Thursday, November 4, 2010

Guanajuato, Mexico Summer 2010: Context of the Work.

This post isn't so much about "photography" as it is about the "photographer". I want to give more of a context to the upcoming series of light paintings I'll post. The work soon to be shown, stands apart, but the story of my visit is equally a part of that time and place. Though words and not photographs, the background  remains imprinted in the foreground.

Guanjuato, Mexico is a very old Spanish Colonial city once prized for its silver mines, now emptied of their glitter. Its situated at a light headed altitude north west of Mexico City in the Central Mexican highlands.

The city climbs up an undulating bowl shaped valley. Lofty mountains, massive sentinels, encircle Guanjuato neatly, like a crater rim. The ancient narrow streets are very steep. Sidewalks and roads alike frequently disappear under higher parts through 40 miles of damp, dripping tunnels. The Mummy Museum is here and the Museum of the Mexican Inquisition. I've been to neither. I think those mummies stay preserved in the soil because there's a high content of metal. Guanajuato was the epicenter of immense social and political forces, and a palpable, indefinable presence lies about, and infuses the colorful city. But this essential quality I speak of, is neither historical or political in nature. Even in the brightest sunshine this sense of mystery - inert, primal and raw -remains. "A street map is like a plate of spaghetti" a smiling local school teacher told me over dinner.

Some American friends, Darius and Bill,  purchased an old, derelict house there some years ago and renovated it, not an insignificant job since it had been home to some University students who generally trashed the place.

In the summer of 2010 I traveled there to visit with Darius, a Mathematician, Historian, Artist and Playwright. He encourages me.

Parts of the house, like the library on the lowest floor near the street, go back 400 years. Unexplored tunnels are somewhere below. Some led to a prison, some to a church. What lies below- I'd prefer not to dwell on at night. Each successive, higher level is more modern. Up a narrow flight of stairs, a series of rooms open off the atrium, or open court. Here is the home's heart. Darius designed a jewel, a bright Aztec inspired  skylight pyramid of crafted radiance, a dazzling stained glass portal of light. Aztec symbols cast red, blue, yellow and green designs onto tiled walls and a fountain. It was off the atrium where I worked mainly, in the dining room with its massive table and heavy chairs.

The windowless dining room was a great place for a studio. Few items of furniture impress me - but I'm bowled over by the fineness of the long table with its herringbone patterned  inlay of grained mesquite wood.

Emerging from the darkened dining room into the colorful splashes, and dappled vivid hues splayed and angled across the atrium walls, stopped me and I was still. I'd pause then, forgetting the prop I was about to fetch, smitten by saturated primaries glistening along the walls and at ones feet. It was a simple and singular pleasure. I doubt I could ever press my face closer to such enchantment.

There were plenty of inspiring objects and surroundings to contemplate using. I'd close the doors, turn the lights off, and sit quietly thinking, exploring the very heavy leather chairs, dragging and positioning each, and feel and memorize my bowls holding flashlights and equipment, positioning and repositioning, memorizing the interplay of physicality that was here. Those ornate  chairs held my fascination. The painter Marsden Hartley's use of empty chairs in his canvases inspired me. They held emotional content even though empty.  I had Hartley in mind often when I composed many of those light paintings.

One morning shooting still lifes, I heard Darius climbing the stairs. He entered, paced around, "What have you done today, let me see." He gave a cursory "interesting" remark. "Your tripods crooked... Like making a stone sculpture of the wind ." he muttered and walked away. "Darius who was at the door?" I asked. "Oh a woman. She was walking by our house last night and saw a woman carrying a baby come out of the door. She wanted to let me know. These things happen all the time here" he laughed, the clap of his flip - flops grew faint and vanished.

Adjacent is the living room, where the heavy shutters effectively shut out the Mexican sun, making it dark enough to shoot in too. Darius designed the white leather furniture, minimal and fine.

We'd lay about there listening to the rain and streaming music from his laptop. He asked me what will I do when I loose my sight? He said I should consider music. and attune myself more to sound. Spanish Baroque, Didgeridoo, Obscure modern composers, John Cage-wild and mesmerizing sound, chants and voices thundered and pulsed. Unfamiliar chords and spacings. Things pure, elemental and unnerving. He laughed and turned up the volume, annoying me, making sure the city's citizens got an earful too. "Your ears are too sensitive Steven" he told me. He was friends with John Cage. He saw him studying intently in the library and said "You must be a Mathematician".

Up more flights of stairs are several terraces, bedrooms and Darius' kitchen. And up yet another is the guest bedroom where I stayed - the "tower".

Set into the walls of the terraces here and there are blue and white tiled recessed "nichos"  or niches, and you look out upward toward the colorful homes climbing a mountain slope. Egyptian, Celtic, Yemeni and Tibetan symbols adorn structures. Many doors are of sculpted and inlaid wood and cast metal patterns.. Bas -relief sculptures are set into the walls. There are stone sphinxes on the main terrace, facing the pyramid structure above the skylight. Wrought iron "Eyes of Horace" hold up small red tiled roofs above the windows. Iron eyes devoid of filigree and distraction. Egyptian symbols of-the precursor, knowledge and human endeavor.

And granite columns support a porch where we'd barbecue and talk in the evening. I used them to navigate at night touching each, counting, until my memory told me to turn then. I'd shake my head in disbelief that I could be there - like a visitor to a museum. I'd descend the stairs in the cold mornings, eager for coffee, and wander carefully, yawning, shivering, half dreaming still,  squinting and smiling at Medusa heads and sphinxes. Winged beings of stone, messengers and  Saints and Deities, both major and minor. Symbols and material manifestations, the inert crowd all jostled for my attention along the cold stone walls.

Those areas outdoors cried out for light painting. Rain was a problem on this trip though, and the times I tried pictures outside met with nothing special. One old wall in particular is quite riveting. I've never seen this sort of stone work before, its used around Guanajuato. The mortar binding the irregular stone protrudes neatly so the effect is very net, or web like.

I want to tell you about sounds too. Sure, sound had no direct ties to the images made there, but the sounds were very absorbing.

A construction crew was working all around the area. They used only hand picks and chisels to cut out the rock from the hillside slope next they talk to each other is simply amazing to this New Yorkers ear. So gentle, so respectful of each other. In my two visits there, lasting many weeks, I've yet to hear Mexicans raise their voices in anger to each other.

When I went up or downstairs to my tower room, I was in full view of these workers, and was self conscious. I tripped often, and bumped into chairs, and missed stairs, and tried to keep my head high, trying not to appear too odd. I rarely used my cane inside the house.

The scorpions living on the hill being cleared were on the move. One morning after a rain storm. Darius called me over to a drain and asked if I could see it on the wall. Against the whitewash it stood out small and black He said they were washed into the drain by the rain. He checked my bedding each night. In the shower I remembered they enjoyed traveling through the drains. I couldn't see in the shower, so just sighed and tiptoed on the tiles to minimize the odds. Those scorpions supposedly weren't too poisonous.

The tower bedroom where I slept, overlooked Darius's, and we'd talk and call out through the windows. At night some version of this was usual... "Are you alright Steven?" he'd call up for no particular reason. "Did you remember to turn the lock all the way? No one can break in that room - it is nearly impossible - Miguel put bars on the window too and believe me nooo one could get through that- I know there is no phone upstairs - but Miguel is putting in the wiring - don't worry - but if you hear anyone at the door just yell out "Help" in Spanish- do you remember how to say it? Repeat it for me?- and probably someone will hear you - Anyway- goodnight".

He  consistently slept with earplugs and blindfold on there, so I was, each night, the night blind, doubtful night guard. I hated my required post. There was nothing I could say to pry those sense snuffers away from him, and I groaned at every strange sound. There were very many of them, but I'll stick to a materialistic track here. 

Early in the morning we'd have coffee in his small kitchen and talk about our dreams.

My friend recently has had to find a new teaching position and do day trading in the stock market, and he spent hours alone each day at his bedroom office analyzing situations and trends.

Typical morning...pull up a chair ...Darius is making us protein shakes...anticipating his engagement with the fluctuating, erratic stock market..."Those bankers are crud but they're dumb enough to think they're doing something worthwhile - they're crud-living an existence of consumption-is buying the latest TV going to...something so completely external going to make you happy? The fact that the sun is coming in here-I see the people walking-that is happiness".

"I've had to abandon my Mathematics. I'm going through hell. I cannot describe it. I'm afraid of descending into vacuousness. My Mathematics has fallen to pieces. Imagine what would happen if your photography fell to pieces? Its my identity-most people live meaningless lives". It isn't permanent Darius, this will change I reassured him.

"I'm in this chaotic state Steven, but I could make it permanent by making the wrong decision. You have something  - you believe in something- and know what your talking about. If I loose Math, I'd loose everything I value - I spent 30 years of my life working without any motivation except that I was actually...there-doing what I had to do - while everyone else was pursing trivia".

"Don't wash the dishes anymore Steven Ok? You don't do a good job -you get them maybe 70 percent clean. Just leave them-I'll do it".

