Hecho en Mexico
Photographer Keith Dannemiller talks about Mexico City and the perfect shot.
texasmonthly.com: When were you contacted about this assignment and what kind of information did you have to go on?
Keith Dannemiller: Kathy Marcus had mentioned the possibility of a story from Mexico City some months ago. I got the nuts and bolts of the story around August 26. I got to read a rough draft of the story that Pamela Colloff had written after her time here.
texasmonthly.com: What is the first thing you do when you get an assignment? How does an assignment evolve? Can you tell us what you did when you got this assignment?
KD: The first thing I usually do is think of the things that I would like to shoot if I had my druthers. I fantasize about the great images I would make given all the time and resources in the world. Then I come back down to earth and begin by thinking of the time I will realistically need to do the job, the technical parameters (35 mm or 120 mm, color or black and white, illumination or natural light). That is basically what I did when I got this assignment. I had some visuals in mind of places and things that I thought would work. I then began to think about how to shoot them. When Kathy’s wish list arrived, I started focusing on those specific places and immediately realized I would have to dedicate some time to getting permission to shoot at the places she wanted. That is the way things are here in Mexico. It is impossible to just waltz into someplace and begin taking photos. So I visited two of the spots I needed to shoot, the Museo Frida Kahlo and the Hotel Habita, and talked to the management about what I had to do to get permission. I went home and wrote letters to both locations, faxed the letters, and waited. They were forthcoming after a day or so, which let me get back to the visual preparation.
texasmonthly.com: Was there anything about this assignment that proved out of the ordinary? If so, what?
KD: Not really. Jumping through the permission hoops is a pain in the butt, but I am used to it after working in Latin America for fifteen years.
texasmonthly.com: How long did you work on this assignment?
KD: With the prep work—letters and visits included—and shooting for two days, I would say the better part of four days.
texasmonthly.com: Do you live in Mexico City? If so, how long have you lived there and what is it like?
KD: I live right in Mexico City—the Condesa district. I have been here for the past fifteen years. It is like working in an urban jungle paradise. The time and energy that you have to expend to move equipment, to get permission, to feel secure when you are shooting on the street can be really draining. But the place is so full of amazing found images that everything is worth it.
texasmonthly.com: What did you like best about this assignment? Why?
KD: Getting to work once again for Texas Monthly—really. It had been a long, long time since I had done anything for TM. I reestablished contact with Kathy earlier this year, sent her some story ideas, and alerted her to my Web page—all in the hopes of reacquainting her with my work and doing something with her. I guess it worked. And obviously getting to shoot in places that I know and enjoy visiting. The historic center of Mexico City and the Zócalo have always fascinated me.
texasmonthly.com: What was the most difficult aspect to this assignment? Why?
KD: Dealing with the unpredictable weather. It is still the rainy season down here, and this year has been very, very wet. On the two days I decided to shoot, it rained, so the light was never nice and I had to dodge the raindrops.
texasmonthly.com: What kind of camera did you use for this assignment? Why?
KD: A Mamiya RZ67 ProII (120 mm). The majority of the images were shot with a tripod or monopod. After seeing what Kathy wanted and reading her minimal instructions, I just thought that the medium format camera would do more justice to the imagery that was called for. Working with that camera makes you slow down and compose a little more intelligently than with a 35 mm. When you do that, you also tend to be more sensitive to the ambience of the place—light and colors become more integral to the image when you see them every time you look down on the ground-glass-focusing screen.
texasmonthly.com: How do you approach your work? Can you tell us your thought-processes as a project develops?
KD: As I mentioned above, I start by fantasizing about the images I see in my head and how to realize them. There’s always the need to make “moving” pictures. Then the technical needs kick in. Once all that is decided, I tend to like to get on the thing and begin making photos. I really don’t try to intellectualize the photo process too much other than to say that the final two-dimensional image that I create is paramount for me. While it may be based in reality, it’s faithfulness to that reality doesn’t matter all that much to me. I want to see something on a piece of photographic paper that moves me and hopefully others. I come from a documentary background, and while I value that discipline, in a certain sense it has also been a curse. The insistence on faithfulness to reality as it is out there, is just a part of the truth. It’s like going to Catholic grade school—the great education was a blessing, but I could have done without all the kneeling.
texasmonthly.com: What do you like most about photography? Why?
KD: Making the photographs. Actually doing it. Looking through the machine to something on the other side and trying to make something new and exciting of it.
texasmonthly.com: What do you like least about photography? Why?
KD: Having to be a businessman. It doesn’t have to do with soiling the purity of the artistic experience or some such hogwash, but rather that I know I am just not any good at it. The negotiating, the self-promotion—I know those things are terribly important, but I’m not of that temperament. Having said that though, I guess I have learned something about the business, because I have survived okay after doing it for some 25 years. I feel so fortunate to be able to immerse myself totally in something that fires me up, and not just have it as a hobby.
texasmonthly.com: What is your favorite photograph from this assignment? Why?
KD: I probably have two, both different. One would be of a kid on his head break-dancing in front of the cathedral in the Zócalo, or main plaza. This is not a great photo, but I like it because it speaks to me of the timelessness of this place called the Zócalo. This ground has been the center of things—cultural, religious, and economic—since the time of the Aztecs. This group of break-dancers carries on the tradition by coming to the Zócalo to present their work and to make some money. The Zócalo has room for them and for the group about ten meters away whose members dance dressed up as Aztecs. It’s a fascinating place. I also like an image from the sweet shop, La Dulcería de Celaya. It is an extreme close-up of a stack of buñuelos. You can imagine the sweetness of these things in the photo even if you don’t know what they are.
texasmonthly.com: How do you know when you’ve captured the moment or taken the perfect photo?
KD: I feel like I should say something profound, but really don’t know what that would be. For me, though, the perfect photo doesn’t really exist. Maybe it does for others, and that is fine. I think what you might be asking is, When does it all come together? When do you know that it is there? The best answer I could venture to those kinds of questions would be to say that it depends on the image. I cannot give you a detailed list of requirements that an image has to have to move me, but I can look at an individual image and tell you what it is in that two-dimensional representation that excites me. I can tell you that it has to do with respecting place. It is heartfelt. It has to do with making something very non-material, very invisible into something very tangible, visible, and communicable. That is the beauty of photography for me. I feel I have “captured the moment” when I have arranged all the elements in an image so that the emotional result of that image is greater than the sum of the individual elements. I continue to try to do that every time I am with a camera, so I guess I haven’t taken the perfect image.