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The other night, in a Spanish class, a student got hung up on a particular phrase because, as she put it, “it doesn’t make sense in English.” Of course it doesn’t, I told her, but it works just fine in Spanish.
It’s a common trap, one that grabs many Americans who learn a second language – assuming that native Spanish speakers think, as they do, in English and then translate into Spanish as they talk.
It seems silly, doesn’t it? Intellectually, we know that someone from Mexico or Colombia or Chile is not thinking in English and then speaking in Spanish, but emotionally it is a human trait to presume that others are like us. This is mostly a good thing because it enables us to find commonalities among the differences. Despite the language gaps, the discordant cultures and the political tribalism that distinguish us, we share experiences, emotions and the travails of the flesh. We are men, we are women, we work, we strive, we exult, we sicken, we die.
Seeing ourselves in the lives of others can enable us to celebrate what we share and minimize what we don’t. But, the differences remain and must be accepted in order to understand and communicate. Anyone who wishes to learn another language will not be successful if he or she challenges linguistic uses that come naturally to native speakers. You cannot master Spanish by imagining how you would say something in English.
And that’s how Mexico is. A lot of Americans (at least those not consumed by the paranoid mind-think of rabid conservatism) view it as an extension of the U.S. With the two countries sharing a 1,900-mile border, with 6 million Americans visiting Mexico each year and with 33 million Hispanics of Mexican origin living in the United States, it is easy envision Mexico as a browner, spicier, poorer version of the U.S., one with better beaches. But that’s not the case.
“Pobre México, tan lejos de Dios y tan cerca de Estados Unidos.” (Poor Mexico, so far from God and so close to the United States.) These words of Porfirio Diaz, the autocratic Mexican president who ruled the country for three decades at the turn of the 20th century, define the conundrum that is Mexico – a land abundant in resource and culture and human spirit, but also one whose potential remains stunted because it lives in the immense economic and cultural shadow of the United States. Like a seedling in a forest, Mexico struggles for nourishment while the larger trees of the U.S. absorb the nutrients from the soil, block the sunlight and suck up all the water.
Lacking nourishment to develop properly – that is to become a thriving, democratic, First World country – Mexico develops aberrantly, like a bush that can only grow in one direction.
The trappings of modern life are everywhere – sprawling beachside resorts along both coasts; luxury car dealerships even in poor states like Oaxaca; expensive restaurants in the capital; booming factories churning out appliances and cars for Americans; and cell phones in the hands of all but the poorest people.
Life looks good in Mexico to those Americans who jet into Cancun and jet out a week later, sunburned and sated with mushy margaritas. But this image is fake. It is a façade.
The resorts rest on a foundation of corruption; only the oligarchic political and business elite (and their children) drive the fancy German cars and patronize the upscale restaurants; the factories are real but their reach is limited and the average national income is $4,500, with the daily minimum wage about $5; and the cost of phone service in Mexico is one of the highest in the world, thanks to the longtime monopoly held by TelMex, which is run by Carlos Slim, the world’s richest man.
Anyone who spends time in the poorer communities in Mexico easily encounters more vivid examples of Mexican life behind the façade – single mothers who live in tin shacks and make 20 or 30 pesos a day selling trinkets to tourists; children old enough to be in middle school in the U.S. who have never set foot in a Mexico classroom; villages empty of working-age men, who are in the U.S. picking crops, cooking food and tidying up the yards of the wealthy; and more and more.
In the same Spanish class I mentioned earlier, I occasionally show pictures of Oaxaca, either scenes of the city or portraits of the families and children I’m photographing. Some of the student comments, coming as they do from educated, successful people who are interested enough in another culture to attempt to learn its language, are telling in their fundamental lack of understanding of the forces that create the conditions in which these families live.
Of a 28-year-old woman who has four young children, they ask – why does she keep having babies? Of the children in a shelter that cares for dozens of boys and girls of single mothers, they say – where are the fathers? Of the city’s main square, the zócalo, which is crammed with the tents of striking public school teachers, who have occupied the plaza for a year, they wonder – why doesn’t the government kick them out?
These are good questions, but they are American questions, asked from a mindset and an experience that takes civil society and the rule of law for granted, that (still) believes in the preservation of a social safety net and that cannot imagine the complications that confront a single mother with a fifth-grade education having to survive on her own in a macho culture .
The cultural confusion is understandable. Mexico looks like the United States. There are Wal-Marts and Honda dealerships and Starbucks. Kids wear T-shirts festooned with Disney characters. Adults sport Yankees hats and Dodgers jackets. Teenagers have smart phones. Waiters speak English. Politicians wear suits. People eat pizza. Everyone’s so, so, so nice.
