Category Archives: Photography

Mary Ellen Mark, Me & Mexico

Oaxaca, Tlalixtac, charro, rodeo

I returned to Oaxaca this year to take a second photography workshop with Mary Ellen Mark. Here is an account of that trip — and its impact on me — that I wrote for a local magazine. It is an updated version of the story of my first workshop a year ago.

***

No Bull!
Discovering charros and more in Mexico with Mary Ellen Mark

By Tim Porter

The bull had been chased at survival-of-the-fittest speed by a charro on horseback, grabbed by the tail, and then flipped nose first upside down into the dirt, where its rolling bulk created a sideways tornado of dust and grit that hid all but its whirling hooves and horns.

Now, it was coming my way — one ton of off-the-hoof, out-of-control hamburger on a collision course with me and my Nikon. My options were few. A brick wall behind me. A cluster of horses, ridden by wranglers waiting for the bull to come out of the spin cycle, in front. A flimsy metal gate to my left.

I defied the complaints of aging knees, muttered a silent namaste of thanks to my yoga teacher and leapt for the gate.

A second later the bull gained its footing, arose from the ground like a drunken frat boy who had been ejected from a hipster bar, and looked for something two-legged on whom it could exact revenge. Its eyes, angry and aflame, found mine, doe-like and frozen, in my perch three feet above him on the gate. The bull swung his heavy, bony head into the gate, rattling my nerves and my bones. Then the charros, emitting whoops and wielding lassos, chased off the beast.

I checked the camera, noticed bull spittle on my jeans, moved back down along the wall and waited for the next animal.

Just another vacation day in Mexico.

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Years ago, I worked at a newspaper in San Francisco with a British reporter who had done several stints with the London tabloids and he liked to say of a hard-to-believe yarn, “Hey, it’s a great story even if it’s true.”

This bull story is no bull. But there are greater truths to be told here.

My nose-to-nose encounter with the bull happened while I was photographing the second day of a charreada, a traditional Mexican rodeo that took place about 10 miles south of the city of Oaxaca in a town called Tlalixtac de Cabrera. There, teams of charros, the iconic Mexican horsemen whose tight-fitting suits and wide-brimmed sombreros remind tourists of mariachi bands but whose history is rooted in the horse culture brought to Mexico by the Spanish conquistadores, competed for the state championship.

I was in the lienzo charro (the arena) because of one woman, Mary Ellen Mark, the iconic photojournalist who has worked for Federico Fellini, and Life  and Vanity Fair, but is best known for her lifelong pursuit of documenting those who inhabit society’s fringes — street kids, circus performers and prostitutes.

She was a hero of my youth, the reason I became a photographer. My two days with the charros were part of a 10-day photography workshop she led in March in Oaxaca.

***

I first learned of Mary Ellen when I was in my 20s. The ’60s had come and gone and I was living in the wake of the period’s wanton indulgences. I’d gotten a low-level job in a swanky Nob Hill hotel and returned to college, but I had no plan. School was merely a way out of a life I could no longer live.

One day I saw two photographs in a magazine, both taken in India. In the first, a boy sat at table in a cafe. His hair was long, his shirt torn. He leaned, dreamy-eyed, toward a glow coming from a nearby window. The second photo showed a hippie couple resting on a beach. They wore white, wispy clothes. The boy’s hands rested on a harmonium, an Indian hand organ. He and the girl gazed languidly toward the sea.

In those lost children, I saw myself. The images embodied the untethered wandering that defined the era and that had led me, unwittingly, down shrouded paths from which many never returned. I’ve never forgotten those two photos.

Mary Ellen Mark was only 31 when she made those pictures, but she was already accomplished — assignments worldwide, a Fulbright, her mind and her camera  focused on the social trends of the day. She has said of those years, “I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.”

Her desire inspired me, a confused young man who had passed from adolescence into adulthood along those same edges. I bought a camera. I learned to develop film, found a job in a darkroom and began shooting on the street, joined the community college paper, and started shooting news. There was plenty of that in those days — kidnappings, demonstrations, strikes. I used the camera to both open the world to me and to shield me from it. In journalism, I’d found a purpose. I freelanced and hoped for a career in photojournalism .

But it wasn’t to be. My work wasn’t that strong. I was too timid, too distant. More than that, I allowed insecurity to ride roughshod over passion. To stay in journalism, I started writing, which came more easily than photography. Ambition took hold and I followed the opportunities — editor of this, editor of that, editor of whatever came along.

Then it was over. That’s too long a story to tell here. Suffice to say that 30 years after finding myself, I was lost again. Time passed. One day I took out my old Nikon, loaded some film and wandered about the suburban marshes. Just like that, it all came back.

My wife, more perceptive about me than I am, gave me a small digital camera. I learned the software. I bought a bigger camera. I found work with a local magazine that needed someone who could both shoot and write. Over time, more work came. And better cameras. And lights. And a studio. I became, at last, a photographer.

Happy ending, right? Boy wants girl. Gets rejected. Wins over girl years later. Fade to black. Roll credits.

Hold the Hollywood moment.

There was still that itch, unscratched — the edge, the margin, the harder truths. Don’t get me wrong. Living and working in Marin is a good life that many would like to have. But edgy it ain’t.

Then, 18 months ago serendipity struck. I learned of Mary Ellen Mark’s workshop in Oaxaca (where my wife and I had built a house). So tantalizing, so coincidental it seemed impossible — Mary Ellen (my inspiration), photojournalism (my abandoned child) and Oaxaca (my adopted city) all combined.

I joined the workshop last year. I met Mary Ellen (an extraordinary woman of relentless authenticity). I photographed in garbage dumps and garlic fields and the bedrooms of transvestites. I jabbered all day in Spanish. I came home with several good photos and a vow to return — which I did in March.

This year, when I returned home from Oaxaca, a friend asked, What did you learn?

I didn’t have a thoughtful answer at the time and instead something about getting closer with my camera. Since then, I’ve considered the question more and here is what Mary Ellen taught me:

  • That photography soothes me with its seeing and excites me with its engagement.
  • That I am moved by the tenacity and spirit and generosity of those who struggle daily for survival. I wish I were more like them.
  • That I remain, after all these decades, hesitant in the face of challenge, overly self-critical on the verge of success and easily distracted from the pursuit of the long-term by the gratifications of the short.

Good lessons, yes, but truthfully I knew all of those things before I went to Oaxaca in March, so you might say I learned nothing. You would be wrong.

What Mary Ellen Mark taught me most of all was to trust who I am. In that sense, I learned everything.

Muertos — a Day of Life

Sister Mary Timothy Simplicity
Death is a lot of work. The dead are gone in a minute, but their survivors need hours and days and weeks to prepare a celebration for them.

In Garfield Square yesterday, El Día de los Muertos, the sons and daughters and widows and widowers and friends and colleagues of the dead devoted the afternoon to building shrines of all sizes and complexity to their mothers and fathers and husbands and wives and partners and fellow members of the Sisters of the Perpetual Indulgence who have died, some years ago, some just the other day.

All around them, as they laid out orange marigolds and family photos and precious possessions, and erected boats crewed by skeletons and created fanciful trees of wire festooned with clay creatures crafted by schoolchildren, life went one, life that had nothing to do with the dead.

In the center of the square, on an iridescent carpet of green artificial turf separated from the more muted verdure of the actual grass by a chain-link fence, teams of young girls played soccer. Their voices, exuberant, and those of their coaches, urgent, provided a soundtrack for the day.

Along 25th Street, occupying the concrete lip of park’s northern edge, where a shaft of western sunlight warmed the block, drunken men clustered in boozy amiableness, alternately ignoring and suffering the transgression on their turf by the altar-makers.

In increasing numbers photo-tourists arrived. Their baggy old man jeans marked them immediately, too clean, too blue, and too suburban for the dark grit of the Mission and the bright colors of Muertos. Politely, their pointed their big cameras at small children who face painters had transformed from angels into ghouls.

I confess to interloping myself. I am now a tourist in the city I once called mine.

Decades ago, I lived a few blocks from Garfield Square. Rent was cheap – and for good reason. Drug dealers and gang bangers were much more plentiful than children. There was no outcry over forced evictions in the Mission because there was no line of people waiting to move in. Sadly, I have not walked this neighborhood for many years.

Despite my long absence, I felt at home. The streets around the park were familiar in shape, sight and sound. The long views along Bryant – to faraway downtown and to nearby Bernal – resurrected mental albums of similar images I stored away long ago. The preponderance of concrete, uninterrupted from stoop to stoop, recalled my years of walking those streets – for work, for drugs, for sleep, for lack of anything else to do. On those streets of San Francisco, in the Haight, in the Mission, I died many times and I was reborn just as often, resurrected by luck or coincidence or the helping hands of others.

More than all that, though, I felt at home among the people making the altars.

They were urban, meaning they were accustomed to living among other people, used to being stared at and open to having an instant conversation with a stranger.

They were gay, meaning that at some point they broke from the path their parents hoped they would travel and found themselves, either by intention or instinct, living in a community of others who had done the same.

They were artists, meaning that they created for the sake of creation and they found no lack of sense in devoting an immense of time to build honor a friend or a loved one with a shrine that would last only a few hours. They found meaning in the doing.

I am a tourist among them as well. I left the city, I lost my intentions, I sought reason for creativity.

Saying this another way, on the Day of the Dead in the Mission I found parts of the life I left behind and now hope to recover.

I left Garfield Square at dusk. Dinner with friends – out of the city – waited. But, I was more interested in the people building the altars than those who come in the night to view them. And I had no desire to photograph the after-dark parade through the Mission, which, in addition to the Latinos an of the city and beyond Muertos is a connection to their roots, draws thousands of young anglos who know see the event as just another hormonal opportunity to drink and act out in public. But that’s life, too.

Below are a few snaps from the day.

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A Community Blooms

Canal Community Garden, San Rafael

Food fosters community. I used those words from a young Bolinas farmer to start my book on organic farming. On Saturday, I saw them come to life again in the opening of the Canal Community Garden.

Located on what was a vacant quarter-acre of city land where the butt end of Bellam Boulevard collides with the salt marsh separating San Rafael from the Bay, the garden represents a successful collaboration between the Canal Alliance, the Trust for Public Land, local government and a clutch of private donors and volunteers. (Marin IJ story.)

With 92 plots of soil, a modern greenhouse and a composting complex, the garden gives its urban farmers the chance to  bring fresh, local, organic food to one of Marin’s poorest neighborhoods. But more than that, it does what all farms do: Promises that today’s effort will bring tomorrow’s harvest — a message of inherent hope in a community where life is challenging.

Farming is always an investment in the future. The soil, the seed, the crops, the weather, all are unknowns that the farmer — whether in Iowa or Marin — must cope with and curate through the season, believing that work, nature and a bit a luck will fulfill the cycle of land to table.

There is dignity in the dirt. Weathered skin, encrusted fingernails and achy backs are badges of honor. Thanks to the Canal Community Garden more of us will have an opportunity to wear them.

(Here’s my post from last November, when volunteers were installing the mosaic centerpiece for the garden.)

(Buy: Organic Marin: Recipes from Land to Table).

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Simplicity

Stinson Beach

I was trying to make a picture the other day, but my camera and my computer wouldn’t let me. Sound silly, but it’s true. And it’s making me think my photography has become more complicated than it needs to be.

I had the studio all set. The paper was out, the lights were up, I’d metered front, back and sides. All good. Then I hooked my camera up to my laptop so the pictures would flow into the computer screen as I shot.

Nothing happened. No connection. Without one, no pictures.  I was using a new camera, a Nikon D4, and the software – also made by Nikon – wasn’t “recognizing” the camera. No problem, I thought, I’ll download an update.

As I began to do that, the clients showed up, a mother and her daughter. The mom is a dancer, her daughter a middle-schooler. I was photographing them for the magazine, full-length on a white background, hopefully with some leaping and frolicking.

We chatted and I told them where to change. I returned to the computer, thinking I could install the software patch before they came back. No luck.

Annie ParrI found the patch, but it wouldn’t install. Nikon wanted the original registration number, which was home on my other computer, plus it required me to install every version of the software between the current one on the laptop and the latest fix – and there were three of those. No time for that.

