Good Portraits — Utmost Respect

Wednesday, November 04, 2020

A local theatre company today squeezed my brain for information as a photographer on the photographs and life of Tina Modotti and Edward Weston. They asked me what made their photographs taken in Mexico so special.

I answered that they used 8x10 view cameras and depended on the magical Mexican light. If they used lights in their studios (and I believe they did) they were hot lights of a primitive kind. Harold Edgerton had yet to revolutionize photography with electronic flash.

In this 2020, photographers with their digital cameras demand extreme sharpness, intense (in photography the term is saturated) colours and few use studios or spend any time posing their subjects when it is that they photograph people and not unknowns on streetscapes with long (telephoto) lenses.

The charm of Weston’s and Modotti’s portraits is that contrast was reduced. The photographic materials of the time really could not bring too much detail into the shadows (although Ansel Adams pioneered the method that did just that).

When I got home I immediately went to the file of a former Musqueam Band chief Wendy Grant-John. I took this photograph in July 1997 for the Georgia Straight and I have no recollection why she is holding a basketball.

For this blog I purposely made the scan (a 6x7cm negative) darker and minimized the contrast. Perhaps it is too sharp. The view cameras that Weston and Modotti used had shallow depth of field (another charm of their portraits).

But I am very happy with this exposure.

Most important when taking a portrait of someone you do not know who enters your studio is to spend some time finding connections.

This is what I may have told her:

I lived in Mexico for many years. In 1975 my wife, two daughters and I moved to Vancouver. For about a year (and even now) I could not figure out why these MexicansI saw on the street did not understand my Spanish. I soon learned that Native Canadians, Native Mexicans and my very own Native Argentines all look much the same.

Or I might have told her:

The first job I was able to get when I arrived at Vancouver was washing cars at Tilden Rent-A-Car on Alberni Street. I was quickly promoted to counter clerk. I was told never to rent a car to anybody whose last name was George or John. I enquired as to why. They did not answer. When I finally insisted they told me, “ Because they are fu….. Indians!”

Two days later a long-haired man came to our establishment. He said his name was Moving Rock and that he wanted to rent a station wagon. At that moment I said to myself, “ He is going to get a car from me!”

A few weeks later the car was found abandoned in Arizona and I was almost fired. I was told, “ And that black pimp from Seattle, Johnny Stone, you rent Chevrolet Vegas to, don’t rent to him either.”

While some in this 2020 might think that both Tina Modotti and Edward Weston were culpable of cultural appropriation I would explain that most important when you look at their portraits you know that their subjects are treated with utmost respect.

Originally published at



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Into Bunny Watson. I am a Vancouver-based magazine photographer/writer. I have a popular daily blog which can be found at: