Taste of Uruguay: Portrait of a Place

You ever hear a motion picture director talk about how a location became one of the characters in a film? “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” is very much about location. “The Motorcycle Diaries,” and even films like “Seven” where you don’t ever know where you are but it’s so foreboding and dark, not to mention rainy, that you can just FEEL how horrible things are about to get based only on the depressing cityscape. Still photography works the same, at least when you are trying to tell a story. These images were made in Uruguay while we were working on our project. These images were made in the same place as the last post, the exact same place, but these images have a different feel, and if they had to could live on their own as a mini-snapshot of place.

I described before how we move from small shoot to small shoot while compiling a story. You imagine the puzzle in your head and you slowly begin to link the edges and then dive in deep to fill up the center. So when we arrived on this scene my goal was to make the images I made in the last post, but while I was there I realized that this little room, in this one little building, was also something I needed to have a little feel for. Looking back on this I realized I am missing ONE very important image which was the bar at the opposite side of the room. It was, well, the perfect neighborhood bar. Why didn’t I shoot it? I don’t know. I can see the bar in infinite detail, in my mind, but I didn’t shoot it. Oh well, just another mistake in a LONG LINE of mistakes I’ve made with camera in hand.

These images become important for a variety of reasons. First, for your memory. Regardless of whether or not you ever use these images it’s nice to look back on them and say, “Oh ya, I remember that place.” These type images also come into play when you make books. Sometimes the reader needs a transitional type image to set the stage for your best work. A book of nothing but your best work might be a portfolio more than a book. Books ebb and flow, so informational photographs can be as important as anything. You might use these images near a chapter head to ease into this place, space or community. We also walked through this room to get to the performers out back, so it was a link to the subsequent images.

These images are also very important to the people in them. They are proud of this place and it shows in how they behave. If you promise to send images you sure as Hell better do it. I’ve heard photographers say “Ya, I always promise and then never send anything.” On one hand I appreciate their honesty because A lot of other people claim to do this but don’t. I know for a fact because I once did a project several years after another photographer did it and it was SO BAD it was like scorched Earth. “The other guy promised us everything and gave us nothing.” It made my life Hell. In the case of these images, they didn’t ask. Or maybe they did but my Spanish was so bad I didn’t understand them? “Soy amable!” “Yo quiero leche y queso!”

The first two images here were made by myself, but after seeing me make these images the guys in the third image asked me to photograph them. In turn other people are watching while I’m making this portrait which in turn gets them, indirectly, involved in the shoot. It breaks the ice and gets the photographic ball rolling. The people you photograph are your conduit into the far reaches of your work, without them you are going nowhere. They do not see photography the same way you do, and this is something you must keep in mind the entire time you are working or showcasing your work.

Friends in Front of Me

I don’t often post my “work” images, but perhaps I should. I’ve gone over this before, but I’m always careful not to make this avenue of communication into a full-on sales assault on your senses. I do a lot of portraits, but rarely do they make it up on the ranch.
But, every so often, I shoot something that I think has a specific meaning that might be interesting to contemplate. These pictures are from a recent family portrait, which in itself isn’t anything novel, but the folks in these pictures happen to be long-time friends. I’ve known Paul since the early 90’s, and his family as long as they have been a family. You can search the Earth for a better dude, but you won’t find one. Well, maybe Hugh Hefner, or some other guy that gets to spend his entire day in his pj’s, but other than that you won’t find anyone better. When Paul called me and asked me to do this shoot I of course said, “Sure,” but I have to say, a shoot like this comes with a different feeling. First, they are friends, and you want to rack your brain to make something special for them. Not that this doesn’t happen with people I don’t know, it does, but with friends there is on one hand LESS pressure, because they are friends, but on the other hand there is MORE pressure because they are friends. Add to this the fact that Paul is a photographer. A really good one. And I know as a photographer what it feels like to make something good, and I know what it feels like to fall short. So making pictures of a fellow photographers ramps up the internal demand even higher. Now this is one of the great things about being a photographer. A shoot like this is like working out because your heart races, your mind races and the list of “what if’s” goes on and on. Shoots like this are over before you know it, and cause me to suddenly wake, as if in a dream, as I’m packing my gear, thinking to myself, “Wow, what just happened?”

I think this first image is perhaps my favorite. For some reason it feels natural. At first I thought the spacing was wide, but the more I look at this picture the more I like it. I don’t think I could have posed them any better. I’m not sure what was happening at this exact moment, but I remember the light going in and out and in and out and me trying to figure out what to do, in what light, in what direction, etc. I had never been to this location before, and frankly it was complete and total overload in the best possible way. MOST of the time I’m working with locations that are nothing like this, locations where I’m struggling to find a place to shoot. This was the exact opposite, there were too many places to shoot, and having this happen really does create it’s own issues. Ahh, if only we always had to deal with issues like this……

This image might be a little odd, or dark, or whatever, but I like it, and knew I would like it when I saw the cross. This sky is RARE in these parts, so knew that I had to someone use the darn thing. Family portraiture comes with history, tradition and baggage, and I know their faces are out of focus. Just deal with it. I promise it will all work out. I know what they look like, so I don’t need to see them! If I had my way, I’d print this for the sky and let them go completely black, but hey, that’s me. I’m having flashbacks of a young photographer telling me I was “unprofessional.” A great compliment in my book.

