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Part 21 of 50: A Brunette, Dos Casas and a Wardrobe: Photographing the Lovely Anne Duffy

This is part twenty-one in a series of blogs on my photographic adventures in Todos Santos, Mexico.

It was almost exactly a year ago as I write this that my ZoeFest X adventure began. You’ll recall I received several emails from the incredibly talented photographer, Zoe Wiseman, about her annual artists retreat that would be taking place in Todos Santos, Mexico in the Fall.. After agreeing to her invitation, I clicked over to one of Zoe’s websites, ARTnudes network and began to investigate the portfolios of some of the international models who were also invited. I had some research to do and names to learn.

Anne Duffy at Casa Bentley
Anne Duffy at Casa Bentley

One of the first portfolios that jumped out at me was the work of Australian model Anne Duffy. It’s not exactly that I have a type of model I prefer to work with, but one look at my own portfolio reveals that I do have a penchant for photographing brunettes. Something about the contrast of hair and skin that rings my bells. And Anne is the brunette-iest of brunettes. With lovely porcelain skin. She immediately went to the top of my wish list months before I would arrive at ZoeFest.

When we all arrived in Baja six months later, I’ve mentioned that we all got a chance to meet and re-meet for those ZoeFest veterans, but the Aussies were delayed a bit coming from the other side of the planet. So late in fact that I was walking out of the party, just as they were all walking in. But a flood of mental snapshots flooded to the front of my brain as soon as I picked Anne out from within her group. Every bit as lovely as I imagined. Even for being jet-lagged.

Anne Duffy at Casa Bentley
Anne Duffy at Casa Bentley

A few days later, we caught up under less noisy circumstances and firmed up our plans to shoot together. Anne and Anoush, who I had photographed a few days earlier, were staying at Casa Bentley, another of the boutique hotels in Todos Santos that our group had taken over for the duration of ZoeFest. It was a lovely paradise, just down the road from where I was staying at Todos Santos Inn.

Driving to meet Anne at her hotel, I realized I had lingered a bit longer than I probably should have with Brooke after our tremendous shoot earlier in the day and arrived a few minutes late for my shoot with Anne. Luckily, she was also running a bit behind and I had a few minutes to catch my breath and collect my thoughts before we would begin. We were all of us, slowly melting into Baja-time. Always a few minutes late, but arriving in a delirious state of peace and relaxation.

Anne invited me into her beautiful little room snuggled under a huge shady tree. When I walked through the door, I had to laugh. After shooting with nude models all week, I was surprised to see what looked like a collision between two wardrobe trucks spread out from wall to wall. Anne caught my amusement and reminded me that she and many of the other models had arrived at ZoeFest, mid-world-tour, and they basically had to bring everything they owned to be ready for anything that might transpire at their gigs before and after ZoeFest.

Ah yes. I stood corrected.

Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula
Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula

And since I was standing ankle deep in some lovely couture, it seemed like a good idea to deviate from the literal meaning of an art nude shoot and consider accessorizing for a something different. So Anne and I started hunting through everything, looking for things that I thought might be interesting to work with. It was difficult only in that Anne has excellent taste and my sorted “good pile” was quickly becoming more of a mountain than we could possibly shoot in one afternoon.

Eventually we narrowed it down to a more reasonable collection. Now, what to start with?

I had planned to take Anne back to Casa Dracula to photograph her there, but since I had barely scratched the surface of Casa Bentley as a location during my shoots, I wanted to find something there before we moved up the road to Casa Dracula.

Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula
Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula

I started to focus in on a vintage black lingerie set that we had put aside. Then I noticed a period lounge sofa near one of her windows. Anne was reading my thoughts as she pulled a string of pearls out of one of her cases. And there it was. Our first set up.

I took a few meter readings and adjusted the blinds a bit to even out the light. I switched to a shorter lens that had been giving me some trouble a few days earlier on the trip, but was the right focal length for the size of the room. I decided to fight through it’s ill-tempered nature and try to make the best of it.

Anne reclined on the lounge and suddenly I was in 1940. She was stunning. I framed up a composition of her looking up and back over her shoulder… and… click…

A quick review of the first frame was perfect except for the fact that it was completely out of focus. I was shooting wide open with a small depth of field, but literally nothing was in focus in the entire frame. Another frame was the same. Hmmmm. It was going to be a battle I could tell. Perhaps it was the sand or the heat from a week of shooting Mexico, but this lens was not cooperating.

However, sometimes you can take a bad situation and turn it into a good one. I flipped off the autofocus, which clearly wasn’t communicating with the focus point I was selecting in the viewfinder and switched to manual.

Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula
Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula

You may be saying, “But Billy, why don’t you shoot in manual focus all the time? Isn’t that a more professional thing to do?”

Well, yes, I guess. But there are a lot of things to delegate in my head when I’m shooting. I’m looking for lines and angles and how they flow together in the composition. I’m watching my model’s face, getting into a rhythm with her as she poses and adjusts and gives me another. I’m absorbing the feeling she is emoting, making sure the photograph I’m making is capturing that essence.

I’m watching to see if the light is changing if I’m relying on the sun for illumination. Has it just gone behind a cloud? Do I need to slow my shutter speed to compensate? In fact, with the exception of focus, my camera is already set for completely manual operation. The ƒstop, shutter speed, ISO, color temperature and other camera settings are all set by me manually before I click the shutter.

