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Part 17 of 50: Tara Translates Our Way Out of a Jam

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

The secluded beach cove at Playas Las Palmas had become quite the popular shooting location as ZoeFest progressed during the week. That was both good and bad. It was good because it’s always fascinating to see what other photographers and models do with the same location. Quite varied and everyone had their own styles they brought to the party. Bad because, as the week went on, we were no longer under the radar.

Todos Santos, Mexico is a very traditional kind of place. It had seen it’s influx of non-natives from all parts of the world in the last couple of decades which had brought about some changes, hopefully not affecting the tranquil beauty or culture in a negative way. But impacting it nonetheless. And when a group of artists sets up camp in an environment such as this as we did during ZoeFest, we were very aware to try not to impact both the environment and culture in a way that would be undesirable to the locals. The old photographers adage of,

“Leave no trace. Leave what you find.”

Tara at Playa las Palmas
Tara at Playa las Palmas

It probably applies to many other activities that involve exploring anywhere that you’re not a local, but we photographers have adopted it as our own.

Playas Las Palmas presented a tricky dilemma. While the beach itself was not private property, getting to the beach from land did involve crossing through what was private property. Something none of us knew when we arrived. When I had photographed Ella Rose on one of the first days, we were literally the only ones there. Not a person to be seen along the coastline as far as you could see.

But by the time the lovely Tara Tree and I decided to return there, days later, we had started to hear stories from others in the group of, while not exactly what could be termed shakedowns to continue shooting there, but definitely encounters that made it a little uncertain whether it would be possible to continue to shoot there.

We decided to go anyway and see what happened. When we arrived at the end of the dirt road, as close as we could drive to the beach, we spotted Robert and Ella Rose already heading down the path ahead of us. The cove was a fairly large area and I wasn’t concerned we’d be tripping over each other or in each other’s shots.

Tara at Playa las Palmas
Tara at Playa las Palmas

Tara and I walked through the little tropical forest path before reaching the beach and the glorious late afternoon sun that would be setting in a few hours. I had photographed Ella Rose at the same place in the morning light, completely different from the light now.

This time, as we approached the beach area, Tara and I spotted a couple of official looking men a couple of hundred meters away. It appeared they were inspecting something, pointing and walking a few meters, then pointing away and walking off in that direction. While Robert and Ella were off beginning to shoot in a much more secluded rocky area away from where the men were looking, Tara and I were much more in the open.

We decided to sit and wait and enjoy the ocean view for a while. We talked about our art and our travels and although we were both anxious to begin making photographs, the inspector men continued to do whatever it was they were doing for nearly another hour. Finally they got into their truck and headed off out of sight. And the sun was really getting good by that point. Perfect!

Tara at Playa las Palmas
Tara at Playa las Palmas

I did really enjoy the brief downtime with Tara. It seemed like I was doing so much rushing around from place to place that even though I was really enjoying myself, it was nice to just stop for a while and relax with such a lovely human as Tara is. She has a wonderful heart. I certainly felt like a better person after our little break.

We began to get ready as Tara laid down in a little stream that had formed over a little sandbar near the mouth of the cove. This time I remembered Ella’s suggestion for me to make sure I didn’t leave any of my own footprints near the delicate sand ripple patterns formed by the waves over the last few hours. It looked like it could be rock with the sun reflecting off of it, but it was definitely sand. Gorgeous with Tara in the middle of it all.

It was really a beautiful time of day. Perfect light.

Tara and I spotted some interesting divots in the sand off to the side of the stream where the tide had been higher earlier in the day and we thought it might be an interesting thing to put Tara in them, her beautiful curves mirroring the curves of the sand. We tried a few different ones until it was difficult to find Tara at all in them, blending in like a chameleon.

I suppose if the Pope was looking to hang one of my nude photographs in his Vatican dining room, one of these would be the least likely of all of my work to raise a holy eyebrow. I’ll have to ask him the next time I see him on Facebook chat.

Tara at Playa las Palmas
Tara at Playa las Palmas

Meanwhile, back at Playa Las Palmas, the sun was just about ready to hide behind one of the two cliffs that bookended the cove. Tara moved back into the stream and started to pose. She heard some splashing and turned to see me running back and forth in the stream.

“What are you doing?!”, she laughed in her beautiful Irish brogue.

Whah tahr yah doe ehn?!

I stopped in mid gazelle leap and laughed along with her.

“Um… I’m trying to find where the beam of sunlight is best behind you,” I sheepishly said. “You know… because I know you’re holding your pose and I don’t want  to have you hold it too long.”

“Alright,” she laughed again, that beautiful laugh. “Just checking.”

Ohl-rate. Joost chay-kehn. (or something like that.)

She posed, I scampered and splashed back and forth. The hardest part was focusing looking straight into the sun, but I got it eventually.

Tara at Playa las Palmas
Tara at Playa las Palmas

Out of breath and a wee bit tired of looking so silly, we moved over to an area of sand I had noticed the last time I was here at the beach. There were these dark dramatic lines of sand that had washed up along a slightly drier area of the beach. Not a footprint to be found and quite striking.

I had Tara lay down in between a few of them and made of few more photographs of her as the shadows grew in the setting sun. If you look closely, you can see one of my errant footprints as I got a bit too close when directing Tara on which way to lay. We’ll call it a bit of a self-portrait, that one.

I moved around her to compose the length of long shadow her curves were now creating in the sand. Beautiful.

Done with that set, I wanted to try to incorporate the beautiful stream carving in the sand again from a slightly different vantage point. I had been shooting with my short 50mm prime lens up to this point and decided to switch to my longer 100mm prime for a different look. It meant Tara was further away from me, but I really loved how it compressed the sunlight shining off of the sand as the stream had carved through it.

Tara at Playa las Palmas
Tara at Playa las Palmas

Due to the distance, Tara was a bit confused. “What do you want me to do?”, she yelled to me over the sounds of the crashing waves.

“Something like this,” as I pantomimed stretching my arms out one way and the other.

Happily, she understood my silly posing reference and improved upon it greatly. Another model who can take questionable direction and make it into something wonderful.

I was really happy with what we were doing when Tara suddenly stopped and began walking toward me.

“There’s a man coming toward us,” she stage whispered.

“Is he close?”, I said without turning.

“Getting closer.”

With my back toward the unknown man, trying to keep myself between him and Tara who was trying as casually as possible to put her dress wrap back on, we tried to look as normal as possible. I began to take photographs of the rest of beach area, in an effort to look like a pair of normal tourists out for a walk on the beach.

“Where is he now?”, I quietly asked.

“Right behind you.”

Oh. Damn.

I turned to the man, and said the only appropriate thing I could think of at the moment.

“Hola, señor.”

“Hola,” he said back.

He wasn’t very menacing or anything like that. Just standing there within a few feet of us as I snapped a few more tourista photos of the ocean.

In my head, I was asking all the things I wished I could confer with Tara on. Does he want money? Has he called the authorities? Is he the authorities?

Before I could figure out what to do, I heard Tara begin speaking to him in Spanish. A few questions and he began to give a few answers.

I forgot how fluent in Spanish Tara was. After the translation with las tortugas (the turtles) just the day before.

As with my brush with Los Federales with Meghan yesterday morning, I really tried to follow the conversation as best I could with my limited Spanish. The good thing was, this conversation Tara was having with the man sounded casual, not argumentative in any way.

And then I felt this wash of regret start to fill me. Not about perhaps being in some kind of trouble, but forgetting my first rule when traveling abroad. It was rude of me to wait so long to address him. A far too common American thing. I was in his country and now Tara was making it right.

“Yo soy de Chicago,” I offered at one point. It helped.

Tara would speak a few sentences to him and he would respond and Tara would fill in the blanks to me as I nodded.

He was in charge of watching the property we had crossed to get to the beach and he was checking up on us. He waved his arm over the area between the beach and where we had parked our car. All of that land was owned by a man he worked for. It was okay that we were here, but he wanted us to be aware that he was letting us be here for the moment. More than fair enough.

Tara at Playa las Palmas
Tara at Playa las Palmas

We asked him if we should leave and he told us we didn’t have to this time. He continued to tell us the story of his family and the family he worked for and how sometimes people would pay them to hold lavish weddings here. I could see how that would be an amazing setting.

I could see three dogs waiting on the other side of the ocean stream.

“¿Sus tres perros?”, I asked. Your three dogs?

Sí, mis perros,” he smiled. And then he said something about the dogs I didn’t quite understand, but I nodded anyway.

This was better. This is how I should have handled our meeting from the beginning.

