Where’s First Draft?First Draft by Tim Porter, my blog on quality journalism, is archived here.
Buy My Book
Organic Marin, Recipes from Land to Table: Photographs, stories and recipes from organic farmers of Marin County and the restaurants that support them. Buy it here from Amazon.
My Art, Your Walls
Where to find my pictures
See My Portfolio
TagsAyotzinapa Baseball Canal Canal Alliance D3 David Hobby David Pogue Digital Journalist Fairfax Fran Ortiz Golden Gate Bridge Iguala Joe McNally Journalism Larkspur Magnum Marin Marin County Marin Magazine Mary Ellen Mark Mexico Mill Valley Mission Newspapers New York New York Times Nikon Novato Oaxaca Open studios organic Organic Marin Photography Photojournalism Point Reyes Station Salon San Francisco San Rafael Sausalito SB800 Scott Kelby Strobist The Image Flow Tiburon West Marin
Category Archives: Photography
The book from the last Oaxaca workshop arrived the other say. The cardboard package was on the stairway landing inside the front gate when I arrived home from an afternoon shoot. I took the book inside to the kitchen, slit the packing tape with a paring knife and opened the wrapping.
There was Mary Ellen on the cover of the book.
In the photograph she is seated, facing to her right. A dog lies at her feet, his head raised and cocked slightly, his eyes looking into the camera. A large shawl covers most of Mary Ellen’s body. Only her head, her braids, a bit of her legs and her feet are visible. A large lump appears beneath the shawl on the left of her body. It is the cast on her broken wrist. She wears sandals. Her toenails are painted black. Her feet appear to be large for such a tiny person.
It is a somber image. I would have said that even had she not died just three months after the picture was made. She isn’t smiling, but she rarely did for photographs, so it isn’t that. It’s the tightness of her face, the downward slant of the corners of her mouth, the hunch of her shoulders below the shawl. They create an uncharacteristic appearance of smallness for a woman whose personality was as large as the life she led.
In the photograph I see the sickness. I see the frailty. I see weight she carried, the knowledge that her time was running out and that despite all her fierce will and immense soul – the characteristics that defined her – she could not prevent it from doing so.
I touched the picture with my right hand and cried.
The truth is didn’t buy the book until after Mary Ellen died. The February workshop in Oaxaca didn’t end well for me – nor for Mary Ellen – and when the workshop organizers sent word that book was finished I hadn’t cleansed enough of the bad feelings to want to buy it.
The workshop wrapped up on Wednesday night and most everyone flew home the next day. Mary Ellen was there an extra day and I was staying through the weekend to do more photography. I planned to ride to the airport with her on Friday morning to help her navigate the craziness in the terminal should she need it.
On Thursday morning, I went to an elementary school outside of Oaxaca to photograph a teacher, a young Mexican woman who had returned home to Oaxaca after living illegally through her adolescence in South Carolina, a placed she considered so racist and intolerant that she chose to return to Mexico. After cabbing back into town, I was walking through the zócalo in the mid-afternoon en route to my apartment when I spotted Mary Ellen seated on the patio of her hotel. Before her on a table were many of the contents of the two shopping bags she carried with her – papers, folders, receipts, etc. She was quite upset.
“I was robbed,” she told me after I sat down next to her. She explained that 30 minutes earlier while shopping she accidentally left a wallet containing a sizable amount of Mexican pesos on the counter of a store. After leaving the store and discovering that the wallet was missing, Mary Ellen sent her assistant back to retrieve the wallet. It was gone.
Mary Ellen was enraged. She wanted to call the police. I won’t come back here, she said. I’ve had it with Mexico. The people can’t be trusted. The city has changed so much. It’s not the same.
They were harsh words and they saddened me. I knew she was sick. I knew her health might not allow her to return for the workshop she’d already planned for later in the year. If this trip were to be the last of her two-decade love affair with Oaxaca, I didn’t want it to end so bitterly.
I went to the store. Mary Ellen’s assistant was there, arguing with the clerk and the owner, who, coincidentally, I had known for a couple of years. The assistant, a young Mexican guy, was sure the clerk had taken the money (I know my people, he told me later, outside the store.) I wasn’t yet convinced. Mary Ellen always seemed to be looking for things – a folder, a pair of glasses, something. It seemed reasonable that she might have misplaced the wallet elsewhere.
