Media versus reality

As the Aeromexico flight we’re on crosses the US-Mexican border I can feel a tangible change. Up until this invisible line there has been no deviation from a flight path: an arc out of Montreal and then a diagonal line towards Houston. As we cross the border flight attendants wheel a cart down the aisle full of free tequila and fruit juices and in the cockpit the captain curves the plane to the west just south of Matamoros and sets a long, straight bead on the Mexico City airport. It’s a busy airport but we’re not waiting for anyone. He barrels in straight, slapping down at a lot faster than usual and then coming up short after a strong brake. You get a definite impression that he feels this is his place, and so too do our two-hundred or so co-passengers. A few whitish faces to be seen, but most people are coming home, in one sense or another.

Crossing mountains north of Mexico City

Crossing mountains north of Mexico City It’s hard to believe that there could be a village or agricultural land in such a landscape, but you can see both in the river bed near the bend.

I have a friend who lives in Europe who wrote a few days ago to confess embarrassment.  She is helping out with the refugee situation in her country and had inadvertently revealed surprise (to a Beiruti) that Lebanon could possibly have a functioning postal system (it does). I feel a little of the same about myself in Mexico City. I’m embarrassed to look around and see how different the daily life is from the image that forms in my mind reading the press – and I should know better. But I’m going to relax about things pretty quickly. It’s just starting spring here and people are still bundled up – even though as I write it’s 23C. I’m wandering around in a summer-weight clothing and looking, well, a bit dazed.

In Montreal there hasn’t been a ripe plum tomato sighted since late October so suddenly having fresh, ripe fruit and vegetables of every variety is a bit of a shock. These vendors travel up and down the streets calling with speakers.

It’s no wonder I’m in shock. There’s the social shock, being thrown suddenly into a Latin culture. There’s the visual shock, suddenly being surrounded by color and texture. And then there’s just plain pleasure, still shocking, of escaping winter. In Montreal we had been up just after 4am to get to the airport. We drove through the monochrome early morning light to Dorval airport, and were surprised to find we had been beaten to the line-up at the ticket counter by several other early-morning folk. Passing through security we found our plane already at the gate so our worries about inevitable delays subsided …

Getting ready to leave early morning, Dorval airport in Montreal. No snow but cold.

After landing we walked around in the evening light looking for changes in the neighbourhood where we have now stayed four times. Next morning (today) we headed on foot to the office of ecobici. I’ll write more about biking in a later post.  After getting our ecobici cards we went to a restaurant nearby that was packed with families and friends. Happily fed we swiped our new bike cards and headed north towards Reforma to poke around and do some errands.

Proof that we really are good citizens In Mexico City you have to pass a bike exam to get a pass to the rental system. Last year it was in Spanish, this year it’s in English. We both got an A, marked and circled at the top! More about renting bikes in a future post.

Spring really is just starting. The riotous happiness of all the flowers in bloom that’s usually going on in March is only just being hinted at now. I can see, perhaps, how this might be considered “winter” but it’s still warm, there’s lots of light and color, and even a few Jacaranda trees bravely breaking out their blue-magenta blooms.

Good cure for monochrome winters.

Posted in Mexico, Travel

¿Why visit Mexico City?

Please come along!  Visit this vibrant city over the next couple of weeks on this blog, including photos I’ll be taking of Pope Francis’s visit to the city. With millions of people participating, it will be quite an event. Have you been there yourself? Welcome to share your own experiences or comments.

Sunday afternoon public salsa dancing

Sunday afternoon public salsa dancing in the park near the city library.


Mexico City fills to overflowing a huge valley that even just a century ago was mostly a lake. Humans pulled the plug on the water and filled in the lake, spawning a huge city that combines new land butting up to old shoreline and islands. Like Damascus – the city my family came from – it’s an ancient metropolis where you can dig down and find thousands of years of human history. Unlike Damascus, it’s a city I can still go to. I’m attracted to its latin spirit, its vendor calls, colors, food and much more. It’s a place where modernity has asserted itself, but where tradition and history are still the connective tissue.

As a young student in the United States I don’t remember learning more than a paragraph or two about Mexico. The basic lesson was about a bloody Aztec culture the Spanish subdued and then how Americans would be forced to invade and sort things out for the Mexicans, who certainly weren’t capable of doing that on their own. Not much has changed really – the same stereotypes are today propagated by popular media and political discussion. Coming up short is any kind of appreciation for the lives and traditions of the 120 million people who live in Mexico, much less the 21 million who live in the Mexico City (Distrito Federal/DF).

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to be posting photographs and writing as a repeat visitor who in some ways feels at home in the DF, and in many ways never will be. I don’t intend to gloss things over – I know it’s a tough city, and in many ways a difficult country to live in. But Mexico gets plenty written about its rough and unpleasant sides. These posts are for the people who ask why I would ever want to go to the DF. They may not be the reasons you would choose the DF for a travel destination, but they are the reasons that I do.

Posted in Mexico, Travel

Blending in while sticking out

I think of myself as having grown up in Vermont, but there was a stint of four years when I also lived in Wallingford, Connecticut. It was the Sixties and Wallingford was a gritty industrial town outside of New Haven. It was home to a lot of Italians and also a big silver company. By the time my parents moved there the silver company was gone, and the Italians were not. What was left was a polluted lake with condoms floating in it, and a poor town with a very rich prep school where my father taught.

Not far outside Wallingford is a town called New Britain. A guy who taught me a lot about photography came from there, where he grew up drag racing Cameros and working on being as offensive to his family as he could be. It was understandable, really. He had gotten drafted into the army and sent to Vietnam, and in the process had developed a severe case of sarcasm and disrespect for the American government, which spilled over into a distaste for his waspy family. He associated his parents with the war, and considering how they had brought him up it probably was not an unfair attitude. In any case, he had gone to Rochester Institute of Technology and was an excellent, if somewhat demented, photographer and he was generous enough to teach me a lot about the craft of printmaking.

Girls in Monte Carlo SS just north of Hartford, CT (1996)

Girls in Monte Carlo SS just north of Hartford, CT (1996)

One of the things that got me about him was always how close he was to physical conflict with people. He spouted loud anti-Semitic views at me, probably figuring that I wouldn’t mind but forgetting I was one of those too. His family was well off, but he had been hurt by the Vietnam experience and you could tell it – his eyes didn’t quite line up and he had a nasty anger that came out, especially when he was stoned – which was often. To him everything was Spics, Jews, Wops and Rag Heads, and all of them were after a part of the country that he owned. Or at least he felt that his family had owned until he got screwed by the government.

In any case, he was five or ten years older than I was and I kept my mouth shut mostly until the end, when (many years later) we got in a big fight over some comments about Rag Heads and that wrapped things up. But one of the lessons I learned, besides photographic printing, was that in order to get along I needed to suppress what ever ethnic background I felt was mine and pretend (as best I could!) that I too grew up drag racing Cameros on the Berlin Turnpike. I hadn’t, though and it always felt a bit off. I had a slant-six Dodge Dart which was a durable and practical car but not exactly on the sporty side.

I spent this morning in the basement of a big hospital getting scanned. I find that Canada is quite different in that there’s a lot of noise about privacy but when you’re in a situation like that you’re thrown in much closer with people who have cancer and other really significant diseases and the doors aren’t closed – you are quite aware of what’s going on around you. So when I had a break of several hours I went to visit a couple of good friends near the hospital and have breakfast with them. They have just adopted a child who brought me dolls and animals and then her pottie, all in a friendly effort which included hugs and even a kiss, which were new for me from her. My friends had adopted her a few months ago, and she came from far away, bringing with her who knows what traumas that were part of her almost four year old history. So looking at her dark, round face as she happily munched on part of a croissant across from me made me feel good, and certainly contrasted with the other end of the day.

My friends are not unusual for Montrealers. In our neighbourhood you see quite a few couples, as well as their children, who are racially and ethnically contrasting. I’m always surprised at how good this makes me feel, and so it’s probably no surprise that when Justin Trudeau was elected and made his announcement about welcoming Syrian refugees it was to some degree solace for the trauma of living through years of the Harper government here, and ethnic jokes and tension in the US.

