Taste of Uruguay: Street Portrait

You might be getting sick of my Uruguay work but I guess you will just have to fake it. It’s been several months since this trip which has given me time to leave it alone and then come back to it. The last post I did, Taste of Uruguay:2, was about black and white, reportage style images, so I wanted to post something in regard to my “other” work. Several years ago I started shooting color square in addition to my black and white 35mm. I’ve threatened many times to quit doing this, but for some reason I can’t stop. Doing two things at once in the field isn’t the best of ideas, but in a day and age when people are doing four, five or six things at once in the field I still feel like a dinosaur. Shooting two different formats isn’t easy, nor is doing both color and black and white. My last post was comprised of images shot from behind. I wanted to show that I also shoot people from the front. In fact, I do a lot of portraits when I’m in the field. Portraits, for the most part, are easy, that is why so many people do them. I think this is why so much of the fine-art photography world is flooded with portraiture. Black and white reportage takes huge amounts of time to build bodies of work, but portraits can be done very, very quickly. Come up with a theme, a straightforward style, print them 60×60 and you too will be a genius! Seriously, portraits are easy, but they are also very fun, which is why I love doing them, AND they give me a very different look from my “normal” reportage stuff. And lastly, when you’ve been banging away, day after day, and have only a slow drip of reportage images you know are going to work, it’s very alluring and comforting to make portraits, which again are FAR easier to compile.

I wanted to show you these three images because I think they are typical of what happens during a very brief street portrait scenario. In short it goes like this… “see someone I like, devise a plan to engage them, scout for light and then ask to make their portrait.” Finding someone to photograph is rarely difficult, but finding someone you THINK will allow you to photograph can be tricky. If you do this long enough you can sense things. You can FEEL your way into an environment, or person, or shoot and know whether or not you can pull it off. Even those cases when someone says “No,” it doesn’t always mean “No.” How bad do you want it? Why are they saying no? Can you educate them, win them over or get them involved? This people is the game of documentary portraiture. In this particular case, I was at an event where people were preparing to participate in a massive public demonstration, so not a difficult portrait environment by any means.

WAIT! Don’t get ahead of me or yourself damnit! Yes, I saw this guy, and yes I decided to talk to him and ask about making his portrait, HOWEVER before I approached him I did ONE very important thing….I scouted for my portrait light. “Portrait light, what the F%$% is that?” you might ask. Well, portrait light is, oddly enough, the light where I want to make my portrait! You scout this light beforehand, and get prepared, in case the person you are asking says, “Ya sure, go for it, where do you want me?” If you haven’t found your light then you are suddenly dragging a guy in face paint house to house trying to find your personal photographic rainbow. Like packing for the trip, do it before it’s time to go to the airport. In this case my light was just inside a structure across the street, a structure that allowed him to stay in open shade, but also took advantage of the light bouncing off the street outside, an enormous, broad light source bouncing back and into this guy’s face. The light on the street was harsh, midday garrishness, and the light deeper inside the building was dark and green like swamp thing, but the light in the door was magnifique! You can tell the size and scope of the light by looking at the catch lights in his eyes. Pinpoint catch lights means pinpoint light source. Pretty simple. I knew I wanted two portraits, one with eyes open and one with eyes closed, but what happened is what normally happens when I make a portrait. I start with one idea and shoot myself into another.


The last photo in this series is really the image.
I didn’t know it when I made the first portrait, but by the time I made the second portrait my eyes were locked on his lips(We had been drinking if I remember correctly). This was what I was getting at, but I didn’t know it until it presented itself. The first two portraits were done at the minimum focusing distance of an 80mm lens. The third image required me to use my close-up adapter, but it also provided me another opportunity, which was to tell him exactly what I was doing and why(I think I did this in my version of Spanish which means it’s probable he understood nothing and was just being polite). People, making portraits is about a relationship. Granted, it could be like a drunken college weekend relationship, one that happened fast, was a bit confusing and left you feeling used, but in most cases they are brief, intense and positive. When people realize this is MORE than just a hobby, and that you have a vision in mind, they typically are more than willing to work with you. You will hear “NO,” and it sucks, or even better yet, “Eat S%$# and die,” which is one of my personal favorites, but for the most part when people know you are serious they want to assist. This guy, like almost every other human I encountered in Uruguay, was willing to take part.