The shop owner let us look behind the counter, in shelves and drawers and all around the store. Nothing. I returned to Mary Ellen’s hotel. She hadn’t calmed down and continued to talk about getting the police involved. Don’t, I told her. Don’t. This is Mexico. It won’t go well. She ate dinner that night with a friend and I didn’t see her again until 6:30 the next morning, when we met in the lobby of her hotel.
A night’s sleep hadn’t helped. “She stole it. I know,” said Mary Ellen right off. After a night of thinking about it, I still wasn’t sure even though the amount of cash in the wallet equaled a month’s pay or more for a shop clerk. It would be hard to resist. We’ll never know, I told her; you’ve got to let it go.
The driver arrived, someone Mary Ellen had used for years. Two days earlier I’d heard him and Mary Ellen agree on a price to take the two of us to the airport and then give me a ride back into town. Now he wanted to charge us double because of the return trip. It was a standard tactic in Mexico, but it further upset Mary Ellen. No, she said. No. Her mood worsened. There’s no loyalty here, she said, no loyalty.
At the airport, all went smoothly. Mary Ellen and I hugged goodbye. After I watched Mary Ellen clear security, I got in the car for the 20-minute return trip into the city. I never saw her again.
A couple of days later I flew home to San Francisco in my own negative mood. I was disappointed in my work. I didn’t like the pictures I’d made. I was exhausted from the heat and had lost five pounds from walking miles every day and I couldn’t see the value of it in the photographs. They were too ordinary, too magazine-y as Mary Ellen would say. I felt like I would never make a good picture.
This state of mind is important in order to understand what happened next. After each workshop with Mary Ellen, there is a flurry of Internet activity among its participants, especially on Facebook. Groups are formed, photos are shared and quips are exchanged. Less than a week after I returned to California, one of the photographers from the workshop posted some photos that deeply disturbed me. I won’t say what the subject was, where they were shot or who made them, but I thought they were a violation of privacy and a breach of trust.
I can be overly opinionated and judgmental – not my finer characteristics – and the pictures outraged me. They hit the sweet spot of disdain I have for privileged First World travelers who come to Mexico and treat the poor people they encounter with (what I see as) disrespect. Anyone who knows me has heard the rant: They can’t speak the language, they enter people’s homes without so much as a please and thank you, they show up at sacred ceremonies and snap away like they’re photographing a Little League parade.
I’ve done it, too. I plead guilty. But I do it less and less. I am working on patience and intimacy. I am OK with spending the whole day with someone and not taking a single picture. I would rather – even if my success rate is low – be a better human being than a great (or even a mediocre) photographer. Thank you, Mary Ellen, for teaching me these things.
In short, I was angry when I saw the photographs. I wrote an email to the photographer. I tried to be polite and persuasive, but I probably sounded condemning and abrasive (see above). The photographer disagreed with me. The photos stayed online.
It seemed so wrong to me that it made me question my own photographs. Am I exploiting people? Am I betraying their trust? I still don’t know the answers to those questions, but what I did know was that I was done with workshops. No more, I told my wife, a former journalist who had lived and worked in Mexico. No more photography – or Oaxaca – with others. I would continue my relationship with Mary Ellen, travel to New York to visit her, nourish the friendships I’ve made through her and work in Oaxaca on my own. But no more groups, not with anyone.
This was my mindset when the workshop book came out. I looked at it online, flipped through the digital pages and saw only the negative.
I didn’t see the faces of my friends, I didn’t see the effort and creativity of the other photographers, I didn’t see the dinners with Mary Ellen and her posse of fabulous women, I didn’t see the hopes and hardships of the families I’d visited, I didn’t see the drunken, almost desperate frivolity of the transvestites I’d come to know, I didn’t even see the sweetness of the abandoned children I’d photographed for two years. I only saw what I’d failed to do. I only saw how others had disappointed me and how I had disappointed myself. I didn’t buy the book. I didn’t want those memories.
When Mary Ellen died, I, like every other photographer she had ever helped, was heartbroken. I wanted more of her. I spent hours online looking at her work. Eventually, I looked through the workshop book again. This time it was different. I only saw her.
There she was surrounded by her assistants – steady Cristina, mercurial Beto, thoughtful Ina, energetic Candy, and earnest Paula. There she was in her photographs of the participants, some of whom I feel closer to than friends I’ve had for years. There she was in her photograph of me, I looking small, old and awkward. The dog looked better.
