This is part twenty-four in a series of blogs on my photography adventures at ZoeFest X, in Todos Santos, Mexico.
I got a lovely email from a lovely model called Candace Nirvana last week. She had been following my periodic blog posts about our time at ZoeFest in 2011 and was wondering why she had never seen an entry featuring my shoot with her.
It was a more than fair question. She has extraordinary patience. I photographed her there in some abandoned ruins more than 15 months ago.
I wrote her back a lengthy email explaining her absence from the blog because, as I told her, she deserved better than the usual photographer, “I’ve been busy,” crap. Yesterday, I actually found
the blog post dated late last summer in my drafts folder that I started writing about her shoot, but never finished. She had been the last of 15 model shoots I had in Todos Santos. I had been editing the thousands of photographs I made during that trip in the order that I shot them. Candace’s absence from my ZoeFest blog series was simply because I hadn’t finished editing her shoot.
Billy. Really though. 15 months?
I know. I’m usually much better than that.
The good news is that I did finally finish editing our shoot around the holidays last December. The only good thing I can say about it taking so long for a proper review, is the fresh-eyes thing I occasionally speak about. It’s a luxury to go back to a shoot, years later and discover all kinds of things that I didn’t see during the first hurried editing process.
Plus, my time with Zoe Wiseman (the generous organizer of ZoeFest), the other photographers and brilliant models of that trip was so extraordinary, you can’t blame me for wanting to milk every last memory about that experience for as long as possible. Every time I go back to any of those shoots, I find new previously overlooked gems. It’s an embarrassment of riches.
So, somewhat better late than never, I present the long lost Candace Nirvana ZoeFest blog.
“Oh, it’s so nice to finally meet you! I love your work,” I said to Candace when I found myself next to her at one of our ZoeFest parties.
She was one of the many models that I was aware of before our adventures began in Todos Santos, Mexico. Candace Nirvana was someone whose name and images had been on my radar for years. She was an incredible model and I was thrilled with the idea that we might get to finally collaborate together after years of distant appreciation.
“You know, I’ve met you before,” she offered.
She paused for a moment, with a slight look of disbelief. “In your studio.”
“In my studio?… Wait… You were in my studio?… When?!” I was dumbfounded.
She sighed. Sadly, it was a sigh that I had heard too many times before when I disappoint someone by not remembering them. Sometimes my memory bank has some serious deficiencies. Locked up somewhere in a dusty file cabinet in the back of my cranium apparently was the memory of first meeting Candace. In my own studio no less. But even with that clue, she could see by the puzzled look on my face that I was no nearer to remembering.
“Jillian Ann was staying with you….”
Wow. Still nothing.
“I came to visit her at your place…,” she trailed off, waiting for my silly head to catch up.
And finally, the file cabinet flew open, showering my nearby brain cells with a mixture of dust and cobwebs and disturbing hundreds of bats in my belfry that had been hanging there undisturbed for years. In an instant, they were all flying toward me as I ducked out of the way.
“Ohhhhhhhhhh! Yes! Now I remember!”
Suddenly I could see her sitting on my sofa next to Jillian, clear as day, having a brief conversation while Jillian and I were taking a break from a day of shooting.
“I’m so sorry. Of course I’ve met you.” Not my best first impression that was really a second impression.
I felt awful. It’s hard to recover with a believable statement about wanting to photograph someone after you’ve just admitted, seconds earlier, that you couldn’t remember meeting them. But I had to try.
“We should try to find some time to shoot in the next few days,” I sheepishly offered.
“Sure,” she said, as she casually turned to walk away. “Just let me know when,” she added, over her shoulder.
Like I said. Not my most smooth moment as a photographer.
Eventually, nearing the end of ZoeFest we did manage to align our schedules on the last day most of us would be at our lovely artists retreat. Candace would be my 15th ZoeFest photoshoot. And my last with the all of the lovely international models of ZoeFest.
I was a bit intimidated by this point. Even before the forgetting-I-met-her mishap, I had been previously aware of her catalog of beautiful modeling images and I felt under a little more pressure than usual to deliver something equally artistic with our work. And after more than a week of location scouting at the four charming boutique hotels we had taken over for the duration of our stay, drives down countless dusty roads outside of town and hunting for hidden beach locations, I really wanted to find somewhere particularly inspiring for Candace.
In the end, I stole a location that I had been hearing about from Malcom Grant and Cam Attree, two of my brilliant photographer colleagues there, but one I hadn’t been to yet myself. It was an old abandoned cannery complex off in the direction of the lovely Playa las Palmas secluded beach cove.
Let me take a moment to veer off on a slight tangent here as a thanks to Cam for sharing directions to the location by letting you know about a book project he just completed called, Naked in Baja Mexico. Here’s a link to a video about his book and another about how you can get your own copy. It’s just stunning work.
Back to our story. There are a lot of well hidden dirt roads off of Federal Highway 19 as your drive south out of the small town of Todos Santos. I had spent a lot of time punishing my poor rental car, driving down quite a few of them in the last week or so. The roads actually become small narrow rivers when the rains come down from the hills. Even after they dry out like at that time of year, they’re full of interesting obstacles, ruts and ridges to navigate around.
Once again, Google Maps came to the rescue. The little dirt road Candace and I guessed might be the way to the abandoned cannery was full of those familiar challenges. The trick is to drive cautiously enough to be able to find the smoothest bit of road as you proceed, without driving so slowly that you get stuck in the sand. Cam had told me just a few days earlier he had to enlist the assistance of some locals to push his car out of a dune in the same area. It’s a tricky needle to thread.
And of course, nothing was marked. Every time we came to a fork in the road, which was often, we would slow down and make a quick survey of which choice seemed to be the most vehicle worthy and in the general direction of where our iPhone’s maps told us we should be heading. When in doubt, we chose the path in the direction of the ocean.
Amazingly, it worked. We eventually came upon a large single story crumbling building. The cannery!
I made a quick look around to make sure we were alone as I unpacked the camera gear from the car and followed Candace inside. Immediately we noticed something unusual in the first room we entered. The floor was literally covered with broken… um… shells?
Shells, right? Not skulls… or bones?!
No. Definitely shells. I was happy there was so much light pouring in through the windows. In the dark, it would have been difficult to otherwise make that distinction. There were thousands of them. Everywhere.
It wouldn’t be the only time we’d stumble across something a little unnerving at the cannery. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Candace tossed her thin white slip of a sundress aside and found a place in one of the corners that looked like a good place to start as I began finding my first composition. It was incredible how her poses provided me with such interesting contrasts of her curves to the hard lines of the building. I used the windows and shadows to frame her shape in visually pleasing ways. A few exposures in and I could already tell that collaborating with Candace was going to be exceptional.
As is often the case when shooting figure models on location, it was clear that models are at a disadvantage when exploring a space such as this. The fact that I had shoes on and Candace did not was brought into stark relief as she tried to avoid cutting her feet open on the sharp edges of the shells, rocks and stones on the ground. She’s a pro, however and I was seemingly more concerned about it than she was as she gracefully danced from pose to pose in our strange environment.
There were a few smaller abandoned nearby buildings as part of the complex, some no bigger than a tiny room or two and we began to explore those as well. Candace crawled up into one of the window openings of one that had a shape like a baseball home plate. Once again she found interested ways to fill the space with her body with poses that suggested both strength and gracefulness.
We headed back into the main building at an end we hadn’t explored yet. Most of the roof had collapsed years earlier allowing for the most gorgeous light to pour in from above. I stood away from her shooting down a long corridor as she used her sundress as a prop. First wearing the dress normally, spinning and dancing and then using it as a headpiece. As I continued to make photos, I knew I was going to have a challenge picking only one from this series.
Candace and I took a break to catch our breath and take a few sips from our water bottles as we considered our next set up. We noticed a small building a short walk off in the distance and decided to see what that was about. As we approached the stairs leading up to the front door, it appeared to be equally as deserted as the cannery building.
We carefully stepped inside and found walls covered with colorful graffiti. But yes, it seemed like no one had been here in a while.
Candace asked if I had any music with me. It made me realize that I rarely shoot models without music of some kind, but the past week I’d been shooting in outdoor locations, some far away from electrical outlets for a boom box or other music source. However, the space we were in was small enough that I wondered if the little speaker on my iPhone might be loud enough to add a little atmosphere to the emptiness.
I clicked through my music before settling on Sirens of the Sea by Oceanlab and suddenly the space was filled with wonderful music. Perfect.
While Candace was selecting another piece of clothing to use for our next round, I set off to explore the other rooms. I turned a corner and stared into a darker corridor and stopped as I heard a strange movement ahead and above me. Above me? Hmmmm.
My eyes started to adjust to the darkness just as something suddenly fluttered past my head.
Bats. Dozens of them, all hanging from the porous ceiling.
More momentarily startled than afraid, I just did what came naturally and raised my camera to my eye. I made a couple of quiet exposures and was surprised when a few more of them flew past my head. I was being really quiet and not moving a muscle. What was spooking them?
Ohhhhhh, maybe my autofocus. I don’t know the exact science of how my camera gauges distance, but at that moment I was pretty sure it was sending something out that was inaudible to my ears, but probably nothing short of yelling to my new winged companions.
Okay then. I took a deep breath and braced myself for what was to come next. I composed my frame on the ceiling, now moving quite a bit more than when I first entered and squeezed the shutter, firing off frames in rapid succession.
You know that scene in The Dark Knight when all the bats fly past a young Bruce Wayne? Yeah. Exactly.
Amazingly, none of them actually touched me. And I was hoping the small window at the end of the corridor would be enough backlight to create a good image. When I got back to my hotel room a few hours later, I had my answer. Perfect.
Oh, and I should mention the irony of my shoot with Candace was that it was taking place on October 31st. Halloween. All kinds of interesting going on that day.
Meanwhile, I walked back out to where Candace was wondering where I’d gone off to and told her we’d probably want to stay away from that part of the building.
“Bats,” I announced.
Candace had put on a beautiful mesh skirt that looked almost like chainmail. Gorgeous. She moved into one of the doorways and continued to give me the most exquisite poses and then she moved near one of the walls. The graffiti just added another layer to my compositions. Wonderful.
After a few hours of work, we decided to call it a day and we drove down yet another dusty sandy road to the Pacific Ocean. There was a beautiful beach cove nearby and we silently walked along the water just relaxing and enjoying the paradise for a while. I had managed to complete my self challenge of individually photographing every one of the models who had come on the trip. It meant for as many as three shoots a day and lots of location scouting when I wasn’t shooting, but I wouldn’t have done anything differently. Well maybe except crashing the model taxi rental car.
No, it was one of the most artistically rewarding things I’ve ever been a part of. Like I said before, with thousands of photographs, it hasn’t been difficult to milk the memories since then. That walk along the beach with Candace was the first time I wasn’t thinking ahead to the next shoot. I was done. I could simply enjoy the moment.
Candace was incredible to work with. I do now have a faint memory of our first meeting at my studio all those years ago. After she left, I do recall Jillian saying something like, “You should really photograph her.”
I continued to hear that same suggestion before and during ZoeFest. So I’m glad I managed to overcome my social ineptness with Candace, enough that she agreed to work with this strange man who couldn’t seem to remember meeting her.
Thank you, Candace for the collaboration and more patience than a model should have to endure to see the results of our day in Todos Santos, playing in the abandoned cannery.
You can see Candace’s beautiful photography work on her own websites. Sometimes great models also become great photographers. Her wonderful fine art nude photography is here and her commercial portrait work can be found here and even more photos and thoughts on her blog here.
And you can see more photographs from our collaboration in Todos Santos at the new Billy Sheahan Photography Archive. Just search for “Candace” in the image search box. I’ll be adding even more in the weeks to come.
Thanks, as always for continuing to follow my ZoeFest adventures. Believe it or not, there is still more to come!
Yes. There’s always more.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
With Keira, Candace and Rebecca, shot with the hand made bendy lens.
This is part eighteen in a series of blogs on my recent artistic adventures in Mexico.
Sorry it’s been a while since the last ZoeFest update. I bet some of you thought I gave up after 17 entries. Not so!
I’m used to being busy but the last few months have been even moreso here at Billy Sheahan Photography. Finding a few hours to compose new ZoeFest entries has been a rare occurrence.
So where were we? Ah yes. Stephanie Anne!
It was Saturday morning in Todos Santos, Mexico. Not that Saturday really feels much different than any other day in paradise. Hell, even Monday feels like Saturday here.
I had two photoshoots scheduled that day, first with the lovely Stephanie Anne and later with the beautiful Anoush Anou.
I was looking forward to yet another day of working with incredibly creative humans. Unfortunately I was a bit distracted at the same time. You see, a couple of days earlier, I had gotten a call from my sister back in the States that my mom suffered what seemed to be a small stroke. A few years earlier she had a major stroke and it severely incapacitated her, taking over a year for her to get back a fair amount of mobility and that was only after which we could breathe a sigh of relief that she was going to live through it at all.
News was slow in getting to me in my cocoon of paradise and I had been weighing whether I should even stay or cut my adventure short and fly back to see my mom. We had decided to wait a few days to see how serious it was. There was a lot of family looking in on her, so while my mom was constantly on my mind, my absence was less noticeable than it might have been otherwise. But I was still unsure that staying thousands of miles away was the correct decision.
A small group of family members finally convinced me that considering my penchant for overworking myself during the year, it might be a good idea for me to stay put in paradise and try to enjoy myself unless things took a turn for the worse.
Still, since telephone service was spotty, I was spending a lot of time looking for signal bars on my phone so as not to miss an urgent call. It was tricky to fully relax and concentrate on shooting.
By the time I met Stephanie Anne at another of our artist hotels, the lush Casa Bentley, I wasn’t nearly as prepared as I wanted to be for her. I wandered around the grounds looking for inspiration. Some unusual spot to allow her to find something special and inspire her as well. By the time she was ready to go, I had found very little that spoke to me. Or perhaps it actually was speaking to me, but I was having difficulty hearing it over all of my mental chatter.
Luckily, Stephanie is a joyful soul. Her energy and spirit can lift the volume of any gathering, and I mean that in a good way. I apologized for my being a bit distracted and Stephanie immediately took over the load of creating the inspiration. She carried me that morning. No question about it.
I remember starting at the base of a beautiful wide Hule tree that anchored the grounds of Casa Bentley. I was still trying to decide which lens I was going to start with and when I looked up for a moment, I could see that she had already found a place among the intertwined roots and vines and was handing it to me on a platter. I really hadn’t imagined that. But she did and that was enough to kick start our shoot.
I stepped behind a low branch, putting a series of long slender leaves between Stephanie and myself, defocused enough so that it created an almost there set of diagonal lines across the frame that played with her poses and the strong lines of the tree’s root structure. My head was beginning to find some focus at last.
It was wonderful to feed off of Stephanie’s energy. I was still struggling more than usual. But I knew the pictures were beginning to work. She was brilliant and beautiful and as I sometimes have to do when my mind is preoccupied with events away from the photo shoot, I just tried to not over think anything. I’ve found that emptying my head in these situations is the best way for me to go. It results in less direction to my subject as to what vision I’m seeing, which is a bit more challenging for my model, most of whom are accustomed to more feedback from me. Instead I find myself switching to a more documentary photographic style where I’m just looking through the viewfinder and composing what feels right at the moment.
Just letting go.
We walked along the grounds of the lovely Casa Bentley, the design inspired by the castles of Portugal. The owner, Bob Bentley is a geologist and used his collection of rocks and gemstones, acquired during years of world travels, to adorn the walls and surfaces of the lavish grounds when he designed and built the hotel beginning in 1985.
Stephanie and I stopped along the garden path and I began to compose photographs of her along the walls and ledges of our idyllic environment. She stretched and curved and evoked and I began to see a character emerge. I was watching a story unfold. Sometimes joyful, sometimes somber. A fitting mirror to my own thoughts at the moment.
I was enjoying the dapples of light cascading down through the leaves creating additional patterns to compose with in addition to the decorative rocks and gemstones. As hard as the surfaces were that we were creating in, Stephanie managed to add a softness that made the rocky nature feel more like a living organism rather than a immovable force.
We continued through to the back of the hotel grounds and found a shady, more natural area. Again, she played among the trees and a large stump in the center of it all. At this point I was simply happy to observe her explore and play. Creating human shapes among the existing elements of nature.
Nearby, we noticed a small little canal perhaps for water runoff from the rest of the grounds. In a rare bit of direction on this shoot, I had Stephanie pose near one end of the small waterway while I planked across the other end, trying to line up her reflection in an interesting manner.
While water is something I always enjoy working with as an element in photograph, since we didn’t know exactly where the water was coming from, we decided it would probably be best to be close to the water without actually touching the water. I felt a bit like a human teeter-totter balancing precariously above while trying to focus and compose. But it worked.
The day was getting hot by this point and I thought we might try to find something interesting in the Casa Bentley pool. Whenever possible, I like to compose pool images without any of the obvious pool tile decorations and as Stephanie and I got our bearings, I found an interesting look when I stood right at the pool’s edge, leaning as far over the water as possible without falling in and shooting straight down into the water with a wide lens.
I told Stephanie to submerge a few feet below the surface and try to pose as she would out of the water. It’s actually a challenging thing to do because bodies tend to want to float to the surface, but Stephanie did an amazing job of swim posing as I followed her along the edge.
The resulting photographs are very unusual for me with their bold color and loveliness. The combination of the intense sunlight overhead created interesting patterns and water reflections and gave Stephanie a nice glow. her hair picked up the highlights from the sun resulting an an unearthly splash of red color. Something unexpected when I got back to my studio to review everything. A very happy surprise.
I was so pleased with how the shoot turned out, especially since I was not at my best that day. It proves again what I’ve been saying all along. Stephanie and the other Zoefest models were such intelligent, lovely and creative collaborators. My shoot that morning could have been much less than it turned out to be without Stephanie’s positivity and her love for creating beautiful art.
Thank you Stephanie Anne. You can put me down now.
I asked Merrique to give me some pathos…..and managed to get some lovely images, but of course I just can’t help myself….and had to faff with them in photoshop….
Apologies, Merrique! (Bet you didn’t know you were a redhead!)
I even made an iphone cover!