On the Art of the Grabbed Portrait

When I picked up my first camera (a Pentax Spotmatic) some hundred years ago, I was a very shy guy when around people I didn’t know.  Consequently, I just couldn’t bring myself to point my camera at someone and snap their picture (unless they were a block away and couldn’t see me, of course.)  So I took pictures of sunsets.  And flowers.  And trees.  And a lot of other stuff that wouldn’t snarl or throw something at me.

I learned the value of stealth, blending in, and a telephoto lens.

Perhaps you know what I’m talking about:  I had a severe reticence to “invade” someone else’s space.

Thank God that timidity didn’t last long!

I’ve learned a lot through photography but perhaps the first and most important thing the camera has done for me was teach me how to interact with people I don’t know.  The overwhelming desire to take a picture of a face that absolutely begged to be made immortal finally overcame my fear to approach.  As the years passed and I honed my skills at taking pictures of people, I learned there was a story in each of those faces that would often be revealed only when I later viewed the slide or print.

I began this life changing career of photography in Mexico City back in the late ’60s.  It was a place filled with outgoing people who liked to smile and interact with strangers and who weren’t adverse to having their picture taken, even by a rather strange looking gringo dressed in Levi’s, a Sear’s work shirt, and rather unruly long hair.  So it was there that I learned to ask people to let me take their portrait.  And it was  there that I learned that most people are flattered by the request.

You will notice that the one thing all of the following portraits have in common is that the subjects are looking at the camera.  I  have many portraits of people looking off camera of course, but for me when their eyes look directly into mine, only then do I begin to see their story.


Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City

(Kids, of course, are a slam dunk.)

In my beginning years I was pretty much a black and white photographer and a fan of Henri Cartier-Bresson and his “decisive moment” philosophy.  I endeavored to take the photo at just the right time to catch the essence of the scene I was witnessing, and Kodak’s Tri-X film was the perfect medium for this.  I was never without three or four rolls of the stuff as I wandered around the city, and I seldom left home without my camera hanging around my neck.  I usually shot it at its nominal 400 ASA (EI to you newbies) and I became so proficient at it that I hardly ever used the camera’s built-in meter but  quickly just set it’s shutter speed and aperture to what I sensed was correct for the scene.

I also developed a sense for when a photo was taking shape and to prepare for it.  The above photo is a great example of just that.  I was strolling down Reforma, Mexico City’s beautiful main thoroughfare and these kids were walking towards me.  The little girl on the left made eye contact with me and turned out to be a flirt.  When I passed them I stopped and framed them walking away from me and just when I had the focus she turned around and smiled at me.  It made my day.

Young boys, Chapultepec Park, Mexico City

Chapultepec Park, Mexico City

Unless somehow this young fellow has seen this photo, he probably never learned what his friends had done to him.  He took this picture taking thing seriously and offered me an honest pose.  His friends however, were not going to leave it at that.  Giving someone “horns” when their picture is being taken is an old tradition in Mexico and there’s almost always a joker or two around to invoke it.

I always get a laugh from this photo and often wish these guys could see it.  Of course, they would all be in their early 60’s today so I’m sure they would really appreciate it.

Baby getting a bath in a bucket

The Baby Bucket, Hermosillo, Sonora

Speaking of the passage of time, I reckon this little guy is no longer a little guy but now in his forties if he’s still around.  I was a guest in his home for a few nights as I stopped to rest and recuperate.  Around 1970 or so a strange bee settled in my bonnet and I decided to ride my bicycle from Arizona to Mexico City, a trip of some 2500 km.  I’m quite sure I was the first to ever do such a fool hardy thing and I think my guardian angel must have earned a few gray hairs for it.

I arrived in Hermosillo after a long two day ride from Guaymas and stopped by the local newspaper to give them a chance to write me up.  Most of the “reporteros” were young high school kids and one of them graciously invited me to stay at his house for my short visit.  It was a humble home to be sure but the folks welcomed me almost as if I were a long lost cousin.  I took a lot of pictures of this family but this one stays with me the most.

You might have noticed that these portraits were really taken for me and not for the people in them.  Seldom have the subjects themselves gotten to see them and I doubt that now any of them would even remember the short instant in their lives when a friendly traveler stopped to take their picture.  Sometimes this makes me sad because I have gotten so much from these photos and they so little.  How I would love to find them and send them a picture and, even more, learn about their lives since our brief encounter.  They have been “immortalized” and aren’t even aware of it.  Wouldn’t it be nice to know such a thing?

man and mule in Huatla, Oaxaca

A Man and His Mule in Huautla de Jimenez, Oaxaca

While photographing a story for Newsweek about the “magic” mushrooms in the mountains of Oaxaca, I came a cross this gentleman who asked me to take his portrait.  For him a formal portrait was a thing of import and he asked me to wait until he could go fetch his prized possession, his mule.  In these parts, he was a wealthy and honorable man and his portrait should reflect it.

A mother and daughter in Oaxaca.

A mother and daughter in Oaxaca.

While visiting a friend in Oaxaca, he decided to take us on a visit to a small village near the city of Oaxaca.  The owner of the house was the Zapotecan foreman on my friend’s hacienda and he wanted to take the man some beer for his Good Friday.  Much like the gentleman in the previous photo, this man chose to have his photo taken with his prize possession, an enormous ox.  However, it was this photo of his wife and daughter that most stayed with me.

I have one more photo that is fitting for this personal “looking back” of mine.  It was taken at Mexico’s first big rock festival held in a little town in the mountains called Avandaro.  It was shortly after Woodstock and was the first coming together and “coming out” of Mexico’s own hippie style culture.  What happened because of this festival was monumental and far reaching in its effects.  Even though it rained for almost the entire weekend, the show went on and everyone there realized that things had changed in Mexico because of it.


I have pulled quite a few portraits out of my collection for this post but I seem to have only used some of the earliest examples, and all from my life in Mexico.  It seems to have been something I needed to do; something I didn’t realize until now that I needed to do.  Rather than drag this out into a monumental post by using all that I’ve chosen, I deem it necessary and useful to now say “…to be continued.”

Let’s finish with a little portrait of  Frida Kahlo: