Common Ground – A photographic study of Latino culture

Image from Common Ground a photographic study of Latino culture

As a teenager, I began taking trips to Mexico to build houses for the poor. And through my middle class white American eyes, it looked like severe poverty. Thus I was in bewilderment to see how happy, resourceful, and loving these Mexicans were. The children had more fun playing futbol barefoot in the dirt than I ever did playing with my 6 foot long GI Joe aircraft carrier. I thought to myself, “How could this be? I’m not even this happy!” And for more than twenty years, I’ve been trying to figure it out through a photographic study of Latino culture.

As an adult, I have traveled back many times with my wife, Celia. And with every return, we make it a point to explore regions of the country we haven’t yet seen along with the places we’ve come to love. And with every trip, we dive a bit deeper into a foreign culture with limited knowledge. As a result, we’ve experienced our most fulfilling days there. For me, it’s walking the streets with my camera, talking to strangers, and gathering stories from everyday Mexicans. Moreover, invitations into homes for a drink and conversation are plentiful–most often the rule rather than the exception.

I am currently in post-production on a series of photographs that chronicle and relish these experiences. I hope to reveal the love of this place as it floods the streets every day. And the common bonds we share as humans, regardless of class or culture.

To honor the do-it-yourself spirit of Latino culture, I set out to make the exhibition frames myself. I took a picture frame class at a local woodshop and picked out some wood stock at a local lumber yard. I wanted something dark, so the yard supervisor pointed out some options for me. After inspecting those options, I settled on some boards of Wenge. When I took them to the shop, my instructor told me how difficult the wood was to work with. It’s a hardwood with splinters and sawdust that can be toxic if not handled properly. And a proper finish–or at least the finish I was after–would require extra work on the table saw to avoid chipping, six different grits of sandpaper, and additional steps for the finish due to its deep grain pattern. Comparatively, the wood we used in class was not toxic, was easy to cut clean, needed only 3 grits of sandpaper, and a basic finish. So unknowingly, I doubled my workload by choosing this stock. But as I started working with it, I could see how beautiful it was, and when I framed the first print, it felt almost perfect, so I dedicated myself to the work ahead.

It took a while to dial in the right finishing technique—I wanted something smooth to the touch, rustic, and understated so that it didn’t draw attention away from the picture but was more “atmospheric”–evoking a feeling that it could be hanging on a wall in a pueblo revival bungalow. I started with some standard spray finishes, but I didn’t like how shiny the results were, and excess finish would collect in the deep grain pockets, resulting in an undesirable dandruff-like effect. I tried various techniques to get rid of the dandruff–a brush and buff technique worked best, but it was unsustainably time-consuming.

Since I didn’t need anything shiny or glassy smooth, I decided to make the process as simple and basic as possible. After some research, I set my sites on a basic wax finish. After the first pass, I was still getting the dreaded dandruff—wax was building up in the grain, causing the same problem. But the brush and buff stage was much faster with this finish, and it resulted in a natural soft finish that I really liked. Compared to the spray finish, this process was healthier, easier, convenient, and worthy of a refined but rustic pueblo revival bungalow.

Selected photographs are regularly posted on Instagram, and limited edition prints are currently for sale. Otherwise, the exhibit and book are in progress.

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