There she was in the work of the photographers – the girl in the locker by Alejandra; the oily men against the wall by Bjorn; the gauzy Holga dog by Chae; the beautiful image of the young orphaned boy in a box by Grant (who worked so hard); the boy in the shelter hanging upside down off a concrete wall by Ina; the dog at the dump by James; the hands of a mother cupping her disabled son’s head by Jody (who has been photographing this child for years); the drummer boy by Lori; and the girl in her communion dress against a blue wall by Julia. And so many others.
Now, I see everything I didn’t see in the book the first time. I see goodness and humanity and passion. I see innocence and experience. I see admiration and awe (by the photographers of Mary Ellen) and I see loyalty and relentless encouragement (by her to them). And, I see myself, still uncertain at this age, still wanting to be more, still dissatisfied, but still trying.
I think that’s what she saw in me. I certainly see that in her.
The first time Mary Ellen Mark and I spoke she came at me like a ravenous attack dog. “Tell me who said that,” she barked into the phone. “I want to know who said that.”
The spark for those words was struck several weeks earlier when I was in Oaxaca, Mexico, where my wife and I have a house, and where we were visiting friends.
One evening, one of those friends, a bookstore owner, and I, went to IAGO (Instituto de Artes Gráficas de Oaxaca) to see an exhibition by New York graphic artist Peter Kuper, who had lived in Oaxaca with his family during the political turbulence and violence of 2006 and had written an illustrated book about the experience (Diario de Oaxaca). The exhibition consisted of drawings from that book.
At the gallery entrance, I saw a poster advertising an upcoming workshop with Mary Ellen. I was astounded. She was my photographic hero and, in fact, the reason I took up photography (see that story here). Oaxaca was my adopted second home. I’d had no idea that two such significant components of my life overlapped.
I mentioned this coincidence to my friend. As a journalist, first a photographer and then later a reporter and an editor, I had dismissed photo workshops as expensive vacations for wannabes who were transported en masse from one location to another to photograph wildlife or indigenous people. I already detested the American and European tourists who stuck their big cameras in the faces of the Oaxaca’s impoverished street children, snapping their photos as if they were tourist attractions like Monte Alban or colorful rugs. I couldn’t imagine hanging out with a group of well-heeled (the only types who can normally afford workshop fees), wide-eyed amateurs ooh-ing and aw-ing over “colorful” poor people.
Still, I was intrigued. This was Mary Ellen Mark. The real deal. The icon. Surely any workshop run by her would be different.
The curator of the exhibition was the wife of a well-known Mexican photographer. After introducing me to her, my friend mentioned that I, too, was a photographer and was considering taking Mary Ellen’s workshop.
Immediately, she told me, “You don’t want to do that. You’re a professional and it’s for beginners.” I was surprised by the vehemence of her dismissal. Really, I asked? “It’s a joke,” she said.
A week or so later, back in California, I still couldn’t shake the dissonance of the experience. How, I wondered, could such an ethical, humane photographer like Mary Ellen Mark be involved with a “joke”? Yet, I didn’t want to waste the money nor the time. Even worse, I didn’t want to participate in something that would ruin the regard I had for Mary Ellen.
I dithered. I fretted. I finally called the workshop organizer in Miami, Photo XPeditions, and spoke with Herzen Cortes, its founder. Tell me, I said, what’s deal? Can someone like me – meaning a crusty, somewhat accomplished professional (albeit not as a documentary photographer) and a Oaxacan veteran benefit from this? Is it really for amateurs?
Herzen, a good guy, pitched me hard, but he was pretty much giving me what was on the web site. I remained hesitant and told him so. Then he said, “Well, would you like to talk to Mary Ellen?”
Sure, I said, and hung up thinking like that will ever happen.
Twenty minutes later the phone rang. It was Mary Ellen, calling from New York. Almost without prelude, she got right to it. “Tell me who said that,” she said. “I want to know who said that.”
She caught me off guard. First, I was surprised she called at all. Second, when she said who she was I expected a persuasive tone, not a combative one. I didn’t know what to say and certainly didn’t want to get in the middle of something. “I can’t tell you,” I said. “That seems wrong.”
“OK,” she said, “all I can tell you is that whoever said that is a fucking liar.”
Boom! There it was. All the passion, all the fire, all the ferocity I had associated with her. In that instant, I decided: I was going.
