Yvonne Venegas is a photographer based in Mexico City focused on expressing ideas through portraiture. She has published three monographs and has been a recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Magnum Expression Award and a prestigious Sistema Nacional de Creadores grant. She has had solo exhibitions in cities around the world, including Los Angeles, Toronto, Madrid and Ottawa.
Currently, Venegas is working on a series about pose, which will be exhibited at the Galeria de Arte Mexicano opening 5th of September, and also editing work from her father's archive, which is the show that is coming up Dias Unicos at MUAC.
She talks about her most recent four-year project, the process of applying for grants, how she balances commercial and personal work, and five photo books that have continued to inspire her.
Go-To Camera: Mamiya 7, 65mm lens
This interview was edited for clarity and length.
Rich and Poor,
by Jim Goldberg
“I know the first edition and own the new one. I love the purity of the idea and the complex layer that people’s writing add to the portraits. It levels social contrast and expresses its impossibility.”
Fait (Books on Books),
by Sophie Ristelhueber
“All of her books that I know I love, but I first discovered this book and it was a revelation to me. Her distance from the feeling of war makes earth so plastic and the scale of war changes on viewing, people are defenseless against the idea of it, no matter what their efforts.”
by Dana Lixenberg
“Her portraits are always so elegant and full of sociological details. The black and white on the images is like real prints, it’s so carefully done that it reflects her respect for the subjects she photographs. Then looking at their history and family connections in the back of the book is an incredible way of dealing with such a long term project. It’s like a book of paintings in 2018.”
I Only Want You to Love Me,
by Phil Collins
“The mixing of personal pictures and photographs of strangers that he finds in countries that he visits, expresses a form of anthropology that I am interested in, as all people seem somehow connected through emotion.”
An Imaginary Spaniard,
by Cristobal Hara
“There is a cinematic strangeness in his pictures that I had never seen in Spanish photography. Humor, drama and pain all brought together in amazing use of color.”
Yvonne, you recently published your book “San Pedro Garza García”, for which you spent three years photographing the wealthiest and most highly developed areas in Latin America. How do you typically generate a project idea? How did this one specifically come about?
The San Pedro project came about from just being in that place. I went to San Pedro the first time because it's next to Monterrey where I had an exhibition. The people I was with took me to San Pedro for dinner, so suddenly I was there and I realized it looked like Miami but in a part of Mexico. I was very intrigued and my curiosity got peaked further by talking to people from there.
In 2008 there was so much violence in all of Mexico, but in San Pedro the mayor created the idea that it was bulletproof. You couldn't steal, you couldn't do anything without getting caught and going to jail or dying basically. He's a right-wing character, a very interesting and complex guy, and I became very interested in him too. There was always a difference between Monterrey and San Pedro, which became even more evident than it was before. When I went, it was almost like I was in some fantasy land inside of Mexico.
When I was younger, the first projects I ever did were born out of crisis, out of conflict. “Oh, I'm 30, I'm not married, I don't have kids.” Those kinds of questions. So I went to Tijuana and I photographed the women that I grew up with. But in this case, with San Pedro, 2 or 3 projects later, it's more about my curiosity and knowing that I have a tool that I can use to say something with.
Once you've honed in on the idea, what is the next step you take when diving into a new project?
I have to first take pictures to see if something happens. For me, the first test was whether I was going to be accepted by the people or not. And then also see the pictures, see what they look like. I'm always kind of full of doubts. Maybe they weren't going to be interesting, maybe there isn't going to be a connection. I always feel that something has to happen on a new project that is different from what I did before.
I studied with Joseph Rodriguez, I saw that you interviewed him. He gave us this phrase that was just lovely and it's really a beautiful thing that works for documentary photography. It essentially says that you kind of just have to go and do it.
“Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness, concerning all acts of initiative (and creation). There is one elementary truth the ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it. Begin it now.” — Goethe
Editor’s Note: After fact-checking the quote with Joseph Rodriguez we’d be remiss not to share his comments: “While I was in Gilles Peress’ ICP class, he pulled out this printed quote out of his wallet and shared it with our class. He kept it in his pocket at all times, including at times of war. I was one of the few students who made a xerox copy of this Goethe quote. It has keep me working for decades.”
Basically it says that if you take action things will happen that you totally didn't expect for them to happen and it will help you, and that's what happened to me. I had met this woman years ago in New York and I didn't even know she was from San Pedro. I contacted her on my first trip there and she started introducing me to people. It would just start to happen.