I opened another piece of software, Lightroom, and configured it to capture the pictures coming from the camera. This was an unreliable workaround because Lightroom sometimes  quits in the middle of a shoot, causing me to lose pictures, but I had no choice.

OK, I said, to the mom and daughter, I’m ready. But I wasn’t. Even thought I’d metered the lights,  the first shots looked terrible – the light was muddy where it should have been sharp, overblown where it should have been no more than bright. I’d used this set-up at least 100 times previously and had no idea why this was happening.

I fiddled, I fussed, I moved things around and I changed settings on the camera. Things improved. I’d learned over the years that different lenses can produce different exposures under the same lighting conditions, but now I was learning that moving from one pricey Nikon model to another could do the same.

OK, I said, to the mom and daughter, I’m ready. But they weren’t. The 30 minutes I’d spent hacking at the software and moving gear dampened  the enthusiasm they’d walked in the door with. But they were gamers, so they perked up, posed a half-dozen ways and I made some decent shots, enough, at least, to get the job done.

The weirdness with the computer and the lights ate up half the time they had. The shoot felt rushed – because it was. Their faces showed strain at times – because their patience was running out. The resulting images were good, but limited – because there was not time to try other things.

The shoot wasn’t a failure, just less of a success than it could have been. My fault. I should have checked the software compatibility with the new camera. And I shouldn’t have used a new (well, I’ve had it six months, but haven’t used it in the studio) camera on something that had to be done right the first time.

This is me falling on my sword. Ouch.

With the pain out of the way, I can say this: It shouldn’t be this hard to make a picture. Oh, I know, I can hear Michael Corleone saying in The Godfather, “That is the price you pay for the life you choose.” I get it. I just don’t have to like it.

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Last weekend I tried a different type of photography, something not dependent a computer or software. Inspired by Mary Ellen Mark and her workshop in Oaxaca (here’s the story of my trip), I rented a Mamiya 7, a boxy slab of a camera that focuses manually, uses film and, because it is a rangefinder, requires whomever is using it to remove the lens cap in order to expose the film (something it took me several frames to remember).

Other than the lens-cap thing (Photography 101, folks), the Mamiya is simplicity embodied. I spent a few hours with it, walking around empty buildings near the ocean, framing windows and doorways and chairs. The roll of black-and-white film in the camera only held 10 exposures, so I devoted more time to looking than actually shooting, making the experience much more about seeing the world rather than capturing it. That patience, yogic-like mindfulness, was intensely relaxing.

Then there was the camera itself – no electronics other than the meter, a body made of smooth, heavy metal that always felt cool in my hand, a lens  silent and smooth as my fingers adjusted its focus and a shutter that just whispers its acceptance of its role, no ka-chunk of a mirror, just an affirmative, soft click to acknowledge the making of the picture.

Simple.

The Mamiya does demand one more thing – faith. Since it isn’t a digital photo factory, there is no immediate playback to look it, nothing to verify whether the picture is exposed correctly or framed adequately or has any other additional merits as a photograph. It is up to the photographer to have faith in the judgment he or she exercised with the press of the shutter, and then wait hours or days for the film to be developed to determine whether that faith has been rewarded.

Here we have a camera – and a way of making photographs – that is not only mechanically simple, but encourages patience, faith in your vision and technical knowledge (sorry, no histogram, you chimpers).

These are attractive qualities in a world like mine, which is dominated by technology, subject to the demands of deadlines, and often less focused on taking the picture than on remaking it later in the computer to satisfy the whims or needs of clients.

I’m already trolling eBay with a boxy, black slab in mind.

 

Finding Photography

Reina Lopez, San Bartolo, Luis Lopez

Years ago, after the ‘60s and all the wanton indulgences of that time, I’d regained enough of myself to return to college. I had no plan, no major, no desire to be anything in particular. School was an escape, a way out from a place I could no longer be and still stay alive.

I had a job, my first in years. It was a hotel, a new, fancy one on Nob Hill. I set up tables and chairs for meetings and cleaned the rooms afterwards. I swept, I vacuumed, I emptied trash. I enjoyed the orderliness after a long time of disarray. The job was union and paid decent. After rent and food, there was enough to buy things.