She went on to explain about the workshop, about how some photographers have come for years to work on long-term projects, about how other journalists have come, about how it was designed for people to do personal work and not travel about in a herd.
That was all unnecessary. She had me at a “fucking liar.” I loved her from that moment on. Loved her completely.
Six weeks later, I met Mary Ellen for the first time during the workshop’s traditional opening dinner in a restaurant overlooking the zócalo in Oaxaca. “Hi,” I said, “I’m Tim Porter.”
She smiled, took my hand in hers, leaned in and said, “Before we’re done, you’re going to tell me who it was.”
And several nights later, over mescal, I did.
They love the photos. My wife, my friends, my family, they all think the pictures are terrific. They stare at the faces of the people. They comment on the aprons of the women. The cluck over the cuteness of the children and they sigh at the images of the food. These are wonderful, they say, such marvelous pictures.
But they are wrong. Well-meaning and flattering, but wrong. The photographs are inadequate. They are incomplete. They don’t capture what I saw. They don’t communicate what I heard. They don’t convey the feelings I felt when I made them. They lack as much — if not more — than they contain.
So much is missing.
The heat, for example. Where are the streets roasted by the sun into hot concrete slabs that scorch the feet? Where is the smoky sweatiness of the kitchen where the women are cooking, their golden skin glistening and their gold teeth glinting through the haze? Where is that room in the house, the one with the refrigerator filled with Corona and Coke, the one so dark that its corners disappear into blackness, the one in which the bride, still encased in the frothy spume of her synthetic gown, seeks haven from the heat?
And the drinking. Where are the groups of men who sit on shaded street-corners and underneath trees and drain bottle after bottle of mescal all day long and into the night? Where are these men who stare at me, curious and friendly, when I arrive and ask directions? Where are these men who watch me, slack-eyed and smirking, as I walked through town at dusk en route to the highway? Where the shots of mescal at the wedding breakfast, the cases of beer at lunch, and the bottles of both at dinner?
And the stories of the people. Where is young man with the gang tattoos on his face who tells me he’s done five years in a California prison, including a year in solitary? Where is the drunken gatecrasher with the Yankees hat who wants me to come with him to some caves in the hills so he can show me the shards of pottery he found? Where is the lovely older woman who posed for me with her hatchet as she was hacking up the last of the 25 turkeys cooked for the wedding dinner?
And so much more. The animals – the skinny dogs, the condemned turkeys, the flatulent pigs, the shitting cows and the ubiquitous flies, on the food, on the faces of babies, on whatever is alive or dead. The outhouses – reeking in the heat, furnished with encrusted thrones devoid of seats and provided with reading material so that yesterday’s soccer section can be used as today’s ass wipe. The food – the mugs of breakfast chocolate; the large, tangy tortillas that substitute for forks when ripping chicken from the bone in bowls of red mole; the sticky plastic cups of horchata.
Why don’t the photographs show these things as I really saw them?
It’s possible that I don’t have what it takes to make the photographs I want. Maybe I don’t work hard enough. Maybe I hesitate when I should engage. Maybe I simply lack the creative eye to see through the camera what I see without it. If this is so, then it explains why other photographers return from scenes just like those I’ve been in with images that are much more powerful.
Another possible answer is that photography by itself is not capable of capturing everything a photographer sees, hears, and otherwise experiences. This seems self-evident, doesn’t it? After all, a still photograph is a limited representation of a moment. It lacks the sound, the smell and the other tactile sensations of the actual instant.
Of course, I prefer the second answer to the first because it is not a condemnation of my abilities, but the truth is that both possibilities are dissatisfying and deflating.
If indeed, as I sometimes suspect, that I just don’t have the talent or the drive or the know-how to make great photographs, then, naturally, that would be depressing. But, equally disappointing would be the realization that photography, a pursuit I wanted to follow since I was in my 20s, lacks by its very nature, meaning its capture of a brief instant from an endless stream of moments that together produce a memorable experience, the ability to convey that experience from one person to the next.
There is a third option, though. It could be that I ask too much, that I want photography to be the means by which I fill the holes in my life and when it doesn’t I blame the images for their incompleteness, condemn the craft for its impotence, or indict myself as talentless.
This supposition carries the advantage of preserving what measure of self-esteem I have about my work as well as giving photography the respect it deserves as a tool of communication and journalism, one wielded with great impact by many photographers more talented than I.