But Mexico is not the United States. Tan cerca de Estados Unidos, pero tan lejos tambien. So close to the United States, but so far as well.
This is a lesson I learn again and again. As I sit, for example, in a mother’s living room and we talk about the town and the weather and her son, who was born deformed and now, at age 11, struggles with the onset of puberty from the discomfort of a wheelchair, I fall into that same trap as the woman in my Spanish class – I imagine the mother and I are the same. We are laughing and joking and she smiles so broadly and openly that we seem like old friends and for the moment I lose sight of the gap between us. I see what we share and miss what we don’t. I forget in that instant what I need to remember most in order to understand her and her life – that I will leave and she will stay. I will return with my expensive camera, which costs more than all the money she made last year, to my life of order and drinkable water and indoor plumbing and she will stay, with her son, with her family, in the town where she was born and where she most likely will die.
How blindly egotistic I am to imagine that she and I are the same – I in my life of privilege and good fortune and her in her life of struggle and hardship.
She is beautiful and warm and loving – like Mexico. She is heartbreaking – like Mexico as well. I need to accept this. I need to live with my love and embrace the sadness it brings.
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.
On those days when my glass drops below half-empty and I can’t seem to refill it no matter what, I pick up a camera and leave the house. Often I walk the neighborhood looking for snapshots of life. Other days, times when I need to keep myself away from me (thank you Adam Durwitz), I go farther.
One such journey a couple of years ago took me to Stinson Beach. It was mid-March, the second day of spring. I arrived late and it was after 5 o’clock as I walked the dark sand under the gray sky.
The wind and salt stung my eyes. Tears softened my focus. Emptiness was everywhere. I walked south, climbed the dunes and found shelter and stillness inside the small snack shack at the end of the beach.
Out of the wind, there was warmth. I sat at a table, enjoying the absence of what I had escaped. I thought about when i was a boy and sought and found similar solace alone in the house with my books.
I have always been this way, I thought. This is me, alone. I looked it my emptiness, photographed it and brought it home.
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.
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.
Work, work, work. Everyone’s worried about it. There’s either too much or — for many photographers and writers these days — too little. The best way I’ve found to beat back the anxiety beast is to pick up a camera and shoot. Making pictures is what got me started, and making pictures is what keeps me going. That’s why I love any opportunity to just play with the camera.
I had the chance to do just that last week when family came to visit from Paris and Lost Angeles. After a couple days of doing the tourist thing, we gathered one morning at my studio with bags full of colorful hats and scarves, and spend a fun couple of hours dressing up and being silly.
The one child in the group — Vanessa, 4 — tired of the fun before the adults, which says something about the need we grownups have to let loose the inner child more often.
Above is Vanessa and my mother-in-law, Deborah. (The hat became Vanessa’s favorite and she’s considering, as much as a 4-year-old can, of changing her middle name to Rose.). Below is Vanessa and her mom, Karina.
* Inside Bill Zelman: Strobist David Hobby does an interview with photographer Bill Zelman. Among other pearls he lays before us swine is this one: “Shooting good portraits is equal parts psychology, trust and technical expertise — with the technical part probably being the least important.” Read the whole interview. Check out the video as well.
*Wish You Were There? So, you couldn’t make to Joe McNally’s lastest lighting workshop, heh? No worries. Click here. Plenty of good photos and explanations of how they were made.
* Word of Mouth, Word of Mouth: That’s what Tom Miles, a 16-year commercial photographer in England, tells a college student is the secret to his success. He adds: “Doing a good job, being reliable and professional will get you more repeat work than any other method.”
* What the Duck, Man? Economy dragging on you? Editors treating you bad? Need a laugh? Go here.
* No Wimpy Photos: That’s the new mantra of Santa Rosa newspaper photographer John Burgess (and not a bad slogan for the whole newspaper industry). Here’s a result of that outlook — a portrait of Joel Peterson of Ravenswood Winery — and the story behind it.
* Bite Me, I’m an Art Director: Hey, if you’re going to rip off someone else’s cover concept, why not steal from among the best — the New York Times’ T Magazine? T chomped on Coast Magazine after the Orange County publication cloned one of its cover (see left). Cheesy, cheesy, cheesy –even for a food feature. Full story here.
* Quoted! “If I could tell a story in words, I wouldn’t need to lug a camera.” —Lewis Hine.
* Big Pixel Power: Boston.com, the web presence of the Boston Globe newspaper, is serving up mega-size web images of powerful photojournalism. Check out this dramatic shot of the California fires, or this one of a starving Ethiopian woman.