I like going to Mexico and being in the culture there. I feel a certain bond with the people, even it’s just one sided. I don’t fit in wiht my Syrian and Armenian blood. But until coming to Canada I was used to being in a Rag Head minority, and I think that Mexicans are used to getting constantly judged. Not only in North America, but unfortunately even in their own country where a lot of social position revolves around skin color.

Street scene, Good Friday, Iztapalapa (2015)

People on the street, Iztapalapa (2015)

Posted in Mexico, Social Documentary

Photography will never be the same

Selfie trio, þingvellir, Iceland (2015)

Selfie trio, þingvellir, Iceland (2015)

Over the last ten years it’s been hard not to be stunned by what’s happened to photography. Near my home is a billboard that’s pretty much owned by Apple. Recently it’s often been showing a simple black and white photo, credited to the current iPhone.

To say that the smart phone market has shaken up traditional camera manufacturers would be an understatement. Consumers who used to lust after SLRs or fancy point-and-shoots have fallen in with another bedfellow, one that not only takes good photos but also handles email, social media, and makes phone calls.

I appreciate the smart phone – it’s a remarkable piece of technology. In terms of its camera, even a mid-range phone has some capabilities that high end professional cameras lack. With research and patents funded by a huge market, smart phones are advancing quickly, creating a new sort of pocket camera capable of miraculous exploits.

And in case you’re wondering, I’m not being facetious.

There’s been a lot of angst in the photo industry, and it’s no surprise. Dumb companies like Kodak have gone from being enormous cash cows to receivership (and back, in the case of Kodak). Others have faked results, and still others are struggling to redefine themselves in a market that changes from quarter to quarter. Competition among smart phone designers, funded by lavish r&d budgets, pushes rapid advances in hardware and software. It seems pretty safe to say that not only has the photo industry permanently changed, but also that in short order there will be fewer companies selling dedicated, single function cameras.

Where this all leads is an interesting question. A phone camera, with its pea-sized lens fronting a miniature sensor, is pretty much the definition of convenience and portability for almost everyone. What could be better than this pocketable, sexy small object?

But hidden in the glitz are a few weaknesses too. Small size is an advantage, but a problem too. Though high-powered brains are competing to improve the smart phone’s miniature lens and small sensor with each generation, the photos they produce still lag behind their larger brothers. Not only that but the photo industry has woken up to an existential battle and now, finally, it’s working hard to improve. Stay tuned, what’s going to happen is anyone’s guess.

Posted in Photography, Technology

Fretting about Uber

I bought a shiny new camera last week. It weighs 180 grams, about a half the weight of my old Leica M4. For 29 years the Leica snuggled happily under my shoulder. Since 2002 – when I gave up using it – I’ve had a mottled succession of computer-cameras, their lifetimes proportional to their cost and the associated guilt factor in replacing them. My feelings towards them has been a shrug – grateful for what they do but indifferent to the cameras themselves.

It’s different with this new camera. It’s small and it does a lot. It costs about the same as a mid-level phone, and includes apps that connect to various social networks. It doesn’t exactly think for you, but it certainly tries.

I’ve been having a bit of high-level identity crises as a photographer for the last couple of years. It’s pretty understandable really. Making a photograph has gone from being a fairly complicated endeavour connoting a certain level of skill to something that the average cell phone does quite well (unaided). What that means is that the pool of capable photographers has gone from a relatively small number to a few billion. I’m not sure of the number, but it’s big. It’s no wonder that I feel a little insecure.

Actually, I think that insecurity started in the 1990s. It wasn’t that everyone could make pictures easily then, but rather that work-for-hire agreements started showing up as part of doing business in the photography world. I had been earning a living as a photographer from the mid-1970s through the 1980s, and work-for-hire was a new arrangement. The bottom line was that a freelancer, such as a photographer, suddenly got designated as an “employee” of a company and the company henceforth owned whatever you produced for them. It was a good deal for the company, and a crappy deal for the photographer. Also there was the rise of “stock agencies” – libraries of images that were either under corporate ownership or corporate management, and basically bypassed meaningful compensation for the photographer who created them.

In basic terms, artists were not getting paid reasonably and the supply of images was ballooning to where, for a small fee, a buyer could get a picture that replaced what previously was a job for the freelancer. In that transition period not only were freelancers getting screwed, but they were also getting replaced.

Enter Napster. Sort of the grandfather of torrenting, Napster made it possible for copyrighted music to be “shared” with no compensation to the artist at all. Suddenly it didn’t matter if you were the Berlin Philharmonic or a garage band in Santa Barbara – your music was no longer under your control and you could confidently look forward to a future of cold-water flats and low-end gigs if being a musician was a high priority to you.

Ditto for photographers. Suddenly (in the early 2000s) photos of mine started showing up in the oddest of places. A portrait that I did of a couple of friends popped up unannounced in Europe illustrating a medical journal article on chemotherapy, where one of my friend’s relatives saw it and called in tears sure that something terrible was going on. Well meaning people pushed the limits of what was (is) called “fair use” to include just about anything. The number of photographers making a living, which had never been a bed of roses, got fewer and the challenges got harder. People who were stubborn and highly talented ended falling down the chain, going from being able to work on challenging projects requiring active minds to mind-numbing work servicing low-margin accounts.

Montreal, like a lot of cities, has been hearing a lot of noise recently over Uber. I keep on booting the Uber app and looking at in in my phone. It’s cool, with all those cute Packman-esque cars cruising around. The truth is that I’ve only ordered a cab in this city a couple of times and then always by (voice) phone, but I keep on cycling through these imaginary scenarios where I’m in another city, say New York or Mexico City, and with a single screen tap a driver shows up to ferry me to some destination. In Mexico City, especially, that’s an enticing prospect. Choose the wrong cab there and you can get treated to an extended ride sandwiched between two thugs making ATM-draining stops. In that context Uber looks like an attractive safety-policy. To be balanced, it’s fair to say, by smashed windshields and the violent opposition of the traditional taxi drivers who are more than a little upset at being replaced, and the same in Montreal.

To me, all the angst over Uber sounds quite familiar, and I’m not really sure how deep my sympathies go. I felt like I got screwed a long time ago, so why should I get all excited about taxi drivers?

But that doesn’t necessarily help with the identity crises. There’s a general theory that as the supply increases, the perceived value goes down. I can easily go to IKEA and buy what looks like a fairly good rendition of a Paul Strand hand-pulled gravure photo for what – maybe $20 for a pack of three. Why should someone plunk down more than that for some image that I’ve made? It’s a good question, and that’s been ominously answered in the art market that’s broken into two segments – one where art is “worth” crazy-high valuations and the other where it’s worth, well, not so much.

But getting back to my new camera. I used to buy huge, expensive professional cameras until it dawned on me that actually the Leica had worked a whole lot better and facilitated what I liked doing – making pictures – much more successfully than the latest multi-thousand dollar behemoth that darkened the sky and stopped all conversation as soon as it appeared in the room. To say nothing about causing arthritic shoulders from carrying it around. So the consumerism of the latest fancy gadget – part of what sucks money away from people feeling like they can afford to buy art – is also being fed by me. It also does a pretty good job of replacing my skill sets for a few bucks. But, in this case, something funny has happened. This camera, a small fraction of what “pro” models cost, is actually similar to the Leica and so it’s like things have come back in a circle to where pictures are actually fun to create again and an opaque hunk of metal isn’t becoming a barrier wall to where I’m trying to go.

It has been almost two decades getting there…

Posted in Artists, Photography, Technology

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How Many Roads? is a book of photographs by Jonathan Sa'adah, available for order, offering an unglossy but deeply human view of the period from 1968 to 1975 in richly detailed, observant images that have poignant resonance with the present. Ninety-one sepia photographs reproduced with an introduction by Teju Cole, essays by Beth Adams, Hoyt Alverson, and Steven Tozer, and a preface by the photographer.
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