Skeleton, Quebrada Street, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
The Day of The Dead is a time when Mexican families remember their dead and the continuity of life. The caped skeleton is a pervasive symbol of the holiday. This one hangs on a doorway that is hundreds of years old. It is not the skeleton as subject alone that gives this image its emotional power. It is the incongruity of its placement -- hanging in a doorway, partially in and partially out. The crumbling stone around the door is as evocative as the caped skeleton itself. The door just beyond the skeleton is just as important. It offers context – the lanterns suggest age, while the cross symbolizes the religious belief in an afterlife, which is so much a part of this holiday.
Day of The Dead Sweets, Plazuela de San Roque, Guanajuato, Mexico, 2005
Mexico celebrates Halloween on October 31 and the Day of The Dead on November 2nd. This booth offers sweet treats for both holidays. The proprietor hides from the camera, using a batch of pumpkins as a makeshift mask. Many of these sweets, some in shape of skulls, will appear on family altars as Day of The Dead gifts to the spirits of the departed.
This image is intended to work as a photographic document designed to give us insight into the nature of the holiday. Those insights are revealed bit-by-bit in the small details that make up the image. The half hidden man is reduced to a virtual spirit – he is there but not there at the same time. I deliberately partially blocked his face because spirits populate this holiday, and I wanted him to appear as inhuman as possible. The skulls on the table and those on the banner at the back of the booth, as well as the skeletal decorations on both of its walls, incongruously laugh at the concept of death. In mocking death, and making humor out of it, the Mexican celebrants see death as less of a threat, and more of something that is always present in their lives.
Street Performer and Friend, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
In the days preceding The Day of The Dead, San Miguel offers a range of festivities for visitors. Huge figures on stilts are paraded near the central square. When the stilt-walkers took a break, I found a young girl exploring the innards of this over-sized costume. This image uses a triple incongruity to express its idea. There is a substantial scale incongruity in the contrasting size of the two huge costumed figures and the two humans that sit below them. And the child using the skirt of the figure as a hiding place is likewise incongruous. The woman on the right is one of the stilt-walkers, and appears to be oblivious to the camera. The child, however, looks a bit guilty. I caught her playing at something that might have been off-limits. A third incongruity arises from the contrast in expressions. The two figures convey exaggerated responses. The pair of people seems considerably more restrained.
Stilt-walkers on Parade, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
Stilt-walkers dressed in medieval costumes draw crowds of on-lookers as they move through the portals lining the city's main plaza. I use an abstract approach here to underscore the festival atmosphere that surrounds the Day of The Dead celebrations in San Miguel. I put the viewer into the image by shifting my vantage point behind the stilt-walkers instead of in front of them. By revealing only their shapes, I tried to intensify the scale incongruity between the towering figures and the crowd that surrounds them. There is a crowded feeling to this image – the people swarming around the performers, the wires draped overhead, even the hint of heavy traffic below, establish a mood of festive energy.
Mask Toss, Dolores Hidalgo, Mexico, 2005
I found this young fellow incongruously flipping Halloween masks around in a market and strewing the floor with them. His mother summarily ended the proceedings just after I made the picture. Halloween falls on October 31st. Mexico's Day of the Dead is celebrated on November 2nd. The two holidays are often confused with each other, and even celebrated jointly. Halloween is based on a European concept of death, and is populated by negative images of terror. The Day of The Dead is far different. It is a unique Indo-Hispanic custom demonstrating love and respect for one's ancestors, the continuance of life, and even finds humor in death -- all positive concepts. I include this image in this gallery because it speaks of the innocence of youth. The horrific masks, some of them associated with death, are toys, nothing more. In a way, this image expresses the essence of The Day of The Dead. It is a holiday that can turn the concept of death into life, through play and pleasure.
Day of The Dead Altar, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
At the city's cultural center, we found a number of students building Day of The Dead altars. The students decorate them with items they believe are beautiful and attractive to the souls of the departed. I took an overhead vantage point to abstract the students and stress the colors of the overall altar. This altar is a work in progress – it eventually will be covered with candles, food, skulls, and various objects representing the interests of the deceased. The abstracted students seem contemplative – they sit in a row, rhythmically repeating the role of floral tributes and candles that are arrayed on a wall just behind them. The late afternoon light adds symbolic warmth to the vivid colors, and provides dappled shadows, creating a quiet, thoughtful mood.
