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Photographer takes Mexico City's portrait

February 13, 2009 | 12:50 pm

A lion cub, a topless girl and a Mexican pop star were just some of the guests at the Yautepec Gallery in Mexico City's Roma neighborhood on a night in late January. They and a healthy share of Mexico’s young hipsters were there for the opening of New York-based photographer Noah Sheldon’s portrait studio project.

The guests, who sipped mescal and cactus honey (miel de agave) cocktails, were attending something quite different from a traditional show. Rather, it was part art and part social experiment -- what Sheldon refers to as a “performance” that would last for two weeks and, eventually, lead to a photography exhibition.

A makeshift portrait studio upstairs was inspired by Walker Evans' 1936 Penny Picture Display, a project done in the U.S. South during the Depression era. Anyone with the will to be snapped was invited to step in front of Sheldon’s Mamiya RZ67 camera with no obligation to buy the results, and the lines of people were long, if a little homogeneous. English mixed with Spanish among a largely 20- and 30-something crowd of trendy Mexicans keen to make their impression -- or have it taken.

Sheldon, originally from Indiana, says he is fascinated by the interaction between photographer and subject during formal portrait-taking, and wanted to try it out in Mexico.

“I’m so interested in the way that you take this moment in time and you preserve it in this way,” he says in a soft voice easily drowned out by the crowd waiting on the stairs outside the studio door.

“I’m also really interested in performance, and so much of a portrait is an interaction between the photographer and the person. There’s so much that happens that’s not on camera. It’s a moment in time no more important than any other, but it’s a moment, so it’s very specific.”

Sheldon has his own reason for valuing the portrait above other forms. His mother died when he was 15, changing his perception of photos forever.

“When my mother passed away something happened where, in the days after she passed away, all I could do was look at these photos, these family albums, that before had been ... nothing special, and they instantly turned into this weighty document of the time,” he explained.

After the first few days of shooting hundreds of subjects in Roma, including the aforementioned topless girl (“She asked me if I wanted her to take her clothes off. I said OK,” shrugs Sheldon), he headed into Mexico City's rougher precincts.

Drive east for half an hour away from downtown Mexico City and you’ll hit a working-class area called  Iztapalapa. With more than 1.8 million residents (according to INEGI, the National Institute of Statistics and Geography), it is one of Mexico City’s most populous boroughs. Around 90% of the people there live in poverty, according to the Inter American Development Bank.

The mere mention of Iztapalapa raised eyebrows among some of Sheldon’s other participants.

“They said they would never go there,” Sheldon said was the response when he mentioned his Iztapalapa plans to some people who came to the studio in Roma.

Iztapalapa’s El Faro is one of several government-funded arts colleges offering free classes and workshops. Around its graffiti-covered walls, hundreds of street vendors sell items salvaged from a nearby dump. Sheldon arrived to guest-teach a digital photography class, and then to photograph the pupils, most of whom were under 25.

P1273890Most of the young people looked pretty comfortable in front of the camera. The diminutive Daniela Contreras, 24, was one of the first up in front of Sheldon against a stark white wall on the outside of the school.

“The camera doesn't inhibit me. Apart from it being a tool to work with, I like to interact with it,” she gushed. She and her classmates, who often attend talks from foreign photographers at El Faro, were impressed by Sheldon’s project, and many of them took photographs of him as he took photographs of them, adding to the “performance” concept.

Mark Powell, who teaches photography at El Faro, said: “I invited Noah out to speak to the kids and show them how he works and to inspire the students. I try to choose people who are working as photographers because here that's a really distant dream -- can you really actually work as a photographer?”

The outing at El Faro was an exception; Sheldon spent most of his time in the Yautepec studio in Roma. He expressed regret about that and said the main weakness of his show is the homogeneity of the people who sat for him. “I wish I could have photographed more people,” he said.

When Sheldon took his film to be developed in Mexico City, some of the people who looked at the portraits of the Iztapalapa students remarked: “They look so ... Mexican!”

“I don’t think they meant it in a nice way,” added Sheldon, referring to the deep class divide that marks Mexican society.

But Sheldon observed a confidence and comfort among his subjects that he says is rare to see north of the border.

"The attitude is different here about sitting for pictures. The men would come in and be so, kind of, proud and a little macho maybe? They just presented themselves in this way that -- I don't think you'd find many American men who would have the same kind of confidence in front of the camera and patience with the photographer and want to work together with the photographer to make it work," he said.

In making his portraits, Sheldon used the same plain background, same camera and same type of film. Everyone who appeared in the exhibition chose to do so –- perhaps with the exception of the lion cub, who might not have been given much of a say.

The small Yautepec Gallery was overflowing on Feb. 5 when Sheldon's subjects showed up to enjoy the fruits of his labor. More than 200 people appeared in contact sheets pinned to the walls, and the open-portrait studio concept appeared to be a hit.

Carina Alfonso, a 29-year-old graphic designer who posed for Sheldon, remarked at the opening, "I really like them because at first when my friend invited me I had the impression that they were going to be passport photos or more restricted portraits. But when I came and met with the photographer it was much more improvised and I think you see that -- improvised photos that are very natural."

-- Deborah Bonello in Mexico City

Images: Daniela Contreras, 24, a student at El Faro in Iztapalapa, poses for Sheldon's camera. Deborah Bonello / Los Angeles Times. See more images here on Flickr.