" But here, I can relax and look at a spider web and watch a little spider - you like spiders don't you? If my life were ever meaningless enough I'd join a monastery-then I'd simply not have to deal with the savagery of people". Could you deal with yourself though? "Steven stop putting that idea in my head. I like Zen -but the problem with Zen is that it discourages ideas. I love ideas and play with them. I'm dubious about meditation because I'm not sure if you're reaching a psychological or mystical state. I don't want to be deceived into thinking I'm reaching something, when basically I'm deceiving myself- you know what I mean? You see I don't really think this universe, or planet, or human beings, are that interesting-I'd prefer to latch onto something greater, beyond matter -but I'm not sure if that exists."

Finally, and energetically, prepared for the morning's financial trading, he'd rinse out his coffee cup and laugh, "Dealing with this illogical market is like being married to five illiterate prostitutes being promoted by Vogue magazine. What's happening makes no sense, like piloting a plane without enough fuel. Of course, they could be men -Vogue would promote them too. Anyway- take care -I 'll see you at some point later".

Miguel can't understand why Darius doesn't have a TV. Or why he doesn't go out bar- hopping. Its hard to imagine but the sleazy vulgarity and shallowness of American consumerism seems even more revved up here on Mexican TV.

Both Paco and Pablo are apprentices of Miguel, learning construction and iron working. Both are Rancheros, and live outside town on farms and have never used a computer. Last year Jaime posed for me, another apprentice of Maestro Miguel. His new born son died during the winter, and Darius told me he does not even have heat in his home, and this might have contributed to this tragedy. Miguel is also the caretaker of this house when my friends aren't there, his wife and sons often visit. In truth, Darius' home is their second home. He has much work now, thanks to Darius, and this summer is working for another American, building a kind of Gothic stone castle fantasy – home high on a mountain overlooking the city. Up there, can be seen "La Buffa", a craggy buffalo shaped mountain jutting defiantly majestic above the trees. You could scarcely believe it. The jaw dropping scenery, the lay of the American's new home  terracing out before, and above Guanajuato's pastel hues,  was like something you'd expect out of Architectural Digest.  Locals say lights play across the sky at night there and Darius too has seen them glowing and darting about around there. A man once gave him a stone, telling him it was left by aliens, and asked him to come and see the UFOs for himself.

Miguel has a workshop and invited me to make some portraits there. I like the idea, maybe next year. He's a master builder and craftsman, and very intelligent. He can figure out things, take apart complicated structures and put it all back. His iron gates, lamps and railings grace the home. When my brand new tripod broke the first day, he took it to his workshop and repaired it the next day. We'd smile when we heard him open the front door with his "Hola! Steve...I have a modelo for you".  Miguel seemed to show up precisely as Darius and I were cooking supper. Darius calls him either Yoda or Diablito. (little devil) He's a ceaseless flatterer and fawning, anticipator of ones needs, putting flowers in your water, cleaning your spills. All from a man who manages a construction crew of a dozen men. When I fell down the stairs last year, he ran to his home to bring back some herbal ointment he uses for his crew, and tenderly applied it to my painful knee. There is something unfathomable in Miguel, awareness born of need and practicality. His behavior in the past has proven him not trustworthy, and I used to yell at Darius to fire him. That was before I met him. I was determined to dislike him, but to my amazement, its just impossible for us not to like Miguel. I understood Darius' dilemma. Miguel is just uncanny. The three sisters next door don't like him, and keep a close eye on Maestro's activities for Darius when hes absent. Both Miguel and Darius talk a great deal, and retired to the living room to talk for hours while I made my portraits nearby.

Darius designed lamps last year, and was eager to see them finished with Miguel's craft and he isn't disappointed. Two long ceiling lamps of stained glass and iron, showing pyramids and Khephri pushing the sun, were presented. Darius is half Egyptian. None of any of his designs are coincidental or unplanned. There is no light without dark. He sets in motion sets of actions, and events are aligned as carefully as his equations describing dense number systems branching off the road of my comprehension. Co dimensional Chow rings,  morphology of exterior sheafs, Krull dimension and deviation in certain parafree groups. For many years now  he's described to me the weekly  math seminars he attends. There is a cryptographers group, or "War on Terror Mathematics" which is being highly funded, and is in fashion now given its practical and immediate value. His disdain is immense for these "t- crossers" and hyper networked Math trendies who flock to the latest fad without real insight.

"The ironic thing about Mathematics", he tells me, "is that it draws people who want to pursue logic. And rationality. But Mathematics is essential not that".

Algebraic Geometry is his field. His colleagues are currently absorbed with the work of a reclusive Mathematician who lives in the Pyrenees Mountains, and very occasionally sends out a letter saying things like today I finally understand what a circle is.

