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.

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.

Palm Springs Photo Festival

Someone asked me, “Hey, how as the festival?” I thought about it, tried to figure out how best to answer and then realized the obvious.

“Where else can you talk photography and books at 3:30AM?” In short, this kinda sums up the entire event. The PSPF is simply unique to the United States. Where else can you get symposiums, seminars, lectures, nightly projections, nightly parties as well as workshops from photographers who simply do not teach anywhere else. The event is intimate and set in a location that offers everything from high desert mountains to the Salton Sea and beyond. Want to take a nude workshop from Ralph Gibson or Robert Maxwell, yep, there’s that too. How about showing your book to a curator, gallery owner or art buyer? Yes, you can do that too.

This entire event is the brain child of Los Angeles based photographer Jeff Dunas who has a background in photography unique to my experience. Because of this background he can pull off an event like this. And for those of you who don’t know, this event isn’t something that comes together last minute. This is a year-long expedition, complete with massive crew and logistical needs that go well beyond what you might imagine.


Think about this. On the way home, my wife and I were discussing the festival. Neither one of us heard a single complaint about ANYTHING. Not even hotel parking! Come on people, we are photographers, we LOVE to complain and yet I can’t remember a single whimpering gasp.


These images are a superficial peak at a few of the smaller moments. You have daylight panel discussion, nighttime gatherings, poolside parties, a few working photographers and Thomas Michael Alleman showing off his Blurb book.(You knew the plug was coming.)


If you are a photographer and want something different, come to this festival. If you are LA-based and haven’t been, please send me a letter and explain??? I’m puzzled. Unless you are working nonstop and then by all means. Or you are having 22-inch spinners installed on your blacked out Escalade.

And if you are still on the fence….just think about this……

Anthony Bannon, David Fahey, Frish Brandt, Gerd Ludwig, Holly Hughes, James Whitlow Delano(Finally got to meet him), Kevin Miller, Lisa Kerezi, Lise Sarfati, Mary Virginia Swanson, Michelle Dunn Marsh, Nigel Parry, Robert Klein, Ron Haviv, Shelby Lee Adams, Weston Naef, Robert Maxwell, Ralph Gibson, etc, etc. And these are A FEW of the people attending, teaching, speaking, etc.

You know me people, I’m jaded, and yet for an entire week my veil of jade is lifted and I’m allowed to just be in the world of photography(And work in the Blurb cabana suite, yes I said “Cabana Suite” it IS Palm Springs after all.) In fact, on the way home I told my wife, “I might try to show work next year,” and for a moment I thought she might dive out of the car but her shock was so great she was frozen in her attempt to grab the door handle.

For the next week or so I will actually feel slight depression as I do my best to ween myself off of the festival atmosphere. Thank you to Jeff Dunas and to the entire crew of the PSPF…….you nailed it once again.

Blurb Pop Up New York City + London

Hey kids, wanted to bring your attention to something. Blurb is putting on a series of events at Pop Up stores in a variety of locations. New York and London are on tap at the moment. The concept of the Pop Up is an intriguing one to me, so I’m very much looking forward to seeing these physical locations.

If you check the schedule of events you will see a hefty lineup of book people, art people and photography people. You will see lectures, parties, and events. Also, if you look closely, toward the end of the New York space, you will see a name you might recognize from this blog……I’ll be doing two programs, one on Saturday and one on Sunday.

If you haven’t been to a Blurb event before, you should go, just to check out how they operate. I stood at the entrance of an LA event several weeks back and watched the faces of the attendees coming in. They would freeze, looking around slowly and say, “Man, this is COOOOL.”


BLURB NEW YORK LINK


BLURB LONDON LINK

The Pack


Snappers descend on an anti-abortion doll, San Diego political convention, late 1990’s.

This photo says a lot about a lot of things, but I’m going to narrow it down to just a few. Perhaps one or two are relevant.

I used to love covering events. Big news events, political conventions(which is where this image was made)football games, protests, etc. I loved the thrill of the action, the packs of roving photographers, the idea of covering something considered news.

But today I’m a different person, and a different photographer. Now, I search out other kinds of work.

Working around a pack is a strange experience, especially now when the pack is so much larger than it has ever been. The switch, for me, was flipped when I covered the political convention in downtown Los Angeles a few years back(Upcoming Post!). Johnny Law was out in FULL FORCE, out of control in many ways, clubbing civilians, gassing and shooting rubber bullets for no particular reason. It was exciting in some ways but there were so many other photographers, camera people, etc, that in some ways the most difficult part was cropping out all the other snappers. I realized I was losing interest in working around other photographers.