I had this idea that if you're going to photograph the highest income per capita town in Mexico you're gonna start with the rich. But it wasn't like that because I couldn't get to the rich that easily. I didn't know them, I really didn't know anyone that could take me directly up there. I had to start with whatever I found. I had the curiosity and the force to begin it. Whoever let me photograph them, I would photograph them.
Once you got to the upper class were you able to get access immediately? Were they interested?
They were more difficult. You know the project that Daniela Rossell did? She’s a Mexican photographer who basically made a very important book of photography, very kitsch, it was called the Rich and Famous, Ricas y Famosos. So 30% of this book happened in Monterey and San Pedro. It was a very controversial book because it came out in a time when not very many people touched on the upper middle class, or upper class in this case.
She did it in a very kitsch way, so it just became a very hard kind of thing that got in my way a bit, you know what I mean? It made people wonder, “Wait, what are you doing? Are you going to make fun of us too?” There's this leftover drama from this book in particular, because there's really very few people in Mexico who touch on the upper class. And she did it in a way that she kind of just broke every rule that you could possibly break. I think it's great. It's great, but obviously for me it just made it a little more complicated.
I brought along my last book and some prints of pictures I had done, and that's what I would show people when I’d ask them, “Do you want me to photograph you?”
You showed them you were very serious.
Yeah, and I was able to say, “This is what I'm doing. I'm not going to come up with a surprise. There's no surprise ending, this is what it is.”
I would come back completely exhausted because in the beginning I would hang out with a lot of people that were very aspirational. They're very much into being photographed. And Instagram was starting and everybody wanted take a picture with me. Obviously not because it's me but because my twin sister was already famous. This idea of celebrity was lingering around me, it was something that I was totally willing to use if it would help me get pictures. But in the end I realized that a lot of people that were into that were just more superficial than who I wanted to be photographing.
Have you seen a change in people's willingness to be photographed, or in the way that people are photographed, in the upper levels of society there since photography in the context of social media has become such a thing?
I think that in San Pedro, it just made it harder. People are very aware of their image and they're careful. They're more scared about being exposed and might wonder, “What are you going to do with these pictures? Where are they going to end up?” One of the things that sometimes kept me going, other than wanting to make those pictures, was the idea that everything, all these people and myself included, are going to become dust in the end. What's going to be left after all is the book.
So now we have discussed where the initial idea came from and the initial steps you took to start the project. Next, once you start taking the photos and you realize this is actually interesting, do you start building a format in your head? What was the next step from that to this project becoming a book.
Well, I always thought about it as a book. Because I wanted it to be different from my previous projects, I know it couldn't just be portraits. I needed it to have situations and I need it to have landscape. I needed it to describe the actual place somehow.
The landscape around San Pedro is beautiful because it's right on a mountain range that crosses all across the north of Mexico, it’s really beautiful and it surrounds the town. Everywhere you go, your gaze is always on a mountain. It's really incredible.
I kept having all these poetic feelings about the landscape. It's almost like it's something that would make it even more insular in its character. It's like they were protected somehow and I kept thinking about how people arrived in this place and created the richest municipality of Mexico in this place. I just kept trying to find ways to describe this.
How many trips did you make to build out this body of work?
In the beginning I didn't go that often. Like in one year I went like four times or something, but then I thought I'm never gonna finish, so I started to go once every two months and I would stay for six or seven days. Six days was my limit. There was drinking and by the sixth day I was missing my kids.
And all this time you already knew I want this to be a book? Did you already know who was going to be publishing an eventual book?
I always knew it was gonna be RM because I worked with them for my last books.
In addition to your formal education as a photographer, you've also assisted for a fair number of well-established photographers including Dana Lixenberg, Bruce Weber, and Juergen Teller. How did this combination contribute to you honing your own way of seeing things?
The one photographer that I worked for the most was Dana Lixenberg. I also assisted Rieneke Dijkstra a little bit. I met her through friends and I was already a fan. I'm now more a fan once I met her because I think she's a beautiful person. But the most important was Dana, because it was three years of actually traveling together, eating together, you know? I worked in her studio. It was just an absolute bond with her. At the time I was shooting 35mm and I was unsure about it, and Dana said: “Try 6x7. Try the Mamiya 7.” Those small things that a teacher tells you that become really important. And I'm still shooting with the Mamiya 7, 20 years later.
Dana shoots with a 4x5 camera. And my job as an assistant was to keep the camera ready. She's very focused, dedicated and disciplined. And for me she was an important teacher. Not that I wasn't disciplined, but she would support me when I started talking about my first project. I’d ask how do I do this, and she would say: “Just do it. Get your money together and just go. And don't worry about it. Everything will happen.”
