Monday, May 31, 2010

Haunting Murals

The works of art that screamed the loudest to me throughout my childhood, were the intricate and enormous murals of Diego Rivera. These colorful historical accounts impressively towered over my childhood self like mountain-faces, as they graced the famous walls of museums and buildings all around the city I grew up in. Even on my daily drive to elementary school, I passed by one of his impressive mosaic creations.

When we first arrived in Mexico, my family lived in the same neighborhood Diego Rivera and his wife, Frida Khalo once lived in. One of my earliest childhood memories is looking out my bedroom window in Coyoacan onto a sky of fireworks that lit up the plaza next to which Frida had her tragic accident. After her bus accident, the constant suffering Frida endured became a way of life which she expressed through her self portraits. This honest unveiling of pain and injustice fascinated me as a child, and Frida and Diego’s art dripped with it!

How much does the art an artist is exposed to as a child influence their own artistic creations? Today I awoke contemplating this question, particularly as I reminisce on the paintings and collages I produced as an adolescent, which reflected some of the same tragic themes as those engaged by Diego and Frida. My photography today is quite tame in comparison! Perhaps this is because I still feel like a novice who is experimenting with this new medium. The acquisition of my camera, also arrived at a new phase in my life which included a different environment; far from the political corruption which fueled much of Rivera’s work, and saturated the beautiful city we once called our home.

I was twelve years old when my family felt forced to leave Mexico City due to death threats my father received in response to efforts he was involved in to expose government corruption. After the sudden assassination of one of my father’s colleagues, my mother had had enough, and we fled the country. My childhood self thus associates a certain political upheaval with Mexico City. There seems to be something almost intrinsic to the valley itself that has has colored it’s history with a passion for politics beginning with the Aztecs. This passion was certainly shared by Diego and Frida.

As artists are usually very sensually attuned to the world which surrounds them, I believe the environmental tapestries an artist lives in inevitably seep into their work: either by their total absence, or by their unmistakable presence. Both Diego and Frida certainly presented the ethos and history of Mexico City in their paintings! They also made faces prominent. In contrast, my photographs are faceless, and leave the observer with little -if any- hints to my upbringing in Mexico. For now, this seems to be what I am most moved to create. In the future, however, I have a dream that I return to the amazing city I grew up in, and capture myself in it with my camera. I see myself seeking out the very same murals I stood before as a little girl, hoping they will affect me the same way; injecting me with awe and inspiration. Yes, Diego’s work used to overwhelm me to the point that I utterly lost myself to everything and everyone else around me! My surroundings would disappear and all that would remain would be Diego’s mural and me.

From this childhood experience I seem to define good art as that which creates an overwhelming effect in another person. Perhaps because when one emerges from losing oneself in a good work of art, one tends to feel more found then they were before; more connected to the core of their being. At least this is what I felt when I was a little girl after ingesting any of Diego Rivera’s murals. And that feeling never failed to impregnate me with an irresistible urge to create more art! What could be more satisfying to my artistic self, (I asked myself as a child), than to make another person feel what Diego’s art is making me feel now, through one of my own creations? Sometimes, I think this same question lives on as a subconscious influence of the past upon my photo sessions: The subtle residue of a child standing in excitement before the work of a master, secretly seeking to extend that excitement through art of her own. The journey before me is long indeed! But one I look forward to, camera in hand.

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Faceless Self-Portraits?

Most people’s idea of a self-portrait conjures up the image of a face. For the face is usually the most identifying visual characteristic of a person. When we experience a person’s physical presence we drink in their unique countenance; the eyes in particular. The eyes on a face are said to tell volumes about a person! They are often referred to as “the windows to the soul”, and are passages for intimacy. As an adolescent who expressed herself through paintings, I developed a habit of painting in the eyes in last. In doing so I felt as if I was finally infusing life and personality onto the canvass. A successful self portrait frequently gains it’s force from the presence captured in the eyes. So, how does one set out to effectively capture their own presence without ever showing their eyes?