We talked a bit more and said our goodbyes. He walked away and I turned to thank Tara for being such an amazing translator. Without her, her warm spirit and excellent communication skills, our interaction wouldn’t have gone nearly as well. I really don’t think he wanted money in the end, just a bit of respect that perhaps other touristas hadn’t given him. Just to let us know we were on someone else’s property when we came here.

We collected our things and started to head back toward the palm forest path, when I saw a sign near the edge of the beach that had been confusing me all week. It basically translated to Private Property. No Entry. What I couldn’t figure out until now was why it was facing the beach. In other words, you wouldn’t see the front of it until you were on the beach, after you had crossed through the private property. Perhaps there needed to be another sign closer to where we parked the cars. Then again, perhaps it really wasn’t a big deal, until people started to take advantage of it.

My shoot with Tara ended up being a bit shorter than some of the others, but it was a great experience and we did collaborate to make some incredible photographs. Plus it was nice to spend a bit of time with her just getting to know her a little better. One of my favorite moments in Todos Santos.

And it reminded me to be a better visitor next time.

More to come.

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Part 15 of 50: Keira Pays Attention

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

Keira Grant pays attention.

Keira Grant at Casa Dracula
Keira Grant at Casa Dracula

There were so many highlights from this year’s ZoeFest in Todos Santos, Mexico. For a first timer like me, getting invited to this exclusive artists retreat meant I had a lot of catching up to do.

One of the brilliant ideas, aside from the incredible photo shoots, was that photographers Zoe Wiseman and Michael Marlborough had planned a series of open air slide shows on several evenings at Casa Dracula where everyone was invited to submit a five-minute presentation of their work, both photographers and models. It was a great way for me, someone never good with names, to get a crash course in who was who.

Plus, seeing all the tremendous work was really a treat.

Days later, when talking with Keira about our upcoming shoot on day five of ZoeFest, she reminded me of a style of photography that I used to experiment with quite a bit, but for no reason in particular, had put away a few years ago. She had seen one of those images in my slide show and suggested we should revisit it.

Very impressive, her recalling a single image of mine during an evening where cerveza, tequila and vodka were in great supply. Here was another model that was doing as much creative thinking about our shoot as I was. Whatever the opposite of phoning-it-in is. I really was getting spoiled with the caliber of models at ZoeFest.

Keira Grant at Casa Dracula
Keira Grant at Casa Dracula

I picked up Keira early the morning of our shoot and we headed off to Casa Dracula. I had photographed Samantha there at the beginning of the week in afternoon light, so I was curious to see what morning light looked like there. It was gorgeous.

While Keira got ready, I climbed over a decaying wall that I had been eyeballing all week to see what was on the other side. Ruins of some kind. I had learned that Casa Dracula was home to one of the town’s sugarcane barons 150 years ago and it looked like not much had been touched since then. A good place to start.

We started with Keira in a very small roofless building. Well, building is probably more grandiose than it really was. It was really just a room of some kind with tall weeds growing inside. I stood a bit outside and used the open doorway as a framing device as Keira found a patch of good light. Good models always find the good light.

We shot for a bit there and then turned our attention to a corner of the decomposing wall.

“That looks pretty crumbly,” I said, as Keira was already half way up. “Careful.”

Another thing to mention is that it’s very easy for a photographer to spot an interesting shooting location before realizing someone is going to be crawling, climbing or laying on it with no clothing to protect them from any number of sharp edges or other skin damaging hazards.

Keira Grant at Casa Dracula
Keira Grant at Casa Dracula

“That looks like might hurt,” I grimaced, as Keira neared the top and began to find a way to balance for her first pose.

“No, it’s okay. I’m distributing my weight.”

And there she was. Perfect. All I could do was to make sure I composed quickly as she shifted through a series of poses I knew I would have been in a great deal of pain trying myself. But she was lovely and made it all look effortless.

We moved on, with Keira swinging from a tree branch against a beautifully chipped wall. Her fun and enthusiastic energy was really making for a wonderfully creative morning and we had barely started.

We headed back over the crumbly wall and inside the house, stopping for a moment at one of the many doorways that made the ground floor as much outside as in. Rather than working too close to Keira, I decided to use a longer lens and step back into another room, again shooting through one doorway toward the doorway Keira was standing in. I like working with negative space. I knew there would be a lot of darkness in the frame, but I was in the mood to compose something that was just the opposite of what we had been previously been doing in the bright daylight.

At one point Keira grabbed an old cowboy hat from nearby (there were always an odd selection of things nearby to grab as a bit of an accent at Casa Dracula), and before I could wonder aloud whether the hat might be a bit cheesy, she somehow made it anything but. In an instant, she was emoting another kind of character. Where there was strength and beauty before, now there was strength and a simmering coolness. Wonderful.

Keira Grant at Casa Dracula
Keira Grant at Casa Dracula

We headed upstairs to explore the rooms there and decided to start in the white room. Stark and almost devoid of anything except a bed with a large mosquito net hanging over it.

If you’re asking yourself, Hey Billy, you were going on and on at the top talking about how Keira had paid attention to something. When are we going to get to that?

Well, it was here in the white room that Keira reminded me again how she had liked one of my images where I was using long exposures to create wisps and blurs. It was true. When I was shooting in Paris a few years earlier I created a series of images with long exposures that created a very minimalist and soft white impressionistic photographs. Lots of negative white space that created almost brush-like strokes of a model I was traveling with at the time.

Keira Grant at Casa Dracula
Keira Grant at Casa Dracula

The light was different in the room we were working in now than the apartment I was living in back in Paris, but I thought it might be interesting to see what we could come up with here. And much like my Paris shoot, there was a lot of finding the rhythm of Keira’s movement and my camera movement to create those brush strokes again. Eventually we began to find the groove.

I was happy that I wasn’t copying exactly what I did before. These would be different. Not as pure white as my previous series, but with very pleasing tones all the same.

We decided to move to another room and continue, when Keira spotted a red mosquito net near one of the arched doorways leading to a small balcony on the front of the house.

Keira Grant at Casa Dracula
Keira Grant at Casa Dracula

I was still taking light readings when I looked up to see that Keira had draped the netting over the doorway creating a red filter of sorts that moved with the breeze passing through. Excellent. Another instance of my model getting me halfway there before I had a chance to put my eye to the viewfinder.

And these would be color photographs. It was just too amazing, although of course I knew I would later play with B&W conversions just to see. I can’t help myself. But as I was composing, I was thinking, color all the way. Compose for the red.

I moved to the back of the room, opposite the doorway as Keira moved and danced while I moved and danced with my camera. We were completely in sync by now. Beautiful wisps of movement, parts of her form disappearing in the strong backlighting as she moved through the long exposures.

After a bit of it, I moved just to the side of the doorway and continued to shoot as she moved, this time with the light reflecting off of the netting as Keira twisted and turned and used the breeze to let the random movement of netting between us make her appear and disappear in my frame as the long exposures softened the movement in another wonderful way. Really stunning.

We finished off in yet another room, with Keira on a bed near an open window. But by that time, I knew we already had some incredible images. If we got anything here, it would just be gravy.

Keira Grant at Casa Dracula
Keira Grant at Casa Dracula

Keira was amazing to work with. She’s one of those models that can hang with the boys until you forget she’s a woman and then when she gets in front of your camera, she reminds you in short order that she indeed, is.

And of course, she pays attention.

More to come.

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Part 13 of 50: Prohibido el Paso with Meghan Claire

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

On the fourth day of ZoeFest, my true love gave to me….

Sorry, my brain is saturated to the point of insanity with holiday music this week.

But yes, it was the fourth day of ZoeFest in Todos Santos, Mexico. With the slightly mad portion of my shooting schedule behind me, there was time to do a bit more thinking. And a bit more exploring.

Everyone had been sharing what they found and where they had been and what amazing spots they had heard might be somewhere. You see, with a group like this, all the photographers knew that even if they had “discovered” an amazing location, there was no need to keep the details to themselves for fear someone would go there and make a better photograph. Someone might go to the same location and make a different photograph, but this group of photographers had the experience and self confidence enough to not fear someone would steal their thunder. And so new locations were shared with little haggling… except maybe for the cost of a cerveza frío o dos in return.

I had heard some of the photographers talking about a dam outside of Todos Santos that might be an interesting location. Like most location finds during our stay in Todos Santos, exactly how to get to the dam was a series of vague directions involving many unmarked dirt roads.

