written by: Kahren Jones Arbitman
Frequent travelers to and the citizens of Mexico will recognize them all: the wizened crone holding wilting calabaza flowers, the one-legged woman plunking her ukulele, the insistent man hawking rubber maps, the costumed ladies selling beribboned dolls. These peddlers and panhandlers fill the city’s alcoves, stoops, and walkways, their places staked out by habit, or more likely, by inviolate street rules. But who are these familiar yet frequently anonymous people who form such an integral part of the culture? Dirk Bakker, professional photographer and director of photography at the Detroit Institute of Arts, wants to discover if life-sized, color photographs can reveal the personalities of Mexico’s street people.
To help overcome his subjects’ understandable reticence to his proposal, Bakker hires a driver and translator, buys hearty food, and creates a comfortable environment in his studio. Using natural light, a backdrop of gritty white plaster, and simple floor tiles, he fashions a slightly elevated, non-threatening stage for the self-revealing portraits he hopes to coax from his subjects. Quietly asking about their lives and families, Bakker waits for each to settle into a pose. What results are startlingly intimate performances played out in front of the camera: some clown, some stand defiantly, others retreat into a shell.
Then, in what must have been mystifying to his sitters, Bakker lies on the floor and aims his camera directly at their hands. The choice of focus is quite deliberate; hands are the consistent point of interaction between street people and those who occasionally drop “a little something” into their upturned palms. By altering the expected focus on faces, Bakker allows his sitters’ hands to lead the storytelling. And what stories they tell. Invariably work-worn and often gnarled and arthritic, hands become welcoming, withdrawn, defensive, content.
Another important artistic consideration is Bakker’s lowered vantage point which literally and figuratively elevates his subjects. In an insightful turnabout, viewers are now confronted by people who loom above them, no longer content to sit with bowed heads awaiting the generosity of strangers. A similarly important consideration is Bakker’s decision to set aside a telephoto portrait lens that tends to flatten and in many ways flatter the sitter in favor of a “normal” lens that conforms to the angle of human vision. He is looking for verisimilitude.
While the photographs’ technical virtuosity is undeniable, Bakker does not want digital wizardry or artistic license to overshadow an honest presentation of his sitters. Fortunately, documentation and artistry can happily coexist in a single photograph. Simultaneous with documenting a life, these images also present a riot of mismatched color, pattern upon pattern, ruffles, fringes, buttons, makeshift belts, and other picturesque details that dazzle the viewer like a well-painted abstraction. Equally arresting are the piercing expressions of many of the life-sized figures that could easily find prototypes in Diego Velazquez’s haunting, solitary misfits. Despite the artist’s intent to capture only what his sitters give him, viewers cannot help but mentally embellish the individual stories. For this writer, one telling detail is an elderly gentleman’s hemmed cuffs that touchingly speak of an attentive caregiver. It’s nice to know he’s not alone.