Honoring the Dead, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
This haunting Day of The Dead altar, set up at the city's cultural center, features a framed photo of a deceased relative, probably a mother or grandmother. The altar is intended to entice the dead and assure that their souls actually return to take part in the remembrance. The flags in the background are cut by hand out of folded paper. I underexposed the context in this image, muting the brilliant colors of the flags, and reducing the visibility of the many other objects that surround the framed photograph. I wanted the woman’s serious expression to come through to us without distracting competition. The glass on the frame reflects the trees overhead, superimposing a symbol of nature upon the image of the dead woman and symbolizing the concept of the holiday itself: there is always life within death.
Musician, Guanajuato, Mexico, 2005
The Day of The Dead is celebrated in sound as well as with sights. Mariachi bands often lead the songs that toast the departed. Music acts directly upon the human spirit, and I wanted to express a sense of that energy here. I did so by using a full one-second shutter speed and moving the camera slowly while the shutter remained open. The result is an extremely abstract image of a vibrating, blurred figure with the outline of a trumpet flowing through the image. While we can’t hear the traditional Mexican music being played at this moment, we can certainly imagine it.
The Day of The Dead Flags, Guanajuato, Mexico, 2005
These flags are made of paper that is folded and then hand-cut. Most of them portray human skulls in various attitudes. I underexposed these flags against dark trees and an early morning sunrise, and just as I was making the picture, a large bird soared directly over them, creating a juxtaposition of symbols. The flags represent death; the bird flying freely through the image stands for the spirit. It almost made me wonder if it was just a fortunate accident, or if this image was somehow part of a greater design.
Free Spirits, Parade of La Katrina, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
La Katrina is one of the Mexican popular phrases for death. Lady Death is often depicted in Victorian dress. In San Miguel, the eve of The Day of The Dead is celebrated with a parade of La Katrina’s through the town's plaza. Dressed in 19th Century clothing and wearing hats, the Katrina’s, usually expatriates, paint their faces as skulls, and distribute treats to children and then head to a charity ball to raise funds for worthy causes. The ghostly women represent spiritual figures, and that is how I interpret them here. Once again using a full one-second exposure, and moving the camera while the shutter remained open, I was able to create a sense of flow that energizes this highly abstract image. There are two ghastly faces blurred within this image. Their huge circular hats appear to be moving, as do the blurred arms and hands. The image is surreal, expressing the arrival of the spirits of the dead themselves.
Close-up, Parade of La Katrina, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
Unlike the previous image of the La Katrina Parade in San Miguel on the eve of The Day of The Dead, this one was made with a shutter speed nearly a half second faster. Using the same panning technique, it allowed me to show more detail, yet still retain the feeling of movement. The image is full of electronic “noise” which greatly adds to the expression here. It creates an impressionistic context for the subject, making it seem less real and more painterly. The Katrina’s wore mesh veils over their painted, skull-like, faces and I was able to retain part of that pattern in this image here as well. There are still many photographers who will go to great lengths to eliminate electronic noise from their images. In this case, they would be shortchanging themselves by doing so. The vibration, noise, blur, and mesh, along with a close-up vantage point of an incongruous subject – a woman of great beauty painted as Death itself – work together to help tell the story of The Day of The Dead. She provides an eloquent example of death within life, and life within death.
Deathly Pose, Parade of La Katrina, San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, 2005
This image, the last of a series of three I have posted here of San Miguel’s Day of The Dead La Katrina Parade, is entirely different in both concept and execution than the two that precede it. I wanted to emphasize the nature of the costume, so backed away a bit to include the huge hat and long beads that express the Victorian era in which the Katrina story is set. This woman stopped to pose for the many photographers that surrounded her as she reached the steps of The Parroquia, San Miguel’s brilliantly illuminated parish church. I did not move my camera at all. The shutter stayed open for a full second, which normally should have blurred the entire image due to “camera shake.” As it turned out, the softly focused background of lighted church did blur, adding much energy to the image. However the subject herself remains visible. Why? I never use flash, preferring the qualities of natural light. However other photographers shooting this same subject were using their own flashes, and one of them illuminated the woman for a very brief part of the time that my shutter remained open. That neighborly burst of flash was enough to produce a clear image of her hat, painted face, and beads. The long veil she wears creates the faint pattern on her face and neck. This image is less abstract than the others. But when viewed together with them, it adds important context for the La Katrina parade itself.