Lessons from a picture-perfect vacation

The author finds inspiration and instruction during a photography workshop in Mexico.

En route to Mexico, I sweet-talked airport security into hand examining 40 rolls of film and tons of photographic equipment. Three times. Once in a foreign language of which I knew about 15 words. Always on an empty stomach.

The hassle was worth it. The photography workshop in Oaxaca (Wah-HAH-kah) with National Geographic travel photographer Bob Krist was extraordinary. This man's credentials and credits could fill a 4-megabyte hard drive.

I had good basic photographic skills. Now I wanted to learn how to tell a story pictorially. Mexico would be the frosting on the cake.

The province of Oaxaca is roughly the size of Indiana. Villages dot the arid countryside where indigenous people have lived for eons. They weave rugs, carve and paint fanciful wooden animals, and shape pottery and ceramics. The wares are peddled at chaotic markets each day of the week in one or another village.

Here, too, the farmers sell their produce and livestock. Markets are family affairs: infants bound to their mothers by cotton rebozos, grandparents baby-sitting older children.

The city of Oaxaca, built in the 1500s, is 400 miles due south of Mexico City. It sits a mile high in the Sierra Madre and Sierra Sur mountains.

The heartbeat of Oaxaca is the Zócalo, the city square. The Marqués del Valle, our hotel, sat cater-cornered to a yellow limestone Gothic cathedral. Tall windows overlooked the Zócalo.

Bob, his teaching assistant, Sora, and the workshop participants met at 7 the first evening. We strolled across the Zócalo. It was humming: street vendors, mournful trumpeters playing "Cielito Lindo" and "Brasil," and children kicking 10-foot-long aeroglobos (balloons).

Setting up a schedule

Over dinner in a softly lit courtyard where I tasted my first, but not last, mole, Bob outlined the workshop program: early mornings and late afternoons, with the warm light, reserved for shoots. In between, lectures, slide shows, and critiques at the Manuel Alvarez Bravo Photo Center, a whitewashed and cinnamon stucco building that housed classrooms, a darkroom, a gallery, and a library.

We would have three days with a van and driver/guide out in the valleys for the markets and archaeological sites. On alternate days we would catch the street life and architecture of Oaxaca City.

I skipped out early after the first dinner, hoping for a good night's sleep.

Foolish girl. While I was settling down, the Zócalo was waking up. Between the mariachi bands and the cathedral bell pealing hourly, sleep deprivation plagued me the entire time.

Bob started the workshop off with a slide show of his work: Fiji, Tuscany, Borneo, Cuba.

I considered trashing the portfolio I had been asked to bring. Instead, I signed up for a critique session; I was here to learn.

In his lectures Bob emphasized the importance of light, use of different lenses, perspective, filters and flash, subject and composition. He also addressed the difficulties of photographing in places like Oaxaca, where people were either camera-shy or openly hostile.

His suggestions for solving the problems seemed easy.

I set myself up the next day at the humongous Saturday market in Oaxaca City. An old Zapotec woman, a woven shawl wrapped around her head, caught my eye. Her ancestry was etched in her face. "Con su permiso?" (May I take your picture?), I asked as I smiled shyly.

She looked away. "Por favor?" (Please?) She turned her back. My Spanish vocabulary was now stretched to its limits. Bob had advised us to move away and shoot with a telephoto zoom lens. Mine was back home.

I thought I would buy something from her, but her stall was empty.

Still, she was too beautiful to pass up. I backed around the corner, waited, and when she turned around, snapped the picture.

How a pro does it

Just minutes later in the market I bumped into Bob, the pro, tackling a resistant flower seller.

Bob is a bear of a man, bearded, with twinkling blue eyes, and a former actor to boot. The young woman was glaring at him. He began hopping on one foot. He bought a flower, bowed and presented it to her. No reaction. He didn't give up. Bob got off a quick shot with a Polaroid and placed it on the crate next to her. As the picture came up, she couldn't take her eyes off it. She smiled at Bob.

Laughing, she said something. Bob answered, I think in French. He raised his Nikon....

