Interview by Diana-Florina Cosmin, Editor-in-Chief FORBES LIFE. Published November 2016
1. On your website, you say "Life's currents have pulled me so strongly along unforeseen streams that it deserves most of the credit". How did life mold you into the artist that you are today? How did you begin (place, background, expectations) and how did you end up here and now?
The parallels between my life and my art define everything about me and everything about my work. I may have been inspired by many artists over time, but it is only in approaching the camera in the same way that I approach life that I have found a voice that is truly my own.
To explain, many people agree that despite life's best laid plans, often times the greatest gifts we receive in life come from the things we don't see coming. And when you find the right symmetry between the known and the unknown, and embrace a little chaos over control, often beautiful things begin to happen.
I believe it is the same with art. I ride my camera on manual all the way, but the excitement I get comes more from the room I allow for something to happen beyond my absolute control when I invite something unforeseen to happen.
It all really began in a small darkroom in Oaxaca Mexico, some 19 years ago. I had already been flirting with photography a little, but the moment in which I watched my first pinhole print emerge from the chemical tray, I somehow knew my life would be forever altered, and I've never looked back since.
I think I've ended up where I am because I'm constantly curious. I keep a lot to myself, and I don't let fear betray my passions.
2. The types of photos that you do are not easy to obtain, they're poetic and airy, but also rather technical and meticulous. How did this impressionist style fuel your imagination so badly that you decided to take it up as a permanent activity?
It sounds blasphemous, but I think that photography as a medium has missed something vital from the very beginning. Far too many photographers have been taught from the start to believe that the camera's power comes from capturing what the eye can see. You hear them talk a lot about "capturing the moment". While this may be partially true, I personally believe it's true magic comes from capturing what the eye can not.
Once I let go of the traditional expectation of photography and began to explore this idea, not only have the possibilities have become endless, I can not express how much more mystical and exciting the process has become.
3. What is your oldest memory related to photography and taking snapshots? What about the oldest memory related to art and impressionist paintings?
I almost forgot about this, but my earliest photography related memory was from a summer school workshop my mother put me in when I was about 8 or 9 years old. I remember we had made pinhole cameras and each got to make a photo in the playground, but mine didn't work. Perhaps if it had, I would have had an 18 year head start!
My oldest memory related to art is clear. I had the most amazing Grandmother who gave me enough love and confidence to believe anything, so from an extremely young age I would go around proudly telling anyone I'd meet that I was a great artist. Then one day in about grade 4, to my absolute confusion, some girl in my class told me that her Daddy said I was drawing my trees all wrong.
It's amazing how something so small could have such a huge impact, but from that moment, I stopped telling people I was an artist for a long long time. Looking back, it's really taught me how fragile childhood dreams are, and that one of my greatest roles in life is making sure my daughters believe that they can be or achieve absolutely anything.
4. What would you like people to see and feel when looking at your pictures? Is there an inner message that you try to convey through every piece of photography?
I drink from a cocktail of nostalgia and imagination. I suspect that when my work resonates with someone, it's because there is room for them to imprint their own memories or interpretation. That said, there is perhaps no greater compliment when someone falls in love with a piece, and they can't even explain why. I suppose that if something, or someone, connects with you on such an instinctive level, this is perhaps the greatest bond of all. Unlike many artists who feel that art's function is to confront and provoke, I would prefer to make art that people simply feel happy being around.
There is definitely an inner message in all my work, but in my opinion most contemporary art puts so much emphasis on trying to be loud or controversial or clever, I prefer to let my work quietly whisper and leave the shouting to everyone else. If you want to hear the message, you must first find the silence.
5. Which places did you live in throughout time and how did each city put its fingerprint on your work and on your identity as an artist?
Oaxaca's fingerprint can not be overstated. The artistic spirit is so celebrated and supported there, that it was easy to take lots of creative chances and create the momentum that has propelled me every since. It was also during those good old film days in Mexico that I began to realize how different my thought process was from everyone else. I may not have found my voice at that point, but I knew I had something very different to say.
Then there was Cadiz, Spain, which was as accidental as it was influential. In what can only be described as a totally random coincidence, I ended up working as a night club photographer for a local cultural magazine and was tasked with documenting Spain's rich nightlife. It was easily one of the funnest jobs I've ever had. Not only did it help develop my skills building rapport and working a crowd, it also gave me the perfect platform to play with certain light and motion techniques that have carried over with me to this day.
Toronto has always been more of a proving ground. With so much incredible competition there, I was forced to step my game up if I wanted the right to truly call myself a working photographer. During my time in Toronto, I had some pretty big ambitions within high fashion and aspired to follow in some pretty big massive steps. Eventually I learned, however, that walking in even the best footsteps is a losing game and that to do something truly original you must create your own path outside of those who have come before you.
Prague is the place where I truly found myself in almost every sense. When I arrived I consciously freed myself of all previous accomplishments and expectations allowing me to re-approach the camera with the eyes of a child. Once liberated from any preconceived notions of what photography should be, suddenly the possibilities became pretty fascinating to me. The more I experimented, the more mistakes I made. And the more mistakes I made, the more I learned. The more I learned, the more I experimented, and so on.
