This is part twenty-four in a series of blogs on my photography adventures at ZoeFest X, in Todos Santos, Mexico.
I got a lovely email from a lovely model called Candace Nirvana last week. She had been following my periodic blog posts about our time at ZoeFest in 2011 and was wondering why she had never seen an entry featuring my shoot with her.
It was a more than fair question. She has extraordinary patience. I photographed her there in some abandoned ruins more than 15 months ago.
I wrote her back a lengthy email explaining her absence from the blog because, as I told her, she deserved better than the usual photographer, “I’ve been busy,” crap. Yesterday, I actually found the blog post dated late last summer in my drafts folder that I started writing about her shoot, but never finished. She had been the last of 15 model shoots I had in Todos Santos. I had been editing the thousands of photographs I made during that trip in the order that I shot them. Candace’s absence from my ZoeFest blog series was simply because I hadn’t finished editing her shoot.
Billy. Really though. 15 months?
I know. I’m usually much better than that.
The good news is that I did finally finish editing our shoot around the holidays last December. The only good thing I can say about it taking so long for a proper review, is the fresh-eyes thing I occasionally speak about. It’s a luxury to go back to a shoot, years later and discover all kinds of things that I didn’t see during the first hurried editing process.
Plus, my time with Zoe Wiseman (the generous organizer of ZoeFest), the other photographers and brilliant models of that trip was so extraordinary, you can’t blame me for wanting to milk every last memory about that experience for as long as possible. Every time I go back to any of those shoots, I find new previously overlooked gems. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
So, somewhat better late than never, I present the long lost Candace Nirvana ZoeFest blog.
“Oh, it’s so nice to finally meet you! I love your work,” I said to Candace when I found myself next to her at one of our ZoeFest parties.
She was one of the many models that I was aware of before our adventures began in Todos Santos, Mexico. Candace Nirvana was someone whose name and images had been on my radar for years. She was an incredible model and I was thrilled with the idea that we might get to finally collaborate together after years of distant appreciation.
“You know, I’ve met you before,” she offered.
She paused for a moment, with a slight look of disbelief. “In your studio.”
“In my studio?… Wait… You were in my studio?… When?!” I was dumbfounded.
She sighed. Sadly, it was a sigh that I had heard too many times before when I disappoint someone by not remembering them. Sometimes my memory bank has some serious deficiencies. Locked up somewhere in a dusty file cabinet in the back of my cranium apparently was the memory of first meeting Candace. In my own studio no less. But even with that clue, she could see by the puzzled look on my face that I was no nearer to remembering.
“Jillian Ann was staying with you….”
Wow. Still nothing.
“I came to visit her at your place…,” she trailed off, waiting for my silly head to catch up.
And finally, the file cabinet flew open, showering my nearby brain cells with a mixture of dust and cobwebs and disturbing hundreds of bats in my belfry that had been hanging there undisturbed for years. In an instant, they were all flying toward me as I ducked out of the way.
“Ohhhhhhhhhh! Yes! Now I remember!”
Suddenly I could see her sitting on my sofa next to Jillian, clear as day, having a brief conversation while Jillian and I were taking a break from a day of shooting.
“I’m so sorry. Of course I’ve met you.” Not my best first impression that was really a second impression.
I felt awful. It’s hard to recover with a believable statement about wanting to photograph someone after you’ve just admitted, seconds earlier, that you couldn’t remember meeting them. But I had to try.
“We should try to find some time to shoot in the next few days,” I sheepishly offered.
“Sure,” she said, as she casually turned to walk away. “Just let me know when,” she added, over her shoulder.
Like I said. Not my most smooth moment as a photographer.
Eventually, nearing the end of ZoeFest we did manage to align our schedules on the last day most of us would be at our lovely artists retreat. Candace would be my 15th ZoeFest photoshoot. And my last with the all of the lovely international models of ZoeFest.
