Monday, March 28, 2022

I wanted to want to do it

I'm leading with this portrait of the handsome Mark Asmus. Whereas last week's portraits were made with natural light this was a full-on studio shot using a Canon 5D Mark ll with a 24-70mm zoom at 64mm, f8 and 1/180 second. It was lit with two Profoto Acute 2/D4 strobes through 4'x2' Chimera softboxes. 

JT was a self-proclaimed former street tough from Chicago. He was shot with single 42" beauty dish by a Canon 1Ds with a 24-70 zoom at 70mm, f9 and 1/125 second.

This is the photographer and writer Daryl Black with studio lighting. Canon  5D ll  with 70-200 zoom at 72mm, f3.5 at 1/125 second through two Profoto Acute 2/D4 strobes through 4'x2' Chimera softboxes. 

Gentleman Don who has since departed this earth was known as Joe McNally's favorite model and was so well regarded and loved that he was the subject of two books, one of them, Sketching the Light by McNally. is available on Amazon. Don is on the cover. He was photographed with a Canon 1Ds, a 24-70mm zoom at 59mm, f9 and 1/8 second. I used a single Profoto strobe through a 2'x4' softbox.

Sadly, the struggle to launch the mentorship program in Antonito has ended with losers all around. After some tense moments, one of which ended with Aaron Abeyta pulling the plug on the program.  He thought that the frustration I felt for “our failures, real or perceived” were not “a good foot to start the journey on.” That was followed by last minute reprieve. Then it all came to naught when I insisted that there be adult supervision, a chaperone, when I would otherwise be alone with the girls. I had tried to make that clear from the outset and I believed that Aaron understood and agreed. Instead he told me that the school didn't have enough staff to provide that precaution.

It’s no one’s fault but I feel guilty as hell. There’s no doubt I let them down. I’ll always wonder of if I should have taken my chances. On the other hand, I was advised in no uncertain terms to never be alone with teenage girls. I was warned to never put myself in an ‘I said she said’ situation. So, I made the prudent decision but one that leaves me empty. My last email said:


It’s a real disappointment. My heart aches for Sam and Angie, not an overstatement, but it’s a risk I can’t afford to take.


This was to be a post about using supplemental light in portraiture and was written primarily for Angie and Sam in Antonito. They will not see it, as I’m sure they didn’t see last week’s natural light post. How would I know? I've never heard.

It’s still for them.

Monday, March 21, 2022

Degree of Difficulty

This was taken with window light in our house in Wellesley, MA in 1973. I used a Kodak 2D 8"x10" camera built in Rochester, NY in 1941, the year of my birth. It's of my sister in law Kim whom we raised as our daughter. She was 12. I had just received the Schneider-Kreuznach 185mm Symar f5.6 lens for my birthday.

As I prepare for my mentorship with Angelina and Samantha in Antonito, I’m being pulled in a half dozen directions. What can I impart in a measly week? Generally, when I think of teaching, I lean toward the general first then the specifics. The principle being that when you understand the concepts the details will make more sense. Not to mention that in week of, say four or five sessions, how many how-to-dos can a couple of novices absorb?

I photographed Alain Comeau on Mount Cranmore in North Conway, NH shortly after I bought my Canon 1Ds DSLR in 2002. I used a Canon 28-135 mm zoom at f5.6 at 1/250 of  second. The cloudy sky served as a huge softbox, something Edward Weston favored in 1920s Mexico. I was about a foot from Alain's face. It's a style of close-up that I still favor.

Using only window light I photographed the late barber and unofficial mayor of Taos Juma Archuleta in his shop just before opening. He opened at 7am. It, too, was shot with the 1Ds and 28-135mm zoom at 125mm, f5.6 and 1/10th of a second. I was rock steady in those days.

Shot under the portal which provided diffuse light Lindsey Enderby was photographed in front of his since shuttered western memorabilia emporium, Horse Feathers, This was with my Canon 1Ds and Canon 28-135mm zoomed to 135mm at f7.1 and 1/50 second.

And finally because I love the shot here's a reenactor at the Philmont Scout Ranch holding his pet chicken. It was shot in a barn with soft light from the open door. Shot with Canon 5D Mark lll, the Canon 28-135mm zoomed to 90mm, f5.6 and 1/640 sec due to the high ISO of 1600.

Yet they both have expressed interest in portraits and portrait lighting as I noted last time. To that end, over the last week I have posted portraits to Instagram that I’ve taken through the years. Along with the photographs I’ve described the who, where, when and the lighting used to make the shot. I sought to show that a variety of lighting techniques can be used to make a memorable portrait. You’ll note that I used “make” not “take” to describe the process. Make is more constructive than take which seems to suggest that that the photographer is a passive player who simply picks the fruit. And, yes, leading with specifics without explaining the photographic world from ten thousand feet was putting the horse before the horse.

Today jewels were all shot with natural light both outdoors and in. Next week I’ll show images made with on camera flash and studio strobes with various light shapers.