One day I saw two photographs in a magazine. Life, I think, but I’m not sure now. In the first, a boy sat a table in a café. His hair was long, his shirt torn. He leaned, dreamy eyed, toward a glow coming from a nearby window or open door. He was in Bombay. He was me, a blond version, untethered, ungrounded. In the second, a young couple, also hippies, rested on a beach, also in India. They wore white, wispy clothes. The boy’s hands rested on a harmonium, an Indian hand organ. He and the girl gazed languidly toward the sea. They, too, were me, looking searching, in between places.

They were the first pictures I’d seen that captured the disconnection I felt during those years. I’ve never forgotten them. Nor the name of the photographer: Mary Ellen Mark. She was young then, just past 30, but already accomplished – assignments worldwide, a Fulbright, lens focused on all the social trends of the day. Later she said of those years: “I’m just interested in people on the edges. I feel an affinity for people who haven’t had the best breaks in society. What I want to do more than anything is acknowledge their existence.”

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She inspired me. I bought a camera, a Pentax. I learned how to develop film, got a job in a darkroom and started shooting on the street. I was terrible, too timid, too afraid to approached people. I joined the community college paper, started shooting news. There was a lot in those days, kidnappings, demonstrations, strikes. Plenty to point a camera at. I got less terrible and used the camera – now a Nikon – to hide behind and overcome my timidity. At once, it opened the world to me and shielded me from it. I’d found a love. I wanted to be a photojournalist.

It never happened, though. And why that was is too long a story to tell here.  Here’s the short version: I did freelance. I chased the little jobs at little magazines. I did PR work. I made money. But I didn’t commit and that showed. My work was distant, a long way from terrible, but just as far from great.

Small newspapers offered me jobs. First one in an oil town, then another in a farm town. I said no. I worked part-time at a big San Francisco daily, the Examiner, as a gopher, and I saw the bright lights and that’s what I wanted. I got an interview. It went badly. The head of photo told me I didn’t have it, not the talent nor the desire. Best get out of it he said.

Dejected, despaired, defeated, I took his advice. I left town for one of those small newspaper jobs. I shot pictures, but I also began writing. The editor was a redneck, a cowboy and a grind. Writing came easily to me, more so than photography, and when an editor’s slot opened I took it in order to move up the chain and get more leverage.

Ambition hooked me. The photography stopped, then the writing and I moved where the opportunity led – editor of this, editor of that, editor of it all. Lots of work, even more stress.

And then it ended. Another long story. Here’s the short version: Thirty years after finding myself, I was lost again. Years went by. I moved out of the city. I was working, but had time on my hands. One day I took out an old Nikon, loaded some film and wandered about the suburban woods and the marshes. Just like that it was there again, the rectangular image, the clarity of the prism, the reassuring clunk of the mirror, and, most of all, the precious instant of seeing, the moment the image became mine with the press of the shutter button.

My wife, more perceptive about me than I am, gave me a small digital camera. I returned to photography. I learned the software. I bought a digital Nikon. I found work with a local magazine that needed who someone who could shoot cheap and also write. (That’s me: under-priced and multi-talented). Over time, more work came. And better cameras. And lights. And a studio (shared). I became, at last, a photographer.

Happy ending, right? Boy wants girl. Gets rejected. Wins over girl years later. Fade to black. Roll credits.

Hold the Hollywood moment. One thing went wrong: the boy got the wrong girl. I didn’t get Mary Ellen Mark; I got a version of Real Housewives. Not quite. But I do spend an awful lot of time making good-looking people and good-looking places look even better. It’s a good life. Many would like to have it, but there’s that itch, still unscratched.

Then, serendipity struck. A few months ago I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where my wife and I built a house (here’s that long story). I saw a poster touting a documentary photography workshop led Mary Ellen Mark. So tantalizing, so coincidental it seemed impossible – Mary Ellen Mark (my inspiration), photojournalism (my abandoned child) and Oaxaca (my new love) all combined.