6. How do you think the proliferation of social media, Instagram accounts and beautifully-styled pictures affected photography as an art? Do people tend to take it easily, in an ,,it's not so difficult and anyone can do it" way, or - quite the contrary - it set apart those who really do special things with their cameras and their artistic eye?
I'm still don't have Instagram and rarely use social media, but personally I love it. Back in the pre-digital days, photography was pretty damn elitist. The financial and technical barriers were so overwhelming that not only did they prevent many otherwise talented photographers from ever getting a fair start, the environment was not very conducive to risk-taking and experimentation. Now days, there may be more people out there with cameras, but at least the photographers with the talent and determination to build a name for themselves have so many opportunities to develop their skills and get noticed. And with so much more competition out there, it only forces everyone to step their game up.
7. What is in your view the main difference between a good ,,correct" photographer and one who has a stroke of genius? Do you instantly recognize it in a young photographer that comes asking for your help and mentorship, for example?
I once heard it said that the difference between a good photograph and a great one is often very small, and this is likely also true of photographers. Although when it comes to photographers, I believe that the greatest difference has less to do with talent, and more to do with sheer determination and hard work. I say it all the time, you may have all the raw talent in the world, but unless you're in it to win it, you're not even in the conversation.
Yes, talent is pretty easy to recognize, even at a young age, but hard work is something that can only be measured over years.
8. What is your relationship with light and what is the most beautiful/tender/specially lit place in the world that you remember?
They say that amateur photographers obsess about equipment, professionals obsess about profit, and masters obsess about light. Light commands absolutely everything. I doubt there is any greater joy or privilege in life, or behind the camera, than walking out into the world and simply following the light.
The most beautifully lit moment of my life was also almost an inglorious demise. It was late September in Northern Ontario, and my girlfriend at the time and I were 27 days into the wild when we were hit by a crazy storm on the way back to a rendezvous point. It was cold. We were heavily weighed down and starved, and I was especially freaked because I had lost my life jacket the day before. To make our rendezvous, and Thanksgiving ticket home, we had to cross at least one more lake that was as long as it was deep, but the waves were coming fast, high and hard from the side which is the worst scenario possible,
So as I'm trying to balance the timing and force of every stroke just to keep us from getting sucked under all the while keeping my girlfriend calm, on the horizon there is this unimaginable break in the sky. Now, there is no record of this other than what exists in my memory, and one could argue that what I perceived was a result of the endorphin dump in my brain, but I'll swear to this day, the intensity of the light and color was nothing short of once-in-a-lifetime.
9. What is your overall relationship with impressionist paintings, since your photographic work is so deeply impressionistic and painterly?
People easily, but incorrectly, assume that I am heavily influenced by Impressionism. Yes, I do absolutely love the style, and acknowledge that my work may fit the label, but at no point did I ever think to myself, I want to go make images that look like this or that. If credit is due anywhere, the Dadaists had me at hello.
But I will say this though: Monet, godfather of the Impressionists, was a rebel among rebels, who resonates deeply with me. People think of him as being all romantic and dreamy, but that man was a true bad ass who stood up to, and defied, everything that the painting forefathers held holy. The more they tried to deride him, the more infamy he gained. If I can do to the world of photography what Monet did to painting, I believe that our relationship would have been best exercised over a common pint or two at the local pub as we made fun of the establishments that tried to stop us.
10. How long do you work on one image, from the initial concept to the final result and how much technical work and how many different steps are involved?
I don't really work images in the expected sense. My last 13 pieces notwithstanding, the large majority of the time, the image that comes out or the camera is the same image that ends up on the paper.
In terms of workflow, however, the process can take several months. When an image is fresh, it's all lust. I can honestly spend a good hour or so euphorically staring at a new image thinking it's the greatest piece I've ever achieved and how it will redefine and elevate everything I will ever do from that point. I'm so invested in it emotionally, that I need to put it away and forget about it for some time. But when I eventually come back to it with fresh eyes, and if I still love it after the lust has cooled, then I know I may have something.
Selecting the right paper and framing materials then becomes a fine art unto itself. With time, fortunately this part of the process is becoming more refined and intuitive, but I believe that the proper presentation is the most laborious part.
11. What are your long term goals with your work and, being so painterly and poetic, how did you bridge the gap between your artistic sensitivity and the need to market and sell yourself as a brand?
I'm slightly conflicted in terms of my long term goals. Before I had a family, my life's ambition was to write a whole new chapter in the so called Big Book of Photography as someone who legitimately contributed something new, and forever altered the art form. But now days, with 2 young daughters to raise, my motivations are perhaps less grandiose and have more to do with simply being a positive influence for them. I've begun to think that raising a child is perhaps the greatest work of art there is, and everything else is just an exercise in ego.
As far as the relationship between my art and my brand goes, for me, there is no gap. Although I may still happily do commercial work to support my family, the only work I will ever put my name on is the work I do for myself and from the heart. I don't care how much money I make, or don't make; the test remains simple: would I continue to shoot something regardless of whether I was being paid or not? If not, then thank you for the paycheck. Only if the answer is yes, has the work earned my brand.