This post and the one next week are cleverly disguised tutorials for my mentees, Samantha and Angelina. So far, they have been largely unresponsive to five days of portrait examples on Instagram. Which is to say one of them said “Beautiful” and the other hasn’t responded at all. That concerns me enough that I sent them an email a couple of days ago asking that they indicate that they have seen each Instagram image by clicking the Like button or heart symbol. That way I’ll know they have seen them, and we can discuss their comments and questions when we meet on March 31. I’ve heard nada, zip and zilch.

I expressed my concerns to my wife Peggy and three friends over lunch on Friday. When I said I’d heard nothing Peggy cautioned me that there could be a host of reasons they haven’t been responsive. They don’t have email. They are afraid of social media. And they are timid. I granted that based on what I'd been told both of them have tough back stories and modest means. They have been described as shy even withdrawn. Two friends who are educators told me of students in their spheres who had come from limited means and who had difficult family lives. They described the difficulties these students had to surmount and the secrets they carried about their circumstances. Another, a retired social worker, coached me to a better level of understanding and patience. Thanks to you all for your wise counsel. This mentorship is after all, about Angie and Sam and not about me. If I can give them a glimpse of the wide world beyond Antonito and inspire them with the endless possibilities in front of them my efforts will have been worthwhile. If they enjoy photography for the next 75 years it will be a gift to Angie and Sam and to me.

Still, I’m mystified when efforts are not acknowledged, questions are not answered, and requests are not honored. It's as though I'm talking to myself and that's not a recipe for success.

Throw me a bone here, girls. Learning is a two way street.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

End Game

Victor 'Cuba' Hernandez with his Mauser EspaƱa on the Taos Plateau in January 2015.

Victor at San Antonio Mountain in 2016.
Victor ‘Cuba” Hernandez had his second heart attack and his second triple bypass last month in Pueblo. The doctors discovered a staph infection so he was on intravenous antibiotics for two weeks before the surgery could be performed. Reputedly he is fine now and living on a ranch eight miles east of Antonito, Colorado. For the first time in more than forty years he doesn’t live with the Abeytas in Mogote and will play out his days on another ranch. Victor Hernandez had herded the Abeytas sheep for more than four decades and became The Last Shepherd in my photo essay of the same name. He will be missed.

I hadn’t been in contact with the Abeytas since the lambing in March 2018. So, when Aaron Abeyta, one of the four Abeyta siblings, called to ask if I would mentor two of his students I was intrigued about a new adventure and delighted to back in the loop. Once we’d discussed the students and the prospects for a meaningful program about photography I asked about Victor and the sheep. That’s when Aaron told me about Victor’s heart attacks, surgeries, and his estrangement from the Abeytas.

Andrew Abeyta and Victor in happier days.

Three years ago, in April of 2019, Andrew Abeyta, the jefe of the Abeyta sheep operation, was delivering groceries to Victor at his camp at San Antonio Mountain. The first thing he noticed was that Victor didn’t come out of his trailer to greet him. When he didn’t see Victor, he was on high alert. Victor always walks toward you talking a mile a minute. Andrew knocked repeatedly on the trailer’s aluminum door and heard nothing. The door was locked from the inside, so he got his tool kit and removed the lock. He found Victor unresponsive on his cot.

He was able to get EMTs from La Jara to transport Victor to the small town’s hospital where he was diagnosed as having had a heart attack. Then he was medivacked to Pueblo for his first triple bypass and the beginning of the end of his life as the Abeyta’s hired hand.

I asked how Victor was after the first heart attack.

Aaron told me “He was fine. He was following his goats around. But he couldn’t herd the sheep anymore. And we couldn’t afford to provide hay for his goats, so Andrew told him he had to sell them.”

Victor refused and there were angry words between the men. The fireworks between Victor and Andrew led the old herder to leave the Abeyta Ranch. Whether he was evicted or left on his own I don’t know. I do know that Aaron and Andrew’s grandfather’s dying wish was that Victor would be “taken care of” when he could no longer herd.

Yet just a month ago when Victor had his second heart and was hospitalized, he listed Andrew Abeyta as is next of kin. And it was Andrew Abeyta got him the care he needed

At the hospital in Pueblo, they discovered that Victor had a staph infection, and he was given inter venous antibiotics for two weeks before the triple bypass could be performed. It was successful and Victor is back in the San Luis Valley but not at the Abeyta Ranch.

As we talked about Victor and his amazing life Aaron confirmed that Victor was among the thousands of criminals and mentally ill that Castro released in 1980. Victor was, in fact, one the Mariel boatpeople who landed on our shores that year. 125,000 Cubans arrived in Florida in one day.

Victor had told me that he picked fruit in Florida and California before arriving in southern Colorado. Aaron told me that Victor and Juan, his fellow prisoner and companion, applied to work at the Abeyta Ranch. Aaron said he was about 8 at the time. That makes it 42 years ago or 1980. I have heard of earlier dates but 1980 tracks with Victor’s story of escaping Cuba during the Mariel Boatlift. The timing does not account for the years Cuba says he spent picking fruit in California and California before arriving in Colorado.

Aaron told me,  “First we hired Juan not Victor. Later Victor came to work for us. Juan was a real criminal. In fact, he’s in prison Santa Fe right now. It was drug related I think.”

