Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Portraits of a City

Benita & Braulio - Palm Weavers
Art and culture are omnipresent in Oaxaca, an integral part of this society. There is so much to take in, to sketch, or in my case, to photograph. For many years, Marie was very hesitant to sketch people; she claimed she felt like a voyeur. Then one day she decided that she would ask permission to sketch them. They could accept her invitation or refuse, and she would respect their decision. That is what lead her to embark upon Faces and Stories: A Sketchbook Journey in Mexico. I recently decided to follow Marie's example and put aside my timidity about photographing people. Like her, I would ask for permission and, if they accepted, I would give the a 8x10 print as a thank you. It worked for Marie, why not for me? (Click on photos to see in larger format)
Benita weaving at her home
Benita and Braulio were my first portraits. I had met Benita at a craft fair in el Jardin Conzatti during the Christmas holidays. Quena had purchased a beautiful woven purse from her and I later went back and bought a market basket for myself. She is a beautiful woman with thick, dark hair and a talent for creating with palm fronds. I had her phone number and decided to ask permission to do a portrait of her. She graciously accepted. 
Wendy & Daniel
I went to her home while my friends, Dee and George, were visiting. They treated us as all Oaxacans would, with heartfelt hospitality. After some small talk and a shot of mezcal, I was ready to start. After a few shots (photos that is), Benita told me we would have to take a short break as she had to manually do dialysis on her husband. It was too costly and inconvenient to go to the hospital four times a day, so they decided to do it themselves at home. A half an hour later, they were both back and ready for the portraits. When we finished, Benita served us some black beans, tortillas, and jalapeƱos. They asked me if I would take a photograpah of a young woman who rented a room from them and her son. Of course I agreed! We then jumped into the back of their old pickup and they gave us a ride back into town. It was a very positive experience for everyone.
Alebrijes carved by Fabian and painted by his daughter
Since Benita was selling in a cooperative space near the zocalo. I had asked her to let me know of any other craftspeople who might like a portrait. The next day when I arrived to give her the photos, I was greeted by Sr. Fabian, an artisan that makes alebrijes, brightly painted folk art sculptures of animals and fantasy creatures. He invited me to his workshop in St. Martin, about an hour away, to do a portrait! Whoosh!I was at his home a few days later.
Finished product

Again I was greeted with genuine hospitality. Fabian and his family went through the entire process of making an alebrije, starting with selecting the piece of copal, a soft wood also grown for its resin that is burned as incense. Fabian showed me a few small copal trees growing in his yard. He told me that there were almost none left in the village now, as the whole village dedicates itself to the carving of alebrijes. The local and state governments had recently planted about 25 hectares of copal that would be ready to harvest in a few years. For the time being, poorer people from the mountainside outside of Oaxaca brought wood to the village to sell to the artisans. He then took me through the process of making a small armadillo.
Dot by dot, ever so fine
La Familia Lopez
The carving began with a machete and when it began to take shape, he utilized a small chisel. Next, the wood is left out for a few days to dry, treated with a sealant, sanded, and painted. The whole family participates in the process, the men carving and sanding and the woman finishing and painting. I ended up buying one of the red bulls. 

I recently took a photography workshop at el Centro Fotografico Manuel Alvarez Bravo, entilted: El Camino Como Destino (the Path as Destination) One of our exercises was to work on one of several emotions connected with your photography. I chose "Fear". We were to try to see what we could do differently to overcome our obstacle. So again, I decided to ask people permission to photograph them, this time people I did not know. Using Marie's sketches as a springboard, I decided to try to parallel a few with photographs along the same theme. Here are three that I did that day:
The sketch at the left was a flower vendor in Oaxaca selling for the Day of the Dead. On the right is Maria, a vendor in el Mercado 20 de Noviembre. She was a hard sell. She wanted 50 pesos for a photograph. I ended up giving her 20, something I don't like to do, and promised to buy flowers from her. When I went back a few days later to give her the photos, she was not there, but the other vendors ask me if I was "enamorado" (in love with) Maria. I playfully said, "Yes"! They all laughed and suggested I take her back to the States with me. But I think that Corvallis has enough flower vendors.

The sketch of the tortilla vendor to the left was done in Tlacolula Market, a place Marie loved to sketch. The photograph to the right was done a block from my apartment. I pass this woman every day. She sells quesadillas and enfrijoladas on the street. Now I buy tortillas from her as well. A new relationship!
And the final two images are on a street corner six blocks from my house. It is one of my favorite sketches. The building is still there, but now condemned and uninhabited. Needless to say, Uncle George's influence is still deeply felt here.
 And so life goes on in much the same way. Things change, people change, but we all move on. We have to.