I signed up. I went. And I’m back. What happened during those 10 days in Mexico is yet another lengthy narrative I won’t relate here. For now, I can say what I learned. And that is this:

I love photography. I am fascinated by the imagery, with its patterns of light and shadow and shape and color. I am addicted to the capture, to the preservation of the moment. I find peace in the seeing.

I am drawn still to journalism and documentary, especially as tools for social change and justice. I am moved by the tenacity of humans whose lives are a daily struggle for survival and I am heartened by their humor, spirit and generosity toward others (even those, like me, who have much more than they). I admire those who celebrate this humanity.

I remain, after all these decades, hesitant in the face of challenge, overly self-critical on the verge of success and easily distracted from the pursuit of the long-term by the gratifications of the  short.

I relish the company of smart, creative, genuine people. I want to be one myself.

Truthfully, in my heart I knew all these things before I went to Oaxaca, so you might say I learned nothing. Still,  the workshop – and Mary Ellen Mark (an extraordinary women of relentless passion and authenticity) — taught me to trust what I know, so in that sense you might say I learned everything.

I finally found photography. Now I need to put it to good use.

Zaachila, Oaxaca, Mexico

On the Job: Teaching (and Learning)

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Whenever I teach, as I’m doing this summer in a short class on action photography at The Image Flow in Mill Valley, I find two things to be the most challenging: Explaining to others what I do instinctively in a way they understand and not knowing what the students don’t know.

Blurred runner at Blackie's Pasture in TiburonThe first forces me to think in granular terms about what I do with the camera — and why. For example, one student asked me why I usually use ISO 400 as my base setting when most digital cameras have ISO settings lower than that. Well, I answered, somewhat lamely, it’s because I grew up on Tri-X, Kodak’s legendary  black-and-white film. It had an ASA of 400 and my earliest lessons about light and manual exposure were learned using that number as a base — and those lessons still work today. In other words, it’s a habit, albeit one that serves me well.

The second challenge is more difficult. What each student knows about photography in general and the intricacies of their own camera in particular varies widely.

Most, not surprisingly, came to photography in the digital age and with cameras so advanced and so automatic  that they skipped the need to studdy the basics of photography, so they have a poor understanding of the connections between light and exposure, between shutter speed and aperture, and between focal length and depth of field.

They all have inexpensive lenses that in a short twist of the barrel leap rom wide-angle to telephoto, so they’ve never had to master the physical art of moving through a scene with prime lenses in order to change the point of view or to get closer to or farther from a subject.

Because of these gaps, each time I attempt to explain something more advanced, such as capturing the fleetness of a runner with a pan or freezing the motion of boy on bike in a half-pipe, it opens the door to a more basic discussion about the principles behind the technique and where to find the buttons and dials on a particular brand of camera in order to get the technical stuff right.

For this reason, I learn along with my students. I learn about my own habits (good and bad), I learn how different types of cameras work (even their Nikons don’t function as mine does) and, most importantly, I learn I need patience in order to succeed — and that’s a lesson that applies to photography as well as teaching.

Learn How to Shoot on the Move

How to photograph things that move and other action photography tips

Learn how to apply the essentials of photojournalism to everyday photography in a class I’m teaching at The Image Flow in Mill Valley.

We’ll emphasize photographing action of all kinds, from youth sports to local events to children’s parties. Conquer the technical challenges of shooting on the move (continuous focus, panning, variable exposure) and learn how to move as you shoot (being ready, being patient, being close). Understand how to make the gear you’ve got work in any situation.

The class begins Thursday evening May 24, goes for three weeks and also includes a location outing with me on Saturday, June 2.

Here are the details. I hope to see you there.

Open Studios 2012: The Visitors

Open Studios 2012 at The Image Flow

Open Studios was a big success. More than 150 people dropped by The Image Flow’s new studio and gallery space in Mill Valley over the weekend to see photographs by Barbara Hazen, Stuart Schwartz and myself.

I set up a light and photographed as many of the visitors as I could against the still-unfinished studio wall. I love the mixture of people and their expressions. Everyone has a “oh, you’re taking my picture” face and you can see many of those here. Click on any of the thumbnails below to launch the gallery.

Here’s the work I showed — all new images. Enjoy.

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