* Hope Amid the Flotsam: Another good read from A Photo Editor on the “endless stream of photography” and, with it, the proliferation of mediocrity. He connects through to a farewell post from photographer Liz Kuball in which she comments:
“It is so easy, when your Google Reader is always full of excellent photographs, to feel as though the rest of the world is producing constantly, consistently, at a level you’re simply incapable of.”
But cheer up, brave hearts, A Photo Editor also points to Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey’s more sanguine view:
“… but if you are “special” there are also way way more opportunities…and so so much room for invention….i swear, i have never seen so much room!!! “
* Rumor Focus: Nikon Watch keeps the full-frame Nikon mill churning with word of 12mp D400 and a 24.8mp D3x.
* Sync & Swim: Check the Journey-to-the-Bottom-of-the-Sea rig Jill Greenberg used to shoot the U.S. synchronized swim team for a Radar magazine fashion spread.
One of my great challenges in photography has been making new techniques work the first time out on the job. I haven’t always been successful at that, so if the job permits (meaning there’s enough time or the art director doesn’t have a specific shot in mind) I usually plan on a back-up shot as well, something I’m sure I can pull off.
We chose a trail on Mt. Tam called the Sun Trail because it provided some great views (I wanted the context of the geography) and was close to a road (to cut down on the gear lugging.)
My original idea was to light three of the runners along a curve in the trail (like in the shot below), but after a few test shots I realized it would be very difficult to time the runners so a strobe hit each one as she passed. Also, I was shooting from 100 feet away on a rock out-cropping and would have needed an assistant to help reposition the lights after each test shot. Since this wasn’t a Chase Jarvis-type-budget-shoot, meaning it was just me and five runners, I went for Plan B.
First I shot three of the runners going through the curve. This was my sure shot. They were great sports because it was about 90 degrees out and they ran it a half-dozen times.
Then, I set up four SB800s along an upper portion of the trail — two in front and two along the side — and had them run toward me. When the led runner crossed a line I had made in the trail she shouted to me and I shot the group with a 12mm lens. I could only get off one frame each time since the flashes were firing on full power and needed recycle time, so the team ran it about 20 times. I did several variations of this shot, including backing way off with long lens.
The final shot (above) isn’t perfect, but it worked for the magazine and I learned a lot about lighting a group of moving people outdoors. Next time, I’ll concentrate more on separating each person, targeting them with an individual light and watching their expressions more.
The magazine used the above shot in the index and the below one as the lead shot for the story.
Just a quick post on this portrait because I am jamming to finish a couple of magazine projects before I head out of town for a working vacation — to the wedding of a friend in Cartagena. Vive los novios!
The magazine wanted a picture for Father’s Day and we found Greg Snowden, the owner of a local green building materials company, and his three sons.
I met them in the store after it closed, put up a big softbox over a picnic table and threw a couple of smaller lights on the background.
The boys were rambunctious and never settled down, mugging for the camera, grabbing at each and pulling Dad into the fun. At first I tried to control them, then realizing I couldn’t I just went with the flow, hoping a make a couple of good frames.
The result is above, one of about four or five usable shots out of 75 or so. I happy with it, although it’s not what I set out to do and therein lies the lesson:
Never try to teach a pig to sing. It doesn’t work and it only P’s off the pig. In this case, the pig sang when it was good and ready.
* Expanding or Contracting? Jim McNay, in a column at SportsShooter.com, tells us to do a Seriousness Gut-Check about our work. Am I “sending out portfolios, meeting with potential employers, pitching assignments to editors and the like?” Or am I “doing none of the above mentioned activities?” Me? I’m doing No. 1, but not as much as I should.
* Fair Use, Explained: Photo Attorney, aka Carolyn Wright, parses the “fuss about fair use.” After explaining the entitlements of copyright and the boundaries of fair use, she concludes:
“It is always a judgment call until a court gives a final ruling whether the use of a photograph is fair. But if you find your work has been used without your permission and the defense is “fair use,” don’t be too quick to accept that answer. “
* Photojournalism and Passion: Self-taught photojournalist Colin Summers talks about his career at ProPhotoLife. He shot for more than a decade in places like India, Cambodia and Indonesia before gaining recognition. His mission: “I try … to convey the truth in a compassionate and inoffensive way”
Some people say their love affair with photography came when they first picked up a camera. It didn’t happen that way with me. I had been idly making snapshots with my first 35mm camera — a Pentax — for months before I felt a moment of magic, and that happened not with my eye in a viewfinder, but with my hands in a tray of developer. I fell in love with the print.