My timing was perfect when I walked up to Plaza Santo Domingo. Wealthy newlyweds were just leaving the cathedral. The family had hired native dancers, dressed in tiered cotton and lace costumes, bright ribbons laced into their plaited jet-black hair. The dancers balanced flower baskets on their heads à la Carmen Miranda, holding out their skirts with their free hands.

As if this weren't enough, two men arrived inside 10-foot-high papier-mâché figures of a bride and groom.

The dancers and mock bride and groom sashayed up to the church to welcome the couple. I mixed right in with the paid photographers for the Kodak moment.

Out in the countryside

One of our forays outside the city was to visit Benito Hernandez, his wife, and four sons, weavers all. Mr. Hernandez is the eighth generation of his family to card, spin, dye, and weave wool. Hand looms and spinning wheels sat under tin corrugated roofs in the dry dirt.

Holding a cactus carefully, he showed us how cochineal, a rich scarlet dye, is produced.

A female insect attaches herself to the cactus and feeds from it. During the fall harvest, the beetles are brushed off the cactus, dried, ground, and boiled in water. The resulting dye is then made into crystals. Oaxacan cochineal, the most brilliant red dye in the world, is still prized today.

Hernandez walked us through his small showroom. Then we continued on to Teotitlan del Valle, a small village where every house is a mini rug factory.

Bob planned a photographic pièce de résistance for our last day. Built in 5000 BC by the Zapotecs, Monte Alban, believed to be the oldest metropolis in the Americas, was once a thriving culture.

When we gathered at the ruins for our last shoot, it was deserted. Long shadows fell over its monumental platforms, pyramids, and ceremonial ball courts.

The best vantage point in the late afternoon is the south platform. We clambered up the wall of uneven stone steps, cameras and tripods bobbing from our hands and necks.

Breathless, at the top we looked out over the excavated city and waited for the magic. The orange sun began its dip, the clouds tinged with pink.

I attached myself to Bob. "What's your setting?" I asked.

Click, click, click. "250 at f/13," he whispered, awed by the golden light on the relics. He screwed his polarizer on. I followed his example.

"Open up a full stop and bracket," he recommended.

Silence. Contemplation. Success.

Twenty-five minutes later, we were back in Oaxaca City. The scene was still chaotic: tooting horns, boomboxes the size of microwave ovens, bongo drums, and wooden pushcarts with steamer baskets offering banana-leaf wraps and fruit ices.

But here and there I noticed the beautiful and exotic: elderly women in green, purple, and yellow woven serapes. Stucco buildings in periwinkle and pumpkin. Massive wooden doors framed with hobnails. Churches – a mixture of Renaissance, Gothic, and Baroque with a measure of Moorish.

And I had just learned from a master how to capture all of it.

• For more information on photo workshops in Oaxaca, write Maine Photo Workshop, PO Box 200, 2 Central Street, Rockport, ME 04856; call 877-577-7700; or e-mail info@theworkshops.com. Bob Krist's website is www.bobkrist.com.

* * *

Getting the most out of a photography tour

Ask yourself: "Why am I going on a photography tour?" Are you expecting technical photography lessons? Do you want plenty of time to explore and go out to restaurants? Are you prepared to spend hours indoors doing critiques of your work? Or would you rather develop your film at home for scrapbooks?

Once you know what you want out of a photography tour, start doing your research. There are a number of photography instructors and tour companies that specialize in photography travel. From outdoor photography to fine-art images, there is a niche for everyone. Look for the various types of classes on the Web and in photography magazines.

Different instructors have different requirements relating to students' photographic abilities. If a class includes beginners with point-and-shoot cameras and you're more advanced, ask the instructor how this will be handled. You don't want most of your time taken up by things you already know.

Ask what size the group will be. Fifty people on a bus will be a different experience from one in a five-person van.

See how much free time is worked into the schedule. If you will spend all of your time in photography critiques and that is not where you would like to be – maybe you would rather have a little time for shopping – it is better to know before you commit to the class so you can make different arrangements.

Know how much photography gear you should bring. Ask for a pretrip checklist of equipment requirements. This includes how much film and what type. That way you won't leave your zoom lens at home because it's heavy and wish over and over, once you're on the trip, that you had brought it.

- Kim Lipker

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