In my personal communications with others I love face-to-face dialogue and lots of eye contact. It is therefore quite challenging for me to communicate through my self-portraits without ever facing the camera! I often end up deleting many of my photographs because in the urgency to express myself I look straight into my camera lens, and forget to look away before the ten second timer goes off. A fruitful photo shoot is usually one in which I’ve taken all communicative energy that naturally exists in my face and eyes, and moved it into my body. As most of our communication relies on kinesics anyway, I do not experience this as a sacrifice. Instead, I have found that in facilitating my desire to give my audience a powerful sense of my presence, without ever showing them my eyes, I inevitably stumble upon new means of visible expression. Expressing myself in this way, I offer others a visual experience of me.

What does it mean, then, to offer someone a visual experience of oneself? Must it include one’s face and eyes? Although a handful of observers have asked that I include my face in my self-portraits, most appear to gain a satisfying sense of my person through the appreciation of the other ingredients in my art. I contemplate this as I create my faceless self-portraits, and concoct recipes that will allow me to do so without entering too quickly into the classic image of a face. That is something I’d like to gradually work my way towards. Reserving my eyes for a grand-finale self portrait of sorts, seems to make the photographic journey leading up to it as enjoyable as a pre-climactic ascent of sorts. Not just for me, but, hopefully, for my audience as well.

I most delight in imagining that perhaps my photographs are like bridges connecting me to various audiences all over the world. Sometimes the connection can be very intimate, as when a person identifies with my work. I am told that the potential for this seems to increase as a result of my hiding my face and eyes. The vagueness of what I look like acts like an invitation for other women to see themselves, and their own emotions in my self-portraits. I find this merging of the artist with the observer very exciting and mysterious! How can one be certain they are regarding a particular person’s portrait unless it includes their face? Maybe my self-portraits are really portraits of something beyond myself, which includes everyone. Maybe in the undefined lines of my very exclusive, identifying characteristics, I open up my art to an inclusivity that embraces all women. I would like to think that I do: that in my faceless portraits I may actually be exhibiting the universal female face, at least to a tiny degree.

Saturday, May 29, 2010

Emotional Landscapes

From the time there were photographic portraits, there have been self portraits; that desire in humans to capture their own essence. And perhaps not only a desire to capture oneself, but an unmistakable desire to share one self as well!. In a sense, a self portrait is a desire, therefore, to be experienced by others.

When I create a self portrait I often ask myself this question: “Which part of me am I eager to have others experience today?” I’ve noticed that the parts of my being that feel the most unattended or unheard are often the ones that rise to the surface in my photographs. For example, if I am feeling sad one day, and unheard in my sadness, I may set out to create a rather melancholic, dark image of myself. I believe that in sharing that image, I invite others to validate the very sadness that drove me to create the image in the first place. In this context, I’ve found that it is almost an existential urge that drives me to create one self-portrait after another.

In exploring with sharing my self-portraits, I’ve uncovered a rather dynamic and even seductive dialogue that exists between the artist and her audience. I can’t think of anything more exciting, for example, than sharing feelings of mine through the creation of a photographic image, and having my images elicit equally strong emotional responses in others. Admittedly, I find something nearly addictive in this!

Especially satisfying to me is when I portray challenges or struggles I am feeling in my life through a self-portrait, and then, that portrait is amazingly appreciated by others. It is almost as if I am being told that my life’s struggles are worthy ones; and even beautiful ones at times!

This reminds me of Hippolyte Bayard’s famous self portrait entitled “Drowned Man”:

Taken in 1840, it is the first known self-portrait ever created, and interestingly narrates the tragic story of the utter desolation and discouragement he was experiencing at the time, as it depicts him dead. In it Bayard successfully paints an emotional landscape of himself rather than showing the external spaces and settings he lived in. Bayard manages to take what he was feeling on the inside and communicate it on the surface of his famous photograph. Although his self-portrait is one of feigned suicide, the public instantly found it beautiful! Perhaps in appreciation for the vulnerability an artist offers when they give themselves fully to a self-portrait.

I can certainly relate to Bayard’s need to express the inner world of feelings and emotions through images, no matter how disturbing those feelings may be. To me, being able to reveal what is normally invisible, through the creation of a photograph, can feel quite empowering! I aim to continue to reach deep inside myself and translate my feelings into images; hopefully adding to the history of self portraits that communicate the essence of our human experience, no matter how difficult it may be at times.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

My Aunt Lori's Influence

If I were to trace out how my interest in photography begun, it would all stem back to the summer I turned eight, and my Aunt Lori introduced me to her dark room. She had set up a corner of my grandparent’s dark basement to function as her developing lab by stringing curtains around it and installing a red light. I was just tall enough to watch the black and white images gradually appear on the photography paper as she swished them around under the clear chemical fluids with plastic tongs. Then I’d watch her hang them up to dry, like my mother did clothes on a clothesline. To my childhood mind, the process of turning negatives into prints was pure magic! And I wished to be the same kind of magician.