Some of those holes, those devoid of personal satisfaction, moral fulfillment and social purpose, journalism once filled. Not every day, of course, but often enough to keep the drudgery of the daily deadline at bay. Journalism is a story-telling mechanism. This is important to me. I believe in the power of the story as a means to produce social good (and, for me, to enhance self-worth). I also believe the purpose of telling the story is to affect the reader (or the viewer or the listener), to cause a reaction, be it emotional or intellectual.
My photographs are not telling the stories I want to tell, and these days those stories have to do with the Mexico, or at least my Mexico.
My Mexico is complicated. My Mexico is a contradiction. It is a country of wealth and warmth and welcoming people. It is a country of corruption and crime and vast social division.
My Mexico smells of ripe mangos, pungent salsa and smoky mescal. My Mexico stinks of clogged sewage lines, leaking gas tanks and dark clouds of exhaust fuming from buses and trucks.
In my Mexico, the nights can be so silent that only the rush of the evening wind en route from the mountain to the valley catches the attention of the ear. In my Mexico, the cities are besieged by a harsh cacophony of honking vehicles stuck in clogged streets, boom-boxes blasting disco tunes from sidewalk stands, and of a nocturnal canine orchestra that never sleeps.
My Mexico has markets laden with towers of fresh fruit, aisles of locally grown and slaughtered meat and colorful comedores that serve platters of homemade enchiladas and tamales and moles. My Mexico has food contaminated with agricultural poisons and human waste and water no human can drink without risking intestinal disease.
My Mexico is limited. It is mostly Oaxaca. My Mexico is vast. It reflects the history of all of Latin America and represents the current social, political and economic conflict of an emerging democracy.
My Mexico is missing in my photographs and I want to see it there. Is this asking too much? Of the images? Of me?
What do you do when you realize you haven’t become the person you once hoped to be? What can you do? What should you do?
Age complicates the answers. If you are young and unencumbered with life’s baggage, you can – and should – make the changes that will take you where you want to be. If you are older, or even simply old, your options are fewer. You have obligations, many of them, financial and emotional. You have exchanged innocence and belief for experience and doubt. The road ahead is short, the time for a mid-course correction was long ago.
What can you do? What should you do?
These questions are in my head as I step out of the Rubin Museum onto West 17th Street during a recent visit to New York. A harsh, pre-winter wind fails to penetrate the sobriety of the moment, one focused on the exhibition I had just seen – more than 100 photographs made in post-World War II Asia by the pioneering Magnum photojournalist Marc Riboud.
With a Leica loaded with black-and-white film, Riboud inserted himself into the transition points of China, Japan, India and other countries during periods of often tumultuous political and cultural change. His work is direct, honest and, at times, both intimate and grand – everything good photojournalism should be.
Of course, I’d seen Riboud’s photographs before and even studied them in college, but collected together and filling room after room in the museum, the scale and the scope of his accomplishment was impressive and inspirational.
It also – selfishly – saddened me. This is the photography I yearn for and this remains the photography that eludes me. I am working on it, but I am not focused enough. My effort is scatter-shot, diffused by lack of direction.
A friend, a photographer I love and admire, urges me to find a story and tell it. I had dinner with her in New York and over steaming bowls of chewy udon she repeated her advice. Coincidentally, the next day, at the Riboud exhibition, I come across a letter written by Henri Cartier-Bresson to a 33-year-old Riboud in 1956, when the younger man was struggling with his photography.
“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story,” wrote Cartier-Bresson, who then counseled Riboud to look for the “means” of telling a story, to find the pieces and put them together one by one until the larger narrative is complete. (A larger excerpt is below.)
I have no illusions of becoming Marc Riboud. In fact, at this point of my life I have no illusions of anything. Still, I treasure clarity for it can lead to conviction.
What can I do? What should I do?
(When in New York, I walk – a lot. The photos below are snaps from a couple of Manhattan walkabouts.)
“You’re still having trouble, I sense, finding a story. I’ll quote what Max Jacobs says about literature in a letter to a friend: ‘Look for the “means,” a work of art is a gathering of means to achieve an effect. Artists are not penitents displaying their sins, they are creators working towards a goal, they have a skill and a story gets made like a suit, with cutting and patterns. Whatever of ourselves we put into it, fine, but it’s necessary to learn how it’s made: what a situation is, how to bring it along, how to resolve it.”
— Letter from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Marc Riboud, March 19, 1956.
“You have to come,” she said. “It’s weird. You’ll like it.”
I had been in Reykjavik for more than a week photographing homeless people, alcoholics, Elvis freaks and massive gym rats known as power-lifters. Mary Ellen Mark was leading a workshop and after assurances from her that Iceland offered enough oddities to suit my visual tastes I’d made the trip.
Mary Ellen was right, as usual. Beyond the ubiquitous blondes, behind the unrelenting civility, and underneath the itchy woolen sweaters, there was plenty of weird. I found all I could of it and made some decent photos in the time I had. I was doing what I often do while traveling: looking for interesting people and ignoring the tourist attractions.
That’s all well and good when I am in New York or Paris or Oaxaca, places I have the good fortune to visit regularly, but Iceland might have been an once-in-a-lifetime trip and the people I’d met and photographed could have lived anywhere in the world. After all, an alcoholic who lives in shipping container resembles similarly broken people in the U.S. – even if her name is Sigrun. I had been photographing Icelanders, not Iceland.
The country is a geologic amusement park chock full of glaciers, fjords and fumaroles, none of which I had seen. Nor had I walked on lava, slid on ice or dunked myself in the warm waters of the Blue Lagoon.
And that is how, in an 11th-hour effort to fill that gap two days before my return flight to San Francisco, I found myself on a gray, blustery Sunday riding in a small station-wagon being driven by Ellen Inga, one of the workshop’s photography interns. She was taking me on a fast-forward tour of the volcanic landscape east of Reykjavik.
With Ellen’s young son buckled into the rear seat, a serpentine road carried us out from the city through an uplands studded with dark, magenta-tinted cinder cones. A spongy mat of green lichen covered the lower reaches of the rock. The colors, vibrant in then sun, were muted by a heavy mist. For photography, especially the drive-by variety I was doing, the day didn’t look promising.
We stopped several times so I could click off some frames. Even though I doubted the capacity of my computerized camera to capture the natural complexity before me, I marveled at the rawness and freshness of the landscape. The rocks, in geologic years, were newborns. The water, sitting deep in glacial lakes or running rapidly through basalt-rimmed rivers, was untainted by man. The air, moist and moving, quenched a deep pulmonary thirst.
At Þingvellir National Park, where the great tectonic plates of the mid-Atlantic ridge collide, I walked in the mist and followed a boardwalk through the rift valley to a promontory. I recorded the volcanic hills in the distance and the lake below. The gray swallowed the color, but I wanted the photo anyhow, as a memory and as something that might compel me to come back and devote more time to this landscape.
I can’t say I will return to Iceland. I would like to, though. There are good people there I would like to see again. There are amazing places – such as Þingvellir – I want to revisit and many more I’ve yet to see. But as my years accumulate, my promises become fewer. There is less time ahead to keep them.
This day, then, this Sunday drive through the hills, around the lake, past the waterfalls and home again, may be my Iceland day.
The camera is my curtain. I am behind it. On the other side, on the grand stage of the world, the theater of life plays without intermission. I wait, listening to the dialog and watching the players move through the certain. Then comes a moment and I open the curtain, quickly and with such delicacy that the actors and the audience don’t recognize my presence. When the instant is gone, so am I, but I leave with the moment wrapped in my curtain.
Photography teaches me patience, me, someone who is anything but patient. The moment will arrive when it happens and if I am ready, if I am looking and listening, and if I have been able, through stillness or persistence, to remain close even as I become bored or nervous or frightened, then I will have a chance to make a picture.
Without patience, I have no chance. Without waiting, good pictures don’t happen – at least for me. Without the curtain, I am exposed and cannot wait. You see the circle now. The curtain protects. The protection comforts. The comfort makes me patient. The patience brings the photograph.
Recently, I was in a bar in Bolinas. For a long time I just talked with the others who were there – with the bartender, with a woman who had brought home-made cheesecake, and with a pool-player who had one eye filled with blood, the consequence of a mountain bike mishap.
The bartender invited me behind the bar. I faced a young blond woman, thin, animated and dressed in a spring party dress. She posed for the camera again and again. When she became bored, she stopped and slid a lipstick tube out from her purse. She lifted her gold iPhone and, using it as a mirror, refreshed her face.
My waiting was over. The curtain opened.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
I 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.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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
The 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 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 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.