In the practical sense of learning how to see, what I learned from Dana, was to do my own thing. I came from a childhood where I saw my father taking pictures all the time, but he was a social photographer and his thing was always to flatter the client. It was all about the client.
I have this big old trauma about, “How they're gonna feel about the picture, are they gonna like it?” And in Dana I saw this sort of calm and very secure way of presenting her work. When we were doing portraits of say George Clooney looking sort of weird in the way that Dana liked and then she would show him the Polaroid and really sell her vision in like two seconds.
The way she presented it was about photography. It wasn't about, “Oh you look beautiful, whatever you feel, whatever you want.” She was very gentle but she would never pamper them and wanted to puff them up or anything. It was all very direct and very gentle and respectful. So to me it was really important to watch her work and to learn from her how, because it was the complete opposite of my dad.
After shoots, we'd always go to dinner. That was when the editorial business was booming so the client would pay for our dinner at next door Nobu or whatever. And Dana would stare at people. In Mexico that’s rude. You don't stare. You’re supposed to feel bad. So with Dana I learned to stare at people without feeling guilty about it. And that to me is also really important because you know, you can't feel guilty about being interested in someone. That was crucial for me.
I always remember this shoot that we had in Harlem for Vrij Nederland. We were standing around in this beautiful light at the end of the day and we just kept looking and looking around; we'd just sit there and stare and people-watch. It was just an experience. Just standing there with her I felt like suddenly you start to see. I try to transmit to people that I teach, because I teach portraiture now, is this idea that by looking, you uncover stuff that you wouldn't have looked at before. Like when you're eating, try to sit in the spot where the light looks more beautiful. You can look at the light falling into the people across from you, because it's the most important thing in the end. Light.
Do you recall any kind of like light bulb moment in any of your assisting experience where something clicked all of a sudden?
That Harlem moment I would say is one of them. And also with Bruce Weber once. He was doing a shoot for Abercrombie and Fitch which included like 100 models and the crew was like a film crew. So many people and makeup artists. We were in Miami and it was raining. I think he had a house in Miami so he knew how the weather worked. But everybody was thinking the shoot was going to canceled, but he wasn’t calling it off so everyone had to continue to get ready. Everyone was kind of in a panic, the models were ready and obviously suddenly the rain stopped, the sun came out and there was a scene. It was just magic. For me, that was a big moment. What confidence it has to take to hold onto all these people and to say it doesn't matter, it's only about $100,000 sitting in here that could just go to hell because it's gonna rain all day. But no. That was amazing.
What did you get from that moment?
The sense that you just have to keep believing in your idea. And with weather, if you’re from there I always feel that you know. In Mexico City for example, you know that during the summer between 4 and 6, basically you're fucked. It's probably gonna rain. It's probably gonna be gray. And it's not gonna work. So you have to either bring your flash or not set anything up in those hours. But now I never have that feeling of fear where you know it's not gonna work. It's always gonna work. There's always gonna be a little corner, even if I have to go out at noon. You always find a way reflect light from somewhere. Or a beautiful hard shadow can also work, depending on who you're photographing.
When it comes to my projects it's about my experience more than actually the technical thing, to be honest. I’ve used the same camera with the same lens for the last 20 years. The Mamiya 7 with the 65mm lens.
You mentioned that your father had a career in photography that involved shooting to please the client. It seems like you stepped away from the conventional idea of beauty in order to reach your own vision. How have you been able to maintain the integrity of your vision and still make a living as a working artist?
It's a combination. Here in Mexico for example, I get hired to do portraits. And when people pay me to do portraits, I just do a portrait, you know what I mean? I don't get artsy or I don't get all of my feelings involved or get complex like I try to do with my personal work. And that has always been something parallel to my work which helps me. My favorite commissions are the ones that they ask me by looking at how I do my work, and sort of requesting something like that for the commission. But that's a rare occurrence.
It's funny because I do have this idea of beauty, but I have my idea of beauty. Which is not exactly as you say the classical kind and I feel like I have to keep defending it. The show that I am working on with my dad’s work, when I look through his discards, I think there are beautiful moments. But they didn't work because they weren't specific enough. And I like this ambiguity and I like the unspecificity which sort of transcends into my own work.
Can you explain what that means to you, that it wasn't specific enough?
Well I think that in commercial photography, images have to be clear about what they're saying because people don't feel very comfortable with ambiguity. The image has to make you feel something, but the more clear the more comfortable it is for the viewer. I think images that don't fit into that role are then discarded.
How do you find the balance between personal and commercial work as a working artist?