The first time I saw an image form on a piece of wet photo paper I was hooked. Even though that first image only lasted seconds before it turned black (because I had overexposed it in the enlarger), that we enough.
When I shot film, I came to live for the print because the print enabled me to see the image I’d made. Later, as I switched to digital I realized I didn’t need the print to experience the excitement of the image. There it was, on the computer, large and vibrant. I still enjoyed the “darkroom” work — enhancing contrast, extending tone, shaping color — but now the darkroom was dry and digital instead of damp and chemical, so I stopped printing.
I have a show this week of photos I made in connection with a cookbook I wrote and photographed about organic food from Marin County (Organic Marin, Recipes from Land to Table, Andrews McMeel, July 2008).
It is a small show — 13 photos (one of them is above) — and is part of a month-long arts salon put on by Marin Magazine, which I do a lot of photography for, and a local home decor showroom.
At first, I was reluctant to do the show. Digital printing is dicey, at best, these days, with quality varying from printer to printer; and framing is expensive. But with some trial and error, I found good people to do both (Alesha Rogness at Vivid Imaging in Sausalito, 415-331-8272, and Bob Woodrum at Sausalito Picture Framing) and when I saw the finished prints, 20 x 30 and framed, that old excitement returned.
I’ve learned to loved the print again.
The show is up this week at California Closets Showroom 610 Dubois St., San Rafael. The party is Thursday, May 15, from 6-9 p.m, free music, snacks and wine. C’mon by if you can.
* People Who Need People: The New York Times asks the question we’ve all been wondering about: “Can a few snapshots of a baby or a bride, accompanied by a fawning article, really be worth millions of dollars?” Read the whole story about why tab magazines now routinely pay celebs to play (like this cover of Branjelina and child).
* Gulf Twosome: The two shooters atop the current photo how-to heap — David Hobby and Joe McNally — report back from the doings at Gulf Photo Plus. David offers the behind-the-scenes story on this SB800-laden image. Joe calls Dubai “3 parts Vegas, one part planet Tatooine, and 6 parts oil money.
* Photographers Wanted: Want to be a photojournalist? These newspapers are hiring.
* Pitching a Home Run: Rob Haggert (A Photo Editor) tells us how to make winning pitches to photo editors. Rule #1: “The absolute fastest way for photographers to get a story made is to approach a writer that the magazine uses on a regular basis.”
* Jumping the Canon-Nikon Divide: Freelance sports photographer Preston Mack switched from Canon to Nikon when he heard these words from an editor: “The cover image doesn’t look in focus.” Read Mack’s whole tale of learning to love the D3 on Sportsshooter.com.
Anyone who has worked in media knows the end product — magazine, newspaper, film — represents a series of choices and decisions made by individual creators, the team as a whole and, increasingly in films, the audience. (And, of course, web-based media like You Tube or Fark is almost wholly based on audience selection.)
How much weight your decision carries in influencing the final result is often relative. When I ran newsrooms, I had little control over what the creators — the writers and photographers — chose, but quite a bit more over the final product.
Now that I’m freelancing again, I have creative control over how I shoot something, but less to say about how the photo is going to be used or even which one from a shoot will run in , let’s say, a magazine. I have learned, though, how to shoot things differently for different clients — some like light glossy and bright colors, others prefer darker, edgier shots. I shoot to match their style, then always add in some preferences of my own.
The above picture of Samantha Paris, who runs a voice-over training school in Sausalito, provides some good examples of the choices I made in photographing her and the decisions my client, in this case Marin Magazine, made in using the photographs.
I stopped by Samantha’s studios while the writer was interviewing her, just to look the place over and meet her. As soon as I saw the recording booth, I knew I wanted to shoot her in there, but also knew I’d be pushing my technical skills because the space was so tight (about 3 feet by 5 feet) and so dark.
I wanted to use the shapes of the microphone and the pop screen as graphical elements and also have a spotlight effect to the photo. The booth had a window in front so the actor and sound engineer could see each other and I decided to use one light to shoot through that window.
At home, I blocked out a space in my living room similar to the size of the booth, and saw that I could get another light stand in the back corner of the booth and a shorty studio stand on the floor behind Samantha. I did some tests shots and felt I at least had technical control of the shot.
For the shoot itself, I used three SB800s — the one outside the window,the one in the booth corner and the one on the floor. The main and hair lights had snoots and CTO gels to warm up Samantha (not that her personality needed it) and the background light had a blue gel.)
We shot for about 30 minutes in the booth, including a sequence in which she acted out some scenes (left).
I also wanted to make some pictures of Samantha interacting with her students, so we set up some chairs in a front room with a big window and I shot about 20 or 30 frames using the natural light.
Afterwards, looking at the files, I was pleased with the shots in the recording booth (although I did underexpose by a half-stop), but I was pretty sure the magazine would use the more informal and more interactive shots with the students. I also liked the shots of in the booth more when she wasn’t acting and just looking at the camera.
I got first indication of which way the magazine’s choice would go later when my wife, a former journalist, looked at the take and loved the acting shots and those of Samantha with the students.
She was an audience focus group of one and her instinctive response mirrored the one the magazine editor made later. The image below of Samantha and her students, ran big. The “acting” shot ran smaller. My favorite (at the top of this page) didn’t make the cut.
Is there a lesson? Yes, and it’s that we shoot (or write) for many audiences — the audience of one (ourselves), the audience of many (readers, viewers) and the audience of economics (our clients). I love it when they overlap. When they don’t, I cash the check anyway.
* Martin Gee, a designer at the Mercury News in San Jose, has posted a Flickr gallery of the effect in the newsroom of multiple rounds of layoffs and buyouts. Sad stuff. Empty chairs, discarded computers, blanks walls. (For a good analysis of the latest newsroom census, read Alan Mutter’s explanation of why it’s bunk.)
* Chase Jarvis says don’t let the internal demons get the best of you:
“At one time or another, we all get sideswiped by that little internal voice. It is that nay-saying voice that’s so often the barrier between each of us and our creativity. Shedding that calculated, censoring voice, is one path to success.”
This is a story about a simple picture gone wrong and why a do-over is sometimes the right thing to do.
Every month in Marin Magazine I do a small feature called Marin Album — a photograph and a short essay. Typically, the photo is some scenic slice of Marin life, like this one of a cyclist in the Headlands or this one of a little leaguers on opening day of baseball season.
For the May issue, the magazine asked if I could make a picture for Mother’s Day of a mom and her new child. Nice, I thought, that will be sweet. Plus, it’s simple. I can use window light and skip some of the complicated setups I’d been doing recently.
One of the magazine’s writers had a baby a month ago, a boy, so I arranged a visit to her home. When she opened the door, her dog, some kind of pug, started barking and never stopped — I kid you not — for the hour I was there. It was a sign I should have heeded.
I looked around the house. Too dark to shoot in except for the living room. But the windows were behind the sofa, meaning if I put her and the baby on the couch their faces would be in shadow.
This is where the “should have”s” begin — I should have brought in some lights instead of sticking with the natural light plan. I should have asked her to change her green shirt, which reflected an icky tone on the baby’s skin. I should have taped the dog’s mouth shut.
And, when she brought out her son from his crib I should have said, “This is not going to work.” He was a cute kid, as all month-old’s are, but his skin was bright red, blotchy and pimply. a condition I later learned to be “baby acne.” Without some serious Photoshop retouching, this little boy was going to look more like pre-pubescent teen than Baby of the Month. (And, don’t forget mom’s green shirt adding to color mix.)
I should have said I’d be back in a month, but I didn’t. I shot, I used reflectors, I turned them this way and that. Two gigs later, nada.
Later, looking at the shoot in the computer, I kept thinking, “How could I blow a shot of a baby.” All I wanted was this and the best I got is what you see to the left.
I fessed up to the magazine, blamed the dog and said I needed another mom and another baby. That’s how I met 3-month-old Maya, above, and her mother, Ines. This time I told them what to where, brought in some lights and put the dog outside. Better. Much better. And at the point when I wrapped Maya in the blanket and asked Ines to hold her head I knew I had the shot I wanted.
Ines’ hands wrapped around Maya’s tiny head reminded me of what my mother used to say about her hands, how as she grew older they resembled those of her mother.
I used that thought as the key for the text below (after the jump). Continue reading
* Nikon’s new website, Nikkor.com, is live and features the work of photographers who use — what else? — Nikons. Despite the marketing intent of the site, the work it showcases is terrific. Check the images by photojournalist Amy Vitale. (Thanks to Nikon Watch for the tip.)
* Strobist-in-Chief David Hobby points to this portrait of Admiral William J. “Fox” Fallon by photographer Peter Yang for Esquire Magazine. Yang made the photo with one light, a technique, says David, that anyone can attempt regardless of the price of their gear. (Here’s my mimickry of the Peter Yang shot.)
* The Photoshelter blog, written by Rachel Hulin, has a Q&A with photojournalist Antonin Kratochivl (Iraq, Myanmar and other conflict zones) that includes a wonderful portrait of him by Clay Enos. (Tip from A Photo Editor.)