Victor told Andrew that when he was eight, he was caught stealing bananas because he was starving. He tried to run but when they caught him, they broke both of his ankles and sent him to prison where he stayed until he was released along with 20,000 other criminals by Castro. 32 years in a Cuban hell hole from the age of 8 is hard to process at best.

Aaron prefaced that harrowing story with the disclaimer that Victor is given to hyperbole and the broad application of the facts. “He might have been 15. You never know with Victor.”

“Is he mentally competent? We know he can’t read or count.” I asked.

“Yes, he’s plenty smart. He has a fantastic memory though I know memory and intelligence aren’t the same thing,” Andrew answered.

And the smiling, simple Victor Hernandez may not be the docile creature he appears to be.

Aaron says that Victor sold him a pistol when he was about 12. The next day while they were loading bales of hay, Victor demanded it back. Aaron told him  “No. I’m keeping it. You sold it to me yesterday.” With that Victor began beating him with a 2x 4 from the bed of the truck. Aaron recalls that he was able to disarm Victor and beat him into submission. He kept the pistol.

Where reality and fiction diverge in Victor’s biography we’ll never know for sure. We do know that his life story comports with facts that we can verify. Fact or fiction his life is the stuff of high literature with dystopian sweep and wrenching tragedy. That Victor spent 40 years as the Abeyta’s man on the prairie alone with the sheep is enough of a story to fill a book.

My first encounter with Victor on the Taos Plateau in January 2011.

Since I first met them in 2011 the Abeytas have worried that Victor ‘Cuba’ Hernandez would literally be their last shepherd. It seemed that every year would be his last if for no other reason than age. He'd be 82 now according to my calculations. When he could no longer herd the sheep there would be no one in the valley willing to live in the rough for seven months with 400 bleating charges. At best they’d have import a herder from South America.

When Aaron told me that Victor had to stop herding the sheep three years ago after his first heart attack, my first question was did they find another herder.? Aaron told me that they had. I asked how they found a willing candidate and where he came from.

“We asked around and all the calls led to the same man,” Aaron told me. “He’s from Chihuahua.”

Never count the Abeytas out when it comes to tenacity and resourcefulness. When one door closes for the family another will open. It always has and always will. But it won’t be the same without Victor. His and their story has meant a lot to me. It may be the most important one that I’ve tried to tell. To know that the story will continue is a gift.


Sunday, March 06, 2022

The Rancher, the Poet and the Students

 “Hi Steve. This is Aaron Abeyta. I only call when I need a favor.”

Brothers Aaron and Andrew Abeyta manning the chute during shearing.
Patriarch Alfonzo Abeyta

True enough. The last time he needed a favor it was photographs to complement an article he was writing for High Country News. It was the gripping true tale of 12-year-old Alfonzo Abeyta’s survival while tending the sheep with his father in a September blizzard on Brazos Cliffs. Alfonzo, now 84, is Aaron’s father and the granite figure in Los Abeyta’s ranching history in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Aaron’s story about his father and his grandfather in the 1940s epitomizes the grit and tenacity of a life from the land. That my images complemented his epic story was a pleasure and an honor. 

A man of many hats, Aaron Abeyta is the Director of Poetry Concentration at Western State University in Gunnison, CO, was a long-time professor at Adams State University in Alamosa and is the mayor of Antonito, his family home. More recently he and his wife founded a school in Alamosa.

Last week he asked if I would mentor two seniors who will graduate in May. He explained that Angelina and Samantha are interested in careers in photography and that he thought might mentor them. 

I am excited and a bit nervous about guiding Angie and Sam through the sea of photographic pursuits and studies. I worry that Aaron may think I'm more accomplished and knowledgeable than I am. Yet, after some sixty years of photographing with artistic intent you’d hope I’d have something to share.

So, on Thursday, March 31 I’ll start mentoring Angelina and Samantha in the bold and fast-moving world of photography.

I’m giving a lot of thought to the kind of direction that would help Angie and Sam. According to Aaron, they both have interest in portraiture. And they have asked specifically about lighting and posing. You don’t see a lot of it from me, but portraits are my guilty pleasure and it’s what I’d do if I had to make a living at photography. Either that or photojournalism, architecture, landscapes or still life. Oh, or travel, lifestyle, or sports.

I do have a professional lighting kit in Peggy’s studio. I guess I could re-learn how to use it.

Aaron is a fan of street photography. Me, too. To that end, he has referred my mentees to the street photographer Vivian Maier who worked as a nanny while she photographed anonymously in Chicago, NYC and around the world for four decades. She wasn't discovered till after she died which speaks to the legion of fine photographers who go unnoticed. I have offered Margaret Bourke-White and Dorothea Lange, two towering Depression era photographers as reference points. More recommendations will follow.

Angelina owns a camera. Samantha does not. Both photograph with a smart phone. The smart phone is an extraordinary tool. But I want them to have ‘real’ cameras with manual controls so they can learn the theory and mechanics of photography. With that in mind, I shipped an older Sony mirrorless camera to Connecticut for repairs on Friday. I hope to have it before our sessions begin. 

Otherwise, be very afraid. I'll be at your door begging for a loaner