In the fall of 2013 I attended the Morbid Anatomy Day of the Dead Field Trip called, “Death in Mexico” exploring Dia De Los Muertos. I had seen photographs of this holiday from my friend and mentor Harvey Stein and I was certainly interested in learning more and turning my cameras eye to capture the macabre beauty of the celebration. Accompanying us on this trip was Salvador Olguin, a Monterrey born historian of Mexican cultural artifacts with an emphasis on studying the relationship of Mexico and death. He was our Beatrice as we travelled into the underworld and offered insight into the history and artifice of the Day of the Dead.
Background of the Day of the Dead
Mexico is wonderful country that has its share of issues and grandeur. Faced with a complex history of tyrants, corruption, poverty, and of course drug trafficking Mexicans are acutely aware of death and have the most interesting way of negotiating what we in the USA put at arms length and treat with abject distance. Something completely unique to Mexico’s Day of the Dead is that is has a sense of humor, a moribund smile of sorts.
The holiday is celebrated on November 2nd and can be confused with Halloween, which it is not. Day of the Dead is about honoring the deceased by building altars, visiting grave sites, and offering (ofrendas) foods, flowers and drinks to the departed. This all adds up to a festive environment where children paint thier faces in sugar skulls and adults arrange parties in the cemeteries and cities. The festival has its origins linked to the Aztec goddess Mictecacihuatl who presides over the underworld and rules the afterlife. She a flensed goddess and is often depicted with a skull agape. Very fitting since in death, our bones remain as all that is left of our mortal trappings.
To gain access when needed or to just pass on good photo karma to my subjects I also used a Fujifilm Instax Mini 25 instant camera. If you want to charm your subjects and get them to open up to you, a smile and an Instax shot is your ticket.
You could find altars to the dead in civic building, markets, universities, and even just occupying a niche in the street. This altar was nestled between a parking lot and a major street in the city of Zacatecas.
Mexico is practical, they don’t feel the need to be modern, if it works, they will adopt it to suit their purpose. Using a mule to carry your cactus drink across town for thirsty denizens is not for a tourist show, the man has a work mule and it does it’s job better than anything else the man has, so he uses it. No license, no department of health, just a real world application. I imagine we could have found this same image 200 years ago, but a modern car would not be parked across the street!
When we were planning this trip I considered what I wanted to get out of it photographically. I wanted to capture the spirit of the day of the dead and the people of mexico. My parents brought me to Mexico when I was 13 years old and what struck me was the sincerity of the people. Shooting with a super sharp lens I walked about with a smile and pointing at my camera to my subjects in order to make these images. I found a purity in the shooting of these mexicans on their holiday, and went for a wide open aperture to soften the background so to make the attention fall on the subjects while hinting at the environment.
Our trip took across four cities and I found interesting subjects at highway rest stops, in alleyways, and on the streets. As I shot the images and edited them I began to fall in love the subjects. Take for instance this father daughter team, it was taken at the Festival of Skulls and it may just be the most honest image I have ever made. The affection is evident in the fathers closeness to his daughter and the child is innocent in a way that North American children have lost in our modern age.
The celebrations culminated in parties in the cemeteries. Families would gather in a festive way on the graves of their dead ancestors. These little girls were above their grandmother. I believe that no matter where the spirit of their grandmother is, the smiles of her descendants warms her soul.
We visited the Mummies of Guanajuato, where well preserved mummies from a cholera outbreak were on display. These images were shot through display glass and I had to keep the lens touching the glass to avoid reflections.
To see more of this work, I have created a book with 76 plates and resources on Blurb. It’s not a cheap book, its $120 dollars but it is 12″x12″ and I’m quite proud of it. Please take a look here, I have the full preview permission set so you can see the entire book.
My Day of the Dead Triptych is also available on Fine Art America. This site allows you to choose varying sizes and presentation styles. I have priced them very affordable, so if you’re a fan of this work, you have a choice of ways to own the photograph without breaking the bank.
The work I shot during the Day of the Dead was photographed exclusively with a Fujifilm XPro1 camera and three lenses; the Zeiss 12mm f2.8, Fujifilm 18mm f2.0 and Fujifilm 35mm f1.4. Settings were raw+jpeg, b&w mode, auto iso to 6400. All jpegs were imported into an iPad and final processing was done using Google’s Snapseed. This is a workflow I have been using for over a year now and am very excited to present it in a new seminar at the B&H Event Space December 30th at 4 pm.
Resources for learning more about Death in Mexico
Morbid Anatomy – Brooklyn based blog, library and cabinet, museum, and educational collective that survey the interstices of art and medicine, death and culture.
National Museum of Death – A museum in Aguascalientes dedicated to the culture of death in Mexico. A must visit for those with an affinity for the macabre in art and culture.
El Museo De Las Momias (“The Mummies’ Museum”) – A museum exhibiting The Mummies of Guanajuato that consists of naturally mummified bodies interred during a cholera outbreak around Guanajuato, Mexico in 1833. The bodies appear to have been disinterred between 1865 and 1958. During that time a local tax was imposed requiring relatives to pay a fee to keep their relatives interred. If the relatives were unable or unwilling to pay the tax, the bodies were disinterred. Ninety percent of the remains were disinterred because their relatives did not pay the tax. Of these, only two percent had been naturally mummified. The mummified bodies were stored in a building and in the 1900s began attracting tourists. Cemetery workers began charging people a few pesos to enter the building where bones and mummies were stored and eventually a formal museum was founded.
and lastly, here is the entire tour from Morbid Anatomy’s Death in Mexico field trip. A wonderful trip, with wonderful people and the opportunity to make great photographs of super interesting subjects.