I especially recall the day we developed the series of black and white portraits my aunt created of my great-grandmother. Aunt Lori had my old Nana sit in her rocking chair by the open window and photographed her wrinkly face in the natural light, as she impressed upon me the value of engaging natural light in portraiture. In my own explorations in self-portraiture I have also come to favor natural light, and often set up my tripod by the most ample windows, drawing from that memorable day.

One bright morning that same summer I stepped out onto the back porch to find my aunt draping sheets up to serve as a back drop. She had strategically hung them to reflect the most sunlight, and left them deliberately wrinkly and creased to catch shadows. My Aunt Lori positioned her camera on her tripod and aimed it at the backdrop. Then she set the timer on her camera and rushed in front of it. Too excited to sit, I stood and watched her pose as the sun reflected off her curly brown hair and into her green eyes. Her dancer limbs moved gracefully as her eight year old niece was instantly enchanted. It was the first time I had ever seen anyone create an artistic portrait of themselves and it created quite an impression in me.

Three years later, on my eleventh birthday, my Aunt Lori gave me my first camera. I carried it around with me the entire summer and shot several rolls of film. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I chose to engage a camera again as an instrument of my personal expression. And I haven’t put it down since!

My aunt was the survivor of a near fatal car accident in which she nearly lost her leg. Her whole life as a photography major in college was derailed and it took her months to walk again. Although no one died that day, I feel my aunts passion for photography did not survive the experience, as she eventually chose another career. Today, many years later, I delight in knowing that my Aunt Lori is resuscitating her passion for photography. What I would give to have her invite me up to her attic and look at her old, artistic photographs! The very same ones that fueled my desire to create some of my own. I have a dream that perhaps one day my Aunt Lori and I will exhibit our photographs together.

(Thank you to my photographer friend Jearvi for making the inquiry that led to my writing this blog. You may also ask me a question if you wish at:, and I may write a blog to answer it!)

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Sunken Sea Treasures

Every time I set out to create a new photograph, I feel it’s as if I am embarking on a journey out into the sea’s uncharted waters, in search of a sunken treasure. Although I always take with me specific preconceived ideas and aims, most of what I encounter once I enter into a photo shoot remains oddly unpredictable. Variables, such as sudden changes in the natural lighting conditions, (which I always prefer) or weather, can act like waves that inevitably cause me to redirect my vessel’s course, changing the whole predicted outcome of my photography session. For this reason I prefer to take pictures without any rigid expectations of how they’ll come out.

The vessel which moves my photographic creations is my imagination. Fueled by my emotions, it begs to bring back evidence from the new territories I’m exploring within my self. Like the sailors of antiquity who brought back gifts for their queens, in executing a self-portrait I hope to bring back proof of my own preciousness. What I return with is nearly always such a surprise, I rarely make maps of where I found it. This secures that each time I set sail on a photographic journey, it feels like a maiden voyage to me, preserving a certain level of excitement and spontaneity I draw from when I create.

As a little girl, I spent hours watching my father artistically craft beautiful replicas of ancient maps. It was his hobby and he delighted in it. Much of his pleasure was derived from the fascinating narratives he uncovered while researching the details in each map. These were intricate tales of the legend and lure the sea held over many cultures, for extended periods of time. So, as I watched my father mark the nautical courses of legendary mariners in elegant calligr

aphy, I learned about Neptune and Yemanja, Atlantis and mermaids, sea serpents and giant squids, pirates, Medusa and sunken ships full of treasures. As a result I could think of nothing more exciting than exploring the mysterious seas!

It is said that the depths of the human psyche are oceanic in proportion, and as unexplored as the sea’s canyons. I believe that every self-portraiture artist is a pioneer upon this terrain, and I like to think of the camera’s lens as an instrument of navigation, which might point us towards new discoveries about ourselves. Like the Jacques Cousteau documentaries I used to watch with my father when I was a child, beyond the right equipment in any expedition exists the proper attitude. As I understood it then, it was one of bravery. The importance of risk-taking was thus instilled in me. There was a need to cross frontiers no one had ever crossed before, and do so in spite of any initial fear or hesitation.

