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.