What do you do when you’re in New York City in the worst spring snow storm in a recent history? You go to the museum of course. You, me and fifty thousand other people.
Like well muffled lemmings we line up at the MoMA, pay for tickets and shuffle off to line up again for coat checks. Then we head off to the escalators where we shuffle through five floors of exhibits. Exquisite, gorgeous and beautiful art.
Somewhere on the second floor I remember what a uncultured noob I am. Oh I see the wonder of the famous Water Lillies and the brilliance of the Starry Night. I even appreciate the genius of the color blocky Mondrians. I recognize the beauty and famous-ness of these pieces but I am not enthralled by them.
Instead I am drawn to the frames of scenes outside. Quiet, rare and fleeting vistas of snow falling on a city that never sleeps.
I learned a harsh lesson in portraiture this week: Digital is not the same as Print.
It’s a surprising realization that after four years of photography I’ve never actually printed my pictures. I’ve been satisfied with sharing them here, on Flickr and other social media. That changed when I committed to mailing prints back to the folks in Cuba.
But let’s rewind a bit.
The highlight of my recent trip was the opportunity to take pictures of people. I met members of the Chivirico community and with their gracious consent, took some wonderful portraits. As an additional bonus, on the last day our group had a full day model shoot with a troupe of professional dancers. It was an chance for composed shots with enthusiastic and ‘malleable’ subjects. As a gesture of appreciation I agreed to send printed pictures back to the community.
And here is where reality bites.
Portraits that looked perfectly fine on screen showed up harsh and unflattering in print. So many of these folks had been charming in person; I hated sending back ugly photos. I hastily adjusted the images, dialing back on clarity to soften the details and smoothe out natural skin imperfections. Softer, toned down images resulted with improved print quality. On screen the visual effect was almost as dramatic.
My lesson learned? For close up portraits, particularly those slated for print and people you’d rather not hate you, hold back on the clarity.
On the other hand, for my model pictures I allowed for more dramatic license. There were some pictures where I’d scaled back on the clarity, reprinted the image and then decided that I preferred the original.
For example this portrait of Graciano. I think the hard lights on his face adds a gritty edginess to the picture. It elevates it from being a nice shot to being an interesting one.
If you’re a fan of Street then you’ll know that the #1 Fear of all new and no-so-new street photographers is the Fear of Strangers. We all have a natural shyness about approaching strangers. But if you’re like me, who believes that the only interesting street shot is one with a face in it, then you’ll figure out how to overcome this.
I admit that its easier to take street portraits when travelling abroad. There’s a comfortable camouflage in being a tourist. With hat, camera and obvious unfamiliarity with the language it’s easy to smile, point and share pictures on your camera. Couple that with a few key words for beautiful, “Linda!” , “Bonito!”, “Muy hermoso!” and you have the magic for engaging with a stranger and making portraits.
Initial shot taken from a distance
Getting closer. Photo Credit: Gail Mager
My favorite shots are those that capture an expression that hints at the personality. Most of the time, I find it after after the initial photo, when I’ve come up close to share his/her picture on my camera’s LCD. The subject is now relaxed and I’m close enough for a very personal portrait shot.
If helps of course, to know a few more words of the language. That way, I can walk away with a bit more knowledge of the person. Granted, the knowledge may be incomplete and probably wrong (there’s a direct correlation between language proficiency and understanding) but at least I have something more to remember him/her by.
The Cable Guy’s name was Alejandro (or maybe it was Guillermo.) I’d been admiring his sturdy red truck. This being Cuba it was a solid, all metal 1960’s era vehicle, reconstructed from parts and a chimera of brands & manufacturers. Alejandro was in the telephone cable business, he hauled telephone poles, dug & installed them … or so I understood.
Ramon the Guitar Player serenaded me with Cuban ballads played on his front porch. He told me a long and involved story about his time in Santiago (it could have been Havana) where he met other chinos like me.
The Man in the Blue Box Balcony (sorry I don’t remember your name) was relaxing on his day off. He asked me if I was staying at the local hotel and when I said “sí”, said that he worked there too.
Abuelita was the charming grandmother ofTomás who found my walking group wandering in a dried out riverbed and invited us home for a visit. Abuelita wanted to give me a manicure. Tomás introduced me to santeria … and the topic for another post.
As you may have guessed, I spent the last week in Cuba, although not (as the song says) in Havana. Instead we stayed at a little village called Chivirico, about 90 minutes out of Santiago de Cuba and 840 km east of Havana.
Chivirico is a small rural community set between the mountains of Sierra Maestra and the Caribbean Sea. Our guide told us that 15,000 live in Chivirico but most stay in the mountains. My estimate is that 14,524 people live in the mountains since there was no where close to that number of people in the village. Having said that, there’s no doubt on the total population as the hamlet was well serviced with a school, a church, a couple markets, a farmacia and bus terminal. There was also a lot of goats. Not surprising since goats are the village’s namesake (chivo).
Where there are schools there will be playing fields. Cuba’s favorite sport is baseball and on this particular afternoon, I was treated to local game. Everyone participated, even the goats. And for those kids not old enough for the team, there’s lots of adventure to be had in the surrounding trees.
Have you walked through a warren of alleys, turned a corner and been startled by a cacophony of color, light and pattern? Visuals so loud and discordant that you had to blink three times to tone it down?
This happened to me in an outdoor market in Northern Thailand. I’d stumbled into hat makers alley. A place where ladies surrounded by gaily colored fabric, sewed ribbons of bubbles and baubles on to hats, aprons and vests. They draped themselves with vibrantly patterned scarves with no apparent concern for color harmony. The laughed and chattered among themselves, ignoring the tourist fidgeting with her camera and trying to isolate a shot.
Later when I uploaded my photos I ignored all of these photos. I had liked one but decided that the frame was too full with color and pattern. It was hard see the subject against the distraction of background.
Fast forward to years later. I’m searching through my catalog looking for interesting B&W portraits. I find this old photo and casually flick it to B&W. What a difference.
The moral of this story? Never discard photos that you like. Maybe your eye saw something your brain did not. Time will tell.