At one point the LAPD was arresting a young woman who was carrying a pocket sized video camera who screamed, “I’m a filmmaker.” Her protest did nothing, but it did make we wonder what level of filmmaker she was, why she didn’t have a credential and why she was getting arrested? Again, the police were way overboard on how they responded to the crowd, but her plea made me realize the days of really earning a credential, really learning the craft were probably in transition. This is magnified ten-fold today, when it seems EVERYONE with a DSLR is a director of photography or cinematographer or filmmaker or producer overnight, and the internet as final destination-no quality bar- has also added to this mess.

As the years went on this reality became more and more evident. At the Super Bowl it seemed there were as many people on the field as there were in the stands(And this was the Super Bowl I covered years ago). If you have ever covered the Super Bowl then you will know the guy with Pentax K1000, 50mm and monopod that has a credential and prime spot. Seemingly everywhere I went everyone had a camera and was a “journalist” or “filmmaker” of some sort. In theory, doesn’t this democratize the process? Isn’t that supposed to be a good thing? Then why isn’t it?

I found myself looking for quiet, space, solitude and my own stories. When I would encounter even a single other photographer I would head in another direction.

There were exceptions. I worked in Sicily, five times, and each time with at least one other photographer, sometimes two or three, but we were doing it because we were friends and because we were sharing cars, sharing gas money, etc. And, what we were covering was large enough we all had our own working space.

Sometimes when you work in a pack the people you are photographing will do things they would never do simply because they are getting so much attention. This can even happen when you are working solo, but in that case it is easy to just stop shooting. Getting a pack to stop is nearly impossible. When it comes to a big news event, these packs can really create a whirlwind of their own news.(Check the articles about Lebanon from a few years ago.)

The only downside to not working these events is that I have several friends in this picture, and I do miss being around them in the field. But, I see them “off the field” so it works out.

All I know for sure is that I’m a “quiet” photographer. I think there is an upside and a downside to this. The upside is peace of mind, and quiet reflective moments on MY negatives, moments that ONLY exist for me and no one else in the world. Think about this. When I work on stories, I’m the only one there, and nobody else on the entire planet has what I have. The downside, depending on your point of view, is the lack of interest in quiet moments. Loud places tend to get more attention, but even so, when I look at my future, I see more quiet, less noise.

I think the real signature photographers don’t work in a pack, never have, never will. And I’m not referring to myself here, just others of more important historical significance. Their work requires more time and a different concentration applied in a different direction than the news photographer. Think AM vs FM radio waves. Great news photography is a fantastic thing, but again, I think a very small percentage of those in the pack are doing great news work. Maybe it comes down to motive?

I keep waiting to see signature work from Haiti that shows me a relationship between photographer and community but I have yet to see it….and I’ve been searching. Granted, it’s early days and it’s difficult to do, and perhaps I should not expect this from pack made imagery. I’ve seen work that is clearly “better” than others, but still superficial, probably due to the need to get things out as fast as humanly possible. I keep waiting for the portrait level of intimacy, and not portraits of maimed or bloodied people. I keep waiting for relationship and story telling that comes with speaking the language-even with translator-and a simplification that relays the entire picture in one image, but again, this isn’t typically what the pack provides. I’m sure it will come. The good news is that Haiti is at saturation level in the news, which has led to some great things.

What I’ve seen FAR too much of is the dead, burning rubble, heavily manipulated images of smoke and mangled bodies and tilted overly complex imagery that seems to puzzle readers but seems to be the favored snap of the modern journalism world, especially young photographers and younger photo-editors. And I see reportage from photographers who are there for a few days, fill up their drives, and have already moved on to other stories. I’m not sure what the point is other than to say, “I was in Haiti” at gatherings where a statement like that holds water. And granted, there are plenty of places where it does.(It is precisely these places that I pronounce myself a wedding photographer and watch people scatter. Just a little game I play to satisfy my juvenile tendencies.)

Or contest time, when we all know that Haiti will dominate the winning portfolios. Again, motive comes into my mind. Pack areas tend to provide contest winning material. The suburbs don’t.

I’m sure at some point in my life, I’ll be around a pack once again. I’ll say hello to my friends and then go the other way, searching for my cherished solitude.