The walls of the library have been covered in glazed tile to depict ancient Egyptian figures. Eventually he'll move his enormous collection of Art, Science and History books there, and wants to create a Research Center too. It exasperates Darius because I can't warm up much to Egyptian art, with its rigidity and linear stylization. It suits him more-hieroglyphs and symbols. More math than art. Well certain sorts of visual art, is more accurate really.

This library is a dark, quiet, thick- walled retreat and the oldest room. Darius goes there to refresh. One's shoes are left at the door. I spent a day there attempting some images, but no great light paintings emerged. then.

Outside, there as anywhere,I always use my white blind cane, sometimes I have to be guided around. And take an arm. Darius' guiding is singular. He seemed to glide over the sudden steps, unpredictable curbs, twists and ramps of the town. I'd have to run sometimes to keep pace. Asking or pleading for him to slow down when his pace got too Olympic, wasn't effective. I feel his swift, disasterless certainty, breezing through throngs in the plaza when the towns people spill into the cool twilight to enjoy music and each other. He flies more than walks, an accomplished speed skater who trained at the highest levels in Milwauke. I felt his graceful and easy flight, clutching his thin arm in the gloom.Then, I feel my sight loss most, the ease, the unthinking, richness of the able bodied. I remember a bit from when I could run around. In the day anyway. When I'm guided by someone like that, I just hold my cane out some, tapping it isn't necessary to feel space. Evenings, that white cane went swinging like a pendulum though.

He has seen another blind man around, using a cane, and he wants me to travel alone at some point. It can be done.

I have to tell you about the particular, and unnerving qualities of Guanajuato's streets. Many are closed to cars. Donkeys do the lifting when cars can't. These streets are treacherous for us with minimal sight. They're very narrow and when a car passes, pedestrians must hop up the closest spot of sidewalk. Cars squeeze by - you can spread out your fingers and touch it as it rumbles slowly ahead. The sidewalks even stop abruptly against the edges of buildings sometimes. Once, as I cautiously walked down a seemingly normal stretch of stony sidewalk I looked to my right to see the shady building on my right gone, and with a shock realized the sidewalk had turned into a high wall bridging a sharp drop off below. There are no railings, one inexact step and you fall down a stony embankment. Stone staircases are everywhere and branch suddenly off at a dizzying rate, like a confusing Escher print.

Sometimes Darius walked behind me, assessing my mobility and laughed occasionally, a little too loudly, saying hello and quickly offering brief explanations in Spanish to curious spectators. He believed he was teaching me his  own ingenious version of mobility technique. It wasn't new at all.  One runs the cane along the outer edge of the curb so I'd not fall offi nto the street. I kept explaining I was doing that,of course, I knew all that, but this wasn't practical all the time, because then I couldn't detect something in front. "So do that then too!" he told me. "People will get out of your way, don't worry You don't swong your cane wide enough MOVE IT MAN he hollered."To hell with other people- you have the right of way- your too timd -MOVE IT!". Darius could be exasperating sometimes. I sighed, and urged him to use his own good eyes, to get it through his head, that that was what I'd been doing all along.

"Curb! Curb! Curb!"- he'd bark and run ahead glancing back at my progress. He was agitated, concerned about my safety, jabbing my cane good into a hole in the sidewalk near his home, loudly reminding me of its potential.

We got caught in yet another rain storm, and took shelter with many others under the grandiose columned porch of the town theater.

"Can you see this guy?" He asked me? He went on to explain that he was doing Yo- Yo tricks. "You should ask him to pose for you. I'm telling you if you could just see this you'd understand, I know you can't see - but he looks like a wise person showing some gadget-you know that painting 'The School of Athens'- and they're drawing things - demonstrating - on the floor - you remember those triangles - those ancient Philosophers - with your flashlight it'd be just amazing. Steven I'm going to ask him". I pleaded with Darius not to ask-it wasn't appropriate, but I thought I could give him my card. "Are you crazy Steven, these people don't even know what a card is. They can't email you. He just told me they drove 10 miles from their village today. You're not in New York, get a grip. Anyway -he left, so you missed your opportunity - I wish you'd listen to me".

I planned out compositions and readied myself for each modeling session. Paco and Pablo agreed to work for me, both are construction workers in Miguel's workshop.

 Its hard for me to be satisfied with any image. I wanted to work longer, retaking mediocre ones, trying to get something right. But I knew my modelos had been doing construction already and I refrained from requesting too much posing. Their payment was good, and we rested every few pictures. All were very polite and deferential, I'm not used to that.

