Went to a rodeo this past Halloween. Lots of them around these parts.
A little warm-up.
I remember when I moved to New Mexico, 19 years ago. I met and spoke with a photographer who was leaving. ” But why?” I asked. “The light?!?”
She looked out the window of the pub we were working in together and sighed. “I moved here because everyone says there is great light,” she said. “But it’s not great light,” she continued, “it’s really harsh light. I think they meant something else.”
I can’t say I disagree with her, 19 years later and a photographer now myself. The light here is so harsh the sunny 16 rule applies about 98 percent of the time. There is light here, tons and tons of it, beating down intensely on everything for hundreds of miles in any direction, relentlessly. It’s why I moved here from rainier climes initially, and also why I stay. But she was right, that photographer, I think there is something else. We have sky like few other states, and incredible landscapes, and open space, and cultures unlike anywhere else in the world, and history. I could photograph here and only here for the remainder of my days.
But the light IS harsh, mostly.
You have to work with it, hide from it, wait for it.
And if you are paying attention, in September and October, you can get some doozies.
I don’t mean sunsets; we have those all the time and they are spectacular. But pointing your camera at another pink and orange and red cloud hovering over the horizon or spreading across the evening sky has become ubiquitous despite the marvels of nature captured. The image below is from a fairly typical sunrise that still takes my breath away.
But there are just times in the fall when the atmospheric conditions and that ball of glowing life combine their resources to make the light so spectacular and the viewer so awestruck that you can forget you even carry a camera. But you’d better remember, because light like this is rare and so precious that you need to photograph whatever that light falls on, no matter how mundane. It is that special. It is that fleeting. After, during, or before a storm are some of the best times.
Each year, at the end of October and beginning of November, many of the Mexican influenced communities in the world celebrate “El Dia de los Muertos” – the Day of the Dead. It is, traditionally, a time for remembering those deceased in one’s family and connecting to one’s heritage and ancestry. To familial based cultures this is especially important because identity is defined by one’s place on the land and in the family. Roles are clearly defined and expected. Tying oneself through memory and emotion to a departed relative helps remind a person of their role.
In New Mexico, in Albuquerque in particular, and in the South Valley of Albuquerque specifically, celebrating “El Dia de los Muertos” with the “Muertos y Marigolds Parade” has been an important part in maintaining Hispano/Chicano identity and pride in a country and state that has – in not too distant history – often subjugated Hispanic culture, traditions, and language.
I’ve visited the parade often. Each year I would descend on Isleta Boulevard with my camera, full of anticipation and nervousness. The Calaveras and costumes were often fantastic, the floats inspired, and the display of South Valley Chicano culture full of pride and good cheer. For images from previous years please visit my posts on this site here, and here (2010) as well as here and here (2011).
This year, as I thought about going yet again, I though about what to photograph. Was I satisfied with making more portrait images of people in great costumes? Was I interested in more shots of low-riders, floats, and face paint? I wasn’t.
I’ve become much more interested lately in documenting New Mexico as it is. One of my favorite photographers, Larry Towell, wrote poetically that photographers, if we are not careful, run the risk of becoming “professional sharpshooters of exoticism….rather than contemplators of ‘things as they are’” [sic]
And so I asked myself what was important about this parade. Why photograph this? Why is it worth showing? Why does it make a difference? What is it about? What IS this parade? Here? Now?
My friend Ray Ketcham suggested, just prior to my departure, that I pick one or two stories I see there – one or two aspects of what this parade is about – and try to photograph those.
And so I took my time. I arrived at the staging area and left my camera in my bag. I waited, I watched. As scores of photographers buzzed about snapping away greedily at all the visual stimulus I asked myself, “what is here that you cannot yet see?” “Is there a theme that surprises you, excites you,…even offends you?”
And slowly it began to reveal itself.
More and more the parade looks less like an expression of Chicano culture, pride, or tradition and more a platform for the costumed expression of political views. From marriage equality to water rights, from stomping for GMO-free food to immigrant rights, I witnessed a greater number of non-Hispanic participants parade through this Hispanic neighborhood pushing their political beliefs through a cultural platform that honors the dead. I didn’t fail to be struck by the irony of the slow death that gentrification brings to traditional neighborhoods, and the cultural divide highlighted by the attempted cross-cultural participation.
“El Amor Ilegal”
“No Love Is Illegal”
“Sin Papeles/Sin Miedo”
Mostly the parade this year, while visually enticing, left me scratching my head…
Along the parade route, while witnessing the costumes and revelry, I took particular notice of quiet people watching the parade and holding pictures. I approached and asked: “Can you tell me about the person in the pictures you are holding?” “This is my aunt,” would come the reply. “This is my brother.” “This is my grandfather….my father…my grandmother….my sister as a baby.”
They were holding the images of their dead. Each one memorialized in a photographic image; the last likenesses of beloved members of the family. I was struck by the quiet reservedness of the living. Some were in costume; some were not. Each was quiet. Their internal state seemed unmatched to the dancing, whirling, marching, singing, chanting, candy throwing parade participants. I wondered if they felt out of place. I wondered if they felt like the Dia de los Muertos was different than expected.
I chose not to make images of those people and their departed relatives. I would have liked to, but the mood was not right, and out of respect I thanked them for their time and moved on.
It is Memorial Day here in the U.S. A day designated to the rememberance of those who have served in this country’s wars. It saddens me that so many men and women had to give their lives in defense of their country; and it saddens me that anyone has had to shorten their lives in this way, for any country. I think of all that has been lost due to these sacrifices: the potential works of art, the music, great leaders, visionaries, healers. Not just from those that died directly but also from those who could have been born to them. So on this day of rememberance, I think not just with thanks to those that have died, but also with a sadness that anyone has had to die, or kill, for a country, a thought, or a belief that necessitates killing another in order to uphold it.
Fernando emerges seemingly out of nowhere. He’s been around during the entire birthday party, visiting with this guest or that, greeting each family member, grilling the carne asada. Midway through the party he emerges with her, all blonde and curvy, her papier mâché pasted with a royal smile. All eyes follow him as he strings the rope through the loop on the roof of her head and finds a hanging height.
Quickly the younger children are shepherded into line by mothers and fathers, tios and tias. A stout stick materializes. It is time for the piñata!
[press play for an audio recording of the demise of this princess piñata]
Each child has a go beating the piñata beginning with youngest and progressing to eldest and strongest, each insisting the figure release the hidden candy within.
Styles of attack vary with each child.
Poking at her is an option and might release the candy sooner!
Hitting then from behind when they can’t see you could prove more effective…or at the very least relieve the guilt felt while pummeling a favorite character in favor of candy.
Fernando holds the piñata steady as she prepares for the next assault.
Sebastian gives his best effort to open up the piñata as his Tios and Abuelo look on.
Some piñatas hold on for a time but eventually all surrender to their fate and purpose. The princess is discarded unceremoniously as the children’s attention switches to their candy loot.
A two-fer today. And some word play and double entendres.
I’ve been watching and following the developments in the Kiev, in the Crimea, in Caracas, in Bangkok, and other places. People demonstrating in the streets; people protesting, attempting to right some wrongs; people attempting to write the future of their countries. People clashing, protesting, resisting, fighting against overwhelming – and man made –forces. People hoping. People dying.
Each year Autumn makes its slow burn to winter.
A wistful time.
A transitional time.
A time all of itself.
Each person’s Autumn has its own timbre,
its own scent.
A last breath.