Well, for example, the whole San Pedro book, obviously nobody ever paid me for that, other than the Guggenheim who gave me a grant. And that is absolute freedom to me. That's how I'm basically paid to be free and just do whatever I want. But it gives me great joy when people commission me something based on my personal projects. I love those kind of commissions.
Through the grants.
Yeah, that's the only way, for now. For example, the selling of the work? San Pedro hasn't sold. We had a show at the Shoshana Wayne gallery in L.A. in 2014. It wasn't a big seller at all. I think, two pieces were sold? Things are starting to sell here in Mexico. I'm barely establishing a relationship with a gallery here in Mexico City.
The only gallery I've had is in L.A. and the Hank project actually sold really well in L.A. There are three or four images that did well and up to this day people still buy those. We made large editions of ten prints, which was the first and only time we did that.
What has been your experience with grants? Applying for grants, or even finding out about them, seems to be a very mysterious and opaque process for many photographers. When did you first start learning about that process?
Well, here in Mexico we have a very established grant system. And so, I started trying for grants a long time ago. My first grant was in '94 for my first project. It was very exciting. I think it was for about $400 dollars a month. That was a local state grant. When I was 24, it was the biggest thing that could have happened to me.
And then, there's national grants as well, which are more exciting because they pay you more. I tried for these a lot and I never got one. It was very hard for me. I couldn't figure it out. And then I realized that you have to have allies. You have to have people who have done it, who have gotten one and who can show you their project, maybe even read yours and help you out with how you write the application.
I used to write things from doubt, which is how my process is. I'm always in doubt. But you can't write from doubt because they're going to go, "Who knows if this is going to happen? Who's this girl who's telling us there's maybe this possibility." And you know, why would they believe me? And once I learned that you have to speak from certainty, it became easier.
With the Guggenheim Fellowship, I applied three times and I didn't get it. And then the fourth time, I said, "This is it. I have to get it." Because Martin Parr was one of the people who was recommending me. And he said, "Yvonne, I think that you have to consider that after three times that you haven't gotten it, maybe it's time for you to try something else."
It made me analyze myself and how I was writing the applications. The first one I applied for was in Latin America, so I applied in Spanish. And then the second time, I translated a text from Spanish into English, so that was wrong. And then, for the final one I said, "I have to remember how they taught me to write in graduate school." I used to write really well, so I went into all my essays from my thesis and everything I did in the MFA, and I was like, "Okay, this is how I have to write."
It’s an honest, straight, confident perspective about what I want to be doing. And I think that that's basically what you have to do. You have to really believe that it's already done, that you're already doing it. You can't really say, "Oh, maybe if you give me this money, I'll be able to do it." You have to say, "I'm already doing it. It's already happening. It's already going to be this and that. And this is just going to help me out."
And that time it worked out and you got the fellowship?
What project was that for?
For San Pedro .
And you had actually already started working on it?
Oh yea, way before. And I'd already gotten the Mexican grant for it as well, the FONCA grant.
Aside from striking a more confident tone, what would be another one or two pointers that you would give to your younger self about applying for grants?
I think you have to be really honest. Actually be able to put in print all the things that really interest you about the subject. Why do you think it's so attractive, and so rich? I think that successful projects have to be rich. They have to have all this meat. Or you have to see it that way and be able to put that into words. Otherwise, there's no project. If there's no actual meat that you're going to chew into... there's nothing. So I think from the beginning, you have to find a project that you feel that is meaty for you. You have to find something that you have a love affair with.
I’ve never applied for a grant and support my personal work with my commercial work. Is financing your work through grants more fulfilling to you than financing it through commercial work?
I really think that for certain projects grants are the only way, because these projects are not big sellers. For other projects I believe sales and commercial work might be the way. I’ve also started to understand that I love doing portraits and commercial work. I really like being asked! When it doesn’t happen, I feel things start to get a bit lonely.
When it comes to grant, it's a very gratifying feeling when you realize that someone out there that you don't know and you've never met believes in you. In all the grants of Mexico I got, I never knew the judges. I never knew who chose me. I never knew who was looking.
So it’s a vote of confidence.
Yes, exactly. And you have to stick with it. I think Mary Ellen Mark tried 15 times.
Yvonne Venegas has two exhibits opening in Mexico City in the next few weeks:
August 24th, 2019 — Días Únicos (Unique Days) @ Museo Universitario de Arte Contemporáneo (MuAC)
September 5th, 2019 — El Lápiz de la Naturaleza (The Pencil of Nature) @ Galeria de Arte Mexicano (GAM)
Photo Illustration Reference: Intrend Magazine