Even the exact focus point in my viewfinder is something I’m choosing. When everything is working properly, I usually let the camera and lens do the math and make sure that exact point is in focus for me, so I can concentrate on everything else. Except when it doesn’t.

Years ago, when I was learning how to be a photographer, none of my cameras or lenses had autofocus. Some of those old film friends that I still occasionally use to this day are completely manual cameras. Shooting with them requires a slightly different rhythm. An extra beat to rotate the lens focus ring back and forth between each shot to confirm focus. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a different pace.

So, since I was already standing in the 1940s world that Anne and I had created, I took a breath and slowed down. Anne adjusted to my extra beat and slowed her movement down as well. We were settling in at last. And the images were in focus.

About a dozen shots into the set, I was sure I had the photograph I was imagining and I shot another dozen or so, just to see if I had missed anything, but they really weren’t necessary. Anne was perfect and we had nailed it.

Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula
Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula

We packed up the rest of the couture pile and headed off up the hill to Casa Dracula. I had spent so much time there in the last week that I had already picked out a few places where I wanted to work with Anne. We headed upstairs to the survey the large and small bedrooms. The afternoon light was coming in the windows in a very inspiring way. Bright, but not direct, so the shadows would be subtle.

One of the pieces Anne had brought along was a vintage jacket with beautiful decorative fringe. It had a decidedly Mexican feel. Staying with the accessorizing theme, we decided to have her wear that instead of being completely nude. I could tell she really liked the jacket and I did as well. It just added a little something.

I had her sit on one of the beds in the large room, close to one of the open windows. I really love the flavor of light coming from a window like that. Directional, without being too harsh.

While setting up, I had misjudged my light reading and made a test exposure two ƒstops darker than I had originally wanted. Anne was almost invisible in the frame as I reviewed it, just a suggestion of light here and there to fill in her outline. A happy accident and I decided to keep the underexposed look for this setup, knowing I could most likely open it up a bit later in post if I changed my mind.

After the less than stellar performance of my uncooperative 50mm lens back at Casa Bently, I switched to my go-to lens for making beautiful portraits, a 100mm lens. I had much more space to work with now and could use something longer. Zoom with your feet, is one of my mottoes, and it was quite easy to find just the right composition by simply changing my distance from Anne in the large room.

After only about ten photographs, I once again felt we had the shot, but decided to continue a bit longer, making a dozen or so more photographs to give Anne a little time to explore before abruptly moving on. Always good to leave a little room for creative discovery when collaborating.

Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula
Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula

For the next set up, we continued with the jacket as Anne moved into one of the balcony doorways that overlooked the rear grounds. Still using my longer 100mm lens, I stepped into one of the adjacent bedrooms and photographed Anne through another doorway to give my compositions a little extra natural framing, which I like to do from time to time. I find it can give an image depth and it creates an interesting perspective for the viewer.

Anne continued to be wonderful. She gave me a series of natural poses that enhanced her smoldering beauty. I was having a difficult time deciding whether I preferred her looking directly at the camera or averting her gaze to something outside of the frame. Both options were gorgeous. Looking directly is always a more intimate relationship with the viewer, sometimes more than what I’m looking for, but her stare is so arresting that it just pulls you into the image in a very powerful way. I decided to shoot both and decide later.

We moved to another of the bedrooms where I had mentally reserved a smallish round chair near one of Casa Dracula’s front arched balcony doorways near a very plain wall. Beautiful soft light was entering the room once again and I told Anne I wanted her to try coming up with something acrobatic on this particular chair.

She looked at the chair, thought for a moment and figured it out in short order. As she inverted herself, carefully balancing on the none to stable chair, she beautifully arranged her limbs in a complementary direction that only a model of Anne’s caliber can do without looking, and upside down to boot. Making it all feel effortless.

After a few minutes of the blood rushing to her head, I had her return to vertical again and she found more lovely subtle poses as I made another dozen or so photographs. Another success.

Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula
Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula

We moved into yet another of the second floor bedrooms near where I had photographed Keira in the red mosquito netting. One of the beds in that room was against a slightly distressed wall painted in a very dark green. I thought Anne’s beautiful pale skin would be a strong contrast for the dark wall and she continued to find exquisite positions to stand and lean as I balanced my compositions with her inspiring movement.

I was feeling very satisfied with what we had done and asked Anne if she was ready to call it a day. It was a hot afternoon as usual and I try to avoid melting the models whenever possible.

“Really?”, she asked, surprised that I was considering stopping. “I have this other piece you might find interesting.”

She pulled out what I can only describe as a inventively knitted spiderweb and held it up in front of her. No, we were suddenly definitely not done shooting for the day.

“Ooh. Let’s head back outside for this one,” I suggested.

We returned to a location I had now photographed several times already on the grounds of Casa Dracula, but as is the case in Todos Santos at these magnificent locations, the light at different times of day reveal entirely different looks depending on where the sun is in the sky. Now nearing late afternoon, the wall was completely in the shade and where Anne was beginning to get set up, a sublime soft overhead light was doing wonders for the glow of her skin. Splendid soft illumination.

Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula
Anne Duffy at Casa Dracula

Anne against the gray wall was almost already monochromatic in its look even with my own eyes. Where some of the photographs of Anne in the bedroom I definitely knew would be color images, these I knew would be B&W.

Anne continued to find lovely poses in the empty environment. Sometimes balancing on one leg in the same effortless way I had grown used to seeing. We continued to work as I changed my distance from her a few times, experimenting by adding some natural elements into the composition besides the wall. But it was clear Anne needed nothing else to create a compelling image. Once more, beauty in simplicity.

Finally, we did call it a day and I was thrilled that I finally had a chance to collaborate with the first model whose portfolio had jumped out at me six months earlier. Anne was incredible to work with. A captivating beauty with a strong sense of who she is. I was very pleased we had decided to explore her traveling wardrobe. Something different for one of my final shoots at ZoeFest.

Thank you Anne for dragging so many suitcases so many miles. It was worth it.

Next, a slight detour from shooting as I accidentally damage the rental car.

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Part 20 of 50: Brooke and the Big Leaf

This is part twenty in a series of blogs on my artistic adventures in Todos Santos, Mexico late last year.

Sorry it’s been a while. Alright. Where were we?

Brooke Lynne sizes up her shooting partner for the day
Brooke Lynne sizes up her shooting partner for the day

I had been photographing the lovely models of ZoeFest X for almost a week and somehow I had managed to photograph all but three in a fairly short amount of time. Sometimes three shoots a day in the hot Todos Santos sun. No complaints from me, however. Every shoot was unique and special in its own way. Creatively very rewarding.

Now it was time for my collaboration with Brooke Lynne . I first spoke with Brooke about shooting at the getting-to-know-you party at Casa Dracula the night we all arrived. Brooke has a reserved quiet quality about her. She’s also got a wicked fun side and she’s a self admitted nerd of the best kind, but if you want to experience it, you have to put your time in and be patient. It’s worth the wait.

I can’t say exactly what caused me to hone in on her that very first night. I’m usually pretty good a sizing people up, especially the ones that aren’t the life of the party. I know there’s something special there. They’re not in the spotlight… yet. But I got a feeling that when it would be her turn in front of my camera, I would experience something unlike I had experienced with other model shoots in my career. I can’t explain why. I don’t understand it myself. I just seem to be good at knowing these things.

I’ve had a long standing rule about shoots. If it’s a commercial shoot, everyone has to show up and put on their game face. Whether they’re under the weather, relationship unpleasantness or other personal mishaps, we’re all professionals and everyone puts aside any issues and we get the job done.

Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito
Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito

However, when we’re creating art, taking something in our imaginations and turning it into a photograph, there is a certain level of being in the right creative space that is very necessary to make something extraordinary. Creativity is not something you turn on like a light switch. It takes a bit of nurturing. If either my model or I happen to be having a bad day, I can see it in the photos. They’re not bad, especially if I’m working with a model at the level of everyone at ZoeFest, but it’s harder to go from great to amazing if we’re not both in the zone.

Brooke and I had originally scheduled our shoot for a few days earlier, after I photographed Meghan at the dam. But when I returned to the Hotelito to drop Meghan off and get ready for Brooke, I found her in the living room, curled up in a chair, looking lovely as always, but I could see in her face she wasn’t feeling it.

So I called an audible. “Hey Brooke, how are you doing?”

“I’m okay,” she softly replied.

Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito
Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito

I thought for a moment.

“Tell you what,” I said, “Sometimes today isn’t the day, you know? And I know everyone is going to see the baby turtles tonight right around the time we were planning to shoot. Do you want to maybe postpone our shoot for another day and just enjoy the baby turtles?”

Immediately her face lit up. “Really?”

“Sure. I have some time open on Sunday if you want to move our shoot.”

She checked her schedule and she had time on Sunday as well. Done.

It turned out to be a great decision. We all got to enjoy the turtles and it gave me a little more time to prepare something Brooke had suggested a few days earlier.

As I’ve mentioned before, my room at Todos Santos Inn was in the middle of a lush garden. Palm trees stretching up toward the sky with huge slender leaves that provided such welcome shade on hot days. Brooke had asked me if we might try something with one of the giant banana leaves.

“Do you thing you can get one?”, she wondered.

I was pretty sure I could. I had become friendly with one of the gardeners at the inn and I went about asking him how I might get a big leaf without causing undo damage to the lovely garden. I didn’t think it would be right to cut off a perfectly good leaf on my own. Perhaps he could find me a leaf that was in need of trimming.

Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito
Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito

My Spanish was pretty basic and certainly lacking in gardening vocabulary, so I had to resort to broken Spanish and a lot of hand gesturing.

I raised both of my arms in front of me and made a kind of giant scissors pantomime and said, “Uno palm, por favor?” I didn’t know the word for leaf. I then made the universal taking a photo pantomime of holding both of my hands up to may face in a box shape and clicking the imaginary shutter.

“Oh, sí, sí, señor. Uno momento,” he replied and walked off toward the garden. He returned with a large menacing pair of gardening shears.

I laughed, “No, no, señior. The leaf. Uno leaf.” I grabbed the edge of one of the giant banana leaves, trying desperately to make up for my language inadequacy.

He smiled. “Ah, sí.” And he grabbed the leaf as well.