Father and son. You gotta have it. I have it. I remember pictures of me in a duck blind in South Texas, golden mullet flaring from my trucker hat as I waded from the blind to retrieve our downed birds. Dad was there, his disc camera whirling, his fat fingers fumbling with the odd buttons as he cursed under this breath, “Damn this damn photography thing.”He knew he wanted to cement the moment, but the technical task was not his strong point. This image to me is simply about foreshadowing. This image is about me and Paul playing with this little man for years into the future. I see the first football game. I see hanging around the high school trying to score chicks. Okay, just kidding about that part, but I do see it as the future, as the beginning of a lifetime of images.

Imagine trying to photograph a spider monkey just released into the wild. Imagine trying to photograph a spider monkey just released into the wild with a camera that you have to look down into. Imagine getting dizzy, blacking out and falling over. That’s what it was like trying to pin down this little firecracker.
I figure when I’m 108, she might be at an age when she’s slowed down enough for me to photograph, but in the interim, I just get what I can. This hot light shot was something Paul mentioned when we got there. I thought it would be easy. I’m a slow learner.

This shot is simple but I like it. You might be thinking that my focus was the hair or the eyes, but actually that’s not the case. For some reason I think kids teeth are really funny. I think seeing teeth in kids is proof we are born to be carnivores, and I can’t see a kids teeth without laughing. Also, this was a great chance for dad to pin her down for .2847584566349934 of a second. Don’t worry, she was only upside down for less than an hour.

And finally, I had to put this in. That sky. It’s rare folks. And this location, it’s rare as well. I’ve been thinking about this place a lot, and thinking about how great it was. I could go back with Paul and the family, over and over and over and never really tire of this place. In fact I think that is probably a good idea. To go back every year and just keep creating pictures as the family grows and the years pass by. I see a book about Paul’s family on the horizon, with this image on the contents page. At least 700 pages, printed on virgin, Redwood timber paper and the world’s most expensive ink. It would totally be worth it.
In all seriousness folks, I like this shoot, but it only wet my appetite for more of the same. I want more of my friends. I want more family. I want more time together. I want more time to dream and create. I want more time to record history.

I don’t think I’ll be content until we go back. But when am I ever content?

Happy Trails.

Just Hangin


So I volunteered today, most of the day, over at the somewhat local darkroom. I planned on printing a little, just playing around with split toning, which I THINK I have an idea how to do. There was only one other person there, someone printing paper negatives, which is a very cool process.

But, an amigo came down from LA and we just sat around talking for most of the day. It was like a vacation in some ways. It was actually really nice to not do anything other than talk. We mostly talked about photography. What a surprise. About the business, about marketing, but also about something that I have been thinking a lot about lately.

Do you have to BE a photographer to BE a photographer. I think we were both in agreement that you don’t have to be a photographer to be a photographer. In fact, we both know people are who making great work who don’t work as photographers, and in some ways, these folks are making better work, and more work, than those we know who are working as photographers. In fact, I met someone last year, who works as a chef, who in the past year has made three new bodies of work, one from overseas, and has even made all his own prints, both color and black and white. I wish I could say that, even for ONE body of work.

You see when you “become” a photographer, a real one, there are many things that accompany this transition, and many of them do nothing but lead you away from actually taking pictures. Marketing, advertising, billing, setting up your business, permitting, follow up, packaging, etc, etc. Before long, the most successful you get, the less time you spend in the field making pictures. Or, the other options is to start hiring people to do much of this, which is a valid option. But what I see happen, most of the time, is suddenly not only is the business farmed out, but so is the edit, the design of the work, etc, and then you become a production line of predictable work. Now for some people, those who come to photography from the marketing or advertising world, and who are totally happy just shooting commercial work, then this is great. But for me, there are too many different kinds of work I want to do.

It is very difficult to find a balance. But, the only thing that remains is the work, and if you don’t lose track of that, then you can succeed.

We are both Leica geeks, so I wanted to post this photo of what two Leica users, or really what most photographers do who happen to both have gear with them, which is yak about it. My friend has had this same camera for 29 years. LET ME SAY THAT AGAIN PEOPLE. MY FRIEND HAS HAD THIS CAMERA FOR 29 YEARS. AND STILL USES IT. In a day of 18 month life spans for cameras, this is a remarkable thing, even for Leica users.

Oddly enough, both of us have shot many different systems over the years, but both believe our best work was done with these cameras.

However, and this leads me back to my first point about being a photographer. I think the best documentary work I have ever done came during a time when I had a full time job. I was still working in the photography field, but not working as a photographer. In fact, I couldn’t work as a photographer, it was written in to my contract. And, the only cameras I owned during this time was Leica rangefinder.

So, when I went out to make pictures, it was the only equipment I had, AND, when I went out to shoot, I only shot my work, my projects, in my style. Four and a half years of this.

Just so you know, many of us photographers shoot one kind of work as our commercial work, with the goal of using the income to finance another style of work. This has been a very common method of photographer survival since the beginning of the medium. In fact, most of the legends in photography did this at one time or another.

But, I think, this is happening, successfully, less and less. As the industry changes so does the reality of working this way.

Now, most of the “good” photographers I know are either doing NOTHING but their work, or are working outside the industry, but yet still doing their projects on the side.

I think this is true because it is harder now to be a photographer. I think the job requires far more marketing, advertising, and the computer takes so much of our daily life. There are exceptions to this rule, but most exceptions come with exceptions.

But, even in the midst of frustration there are moments of clarity and happiness that extend far beyond the norms, such as when the guy stocking the vending machine comes over with two broken bars of chocolate and says, “Hey, these are broken, so I can’t put them in the machine, but they are for you.”

And, if you aren’t a total pig……….my friend……..you can save half the bar and pass it along to the woman working at the reception desk, prolonging the joy created by free chocolate.

That’s all for today.