Hundreds of years ago, when Europeans erroneously embraced the view of a flat Earth, sailors were cautioned not to sail too far from the shore lest they sail off the edge of the Earth itself! To this day I can clearly see the drawings in my mind my father adeptly sketched to illustrate the preposterousness of this idea to me: a flat surface sustained by four giant elephants, standing atop the back of a gargantuan turtle. He then drew water rushing off the edges with little boats falling into a bottomless precipice, followed by an enthusiastic speech on Galileo and his expansive views. I remember being struck by the way Galileo had drawn inspiration to prove that the Earth was indeed an orb in motion by his observations of the ebb and flow of the sea’s tides. My father always taught me that we have a lot to learn from the seas, and everything surrounding them. However, to explore a new idea, one often has to be willing to relinquish an outdated one. This is where the risk factors come into play.

When I feel myself getting too comfortable with one style of photography, or too set in one approach, one technique, one method, I make a conscious effort to set sail for new, unexplored waters. If the journey feels a little bit threatening, I ask myself questions like these: What exactly is being threatened here? Am I scared of sailing off the edge of the world? Am I scared of getting into the submarine? Or encountering sea monsters along the way? When the process of expressing myself through a self portrait stirs up such nervous energy, I play with it (through poses, and camera settings, lighting and shadows, photoshop brushes and crops), until it turns into raw excitement. And until there is nowhere else I’d rather be than creating that photograph, no matter what perceived risks I associate with that experience. Who knows! I might yet return with some sunken treasures!

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Butterfly Freedom

Symbols and images are a very powerful means of communication because they can extend beyond the boundaries of particular languages and therefore reach broader audiences. When we create a photograph we speak in symbols and images. Shapes, shadows, flowers, postures, animals all say something. Although different people will interpret what they each see differently, there are always basic archetypes that extend beyond cultures or even time periods. I like expressing myself through such archetypes when telling the visual narratives of my life through the photographs I create. Today I will write about change and it’s symbol, the butterfly, which I portray myself as in one of my self-portraits.

It appears to me that human beings are naturally disposed towards those actions that will allow them to arrive at their goals without much effort. We prefer the smooth roads to the bumpier ones. However, there will always be those goals in life that demand our laborious involvement. In fact, who hasn’t worked hard in order to achieve something they deem valuable in life?

I once read a study that listed freedom at the height of human values, as we all long to be free to design a life of our own choice. Liberty, therefore, appeared as a reasonable prerequisite for experiencing happiness, peace, love, etc. But freedom from what?

I suppose there are many potential sources of oppression in life. There are those that are internally generated, such as destructive and limiting perspectives we create within our own minds. And then there are the many external forces we can all feel restricted by. Oftentimes to free oneself from limitations, change is in order. We change the way we do things in life to achieve different results. If we don’t like a certain aspect of our lives, or selves, we have to make a change somewhere: either externally or internally.

To me, life is about change. With each mastered change we reach a new level of experiencing life. Many people are resistant to change because it is often accompanied by discomfort of some sort or another. We tend to give little value to discomfort, but even designs of nature incorporate struggle and discomfort into making successful changes. The perfect symbol for this is a caterpillar, having transformed into a butterfly, trying to break out of it’s cocoon.

I recall the first time I understood that butterflies need that period of struggling -while breaking out of the cocoon- for their wings to be strong enough to fly. I was sixteen years old and had read it in a book. I marveled at how when scientists helped the butterfly remove the cocoon, their wings remained underdeveloped and useless, leaving them as easy prey to dangerous predators. But when the butterflies were allowed to go through the struggle to achieve their own freedom, they flew high and beautifully afterwords! It seemed to be nature’s way of informing us that uncomfortable,

laborious effort contained a certain value when executing a major change in life. That struggle, oddly enough, leaves us with extra assets we would not had otherwise.