“Mañana?”, I asked, thinking it might take him a bit of time to find me a leaf that was out of sight or nearing the end of it’s life. I really didn’t want to deforest the lovely garden.

He nodded. “Mañana.”


Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito
Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito

Sure enough, when I woke up the next morning, right outside my door was a giant seven foot tall single banana leaf. Perfecto!

I barely managed to get the enormous thing in my rental car without bending it, but I did. It basically was my passenger for the short drive over to the Hotelito to see Brooke.

I knocked on the main door. “Brooke? I have a surprise for you!”

She opened the door and I walked in with the massive leaf.

“Oh! This is wonderful!”, she exclaimed. “Where did you get it?”

I explained my little story with the gardener and we agreed we were going to have fun with this.

“How about we find a bit of shade to shoot in. Brooke was completely on the same page. “Yes, shade would be excellent.”

We found a wall in the outdoor courtyard that the sun hadn’t reached yet and decided it would be perfect. A simple little texture, but Brooke and her new leaf friend would be the focus. Nothing else would be needed. Simplicity in composition.

I should mention at this point that Brooke is a bit of a pretzel. In the best way. She really folds herself into whatever environment she happened to be working in. Boxes, ledges, railings. She becomes part of the scene like a gorgeous chameleon.

Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito
Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito

As I began to take my light readings and select a lens to begin with, Brooke investigated the leaf like it was a piece of haute couture. If there had been a three-way department store mirror, I could have imagined her holding it up in front of her like a designer dress. She rehearsed standing in front of it. Behind it. Wrapping herself up in it. She was playing and it was incredible to watch her figure it out.

We were both in the zone. Well worth the slight postponement from the other day.

We began the shoot working vertically, with the banana leaf and Brooke both standing as she evoked a bit of a fan dance. Limbs springing forth from behind the leaf in surprising ways as I composed my photographs. We were off to a great start.

We took a moment to review of a few of the frames and both wildly happy with our beginnings, we decided to change it up a bit.

“Let’s try some with you on the ground with the leaf,” I suggested. I got on the ground with her, shooting along the cement patio floor at the same level as Brooke and watched her continue to experiment, this time horizontally. Even though she couldn’t see what I was seeing, it was amazing how she was able to contort her body to follow the lines of the leaf with very little direction from me. Occasionally I would tell her to arch or stretch to get her body and the leaf lined up, but only occasionally. She’s just that good.

Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito
Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito

Finally I moved a bit closer and made tighter compositions. And Brooke found more interesting ways to work with her new green friend. All the while balancing on one foot while holding the leaf in position. Not as easy as it looks, I can tell you.

I hadn’t yet exactly given Brooke the opportunity to do her pretzel thing, which she’s so good at. But towards the end of the shoot we decided to have her work in front of the leaf and bend herself forward in her trademark style. She has such beautiful balance and symmetry when she does that. A real joy to see as a photographer.

After a few hours we both knew what we had accomplished what we had set out to do. It’s such a great feeling when you see an idea make its way from a fuzzy vague vision in your head to a photograph. We reviewed a few more images from our collaboration and then took some time to unwind in the beautiful Mexican sun.

We talked about art and life and travel. All of those wonderful things I love to discuss with anyone I’m working with. Brooke has such a soulful quality about her. Sometimes quiet, always observing. Really taking in her world at any given moment.

She told me she was preparing for a two month stay in Paris for a few months, working as an art model. I was at the same time both jealous and thrilled for her. She’d be perfect in Paris. Finding inspiration in a city full of inspiration.

Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito
Brooke Lynn with Banana Leaf at the Hotelito

Our post shoot conversation was a wonderful afterglow to an inspiring shoot. I always find my photographs of people who I have spent some time with always have a little extra special sauce in them. It’s not that I can’t simply appreciate the external beauty of my subjects, because I do, certainly with all of the ZoeFest models I had the pleasure of photographing. But I really believe that if I understand a model’s point of view, where she’s coming from, what she’s about, that always helps me capture a more meaningful representation of who she is.

I packed up my camera gear, wished Brooke a pleasant day and walked out of the Hotelito courtyard with the biggest smile on my face. My collaboration with Brooke and the Big Leaf was so well worth the brief wait. It certainly was better than showing up with a large pair of garden shears, although I’m sure she would have found something creative to do with those as well!

My next shoot was scheduled in a few hours with the lovely Anne Duffy and I was in the perfect creative space and looking forward to finding another round of inspiration with her. I drove off down the dusty road toward Casa Bentley.

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Part 19 of 50: Staying Inn-side with Anoush Anou

This is part nineteen in a series of blogs on my recent artistic adventures in Mexico.

Todos Santos Inn is a lovely place to live for a while. It’s a cozy, secluded and lush bit of paradise in the Baja Peninsula of Mexico. I had been staying there for almost a week as part of the artists retreat group of ZoeFest and was really beginning to feel at home. Waking up to the sounds of birds and wind whispering through the giant palm trees above as I walked down my little garden path from my apartment to the main house where a cup of delicious coffee was always waiting for me.

But with the exception of the pool and some of the garden, I hadn’t really done too much photography at the inn itself. Sometimes it takes me a while to find the handle on a location. Todos Santos Inn was such a place for me creatively. Many lovely areas, a little library off of the main office and a nice bar as well. But after walking around it all for nearly a week, I still hadn’t quite decided how to work with it photographically.

It was the lush leather chairs that finally began to strike my creative muse. Chairs in the library and chairs in the bar. There was definitely something there.

After my Saturday morning shoot with the lovely Stephanie Anne, it was time for my shoot with the first of two gorgeous Australian models that were along for the ZoeFest ride.

Anoush Anou is based in Melbourne and a woman whose work I was familiar with before our Mexican meeting. Like a few of the models I was working with, I had been aware of her for years. And since the fine art photography world can be a small one, it’s usually only a matter of time before we would end up working together.

Anoush Anou at Todos Santos Inn
Anoush Anou at Todos Santos Inn

Anoush has a striking physical beauty about her. But there is also a haunting mystery to her in photographs. She has a completely emotive face. Sometimes somber. Sometimes sophisticated and sensual. Yet always revealing a story unfolding in your mind as you ponder what she has created.

But she is also joyful in person. Silly fun and wonderful to hear laugh. A model with great positive energy even when her creations are slightly somber.

My mind was still a bit preoccupied with my mother at home in Chicago, still recovering in the hospital and I knew I was slightly less prepared that I would have preferred for my shooting time with Anoush. And once again, with a model of her caliber, she met me more than half way. It took me a while to find the correct angle and set up in the library where I wanted to begin photographing Anoush. She patiently waited until I had found it, giving me the extra mental space to figure it out.

That was the beauty of ZoeFest. We all wanted to create incredible art while we were there. And as artists, we all knew that creativity is not a switch you throw on when the clock strikes one. Sometimes the muse arrives fashionably late and as long as everyone involves respects it, something wonderful does eventually happen.

Not wanting to make her wait on set until I was happy with my vision, I began by photographing an empty chair in the library. There was wonderful indirect light coming in from a nearby balcony door. Soft and delicate. The library was a small room and even with a 50mm normal prime lens on my camera, I determined the best angle to photograph Anoush from, was actually for me to be outside of the room itself. I could use the doorway to the library as a bit of a framing device, which I like to do sometimes. It adds a slight distance in mental perspective from my subject. Not exactly voyeuristic, but not quite as intimate. Found beauty.

Anoush Anou at Todos Santos Inn
Anoush Anou at Todos Santos Inn

By the time I brought Anoush into the library, she needed very little direction from me to find the moment. Like the other models at our retreat, she has a complete sense of who she is from the first click of my shutter. And I found a familiar sensation wash over me as you have when you finally have physical proximity to someone you’ve long been aware of from a distance.

Just posing while seated in the chair, she was lovely. Every limb a coordinated effort of beautiful flowing lines and curves. Every purposeful point of a foot or toe completing a perfect composition.

And then she turned the world upside down. Literally.

“How about I try some like this?” she asked with her lovely Aussie accent, as she laid her back on the seat of the chair, her long hair cascading toward the floor.

As I continued to photograph her, she began to rotate herself until only the small of her back was on the seat, completely inverted as if her support was no longer the chair, but a trapeze, or maybe thin air for that matter. Creating the most interesting compositions in my frame.

Anoush Anou at Todos Santos Inn
Anoush Anou at Todos Santos Inn

One of the great things about our arrangement with the four boutique hotels we were all calling home during our time in Todos Santos was that if we saw a room or area that felt particularly inspiring we could secure it for private shooting very easily. I had my eye on the bar ever since we had arrived and now it was time to utilize that space in whatever way we felt like.

A quick check in with the bartender and the bar was “temporarily closed” while the lovely and undressed Anoush followed me into the room. I knew I wanted to do something with the chairs that were group along a windowed wall of the bar. I quickly began redecorating by rearranging the chairs in a way that made no sense for would be bar patrons, but made so much sense from a visual photographic point of view. I also tried to remember I would need to reassemble everything the way I found it when we were done.

I only made a few dozen photographs in the bar because Anoush and I were on a roll and she quickly interpreted what I was looking for. The light coming in through the sheer curtains was perfect and in short order we had created what I was hoping for.

We thanked the barkeep and allowed the bar to reopen once again to the public and walked out back to the veranda, another area I had been looking at every day while having my morning coffee and daily photographic editing sessions one one of the many tables we would all congregate at during the day.

The brick arches of the veranda were visually interesting to me, although the low afternoon sunlight was creating a fairly severe contrast with the shade Anoush was posing in. We had to be careful to keep the harsh shadows off of her an that location and we found a spot for her in the first arch that had a bit less direct light.

Anoush Anou at Todos Santos Inn
Anoush Anou at Todos Santos Inn

We began with her standing and using her strong fingertips to hold difficult balancing poses that looked more effortless than they certainly must have been. I was still fighting the contrast of the bright arches behind her, not really satisfied with my composition even though Anoush was holding up her end of the collaboration bargain spectacularly.

We changed to her sitting instead of standing and it created a slightly more relaxed feel. Her compacted shape also allowed me to compose a bit tighter which helped my slightly too bright sunlight issue with my composition. She began to emote something a little more somber as well in her facial character, which I really liked.

When our time was up, I felt very good about what we had created. One of those shoots where you can’t wait to get back to the computer to see what you have. Working with the various chairs at the inn and the natural light really was all I was hoping it would be and more with Anoush’s beautiful collaboration. She really brought what I felt was a classic beauty to the images and we had a great time while creating them.

A perfect way to spend a Saturday afternoon in paradise.

As always, more to come.

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Part 10 of 50: 2,500 Miles to Chicago

This is part ten in a series of blogs on my recent artistic adventures in Mexico.

People have been asking me:

“So, Billy. How do you know this blog is going to be 50 parts?”


“So, Billy. Are you really going to write 50 entries about your trip?”

Claudine at the Hotelito
Claudine at the Hotelito

Both fair questions. I originally figured the blog about ZoeFest was going to be one or two entries. After I drove to the Cabo San Lucas Airport for my flight back to Chicago, I had plenty of time to kill both at the airport and on the flight and I wrote what turned out to be the the first half dozen or so entries before I landed. It was then I realized I had way more than a blog entry or two.

About how I came up with the 50 number? I really just pulled it out of the air. In my very brief editing sessions while still in Todos Santos, I quickly found 50 photographs that seemed to have promise. And that was only after a very quick glance. I will most certainly find images I like better than those first 50 that caught my eye once I have a chance to sit down for an extended period of time and really get critical. I thought I could write one entry for each of the 50 first-round-of-editing photographs. That was how I came up with the number.

Of course, it also became impossible to talk about each shoot without showing several images to illustrate what I’m talking about. It’s only fair to you lovely readers.

Claudine at the Hotelito
Claudine at the Hotelito

As for the second question, I really have no idea if I’ll hit 50 different entries that all pertain to the wonderfully artistic ZoeFest Mexican Adventure. I would do neither I, nor you, kind readers, any favors by stretching this out with filler, just to reach a number.

And now since this is starting to feel a bit like the filler I want to avoid, let’s continue with the adventure, shall we?

I woke up on day three, had the usual early morning coffee chat with Mel and Scott and headed off to Hotelito for my first of three shoots that day. By the end of the third day, I would complete no less than seven shoots. Thankfully, for the remainder of the adventure, I would book a maximum of two shoots per day.

I was starting the day with Claudine, who was based out of Chicago like I was, although amazingly, we had never worked together before. Instead, we would fly 2,500 miles to get to our first shoot.

Claudine at the Hotelito
Claudine at the Hotelito

Claudine is a very happy person. A deep infectious laugh that I had been hearing for days whenever I was in her proximity. Maybe it’s a Chicago thing. We both laugh big.

I was anxious to shoot at Hotelito. A very different shooting environment than anywhere I had shot up until then. It was modern, colorful, geometric. Claudine was curvy and it seemed to be a good juxtaposition to photograph her there among the straight lines and geometry.

Since it was morning, the heat of the day was still a few hours off, so we headed outside to look for interesting places to begin. There were many interesting chairs and lounges around the grounds. One made up of white circular padded cylindars caught my eye, but I wasn’t quite sure the light was quite right where it was sitting on one of the porches. I’d have to think about that one for a bit.

The first thing I saw as we approached the pool area was a wall with rows of square cutouts in it. The sun was still low enough in the sky that the wall threw a perfect pattern of squares on the ground. Claudine stretched out and I walked around her, looking for the best angles of her within the shadows and how they passed over her. Sometimes you have to look at something from multiple vantage points to find the best one.

Claudine at the Hotelito
Claudine at the Hotelito

Then we headed off to the pool to play with reflections and shadows she could cast on the wall. By then the sun was getting close to being 45 degrees up from the horizon, probably about the maximum height I consider to be good light before the shadows start to become unflattering on faces. We worked, reviewed a bit and continued to work around the pool looking for the best angles from a reflection standpoint.

We moved to one of the short ends of the long pool and Claudine posed against a wooden wall at one end. The reflections were good. What I was curious about was how the tone of the wood and her skin tone seemed to be very similar. I usually prefer there to be more contrast between my  subject and the background. It was one of those times when I wasn’t exactly sure if my B&W conversion would work the way I was imagining in my head. Hopefully the knots in the wood would be enough of a difference. I wouldn’t know until I could process the images.

After the pool we decided to explore some of the geometry of the Hotelito. There was a beautiful staircase leading up to the one of the rooftops and we found ourselves being pulled toward it. I had her move up the stairs, experimenting with various positions, some sitting, some standing. There were so many intersecting squares and rectangles to compose with. Many textures and varying tones with slices of sunlight cutting through them. Quite amazing really and we laughed as we reviewed a couple of the images. Those bigs laughs again.

Claudine at the Hotelito
Claudine at the Hotelito

Finally we headed back to one of the porch areas and the tubular lounge. We had initially discussed moving it to another location, but when we returned the light had changed and the shade of the porch became a bit of a frame. I just hoped the lounge was not 120 degrees as it baked in the sun. Happily not.

Claudine once again gave me many great poses as we tried to find interesting ways to oppose the square shapes and straight lines with her form and the arc of the lounge. Perfect!

The sun was starting to get high in the sky as noon approached and we decided to stop for the morning. Claudine had great energy and was a valued collaborator, helping me to explore this new location.

It was a great way to end the first shoot of the day. Two Chicagoans playing thousands of miles from home.

Time to take a break and get ready for my second shoot with the lovely St. Merrique.

As always, more to come.

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Part 5 of 50: The Ocean and Ella Rose

This is part five in a series of blogs on my recent artistic adventures in Mexico.

In preparing for ZoeFest, we all would have to find our way up the Pacific Coast of the Baja Penisula to Todos Santos from the Cabo San Lucas International Airport. That meant renting cars. Two days before I was to fly out of Chicago, I was checking all of my paperwork, passport, flights, maps, etc., when I clicked on the email link to my car reservation.

Confirmed, November 23rd, one compact car at Hertz, San Jose, California.


I should never book important things at 3 o’clock in the morning. Scramble, scramble. No Hertz at the Cabo airport. Hmmm.

Avis! They try harder, right? Avis it is!

A few minutes later, I had a new car reservation, this time in the proper country. And since I want my travels to be as drama free as possible, I alway sign up for the insurance. All of the insurance. Insurance for the car, the people in the car. Everything. It would prove to be a wise decision before my adventure was over. But I’m getting ahead of myself here.

Having never been to Zoefest before, I was under the impression that I would rent the car, drive myself and my new friends to Todos Santos, park the car and do very little driving until it was time to return to the airport. Perhaps a waste of rental car money to leave a car sitting for days, but I didn’t see any way around it.


The reality of it was even though we were all mostly walking distance from each other, walking even a mile or two in the mid-day Mexican heat was a bit too much for most of us. I found that having a car was essential to get where I wanted to be, when I wanted to be there without lugging a backpack full of camera gear along the way.

Ella Rose at Playa Las Palmas
Ella Rose at Playa Las Palmas

And even though Todos Santos seemed to be a relatively safe place in Mexico these days, we’d all read the news. You never know.

I became a bit of a model taxi for the rest of the adventure. Any time I would leave one of the hotels, I’d always check to see if anyone needed a ride to their next shoot location or back to their respective hotels. Most of the time I ended up with a carload of lovely models. Another opportunity to get to know everyone a bit better.

Plus there were the runs to the store. Eggs for Brooke, cigarettes for Rebecca, things like that. I was going anyway for myself and it seemed the decent thing to do was to ask, considering how hard everyone was working and I was one of the few with a car. I mean, we were having the best time, but it was work as well. Good art is work. Make no mistake.

Early the following morning on day two after my usual coffee and chat with Mel and Scott, this time punctuated by maneuvering with my coffee cup around several lovely nude models already shooting in the fountain near the veranda (I know, brutal thing to face first thing in the morning), I jumped in my car and drove off to pick up Ella Rose at the Hotelito.

We headed off in the direction of Playa Las Palmas on the Pacific Ocean with vague instructions on actually how to get there. You see, in Todas Santos, most directions include the phrase, “…A few kilometers further, there’s a dirt road off to your right…” I found that actually spotting that little dirt road as you’re doing 60kmph past it, is a bit of an art in itself. It usually only took me three tries to do it.

Ella Rose at Playa Las Palmas
Ella Rose at Playa Las Palmas

After a few passes of kilometer marker 57 and a couple of U-turns, we finally found ourselves on the dirt road we agreed was the correct one. Ella and I took our best guesses as to which of the various forks in the road to continue down until the road just sort of stopped and we got out to walk the rest of the way.

The area of Todos Santos is a bit of an oasis in the Baja desert. It can be dry and desolate one minute and lush and green the next. Ella and I continued our walk that we hoped would eventually lead to the Pacific Ocean, through a large shady palm forest with giant trunks and tall branches above.

We continued to talk about life and art as we meandered down what seemed to be a path. Ella has a lovely voice as well, being from the U.K. and it occured to me that one phrase you never ever hear is, “I just LOVE your American accent.” It’s true. The Aussies have beautiful accents. Ditto for the Irish, French and Spanish. Lyrical. Pleasing to the ears. Not so much with the Americans.

Meanwhile, I was trying desperately to make mental notes of various things along our path so we could find our way back to the car. I’ll remember that tree stump, right? That little spiky plant in the middle of the path before we have to make a left? Sure, we’ll remember!

A bit more walking and we reached the edge of the palm forest and… there it was! One of those views you usually only see in pictures and never with your own eyes. We stopped for a moment, jaws unhinged to take it in. There were little rocky cliffs off to either side of the beautiful, long, curving beach cove. And we were the only people there. Completely stunning.

Ella Rose at Playa Las Palmas
Ella Rose at Playa Las Palmas

Ella and I walked carefully into a little stream that spilled into the ocean, she reminding me to be careful not to leave footprints on the pristine sand where we might want to make our first photographs. Good call. I have mentioned before that all of the models were very intelligent and exceptional at what they did, right?

I spent the next few hours with Ella jumping, standing, spinning into so many graceful and beautiful poses in such a lovely environment that it was really beyond what I could have hoped for. I got into the water, carefully laying down in the stream or on my knees in the ocean, desperately trying to make sure my camera never submerged.

A couple of times with the waves rolling in behind me, shooting Ella near the shoreline, she would occasionally yell out, “WAVE!”, just in time for me to raise my camera over my head as the waves knocked me over. It’s fun to play with nature as long as you keep your camera dry. Cameras and lenses simply hate salt water.