Google Maps to the rescue! (What in the world did we do before Google Maps? As a kid I seem to remember an oversized dog-eared Rand McNally World Atlas. Now the entire universe fits in your iPhone in your pocket.)

Over morning coffee, hudled over a laptop under the veranda at Todos Santos Inn, we knew the dam was north of Todos Santos toward La Paz. Somewhere near the Santa Gertudis mountains perhaps. We began heading down virtual unnamed dirt roads on the satellite imagery until we saw a shape that looked a bit like a flattened grey football… or maybe a Brontosaurus. (My more scientific friends have informed me that the preferred nomenclature for Brontosaurus is now, Apatosaurus. I stand humbly corrected.)

“That could be a dam.”

“Can you zoom in more?”

“It’s getting pretty blurry.”

“Yeah, I think that’s a dam. That’s gotta be it.”

Satisfied that there was at least a 50-50 chance I could find the dam, I drove over to the Hotelito to pick up Meghan Claire for our photographic dam adventure.

Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam
Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam

Meghan has a very calming way about her. Completely lovely combined with intelligence that only comes from being extremely well traveled. This may sound a bit crazy, but whenever I spoke with Meghan I felt like I might be speaking to the Earth. She seems to be very in tune with her surroundings. And that’s only a few of the many reasons she’s an excellent artistic collaborator.

Meghan agreed that trying to find the dam might be a creative location idea and so we headed north on Federal Highway 19 toward La Paz, leaving Todos Santos behind us.

I had heard about the police roadblocks that were randomly placed on major roads and I was about to experience my first one. A large thick rope is placed across the road, a wee speed bump, if you will, indicating the need to slow down.

“Sometimes they’ll just wave you through,” Meghan offered as we approached.

Not this time. The militarily dressed man with the machine gun motioned for us to stop as he walked over to Meghan’s door. I was all ready to volunteer, “Tourista… La Paz… vacaciones…,” when Meghan began to have an actual conversation with our well armed interrogator. It was here that I learned how good Meghan’s spanish was. Very good.

“Estoy el vacaciones de Los Ángeles,” she offered.

“Sí… Chicago,” I added, as if I was comprehending more than the few words here and there that I understood.

So I just sat there with a goofy tourist smile on my face as Meghan tried to explain what we were up to without saying exactly what we were up to.

The trick to the roadside questioning is to give them just enough information for them to believe you’re not trafficking anything or coming or going somewhere you shouldn’t be. Anything more only opens the door to suspicion and more pointed questioning.

She was doing a great job and the officer began to lean back from the window to perhaps wave us on when I heard Meghan say, “Vamos al río.”

We’re going to the river.

He leaned back in the window, machine gun ever present, now with a raised eyebrow and slightly confused look.

“¿El río?”


Sure, we’re silly tourists trying to fish in a river bed that hasn’t seen a drop of water in years. Nothing suspicious about that!

Meghan quickly clarified her story to one where we were sightseeing on our way to La Paz.

Then, a pause that seemed like a minute but was probably only a second or two and we were waved through.

“I probably shouldn’t have said we were going to the river,” Meghan laughed as we drove off from the roadblock. “The river with no water in it!”

“Well, better than telling him we were going to shoot photographs at the dam. That would have been even more suspicious!”

We agreed to leave the going to the river part of the story out of our answers if we got stopped on the way back.

As usual, I only sped past the turnoff to the dirt road twice before we managed to make the turn and we headed roughly in the direction I thought the dam might be. We came to many forks in the dirt road and I decided to turn on the crazy-expensive-out-of-the-country-data on my iPhone so we could have some idea if we had made a wrong turn somewhere. That was if we could get service way out away from everything.

Amazingly, I got a few bars and between GPS and Google Maps, we had confirmation we were actually on the correct unmarked dirt road and were half way to the dam. Yay for us!

Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam
Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam


Finally we arrived at La Presa de Santa Inés, a huge majestic structure in the valley below us. We parked near a observation deck, I grabbed my camera gear out of the trunk and Meghan and I walked over to the edge of observation area to see what we could see.

The first thing we saw was a large sign near a service staircase that led down to the dam itself.

Prohibido el Paso in large lettering. No entry.

So we did what any other photographer and model would do in a situation like this. We took a quick look around to make sure we were alone, ignored the sign and started our descent to the dam.

Now that I could see the dam as an actual dam and less of a blurry dinosaur from 800 miles above in space, it was time to consider how to photograph Meghan on it. Should it be a model on a dam or more of a model on some interesting surface? I opted for the latter.

We climbed down as far as the service walk would go, basically right up to where the water would be pouring down if there had been any water there. It was still mid morning and the sun had not peeked over the top of the dam wall yet, so we could work in the shade for a bit. Always a plus in the Mexican heat!

Meghan reclined against the near vertical wall as I composed the my first frame. I looked through the lens and… wow…

Graceful, softness against a giant, stark, sterile, cold, immovable force. Yet all my eye was drawn to was the curves of her pose as if she were floating on air instead of pressed up against concrete. Two completely opposing concepts, hard and soft. And soft was winning.

Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam
Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam

As we continued, Meghan found tiny little ledges in the seams of the cement wall to stand on, moving up the side of the wall. One of the amazing things about Meghan was that even though she was supporting herself entirely with only her toes or a very small part of her foot, her expressions were always blissful. It made me forget in the moment that her poses and the shapes she was creating, balancing on a small cement lip, were most likely fairly difficult if not a bit painful. You would never be able to tell from the photographs. A very generous collaborator.

I was very happy with what we had created so far and was thinking about another section of the dam to explore as I began to put my camera in my bag, when once again, I heard the familiar sound of a model who has just noticed some amazing light before I had. It was becoming downright commonplace on this adventure.

“Oh, wait! Look at this!”

I turned to see what she was talking about as the sun had started to make it’s way over the top of the dam wall. (I know, it sounds funny to me too.)

I normally prefer not to shoot with such direct, harsh overhead light, even though my lovely fellow photographer colleague Zoe Wiseman has caused me to reconsider that stance after seeing some of her own noon sunlight work. But what Meghan had spotted was that the sun was almost in perfect alignment with the slant of the wall, amplifying the subtle textures that made every seam and rough surface so much more interesting. It was no longer just a flat cement wall.

Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam
Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam

Ah, intelligent models and their impeccable eyes for good light. I was getting spoiled by all of this top shelf collaboration.

We switched vantage points as I stayed near the bottom of the dam and Meghan began the climb up the cement stairs that too, had become so much more interesting in the current light.

“Yes, go up a few more. Perfect!”, I yelled, as Meghan moved into a spot high above me.

Once again the dichotomy of such a harsh surface and the opposing curves of Meghan were quite spectacular. As I was shooting, I noticed that there was really no reference point that might indicate which way was up. I made a mental note to remember to look at some of these compositions rotated 90 degrees during post processing. Might be interesting, I thought to myself.

Moving on, Meghan and I decided there might be something if I photographed her from the top of the dam wall with her remaining at the bottom. I find I have to be careful with that extreme point of view, as it can tend to condense a model’s body in unflattering ways if the pose isn’t exactly right. In short order we had something composed that was very pleasing and since there really was no up or down from my shooting straight down at her, again, I made a note to experiment with some post rotation on a few of the frames.

Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam
Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam

That’s one of my favorite little tricks when shooting nudes. Depending on the environment and the composition, rotating an abstract image can yield a completely different experience of the subject. If the image can sustain rotation, either 90 or 180 degrees without feeling obviously upside down, it pushes any subtle visual movement inherent in the frame in surprising directions. Sometimes I don’t even notice the subject pushing or pulling in one direction or another until I begin to rotate it from its original orientation.

I remember discussing image orientation at one of my gallery openings a few years ago. A would be buyer and I were looking at one of my large prints of a nude figure in water. She was close to buying, but was hesitating about something.

“What are you seeing?”, I asked her.

“I’m just wondering what it would look like… turned on its side,” as she gestured a 90 degrees clockwise motion.

I probably broke gallery protocol as I walked up to the huge mounted print in front of a gallery full of onlookers and pulled it off the wall and set it on the floor on its side.


A smile began to form on her face. “Yes. It’s perfect that way.”

And then she caught herself, “I mean, if that’s okay with you.”

Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam
Meghan Claire at Baja California Sur Dam

“Absolutely! If you buy it, it’s yours and  you can rotate it any way you wish. I think this photograph in particular lens itself to several orientations. It changes the feeling of the image, but not in a bad way. It’s just different. It works either way.”

I’ve always believed that art is a mirror. Every viewer looking at my work sees something different reflected back at themselves. It’s one of the things I love about showing in galleries. Seeing in person what people respond to, good or bad. I’ve always said, if 100 random people are in a gallery of my photography and all of them like my work, I probably haven’t gone far enough.

Meghan and I climbed the stairs out of the valley, walked back to the car, hydrated ourselves with one of the many bottles of water I was now always keeping in inventory back there and congratulated ourselves on a fun creating experience.

We headed back along the dirt roads to the main highway. We laughed about our first check point experience as we were waved through the second time.

“Never tell them you’re going to the river.”

Next up… the turtles!

More to come.

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Part 12 of 50: Playing in the Light with Rebecca Lawrence

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

I was nearing the end of my experiment of two days in a row of having booked three shoots in one day. Looking back, I’m glad I did what I did for two reasons. First, it would have been nearly impossible to decide which of the 15 models I would skip on this, my first ZoeFest. They were all brilliant in completely wonderfully diverse ways. And second, by loading up my schedule to the brim at the beginning of the adventure, as the Fest progressed, it got easier as the shoot schedule lightened up.

Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito
Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito

I did have one of those Aha! moments when I saw some of my photographer colleagues doubling and even tripling up with some of the models on their shoots. Brilliant. Photographing models together creates an opportunity to match up models that would work well together visually, combined with lessening the number of shoots required to photograph everyone!

Note to self: For the next ZoeFest, remember to book some shoots with more than one model at a time.

Live and learn.

The one thing I will give myself credit for was that on this day, day 3 of ZoeFest, I did arrange to photograph Claudine, St. Merrique and now Rebecca Lawrence all at the same location at the Hotelito compound. Even a blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while, you know?

For me, the challenge of three shoots wasn’t being tired or anything like that. It was coming up with fresh ideas and new locations for each shoot. Since I hadn’t really built in any real downtime since the first shoot with Samantha (even the nights were full of the group of us getting together for dinner or a party or one of the slideshows), most of my mental shoot preparation was the few minutes in bed before I drifted off to sleep, the few minutes while having my morning coffee, or the hour or so in between the actual shoots.


Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito
Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito

But to be honest, I’ve always been a guy who likes to think on my feet. Go in with a rough idea, an open mind and use the energy of the moment to find the muse of creation. Sometimes I fall flat on my face, but more often than not, especially when I’m working with intelligent, creative collaborators, the empty head space I’ve left available until the last minute yields something unexpected and wonderful. Something much more special than if I had gone in with a finely tuned plan.

Which brings us now to the lovely and talented Rebecca Lawrence. Rebecca is a model who was on my radar for the past few years even though I had never met her in person. It’s not uncommon for me to have someone catch my eye and take a year or more before we’re in the same city and our schedules manage to mesh at the same time. I recently found an email thread between us from 2008 when we had just missed each other in Chicago.

But now, here we were finally, in Todos Santos, Mexico. The compound and buildings around the Hotelito really change from a photographic standpoint as the sun moves from morning to evening. The same area can have a completely different look in eight hours.

I walked into the living room of one of the main houses at Hotelito to meet Rebecca and almost before I had a chance to unpack my camera bags, she had moved over to a small space between two windows. It was a very simple environment to shoot her in. Basic and beautiful.

Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito
Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito

Rebecca has a very soft and expressive face. A stunning figure as well, but I found that I was more drawn to the mood she was creating with her expressions and what she was emoting with subtle changes in her gaze. Definitely, “What is going on in her head? What is she thinking about?”, kinds of images. Really classic and lovely.

After shooting near the windows for a bit more, we moved toward a tall black staircase with really strong textures. The contrast of her skin against the dark stairs was really stunning and she continued to give me poses that were at the same time powerful and graceful. Really the essence of the dichotomy of what the beauty of a woman is to me in my own head. The goddess as muse.

Following those stairs, we walked to the outdoor staircase that leads up to the roof. It was the same area I had photographed Claudine the morning before, but this afternoon light with Rebecca created a completely different look. And unlike the strong contrast of her on the black stairs a few moments before, I composed these pictures to be more about the lines and angles of the architecture and how Rebecca’s human poses seemed to both mimic and oppose the man-made geometry. It’s that lovely dichotomy of a woman once again.

I always find staircases fascinating to photograph, with or without a human subject. Like a doorway, a staircase suggests a certain unknown. An opportunity. Change. Moving upward. Ascension. For me, something more positive than foreboding.

Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito
Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito

When we were done on the stairs, Rebecca and I walked over to the same beautiful pink wall that St. Merrique and I had started our shoot earlier that morning. Except this time the wall was brightly light by the sun and the shadows were completely different.

I began by having Rebecca work from the doorway a few feet over from where I photographed Merrique. This time, Rebecca was framed by the dark doorway and could interact with a shaft of sunlight that was creeping into the entrance.

And then she jumped. Oh wow! Do that again!

We tried a few more until we got her hands, arms, head and body exactly in the right place. All in the hot, hot sun. She was incredible.

But time for some shade now and the ever beckoning Hotelito pool. I should repeat again that Zoe really creates an amazing opportunity to create art during ZoeFest. At the Hotelito and all the other little boutique hotels we were all living in, you could shoot anywhere, anytime and in complete privacy. That is usually not possible when traveling somewhere with one model because you have civilians everywhere who may not take kindly on the art we were creating.

I’ve traveled to many countries all over the world, always with the frustration that a location that I discovered would be great to shoot, if it weren’t for all these damn people who would raise their eyebrows or call the authorities. This trip was very special for that reason.

Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito
Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito

The light at the pool was perfect at that moment to work with reflections in the water. We worked with Rebecca both in and out of the water, with her creating lovely shapes with every click of my shutter.

At one point we switched sides of the pool to see if the reflections would be usable from the reverse angle when I realized with my back up against the tiled wall, that the lens on my camera was too long to compose both her and the reflection into my frame. Something interesting here maybe if I just shot into the water’s reflection perhaps.

I give Rebecca credit for going along with me on this one. With the water rippling her shape in unusual ways, constantly changing, I had to resort to what we photographers sometimes refer to as, spray and pray. That means you just rapidly fire the shutter because the changing reflections are varying too much to really wait and look for something you like. By the time you see it and it registers in your brain box, it’s too late to fire the shutter. The reflection has changed already.

Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito
Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito

So you spray and pray. Maybe you get something and maybe you don’t. I remember being very enthusiastic that we might have gotten something, but Rebecca was a bit more skeptical. And rightly so. When we reviewed the images, we realized that we had turned her shape into a series of funhouse mirror body warps that were not exactly flattering. To say they were interesting would be the kindest way to put it. I’m pretty sure most of those will never see the light of day. I certainly won’t be posting any of them here for now. maybe later.

Oh well, you have to experiment and fail once in a while on the journey to incredible.

We were both getting a bit tired by that point and we took a break near the hammock area to catch out breath. But as soon as Rebecca laid down in one, I could see that my break was going to be a short one. The low afternoon sun was casting strong shadows across her and the hammock and although there were a bit harsh, I thought there might be something there anyway. Once again, she was a great sport, staring into the blinding sun while I moved and composed. One of the more difficult occupational hazards of being a model is staring for minutes at a time into the blinding light while keeping your eyes wide open. Try it sometime. No squinting! It’s not easy.

I packed up my gear and as we began to head back to the main house, very happy with what we had created, the funhouse images not withstanding, when Rebecca suddenly stopped.

“Wait! Look at the wall.”

As I have mentioned many times before, Rebecca and the other models were incredibly smart and knew good light when they saw it, sometimes before I even noticed it. Yes, the low angled sunlight on the colorful blue and purple walls, with shadows from the nearby trees. Really spectacular.

Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito
Rebecca Lawrence at the Hotelito

I put my bag on the ground and pulled out my camera as Rebecca began to interact with the shadows. Sometimes reaching for an unseen glow just out of frame. Again, a case of a talented model being very aware of the light and environment she was creating in. And more than a little sure these images would have to be in color. I would come back to Chicago and play a bit with B&W conversions, but really, these needed to be in color and I began to compose accordingly.

As with so many of these found light situations, we knew we only had a few minutes before the sun would set too low to cast those incredible shadows and so we began to work quickly. Composing, posing, turning, composing. Soon the light was gone, but we knew we had something. No spray and pray this time!

Rebecca was wonderful to work with. A joyful creative spirit. It was worth the three year wait for her in a lovely part of the world.

And Rebecca is as talented behind the camera as she is in front. She is a genius photographer in her own right and I’ll talk more about that in a future entry.

But for now, 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!