Mexican cinematographer Juan Pablo Ramirez began using photography to explore the behavior of light and its ability to define physical space. By focusing on the natural light available in shooting locations he gained a deeper understanding of lowlight situations and the power of darkness within his images. His currently untitled, conceptual portrait series is an attempt to access the storytelling potential of a cinematic aesthetic in still photography. His tools in doing so are translucent materials, available light, shadows, reflections and surreal settings. We spoke with Juan Pablo about the concept of his ongoing series shot in Mexico City, his take on intimate portraiture and how darkness is to photography what silence is to film.
You work primarily as a cinematographer, what role does photography play in both your professional and private life?
At first still photography was just a tool for me as a cinematographer: a way to help me study shooting locations, determine the look of and the textures of a place, the way the light would fall. But when I began to use analogue format cameras, photography took on its own meaning outside of my job as a DP. I began to see still photography as an art form that could open up a new world for me, including the way I look at daily life. Taking pictures has made me pay close attention to how people move, the dynamism of backgrounds and the way light behaves. Today I never go anywhere without a camera on me. I am always ready to shoot because, in truth, there are photos that happen every moment and I want to be ready. This growing passion has led me to become a small collector of cameras and lenses – each one with its own personality and spirit.
Which photographers or cinematographers have inspired you and influenced your style?
I have a great respect for the New Mexican cinema especially Rodrigo Prieto and Emmanuel Lubezki. These were the guys that opened my eyes. I also admire Chris Doyle and the late Robby Müller, Harris Savides, Roger Deakins, Sven Nykvist and many more. When it comes to still photographers I am a fan of Alex Webb, Ernest Haas, William Eggleston, Saul Letier, Ryan Mcginley, Philip-Lorca diCorcia but my very favorite, however, is the great Harry Gruyaert. His unique ability to find very random color and composition in the real world made me understand that reality has everything I need to create compelling cinema. For that reason, I find myself referencing the work of photojournalists in my fictional work. It’s somewhat arrogant to believe that inventing something from scratch could be better than what exists already in the world. If it can happen in reality it can happen in fiction.
When did you first pick up a Leica camera? And what does Leica mean to you?
About 15 years ago I saw a Luis Bunuel exhibition in Mexico. Some cameras were laid out in a display case, including his Leica M3, which I had never seen before, and I spent a long time staring at it. The shape was so different from any camera I had ever seen before. Many years later I found someone online who was selling an M6. The camera came with a 50mm Leica Summitar. I tried the lens out and could not believe the difference. I was shocked at how great it looked. It was clear then that the Leica glass provides a look that is exactly how I want to see the world.
How did you come up with the idea for this series of conceptual portraits? What would you say the concept of the series is?
I was looking for a way to use the larger and more expensive cameras in my collection but not on the street or in public, which can be too risky here in Mexico City. I came up with the idea of doing a series of interior portraits but with a bizarre twist. In many ways the portraits are my take on this age surveillance, where so much is prohibited, and the only place once can have their crazy perversions is inside their own home. The concept is that my camera arrives and interrupts an individual’s last moments of freedom – mundane situations peppered with slight perversion. I see the models here as futuristic clones or androids with a system error they are trying to hide. The series is currently untitled but am open to any good ideas…
There are a number of elements, which give the series a really cinematic feel. For example, the domestic settings themselves almost look like film sets. Where did you shoot the images and why?
All of the photos were taken in the home of the subject – the place where she felt most comfortable, using her own objects and clothing. I had never been to these homes before so was forced to improvise and use the space, objects and light available to me. Each photograph came with its own challenges. The mood of the photos was determined by the place itself.
The lowlight aesthetic of the majority of the series, as well as your use of available light, is another aspect that gives the series its aesthetic. How did you go about shooting with no external lighting? And why?
Lately all of my work as a director of photography has required me to use three dimensional spaces and natural light, with special attention to contrast. So it was easy for me to accept and be open to the possibility of each space that unfolded in front of me. Natural Light is so difficult to replicate that I try to work more and more with what is available on each project.
Why did you choose to use young women as your subjects?
The first subjects that agreed to be photographed just happened to be women, some of whom had previously asked me to take their portraits. I would like to continue the series with children, men, elderly people etc. The project let me explore the absurdity of life with different scenarios specific to each character.
Several of the women photographed in your portraits have their faces or parts of their body obscured by translucent materials or hidden behind everyday objects. Is this a purely aesthetic consideration? Or are you making a statement with the, sometimes surreal, staging of your subjects?
Here the camera is meant to be an intrusive element that is pervading the last remains of intimacy. The subjects are meant to reject my presence, protecting what little privacy they have left. As a society we are losing our individuality each and every day and my work here is intended to speak of the pressure to conform to a “norm”.
The isolation of natural light to highlight the female forms you photograph is a consistent element of your compositions. What was your thinking behind this technique?
In cinema silence is the most important element. Similarly, in photography the darkness and negative space speaks more to me. It provides mystery and inaccessibility. In my work I am not so interested in transparency but in the obstacles that exist in getting to know someone.
What camera(s) did you use to shoot this series?
Leica M (Typ 240) with a 50mm and a 35mm Summicron.
Apart from your film work, do you have any personal photography projects you are working on at the moment?
I recently went to NY and was reminded that the brown and beige colors and obstructed light provide the visual character the place. I would love to travel widely and observe how light behaves in every corner of the globe. Exploring the wonders of mundane life helps me understand myself and others. I’d love to continue exploring portraits but with more depth, making layers of information that makes the comprehension of the image more complex. Maybe I’ll get a Leica Q for that, but I don’t know yet.
What advice would you offer to your fellow photographers?
Always have a camera on you. Knowing that I have my camera on me forces me to use it and to observe life as it is, making me pay attention to light, contrast and color.
I believe that street photography is more about anticipating than luck or accident. You are creating the photo long before taking it, so be patient and observe. Be conscious of color in everyday life. Pay attention. Get your face out of the phone and look! With every photo you take you are empowering your vision. You are organizing an equation that will eventually become the photograph.