After a few hours, covered in sand, we happily walked back to the car, past the little spiky plant in the middle of the path and past that tree stump. It had been a wonderful morning of creating.

As always, more to come.

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Part 4 of 50: Good Morning Todos Santos & Samantha Grace at Casa Dracula

This is part four in a series of blogs on my recent artistic adventures in Mexico.

Waking up at Todos Santos Inn my first morning was a lovely experience. I managed to sleep in until about 8:30am. I threw on some clothes and stepped outside into the glorious daylight. We Chicagoans have a special appreciation for glorious daylight. It’s not that we don’t have beautiful sunny days in Chicago, it’s just that we only get about three months of them, four if we haven’t angered the sun gods that particular year. Chicago, as the old saying goes, has two seasons: Winter and Construction. And Winter can be a cruel mistress, with weeks and weeks without seeing a patch of blue sky, or sun for that matter.

In Todos Santos, there was nothing but blue sky. Walking down my little garden path with the sun on my face, the giant palm leaves politely grabbed at me like autograph seekers on a red carpet walk. Delightful.

I walked up to the shady veranda where coffee and tea was set out on a beautiful antique table. I would grow to love that table every morning.

Mmmm. Delicious coffee.

But coffee would only become one of my favorite morning rituals during my stay. There was also Mel and Scott.

Mel Brackstone is an incredible photographer. Looking at her work, you’d never know she hasn’t been shooting for decades. Mel, like many late blooming artists, decided she needed to stretch her creative frontiers and began to photograph male nudes. She had joined the ZoeFest community a few years back and in a short time had a stunning array of work with female models as well.

She and her husband Scott were two of about a half a dozen Australians who were attending ZoeFest. They were always up early and having coffee under the veranda. They became my quick catch-up guides to all things ZoeFest. Mel raised one eyebrow when I started to tell her about my ambitious shooting schedule, sometimes three shoots in one day. Days later, I would have to admit, she was correct in her assessment of my over-ambitiousness.

After a leisurely breakfast at Landi’s, the restaurant attached to Todos Santos Inn, I had decided to start my first day by continuing something I like to do in Chicago when I feel the need for a little creative inspiration. I decided to take a visit to one of the local galleries, a brief walk up the road from the inn. Michael Cope was one of the local artists that had been part of the welcoming celebration at Casa Dracula the night before and invited me to come by his gallery.

I walked through the doors at Galeria de Todos Santos and there was Michael, seated with local painter Erick Ochoa, who both greeted me with big welcoming smiles. Michael took me on a tour, showing me Erick’s beautiful work, and I was taken by his use of light in his painting. It really spoke to me. We continued through the various rooms looking at other artists he was showing and I could feel my breathing slow to the pace of my new temporary Todos Santos home. I was finally beginning to relax as I took in the work around me. Exactly what I needed.

After the tour Michael asked to see some of my work and I brought out my iPad portfolio and let he and Erick swipe through it. I love sharing work with other artists. Even when we work in different mediums, there is something about the language of art that we all understand and appreciate. It’s a very familiar and joyful language.

A bit more discussion, including an invitation from Michael to visit his new restaurant which was opening that Friday in the rear of the gallery, which sadly I could not attend due to other ZoeFest commitments, and we said our goodbyes and I headed back to the inn to get my gear for my shoot with Samantha.

Samantha was staying at the Hotelito, where many of the models were staying. It was another of the beautiful boutique hotels we had taken over. No sugarcane history here. Just a beautiful compound of little buildings with bursts of vibrant color on the walls. A completely different shooting environment I would take advantage of in the coming days.

Samantha at Casa Dracula
Samantha at Casa Dracula

I picked up Samantha and we headed up the road back to Casa Dracula. Samantha and I spent hours exploring the compound grounds finding interesting areas to make photographs. She was great to work with and it didn’t take long for either of us to get into a good groove in the hot Mexican sun. Samantha has wonderful curves. All woman, lovely, creative and great fun to collaborate with. She has a happy spirit and her enthusiasm was inspiring.

As we explored outside we found ourselves discussing what we were seeing as potential places to shoot. Our mantra was to try to not shoot the obvious. Yes, that was a beautiful window in the stone wall of the fire pit, but putting her in it would have been the easy choice. We decided to use the window as a compositional element instead and have her pose off to the side of it. Better.

We continued to shoot for about two hours before we agreed to head inside into Casa Dracula to explore for a bit longer with more great results out of the heat and sun. At one point I noticed a sliver of light coming from the main front doors into the main entrance hall. I had Samantha pose near it for a few minutes before we figured we’d better stop before a local passerby got an eyeful.

Samantha had great ideas and like all of the models I’d be working with the next 10 days, she had great eye for light and composition. All the women were excellent models who had been in front of the cameras of some very world class photographers from all over the globe. From the first release of the shutter, you could tell something wonderful was about to happen.

Samantha at Casa Dracula
Samantha at Casa Dracula

That evening, we all were invited to a delicious dinner at Hotel California (yes, that Hotel California, and yes, we had pink champagne on ice with lots of pretty, pretty girls, that we call friends). It was there I had a chance to continue getting to know everyone over a great meal. I more shoots for the next few days with St. Merrique, Meghan Claire and Tara. No rest for the wicked as they say.

Much more to come!