This is part thirteen in a series of blogs on my recent artistic adventures in Mexico.
On the fourth day of ZoeFest, my true love gave to me….
Sorry, my brain is saturated to the point of insanity with holiday music this week.
But yes, it was the fourth day of ZoeFest in Todos Santos, Mexico. With the slightly mad portion of my shooting schedule behind me, there was time to do a bit more thinking. And a bit more exploring.
Everyone had been sharing what they found and where they had been and what amazing spots they had heard might be somewhere. You see, with a group like this, all the photographers knew that even if they had “discovered” an amazing location, there was no need to keep the details to themselves for fear someone would go there and make a better photograph. Someone might go to the same location and make a different photograph, but this group of photographers had the experience and self confidence enough to not fear someone would steal their thunder. And so new locations were shared with little haggling… except maybe for the cost of a cerveza frío o dos in return.
I had heard some of the photographers talking about a dam outside of Todos Santos that might be an interesting location. Like most location finds during our stay in Todos Santos, exactly how to get to the dam was a series of vague directions involving many unmarked dirt roads.
Google Maps to the rescue! (What in the world did we do before Google Maps? As a kid I seem to remember an oversized dog-eared Rand McNally World Atlas. Now the entire universe fits in your iPhone in your pocket.)
Over morning coffee, hudled over a laptop under the veranda at Todos Santos Inn, we knew the dam was north of Todos Santos toward La Paz. Somewhere near the Santa Gertudis mountains perhaps. We began heading down virtual unnamed dirt roads on the satellite imagery until we saw a shape that looked a bit like a flattened grey football… or maybe a Brontosaurus. (My more scientific friends have informed me that the preferred nomenclature for Brontosaurus is now, Apatosaurus. I stand humbly corrected.)
“That could be a dam.”
“Can you zoom in more?”
“It’s getting pretty blurry.”
“Yeah, I think that’s a dam. That’s gotta be it.”
Satisfied that there was at least a 50-50 chance I could find the dam, I drove over to the Hotelito to pick up Meghan Claire for our photographic dam adventure.
Meghan has a very calming way about her. Completely lovely combined with intelligence that only comes from being extremely well traveled. This may sound a bit crazy, but whenever I spoke with Meghan I felt like I might be speaking to the Earth. She seems to be very in tune with her surroundings. And that’s only a few of the many reasons she’s an excellent artistic collaborator.
Meghan agreed that trying to find the dam might be a creative location idea and so we headed north on Federal Highway 19 toward La Paz, leaving Todos Santos behind us.
I had heard about the police roadblocks that were randomly placed on major roads and I was about to experience my first one. A large thick rope is placed across the road, a wee speed bump, if you will, indicating the need to slow down.
“Sometimes they’ll just wave you through,” Meghan offered as we approached.
Not this time. The militarily dressed man with the machine gun motioned for us to stop as he walked over to Meghan’s door. I was all ready to volunteer, “Tourista… La Paz… vacaciones…,” when Meghan began to have an actual conversation with our well armed interrogator. It was here that I learned how good Meghan’s spanish was. Very good.
“Estoy el vacaciones de Los Ángeles,” she offered.
“Sí… Chicago,” I added, as if I was comprehending more than the few words here and there that I understood.
So I just sat there with a goofy tourist smile on my face as Meghan tried to explain what we were up to without saying exactly what we were up to.
The trick to the roadside questioning is to give them just enough information for them to believe you’re not trafficking anything or coming or going somewhere you shouldn’t be. Anything more only opens the door to suspicion and more pointed questioning.
She was doing a great job and the officer began to lean back from the window to perhaps wave us on when I heard Meghan say, “Vamos al río.”
We’re going to the river.
He leaned back in the window, machine gun ever present, now with a raised eyebrow and slightly confused look.
Sure, we’re silly tourists trying to fish in a river bed that hasn’t seen a drop of water in years. Nothing suspicious about that!
Meghan quickly clarified her story to one where we were sightseeing on our way to La Paz.
Then, a pause that seemed like a minute but was probably only a second or two and we were waved through.
“I probably shouldn’t have said we were going to the river,” Meghan laughed as we drove off from the roadblock. “The river with no water in it!”
“Well, better than telling him we were going to shoot photographs at the dam. That would have been even more suspicious!”
We agreed to leave the going to the river part of the story out of our answers if we got stopped on the way back.
As usual, I only sped past the turnoff to the dirt road twice before we managed to make the turn and we headed roughly in the direction I thought the dam might be. We came to many forks in the dirt road and I decided to turn on the crazy-expensive-out-of-the-country-data on my iPhone so we could have some idea if we had made a wrong turn somewhere. That was if we could get service way out away from everything.
Amazingly, I got a few bars and between GPS and Google Maps, we had confirmation we were actually on the correct unmarked dirt road and were half way to the dam. Yay for us!
Finally we arrived at La Presa de Santa Inés, a huge majestic structure in the valley below us. We parked near a observation deck, I grabbed my camera gear out of the trunk and Meghan and I walked over to the edge of observation area to see what we could see.
The first thing we saw was a large sign near a service staircase that led down to the dam itself.
Prohibido el Paso in large lettering. No entry.
So we did what any other photographer and model would do in a situation like this. We took a quick look around to make sure we were alone, ignored the sign and started our descent to the dam.
Now that I could see the dam as an actual dam and less of a blurry dinosaur from 800 miles above in space, it was time to consider how to photograph Meghan on it. Should it be a model on a dam or more of a model on some interesting surface? I opted for the latter.
We climbed down as far as the service walk would go, basically right up to where the water would be pouring down if there had been any water there. It was still mid morning and the sun had not peeked over the top of the dam wall yet, so we could work in the shade for a bit. Always a plus in the Mexican heat!
Meghan reclined against the near vertical wall as I composed the my first frame. I looked through the lens and… wow…
Graceful, softness against a giant, stark, sterile, cold, immovable force. Yet all my eye was drawn to was the curves of her pose as if she were floating on air instead of pressed up against concrete. Two completely opposing concepts, hard and soft. And soft was winning.
As we continued, Meghan found tiny little ledges in the seams of the cement wall to stand on, moving up the side of the wall. One of the amazing things about Meghan was that even though she was supporting herself entirely with only her toes or a very small part of her foot, her expressions were always blissful. It made me forget in the moment that her poses and the shapes she was creating, balancing on a small cement lip, were most likely fairly difficult if not a bit painful. You would never be able to tell from the photographs. A very generous collaborator.
I was very happy with what we had created so far and was thinking about another section of the dam to explore as I began to put my camera in my bag, when once again, I heard the familiar sound of a model who has just noticed some amazing light before I had. It was becoming downright commonplace on this adventure.
“Oh, wait! Look at this!”
I turned to see what she was talking about as the sun had started to make it’s way over the top of the dam wall. (I know, it sounds funny to me too.)
I normally prefer not to shoot with such direct, harsh overhead light, even though my lovely fellow photographer colleague Zoe Wiseman has caused me to reconsider that stance after seeing some of her own noon sunlight work. But what Meghan had spotted was that the sun was almost in perfect alignment with the slant of the wall, amplifying the subtle textures that made every seam and rough surface so much more interesting. It was no longer just a flat cement wall.
Ah, intelligent models and their impeccable eyes for good light. I was getting spoiled by all of this top shelf collaboration.
We switched vantage points as I stayed near the bottom of the dam and Meghan began the climb up the cement stairs that too, had become so much more interesting in the current light.
“Yes, go up a few more. Perfect!”, I yelled, as Meghan moved into a spot high above me.
Once again the dichotomy of such a harsh surface and the opposing curves of Meghan were quite spectacular. As I was shooting, I noticed that there was really no reference point that might indicate which way was up. I made a mental note to remember to look at some of these compositions rotated 90 degrees during post processing. Might be interesting, I thought to myself.
Moving on, Meghan and I decided there might be something if I photographed her from the top of the dam wall with her remaining at the bottom. I find I have to be careful with that extreme point of view, as it can tend to condense a model’s body in unflattering ways if the pose isn’t exactly right. In short order we had something composed that was very pleasing and since there really was no up or down from my shooting straight down at her, again, I made a note to experiment with some post rotation on a few of the frames.
That’s one of my favorite little tricks when shooting nudes. Depending on the environment and the composition, rotating an abstract image can yield a completely different experience of the subject. If the image can sustain rotation, either 90 or 180 degrees without feeling obviously upside down, it pushes any subtle visual movement inherent in the frame in surprising directions. Sometimes I don’t even notice the subject pushing or pulling in one direction or another until I begin to rotate it from its original orientation.
I remember discussing image orientation at one of my gallery openings a few years ago. A would be buyer and I were looking at one of my large prints of a nude figure in water. She was close to buying, but was hesitating about something.
“What are you seeing?”, I asked her.
“I’m just wondering what it would look like… turned on its side,” as she gestured a 90 degrees clockwise motion.
I probably broke gallery protocol as I walked up to the huge mounted print in front of a gallery full of onlookers and pulled it off the wall and set it on the floor on its side.
A smile began to form on her face. “Yes. It’s perfect that way.”
And then she caught herself, “I mean, if that’s okay with you.”
“Absolutely! If you buy it, it’s yours and you can rotate it any way you wish. I think this photograph in particular lens itself to several orientations. It changes the feeling of the image, but not in a bad way. It’s just different. It works either way.”
I’ve always believed that art is a mirror. Every viewer looking at my work sees something different reflected back at themselves. It’s one of the things I love about showing in galleries. Seeing in person what people respond to, good or bad. I’ve always said, if 100 random people are in a gallery of my photography and all of them like my work, I probably haven’t gone far enough.
Meghan and I climbed the stairs out of the valley, walked back to the car, hydrated ourselves with one of the many bottles of water I was now always keeping in inventory back there and congratulated ourselves on a fun creating experience.
We headed back along the dirt roads to the main highway. We laughed about our first check point experience as we were waved through the second time.
“Never tell them you’re going to the river.”
Next up… the turtles!
More to come.