Using the bellows isn’t the easiest thing, but luckily I’m not looking for easy.
Never have, never will. People love the Hasselblad, or “that old thing” so when I start to look down into it and then proceed to get about 8 inches from their face, the game is officially on. The depth of field is minimal, but that is why I like it. I set the focus, hold my breath, then rock back and forth waiting for those lips to pass in focus. BLAM, I shoot one frame.

Story Behind the Photos: Bush Sr. Blows the High Five

Digging through my archive is a lot of fun, and also reminds me of many experiences I’ve had over the past twenty years. Perhaps I’m feeling my own mortality? Nah. Just kidding.

Years ago, when I first decided photography was my deal, I ran into a friend of my dad’s. This guy was was from the Midwest, but felt more like Texas. Heavy accent. Heavy laugh. Former FBI agent. A GREAT guy. He always called me by my first AND middle name because we both shared same first AND middle names.

“Daniel XXXX,” he said. “I went to school with a guy who I think is a pretty big deal over at Time magazine.” “This buddy of mine lives in Washington, and I think he’s a top dog.” “I’m gonna call him for you.”

A few weeks later I was on a plane headed for Washington. Leica and Nikon FM2 in my carry on bag. The unknown waiting for me.

My dad’s friend was correct. His buddy was a big deal, had been for a long time, and more importantly, was one of the nicest people I have ever met in my photography career. It was instant access.

We hit the ground running.

“Drop your bags, we are on our way to The White House,” he said.

“You mean the place where the president lives?”
I said unsure if he was trying to freak me out. He wasn’t.

Over the following days we lived the lives of Washington DC photojournalists, during a time when this was a freakin great thing. I met tons of other photographers, all people I was in awe of, walking the streets in their tan jackets, Leicas around the neck, cigs dangling from lips.

We ambushed Ross Perot on the street, right after he announced his running for President. And NOBODY had these images! I banged and jostled with camera people and other snappers as we all pounced on the diminutive Perot(I also found this shot in my archive).

I felt like I’d landed in a movie about photojournalism and I was the unknown star.(Start crying now.)

We hit event after event, made the rounds into political offices, etc. I shook hand after hand, took copious notes and tried not to screw anything up. I think I even wore a shirt with a collar.

“I’ve got to go shoot the Navel Academy Graduation ceremony,” my new friend said. “And I got you a credential to stand on the bleachers in the back.”

Awesome. And then I realized my longest lens was around the 50mm length. “Don’t sweat it, I’ve got something for you,” my friend said as he produced a HUGE lens, Canon but with a NIKON mount.

Up early, stuck in traffic, battling for position and bingo things were set. He worked the entire area while I acted the part of sniper, using the long lens to pick off little moments here and there. I kept the wide angle around my neck, knowing the hat toss was coming.

Jets seared the sky.

Bush Sr. was doing the meet and greet handshake with each and every person graduating and I happened to snap the ONE TIME someone tried to high five him. As you can see, it didn’t work out.

And suddenly the hats were up.

We kept working the scene as the event ended. I was able to leave the bleachers and move around, long lens tucked under my arm, wide angle in my hand. I graduated from college but it was nothing like this.

For me, this time in Washington was decisive. This time was representative of a period I enjoyed, a time when the industry was still cloaked in a lifestyle I admired and strived to live.

I knew this was what I wanted to do with my life.

The industry has changed. My friend is still there. And photography is still what I want to do with my life.

This trip also inspired me to give back to younger photographers starting out. I can’t offer them Washington, but I can offer them my own version of it, and for this reason I try to teach three or four times a year. Being with my friend, for a four or five day intensive period was like getting on the photo-expressway and merging right into the fast lane, foot crushed to the floor. I learned so much, so fast it was remarkable, and came away with many images I still enjoy today.