I have had to contemplate such subjects over the last few years as I have been orchestrating major transformations in redesigning my life. I call it my metamorphosis period, as it has somewhat mirrored the way caterpillars turn into butterflies. Perhaps the image feels a bit cliche to many of you, but I have experienced myself going through a series of phases, that, curiously, resemble the same ones necessary for such a change to occur: sensitivity to timing, a period of labor forming the cocoon, then stillness, withdrawal, a hibernation of sorts, growth, a shedding of the old form, then a breaking out involving discomfort, struggle and the building of new strength. Whew!

So here I am, still freeing myself from my cocoon, looking towards spreading my butterfly wings and soaring. My photography has functioned as a recording of my metamorphosis. It also depicts my reemergence into life. I illustrate this in this photograph by giving myself butterfly wings and surrounding myself with lush, fertile grounds. I am not there yet, but this is my vision of where I am headed. It is a powerful symbol I draw from when the fight to emerge from the cocoon leaves me exhausted. It is freedom, and it’s lure is most seductive!

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Natural Settings

Nature surrounds me. I live on twenty acres of pastures and trees. A small creek runs through the western side of my property and a little pond sits on the southern side. I am usually awakened by the sound of owls communicating to one another just outside my bedroom. My neighbor is a tree farmer, and adjacent to him rests a wild-life preserve, behind me is a horse stable. Most of my visitors are deer.

After living in urban areas most of my life, residing in this rural setting was no accident. It was a deliberate plan that I worked towards for years, as I’ve always had a very intimate and dynamic relationship with natural beauty. Consequently, natural landscapes have greatly influenced my photographic art.

I believe I owe much of my sensitivity to the natural environments around me to my maternal grandfather who was an avid naturalist. He would wake my sister and I up at dawn and take us on nature walks, pointing out flora and fauna to us, identifying bird calls, giving us tastes of eatable berries and leaves. And he taught us to do all this quietly so as not to scare away the woodland creatures, which we spotted and observed, from a respectful distance, quite often.

My Grandpa also taught me about the tides of the sea, how to detect them from afar by the scents in the wind, how to walk on barnacle-covered rocks without getting cut, how to swim in the sea for hours without ever tiring of it. As a child, I spent three months out of every year at my grandparent’s home. My visits there were most nurturing. Since then I have always associated being in nature with feeling safe and loved. I feel most comfortable in nature and seek it out often. In the outdoor images I take I attempt to communicate this. Most of them are shot on my own private property.

Saturday, May 1, 2010

The Stage

The stage has always held a special lure for me. My elementary school had a great stage with velvety curtains, and bright lights, and wooden floors. I would often escape my classes with the false pretense of having to use the lady’s room and make my way upstairs to the stage. Sometimes the tall wooden doors to the auditorium would be locked and I had to drag a heavy heart back down the stairs into class. Other times a school janitor would usher me back to my teacher.

But there were many times that I had the stage all to myself, and I would imagine an audience applauding my performance. I would dance, and twirl and curtssee. Or silently act out dramatic scenes in which the heroine took her own life in the end. (Please view video above) I suppose that was strongly influenced by Madame Butterfly, which my mother, (who loved singing opera), introduced me to when I was only eight. I remember I did not blink through that entire performance!

I loved having the stage all to myself! If I heard footsteps approaching I would scurry behind a velvety curtain and try not to laugh. Usually my giggles would give me away, followed by an escort back to class, or occasionally, the headmistresses office! Laura and I were on a first name basis.

After school I created my own stages. I would gather the neighborhood children and organize elaborate performances of many kinds. I choreographed dances and directed plays. I found costumes for the other children and took care of hair and make-up. Sometimes we used the piano, sometimes just our voices, and the rehearsal’s would often go on for weeks! When I felt our act was presentable, I would invite my friends parents and other children to be our audience. I would write out little invitation cards on construction paper, and hand-deliver them door-to-door. Between the ages of eight and eleven it wasn’t uncommon for adults to ask me for impromptu performances at their tea parties, or family gatherings. I could produce instant entertainment to everyone’s amusement.

My photographs visibly engage this theatrical aspect of my personality, as the stage curtain rises and falls with the opening and closing of my camera’s aperture. In creating theatrical images I feel myself resuscitating my childhood self, who lives vicariously through my photographs. She loves dressing in costumes and creating a dramatic scene that will completely absorb her audience. In their attention to her performance, she hopes the observers will see her own dramatic depths; which can be oceanic!