IT WAS A GRAVE UNDERTAKING. Intrigued by the Mexican celebration of all Souls’ Day, photographer Russell Monk and art directory Steve Mykolyn traveled last year from Toronto to Acapulco for the festival known as el Dia de los Muertos: the Day of the Dead. “We didn’t know quite where to go once we got off the plane,” Monk admits, but he and Mykolyn eventually ended up in the colonial town of Patzcuaro, Michoacan, where the plaza was already awhirl with preparations. Lugging along what he calls an “old-fashioned, nonthreatening” large-format camera, Monk set up shop in the streets and was promptly surrounded by villages; in Mexico, he discovered, “people still think being photographed is a privilege.” For two weeks, he shot candlemakers, flower sellers, and grave-decorators, working quickly so that no one could dress up or primp beforehand. As he handed out instant prints as souvenirs, he says he “felt the atmosphere build. You could sense it in the air.”

Perhaps because of what he terms his “semi-ignorance” about the Day of the Dead—there is no such celebration in Canada—the 34-year-old Monk’s images bring a freshness to the half-hallowed, half-Halloween event so familiar to Texans. He was particularly struck by the inherent contrasts: “children running about with pumpkins and candy, old people taking very seriously their all-night vigils”; the “almost ludicrous traffic jams in the graveyards,” where later the vista became, in the dark, “stunningly beautiful, with all the flickering candles.” The photographer emphasized these contrasts by using both color and black and white film, which allowed him to convey not only the gaiety of the fiesta but also its underlying solemnity. The day of the Dead is also a night for the lining, and Monk’s portraits capture the duality dead-on.

Russell Monk’s photo images are not available online. To find out how to order a copy of this article, please go to Texas Monthly back issues.