Route 14

As many of you know, a few short years ago I was able to venture to Uruguay, a small country located nine-hours by air south of Miami. Uruguay is not on the radar in the United States, which is ONE of the many reasons I wanted to visit. I also wanted to visit because I had a friend there, an interesting chap named Martin Herrera Soler who I had initially met in Los Angeles back in the late 1990’s. Through Martin I met Diego Vidart another very talented storyteller and visual communications person. Also on the trip was Larry Hayden, aka “Alcatran.” The four of us, over a ten-day period worked on a project together, which you can see here, and here and here.

I just got off of Skype with Diego, and when I speak with someone like him it is VERY apparent I’m speaking to a real artist, a real storyteller and someone with a high intellectual knowledge of his industry, craft and history. I can’t tell you how refreshing this is, and how EASY it is to give someone like this my complete and total undivided attention. All of these guys are the same in this regard, so it’s not like I wasn’t prepared, but they are people you should know and pay attention to. Diego mentioned a project he just finished, Ruta 14 and after hearing the background details I knew it was something to share with you all. The film below will give you the basics.

Ruta 14 / explicación del proyecto from Diego Vidart on Vimeo.

Personally, it chaps my ass I can’t speak fluent Spanish, and this is yet another reminder I need to get off my ass and learn it once again. What I love about this project is the concept behind it, the tangible, physical requirements and the borders created by the story itself. For those you non Spanish speakers the essence is a return to the tangible of photography, of touch and smell, via the “Box Camera,” as well as the tracing of Route 14 for it’s entire length through Uruguay. This is an unfair synopsis, because there is much more, but it will get you started. There is much more to come from Diego, so stay tuned.

And this is just the best thing I’ve ever seen.

Proceso Fotográfico from Ruta 14 on Vimeo.

The man behind the mask.

Diego_Vidart

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.

Taste of Uruguay: 2

Leica M6, 50mm f/2, TRI-X, rated at 250 and processed normal, Xtol developer.

I think I could be perfectly happy with only my M4 and 50mm. No, I KNOW I could be perfectly happy with only my M4 and 50mm. After looking at documentary photographs, and wedding photographs(my last) in the past 24-hours, I can see this camera/lens combination is perhaps the best I’ve ever had. But, enough of the gear talk.

I put these pictures from Uruguay in this post because I think they are representative of a “typical” day or short period of time during a project. I get a lot of questions about working in the field, what I’m thinking about, how I navigate, etc, so I thought these pictures might be good starting point. First of all, I wouldn’t HAVE these photographs were it not for two suave Uruguayan guys named Martin and Diego, also known as Dokumental. As with any other documentary project, I am in great part at the mercy of other people. This could mean other photographers, as in this case, or just civilians who grant me access, lend a hand or point me in a certain direction. There were four of us total on this project, and I gained or accessed parts of this project, in some way, shape or form through them. It’s rare for me to work with other photographers, so this was a treat and the laughter and insanity alone was well worth it. We were also able to band together during strange or tense times, like when we heard Alcatrån had been spotted near the Argentinian border.

There are obvious similarities to these images. Black and white, yes, shot from behind, yes to that too, but the FEELING is very different as are the moments they were made and the requirements in human interaction needed to make them. The only guarantee I can give you is the “typical” day or shoot during a documentary project probably won’t be. Like a song you have listened to over and over and over again, a typical day brings you up, slams you down, makes you intensely happy and reflective, or sad, all within a matter of minutes or hours. You make plans and they don’t really fit or play out, or maybe they do, and people this is the beauty and brilliance in this work. In some ways I don’t want everything to work out. Mystery and chance are powerful intoxicants, and once you take the first hit it’s hard to put down the pipe.

This first image was made in Montevideo during the buildup to a major carnival-like event happening later that night. All four of us were working this one small scene. When this happens there really isn’t a lot of dialogue between us. You just work together, move together, shoot what you want and try not to get in anyone’s way. We all work differently, so even though we are working the same scene we get different photographs. And language is an issue. The damn Uruguayans speak a Spanish that might as well be Finnish. In short, it’s not like the Spanish I kinda know. So without Martin and Diego there would be no photographs like this.

I’m not a heavy shooter, so when I know I’m in a spot where there are images I’m putting myself in the best light, at the angle I want and then waiting for the composition to unfold. I’m guessing, moving, gesturing, and by doing this, in some ways, I’m influencing what happens around me. You do this long enough you learn small tricks that help you get from point A to point B. In this case I knew I wanted the two guys against the wall. They were painted up and in the perfect light. It was harsh during this moment, but they were in open shade with a nice bright, large light source in front of them, so perfect catch lights in the eyes and their white face paint was lit up. I knew when I burned down the wall their faces would pop. But the two of them against the wall was not enough. I needed a foreground to build a little depth. So I waited. Waiting can be torture. You have to come to grips with the fact you might not get it. I’ve seen photographers crack, pay for photographs or stage things. Me, I like pain, so I wait and talk to myself. I play scenarios in my head and honestly they are not always pleasant. I can find some dark places at times, but it seems to work for me. When another of their troupe emerged and stood before them, I knew I had my shot. This was not a difficult shot. This was an environment where people were somewhat expecting to be photographed, so it was not a photographic mining operation, more like finding clarity in the clutter.

This second image was a very different setting. This was not on the same day, but it was probably within a day or two. We left the chaos of the city and converged on a very quiet place in a somewhat remote location. All of us were working but we were in different places, each doing our own thing. I’ve always been drawn to water, or the waterline, so I gravitated to this spot along the river. I also love to fish, so when I saw these guys I was pretty confident there was an image or two there for me to make. Scrambling down a dirt embankment I somewhat burst out on to this quiet little scene. I think for a moment there were probably thinking, “Jesus Christo, who is the photo-gringo?” I know just enough Spanish to get a conversation started and then get myself totally lost, but that’s okay. I probably shot ten images here by the river, and I started with the younger guy near the water, the one in the background. I knew I had my layering with this guy in the foreground, and I knew the kid in the back would give me my background. I also knew I had two dynamic elements, the drainage pipe and the fishing rod, both leading out of the frame. But what I really wanted was simply this light. The light was late day, directional. It was also great color, but shooting black and white I don’t have to think about color, only direction and form. I knew the light would give paint the edges of the guy in the foreground and separate him from the dark rock background, thus giving me depth. I used as wide an aperture as possible to force you, or try to force you, to look primarily at this guy’s shoulder. This was a quiet place, a quiet moment and I wanted you to feel quiet when you view this. A shoulder blade might not be something we think about a lot, or photograph a lot, but it was the key element in my mind when I saw this scene. I talked to the guy for a minute and then I just started shooting. There was never any odd feeling or wondering whether it was okay to shoot. You can FEEL those things as soon as you enter a scene.

This last image was again different from the others. Late night, the center of a vortex of a thousands and thousands of celebrating Uruguayans. “Llamadas” is the carnival-like event that transforms Montevideo with massive crowds, processions of revelers, energy and mood that builds and builds and builds and then explodes. As a photographer it’s all about dissection. The light is low, but brilliant in places, so like a moth drawn to the flame you circle and pounce, circle and pounce. The wind is blowing, the air goes from hot to cold, the crowd presses in and the noise builds to the level of a jet engine. Time passes and you don’t even know. Again, thanks to Martin and Diego, we had total access. And people the two things you can’t EVER underestimate are time and access. Your images are typically in direct proportion to how much of these two things you have. These women were part of the event, as were all the other women in their group. My goal with this was to show the energy. It’s about motion, history, tradition, sex, asses shaking in the night, costumes and drumming. The drumming is all powerful, hypnotic and pulses your clothing as drummers pass by inches away. Overall, the lighting is challenging. However there were several sections with hot spots, street lights or some other artificial light being pumped in. I worked those spots, most of the time shooting into these lights NOT with them. Shooting into these lights backlit my subjects and added to depth and dimension, or at least that was goal. I was also shooting at a about 1/8 of a second and walking at the same speed as the women. I wanted them sharp and everything else out. This is somewhat low percentage shooting, but that is what makes photography so much fun. You win some, you lose some. I probably shot a half dozen frames of this, several of them worked.

My point with all this is to remind myself, and you, that we have to be prepared, but more importantly, we have to be open to what presents itself. You never know what the day will bring.

More Uruguay images on the way.

Taste of Uruguay

 

For those of you wondering what happened to my Uruguay work, well, here is a little taste. This project is really fun, at least for me, and what I’ve done so far is ONLY the beginning. Different from most of my other work, this project is layered, textured and confusing to some degree. The elements are tied together with the thinnest of ideas and lines, but that is plenty for me. My first task was to edit the work down to about 200 color images and an equal amount of the black and white flavor. Then, I printed them all. In this case, 3.5×5 with the color square images printed small and centered on the 3.5×5 paper. Then I began to mix and match. I tried a little of this, a little of that. I started over. I put all the prints out on my living room floor and waited for the UPS guy. I waited for the Fedex guy. I waited for the kid selling chocolate bars. I waited for the Jehovah’s Witness people. I waited for the Mormon kids. I waited for the guy that paints the address on the curbs. I waited for the Girl Scouts. I waited for anyone who came near my house and past the three levels of “no soliciting” signs. I figured anyone with the cajones to come this far would be fair game for a little editing.

 

THEM: “Have you accepted Jesus Christ as your personal savior?”
ME: “How bad does he want me?” “Bad enough to sequence these 400 pictures?”

THEM: “Do you want to buy some cookies?”
ME: “Ya sure, come on in, let me find my wallet.” “Make yourself comfortable, and hey, have a look at those photos and put them in the order you think looks best.” “Your only six-years-old?”
“I don’t care, I’m looking for the youth vote too?”

THEM: “Will you sign here?”
ME: “Right after you figure out if I should put the black and white with the color or keep it separate.” “You scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.”

 

I’m still a long way from anywhere, but I did a book anyway. I want to stress this to you endearing public. Don’t be afraid. Making a “casual” book like this is an education in itself. After I loaded it, and ordered it, I made a realization about the work that I hadn’t been able to make before. But seeing it on the pages and in sequence allowed me to have an “Ahhhh….HA” moment about where the next edit will begin and what direction the work will follow. And, it’s entirely different from this book. Funny how that happens.

Ninety, savory, color, softcover pages. This will come down in page count. Plenty of fat to be trimmed off of this prime cut.

Someone asked me earlier today, “What is this going to be?” I haven’t a clue. A book? A show? Or just a reason to move my brain?