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.

Photographic roots in San Francisco

1000 Shotwell street sign in the Mission District of San Francisco

My career as an image maker began in San Francisco. I grew up in Fremont–a fast trip across the bay from the windy city. But for the last twenty years, I’ve been living in different places. And on a recent visit to San Francisco’s Mission District, I couldn’t help but ponder my roots.

Early in life I explored curiosities and expressed myself through drawing and poetry. My dad was the one into photography–a hobby that stemmed from his father and grandfather. During family vacations and trips to the Reno Air Races, I worked as his camera assistant–toting around his camera bag and handing him lenses. But for me this was not a hobby, it was a chore.

Every day in high school I would walk by a mysterious room without windows. The only way inside was through a black revolving door with a sticker on it that read “The Twilight Zone.” It looked like a place where magic happened but only upperclassmen and women were allowed to enter. 
Approaching my junior year in high school I was finally able to choose two electives. I chose an art class for drawing and painting and a photography class–just to see what was through that door.

My dad was excited about the photography class, he took me to a pawn shop and bought me a camera. And when we went to the Reno Air Races that summer we took turns carrying the bag and we both took pictures.

In the fall–when school started back up–I stood outside that revolving door. It felt appropriate to take a minute. A few people rushed by me. As they entered, the revolving door made a long woosh sound followed by a soft cathunk-cathunk. Finally, I entered. And the room was almost pitch black! I could make out some school desks–pushed in toward the middle–as my eyes adjusted to the dim red light. To my left against the wall was a row of enlargers, to my right against the wall were large sinks with trays of chemicals in them and when I turned around, there was the teacher. Today we were going to learn all about this room–the darkroom.

It wasn’t long before I hand processed my first roll of film and something began to light up inside of me. And when I printed my first photograph, that light ignited sparks in my brain. There really was magic in here.

Come senior year I had been out shooting a lot and my instructors began to take notice. One day I carried in a large drawing I had been working on in art class and they took notice again. One of them–Jim Payette–took me aside and started encouraging me to apply for art colleges. And the next day he brought me catalogs from different art schools around the country. I still remember the feel and smell of the San Francisco Academy of Art University book. It intrigued me most because the school was close and had a reputable photography program.

I spent my first week in college lugging chemicals, paper, and other darkroom supplies one mile up-hill from the photo supply store to the photography building at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco. My bag carrying days were far from over!

Fifteen years later–on this pondering stroll through the Mission District–I fully engage in the nostalgia, hang my camera around my neck and capture the street scenes that catch my eye.

Photograph of San Francisco's Mission District
Manson for Mayor poster in the Mission District of San Francisco

Pop's and York Street in the Mission District in San Francisco

People on the streets in the Mission District of San Francisco
Man in a wheelchair on the mission district streets in San Francisco

The Lucky Pork Store Signage in the Mission District of San Francisco


When I attended the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, one of my photography instructors was James B. Wood. The first thing he said was his job is to un-teach us. It was a concept that he touched on in every class. He was trying to break down any ideas we had about what makes a good photo or the conventions of what art is supposed to be. Most of us students where straight out of high school where we were taught to approach life a certain way. He wanted to undo all of that and teach us how to have our own individual look at the world. I learned a lot from this but can’t say it has stayed with me. Maybe it would have if I stayed more focused on creative outlets over the years. But as many of you know its very difficult to pay the bills and be creative at the same time.

Working on films, one would think creativity is an everyday occurrence. Unfortunately its not. There are a lot of steps to climb before one can get close to creative satisfaction, and if you struggle for it at the bottom, or even close to the top, you might end up getting fired. It gets to a point where for every day one can’t be creative, a part of your soul is gobbled up. Sometimes its one person stifling you, but more often its an institution. When this happens to me, which it does often, the enriching concepts taught to me by James B. Wood start to bury themselves deep within abandoned recesses in my brain. But thankfully Mr. Wood was not alone and every now and than I get a reminder that helps me free my mind a little bit:

Here is an excerpt from an article in Cinema Scope Magazine. “Ai” is Ai Weiwei, a famous Chinese artist and activist whom works in multiple mediums including sculpture and documentary film.

Scope: You mean you are against a formulaic or trained aesthetics?

Ai: Right, that is the worst, totally cliche. A unique aesthetic must be anti-aesthetic. If it doesn’t achieve anti-aesthetics, then it is not unique. Whether or not the content and shooting style of my films are flawless, or if the quality of each image is good or not, I don’t see these as real questions. It’s like if you were to give me a fabric: I could create clothing out of it. Even if it is an old and tattered hemp sack that was gleaned from the trash, I could still design an article of clothing from it. It is only the material. But if you don’t have that material, that piece of fabric, there is no possible way I can produce clothing for you. So, with the films, all I ask is that you bring back materials.

Editing is very important, especially documentary editing. When editing these films, I talk with the editor and explain my intention, and we make cuts, changes, and editing decisions, again and again. And after that we use music to supplement the image. When we are close to finishing, we discuss things extensively, and most of the time ask the musician-artist Zuoxiao Zuzhou to contribute the music. His music is pretty rough and raw, just like my films. I don’t want something light or exquisite.

Here is a link to a great article in Surfer magazine touching on the same concept but in relation to the art and approach to surfing:

Surfer Magazine Article.

The file is in my public drop box folder, let me know if you have any trouble downloading it.