I was a bit intimidated by this point. Even before the forgetting-I-met-her mishap, I had been previously aware of her catalog of beautiful modeling images and I felt under a little more pressure than usual to deliver something equally artistic with our work. And after more than a week of location scouting at the four charming boutique hotels we had taken over for the duration of our stay, drives down countless dusty roads outside of town and hunting for hidden beach locations, I really wanted to find somewhere particularly inspiring for Candace.
In the end, I stole a location that I had been hearing about from Malcom Grant and Cam Attree, two of my brilliant photographer colleagues there, but one I hadn’t been to yet myself. It was an old abandoned cannery complex off in the direction of the lovely Playa las Palmas secluded beach cove.
Let me take a moment to veer off on a slight tangent here as a thanks to Cam for sharing directions to the location by letting you know about a book project he just completed called, Naked in Baja Mexico. Here’s a link to a video about his book and another about how you can get your own copy. It’s just stunning work.
Back to our story. There are a lot of well hidden dirt roads off of Federal Highway 19 as your drive south out of the small town of Todos Santos. I had spent a lot of time punishing my poor rental car, driving down quite a few of them in the last week or so. The roads actually become small narrow rivers when the rains come down from the hills. Even after they dry out like at that time of year, they’re full of interesting obstacles, ruts and ridges to navigate around.
Once again, Google Maps came to the rescue. The little dirt road Candace and I guessed might be the way to the abandoned cannery was full of those familiar challenges. The trick is to drive cautiously enough to be able to find the smoothest bit of road as you proceed, without driving so slowly that you get stuck in the sand. Cam had told me just a few days earlier he had to enlist the assistance of some locals to push his car out of a dune in the same area. It’s a tricky needle to thread.
And of course, nothing was marked. Every time we came to a fork in the road, which was often, we would slow down and make a quick survey of which choice seemed to be the most vehicle worthy and in the general direction of where our iPhone’s maps told us we should be heading. When in doubt, we chose the path in the direction of the ocean.
Amazingly, it worked. We eventually came upon a large single story crumbling building. The cannery!
I made a quick look around to make sure we were alone as I unpacked the camera gear from the car and followed Candace inside. Immediately we noticed something unusual in the first room we entered. The floor was literally covered with broken… um… shells?
Shells, right? Not skulls… or bones?!
No. Definitely shells. I was happy there was so much light pouring in through the windows. In the dark, it would have been difficult to otherwise make that distinction. There were thousands of them. Everywhere.
It wouldn’t be the only time we’d stumble across something a little unnerving at the cannery. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Candace tossed her thin white slip of a sundress aside and found a place in one of the corners that looked like a good place to start as I began finding my first composition. It was incredible how her poses provided me with such interesting contrasts of her curves to the hard lines of the building. I used the windows and shadows to frame her shape in visually pleasing ways. A few exposures in and I could already tell that collaborating with Candace was going to be exceptional.
As is often the case when shooting figure models on location, it was clear that models are at a disadvantage when exploring a space such as this. The fact that I had shoes on and Candace did not was brought into stark relief as she tried to avoid cutting her feet open on the sharp edges of the shells, rocks and stones on the ground. She’s a pro, however and I was seemingly more concerned about it than she was as she gracefully danced from pose to pose in our strange environment.
There were a few smaller abandoned nearby buildings as part of the complex, some no bigger than a tiny room or two and we began to explore those as well. Candace crawled up into one of the window openings of one that had a shape like a baseball home plate. Once again she found interested ways to fill the space with her body with poses that suggested both strength and gracefulness.
We headed back into the main building at an end we hadn’t explored yet. Most of the roof had collapsed years earlier allowing for the most gorgeous light to pour in from above. I stood away from her shooting down a long corridor as she used her sundress as a prop. First wearing the dress normally, spinning and dancing and then using it as a headpiece. As I continued to make photos, I knew I was going to have a challenge picking only one from this series.
Candace and I took a break to catch our breath and take a few sips from our water bottles as we considered our next set up. We noticed a small building a short walk off in the distance and decided to see what that was about. As we approached the stairs leading up to the front door, it appeared to be equally as deserted as the cannery building.