In Guanajuato there are a lot of people asking for money. Children sit and beg on the street. Bad singers and musicians attend to you at the cafes until you pay them when its enough. "Welcome to Mexico". Miguel joked as he shooed away an awful guitarist. The poverty is palpable, and its psychological imprint clear. The wealthy are catered to, and fussed over to a shocking, unheard of degree. Its absolutely jarring to me. To Paco, Pablo and Jaime, these gentle rancheros, I was the boss, through my proximity to Darius That was novel. My Spanish is minimal, yet Pablo was kind enough to invite Darius and me to visit his home in the country. Miguel carefully instructs his workers not to get too friendly with his American clients.

I envisioned one idea, I knew it was a gamble. I wanted Paco to hop up there on the table and hold the large circular iron candelabra hanging in the dining room, but it just swung too much as I lit, so, its shapes, and Paco's, failed to clarify anything interesting. It was just too tough to hold that pose for long, so I skipped retaking it.

Elsa and Theresa, two of the three sisters who live next door, also posed for a few light paintings. They curiously peered into the viewfinder when the image popped up. Elsa helped me avoid bumping into the camera, and guided me gingerly around the furniture crowding about the tripod. I could tell by their tone, they're disappointed in some, wanting if not flattery, normalcy. The distortions sometimes produced are not expected in conventional portraiture.

Some still life was made during that visit too, using mirrors, candles and found objects. I like to use what I find in the enviornments Im working in, but did bring some fabric from New York for background. Another series was made of lights and lamps. Yet another- of self portraits done with a 30 second exposure, holding a mirror. Maestro  Martin Laero, who crafted some of the extraordinary furniture, also posed along with his wife Maria. Eva, Miguel's sister, and her daughter Vanessa were nice enough to pose a little too. Vanessa even worked for me briefly as an assistant, holding down the shutter manually, when the cable release broke.

Its replacement, expected in three days, took longer than a week to finally arrive. I worried and waited for the UPS, listened to audio books or paced with boredom under the drizzling skylight pyramid. I'd come here to work. This setback, for a time, seemed to be the end of my plans. I was very down. Someone could hold down the shutter for many minutes, But I couldn't do both that, and the lighting at once. It was difficult to convince Darius to help, as he was then very involved with the financial market, absorbing huge amounts of data, and making wise choices.

A kind of compromise solution was to set the timer for 30 seconds, the camera's longest exposure setting. That little time was just minimally enough to very, very rapidly work over a small area with the flashlight. Most of these "30 seconders" remained dark, but a few keepers emerged.

Darius has a knack of surprising me with parts of his life I didn't know of. Just recently he told me when he was studying photography at the School of Visual Art in New York, he was, for a few months, close to, and taking photos for Phil Collins.

"Those people - his entourage - were truly horrible, obnoxious snobs, just awful. Phil would send a limo for me and that crowd-they'd be posing, basking in the glare of the star. There are so many people like that. I keep reminding you of this because you'll likely be experiencing these sorts soon. Hangers on. So I'd be picked up by his limo, can you believe it? One day we were riding to one of his apartments, he had a lot, and I was sitting by this awful person, just couldn't endure this toxic snob anymore. Enough! I thought. Stop the car right here - I'm getting out.  So I just jumped out of the limo and threw my portfolio of negatives at them. Here! They looked at me like I was crazy to leave such an opportunity. I'm sorry, but I'm not wasting my life with such procedures".

Though a photographer himself, Darius has lost many negatives over the years. And valued photographs of loved ones. The whereabouts of some of his art work is unknown and he is indifferent.

"Why do you latch on to things so much?"  My friend asks me that often. I confess to latching. "You have to learn to let go. We're all terminal beings Steven" he likes to remind me. I reminded him that emotion, memories, psychology, and interactions are vital to my art -what I work with. "But you work with numbers and ideas. They are very different vocabularies". Then he responded, "Art for me is too relative to the observer. Too ephemeral. What is happening with you is that you incorporate certain historical ideas, certain sets of form. You've always known you were an artist, and your life has been linear. Mine was more problematic".

The photographs I made there will be posted soon,  just some of them of course. The total number of light paintings was 277, and would have been larger if I didn't have that technical problem.

Darius thinks I should work more from Mexico, to have prints made there etc. It seems too far from my home now. There is certainly more independence there, more time, more of the energy that vitalizes me. Here in New York, Jacques Montel told me he'd like to show my images to some galleries, and wants me to get a portfolio together. Its time.

Four months can add some perspective to what you were immersed in then.

Maybe these light paintings might look more interesting now, rather than at the time they were made. I don't know.

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