a billion times better than a photo album.
DM:You sent a photo the other day of rows and rows of film drying in your office with your son hiding behind it. Tell me about your process and how you work? I’m guessing you use TRI-X and Leica, but give me(and the rabid mass of techies)a little more information.
EL: Happy to oblige. The pictures that are on this post were made with a Leica M2 and a 35mm Summicron. With the exception of two or three. The film I used hands down was Kodak TRI-X Today, I use the same Leica M2 with 35mm. Summicron. Ive added a Leica M4 with 50mm and my Leica R6’s each with a 60mm macro and a 28mm. Summicron respectively. I still use TRI-X but now I rate it at an EI of 250 and soup it in XTOL 1:1. For the Tijuana work I used Rodinal 1:50 and shot the Tri-x normal.
DM:You said to me a few days ago that images you thought were the shit back in 1998 you no longer consider that strong and you also said your style had changed. What do you mean by this? Do you think your vision has changed? Are you a better photographer now or then? Does it matter?
EL:I think the sole act of living on planet Earth for 40 years now has changed my vision. I chalk it up to being such a pain in the ass stickler about composition and overall quality. The food I eat, the music I listen to, the movies I like, have all for the most part evolved. Wine, cheese and humans (usually) get better with age. Am I a better photographer? Hell, I don’t think I care if I am or not. I think I’m good enough for my 40th year on Earth–that’s all that really matters; I’m having fun, I’m documenting my life and my family, and folks seem to really dig my work.
DM:Personally, I’m finding less and less inspiration from the professional photography world and more and more inspiration from other creative world genres like art and sculpture. What about you? Where does your inspiration come from?
EL: The professional photography world has been, in effect, run over by the binary steamroller that is digital technology. What inspires me? Right now there are three things that are not photo related in my Domke: 1. Colman Barks The Soul Of Rumi; A New collection Of Ecstatic Poems. 2. My iPod, with 15,000 songs and 3. my two and a half ounce flask filled with Balvenie Doublewood 12 year old scotch.
So, that’s ancient poetry, music and booze (not necessarily in that order).
Eric’s son amid the rolls of drying film.
The author printing in Eric’s underground darkroom circa 1998. He was being modest people, it was a FRICKING CAVE. There was a door in the darkroom. I’d printed in there for a long time but had never opened the door. One day I did. A SOLID WALL OF DIRT.
You can follow Eric on his blog.