We carefully stepped inside and found walls covered with colorful graffiti. But yes, it seemed like no one had been here in a while.
Candace asked if I had any music with me. It made me realize that I rarely shoot models without music of some kind, but the past week I’d been shooting in outdoor locations, some far away from electrical outlets for a boom box or other music source. However, the space we were in was small enough that I wondered if the little speaker on my iPhone might be loud enough to add a little atmosphere to the emptiness.
I clicked through my music before settling on Sirens of the Sea by Oceanlab and suddenly the space was filled with wonderful music. Perfect.
While Candace was selecting another piece of clothing to use for our next round, I set off to explore the other rooms. I turned a corner and stared into a darker corridor and stopped as I heard a strange movement ahead and above me. Above me? Hmmmm.
My eyes started to adjust to the darkness just as something suddenly fluttered past my head.
Bats. Dozens of them, all hanging from the porous ceiling.
More momentarily startled than afraid, I just did what came naturally and raised my camera to my eye. I made a couple of quiet exposures and was surprised when a few more of them flew past my head. I was being really quiet and not moving a muscle. What was spooking them?
Ohhhhhh, maybe my autofocus. I don’t know the exact science of how my camera gauges distance, but at that moment I was pretty sure it was sending something out that was inaudible to my ears, but probably nothing short of yelling to my new winged companions.
Okay then. I took a deep breath and braced myself for what was to come next. I composed my frame on the ceiling, now moving quite a bit more than when I first entered and squeezed the shutter, firing off frames in rapid succession.
You know that scene in The Dark Knight when all the bats fly past a young Bruce Wayne? Yeah. Exactly.
Amazingly, none of them actually touched me. And I was hoping the small window at the end of the corridor would be enough backlight to create a good image. When I got back to my hotel room a few hours later, I had my answer. Perfect.
Oh, and I should mention the irony of my shoot with Candace was that it was taking place on October 31st. Halloween. All kinds of interesting going on that day.
Meanwhile, I walked back out to where Candace was wondering where I’d gone off to and told her we’d probably want to stay away from that part of the building.
“Bats,” I announced.
Candace had put on a beautiful mesh skirt that looked almost like chainmail. Gorgeous. She moved into one of the doorways and continued to give me the most exquisite poses and then she moved near one of the walls. The graffiti just added another layer to my compositions. Wonderful.
After a few hours of work, we decided to call it a day and we drove down yet another dusty sandy road to the Pacific Ocean. There was a beautiful beach cove nearby and we silently walked along the water just relaxing and enjoying the paradise for a while. I had managed to complete my self challenge of individually photographing every one of the models who had come on the trip. It meant for as many as three shoots a day and lots of location scouting when I wasn’t shooting, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Well maybe except crashing the model taxi rental car.
No, it was one of the most artistically rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of. Like I said before, with thousands of photographs, it hasn’t been difficult to milk the memories since then. That walk along the beach with Candace was the first time I wasn’t thinking ahead to the next shoot. I was done. I could simply enjoy the moment.
Candace was incredible to work with. I do now have a faint memory of our first meeting at my studio all those years ago. After she left, I do recall Jillian saying something like, “You should really photograph her.”
I continued to hear that same suggestion before and during ZoeFest. So I’m glad I managed to overcome my social ineptness with Candace, enough that she agreed to work with this strange man who couldn’t seem to remember meeting her.
Thank you, Candace for the collaboration and more patience than a model should have to endure to see the results of our day in Todos Santos, playing in the abandoned cannery.
You can see Candace’s beautiful photography work on her own websites. Sometimes great models also become great photographers. Her wonderful fine art nude photography is here and her commercial portrait work can be found here and even more photos and thoughts on her blog here.
And you can see more photographs from our collaboration in Todos Santos at the new Billy Sheahan Photography Archive. Just search for “Candace” in the image search box. I’ll be adding even more in the weeks to come.
Thanks, as always for continuing to follow my ZoeFest adventures. Believe it or not, there is still more to come!
Yes. There’s always more.